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Eliminating Racial Inequality in our Schools
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Just one month ago, the United States celebrated Black History Month. The nation has much to celebrate, as great strides in racial equality have been made across various planes of society. However, Time.com recently reported on a study by the Department of Education, which indicates that the work is far from finished. In fact, according to the report, fundamental racial inequality persists in the world of education.
Perhaps the most startling piece of data from the study relates to the early age at which stereotypes are already imposed upon our young students. For example, black kindergarten students are disproportionately suspended as compared with other racial populations. While black students comprise just 18% of total preschool enrollment, they also represent 42% of students suspended once, and 48% of students suspended more than once. When our educational system discriminates beginning at such a young age, it is time to acknowledge the work that lies ahead to change the culture of our school environments.
The data on suspensions is particularly alarming given the long term effects of school suspensions. While suspensions can certainly be harmful to a student’s academic standing, more importantly, they have many other lifelong repercussions. The US Department of Education notes: “Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again. They are also more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.”
The inequality continues as students reach high school. While 81% of Asian American students, and 71% of white students are given access to a full offering of math and science courses, only 57% of black students are offered those same courses. Thus, algebra, geometry, calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics are not all available to all of our students. What chance does our nation have to close racial gaps when the curriculum, to begin with, remains uneven?
The study yields an inescapable conclusion: our attitudes and behaviors vis-à-vis racial minorities, even from a very young age, determine the fate of many of these students as they move beyond their school years.
The US government has advocated for the creation of new programs that would focus on eliminating the dramatic racial disparity in education. But beyond the formal governmental response, we teachers and administrators need to redouble our efforts in three key areas:
1. Engage in Self-evaluation and Self-reflection: Do we carry racial prejudices that are impacting how we relate to our students? Identifying these tendencies in ourselves, even subconscious ones, is the first step towards rectifying the problem.
2. Raise Awareness: If a school district receives feedback from its teachers regarding racial inequality and the problems it causes, there is a chance that the educational system will change. If teachers and parents remain silent, the chances for fundamental change are significantly lower.
3. Build Trust: As always, one of the most important factors in producing successful students is a healthy personal relationship between teacher and student. Students who know and feel that they are respected and cared for are more likely to stay focused on academic achievement and make positive contributions to society.
Let’s all do our part to continue the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so that his dream will soon become a reality.