As a white person, I often hesitate to address race. It is a difficult and touchy subject. One that can easily be miscommunicated and cause hurt and anger. But it’s too important to ignore. I fully acknowledge that my opinions are limited by my own experience, so please feel free to set me straight if need be.
I have been very interested in and concerned with the “achievement gap”. Educators refer to the differences in performance by black students and white students as the achievement gap. Although there is plenty that could and should be addressed about how schools meet the needs of other populations, for the purposes of this discussion, I am going to focus on the differences between white and black students.
The achievement gap has been renamed by some “The opportunity gap”. I think for many, that term is more appropriate. We already know that poverty has the biggest negative effect on school performance across racial lines. Poor students struggle in school. Poor white students, poor black students, poor latino students, etc. Increasing the economic opportunity in poor communities has an almost immediate effect on the success of the children in school. When parents and children don’t have to worry about being evicted from their homes or where their next meal will come from, school can finally become a priority. But certainly not all black students are poor, so that doesn’t explain the whole problem.
There is a tremendous shortage of black teachers in the US. In fact, the number of black teachers has declined since 1991 from 8.3% to 6.8%. There is all kinds of conflicting research about the importance of a black student having a black teacher as a role model. My own assumption is that if there are equally effective teachers and one is black and one is white, the black student will, in most cases, connect better with the black teacher, but that is certainly not always true. There are too many factors in human relationships for me to make any broad statements about that.
My concern with the very small representation of black teachers is a little different anyway. Most teachers choose that field because school was a powerfully positive experience for them. I can’t help but guess that only 6.8%-8.3% of black students feel that way about their schooling as compared to 80%+ of white students. For black students to choose to become educators, their experience in school has to be so tremendously influencial that they want to participate in educating the next generation. That starts with the children who are sitting in America’s classrooms today.
Which brings me to the next topic. The “School to Prison Pipeline” as it’s called.
It is well-known that black children receive harsher penalties for misbehavior in school. This is incredibly unjust and I’m sure contributes to the low numbers of students who want to return to the classroom after college.
The first thing that needs to be solved, obviously, is the equity in discipline. All students should receive the same consequences for equivalent behaviors. Whenever possible, it should be constructive and positive.
So what types of discipline strategies, fairly imposed, would have a positive, constructive effect on students? In many cases, the penalties issued are not only unfair, they are ineffective in changing student behavior – particularly black student behavior. Why? I wish I knew.
Here are some guesses. Feel free to disagree, dispute, enlighten, and teach me! I’m only guessing, since clearly I don’t know the answers!
Guess #1 – Learned helplessness. When children are punished early on in school – frequently and severely – they become immune. Why even try to behave if I’m always going to be in trouble?
Guess #2 – Culturally different expectations. In many black families and communities, strong, assertive voicing of opinions is valued and encouraged. Students voicing their opinions enthusiastically or loudly, may be interpreted by a teacher as disrespectful or oppositional. (School Practices for Equitable Discipline of African American Students. ERIC Digest
by Schwartz, Wendy)
Guess #3 – Culturally different views of authority. White parents are viewed by many black parents – and students – as too permissive. Black children that I have known show pride in the strict, demanding respect for authority that their parents require. I can only imagine how that might contrast to a school setting where students are encouraged gently to “make good choices”. i often wonder if students raised in more authoritative households recognize this type of “discipline” as authority at all. I’d love to hear how that can be changed or adapted to meet the needs of all students.
Guess #4 – Racism. Okay, this isn’t a guess. This is the sad, ugly reality. Institutional racism, personal racism, unrecognized white privilege, and many other manifistations of racism are very much in play in schools as in society.
I’d love to hear feedback on this. Maybe there’s a solution in it. Maybe just a step in the right direction. The kids in school today don’t have any time to waste.