Confronting Racism In Public Education

Friday, August 18, 2017

Like most Americans, we have been bothered by the news in recent days. And as we have struggled to understand the racial issues that continue to confront our nation, we are left to ponder the issue even more within the context of public education. 

The vast majority of Americans know that racism is wrong. It is one of the few issues on which almost everyone can agree. We are all created in the image of God. So, it is hard to understand why the world seems so focused on our skin pigment. The color of our skin has no bearing on our intellectual potential, moral character or behavior. Martin Luther King, Jr. poignantly stated: “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.” Does character still matter? Of course, it does. 

Yet, we cannot pretend that institutional racism does not exist in American society today. And it is what is creating violence and hatred on our streets in many urban communities. It is often overlooked in our rural areas but it exists there too. Too often we discuss the symptoms, but fail to deal with root causes. And if we are to address them, what role will public education play in addressing the issues? And should our public education system even be involved? 

Anthropologist and Palaeobiologist, Nina Jablonski has pointed out skin color was a biological adaptation, and the system of human classifications was not developed until the mid-18th century by European philosophers. “Education is an important step toward healing the open wounds still in existence, and a key part of this journey will be instilling a deeper understanding of how society has been indoctrinated into accepting institutionalized race distinctions” according to Jablonski. So systemically, the key to addressing the issue has to be in part academic, and a purpose of public education. 

First, we have to understand that our public school system has been subjected to continuous reform before and since the re-establishment of the US Department of Education in 1979. Policymakers at the state and federal level continue to advocate reforms utilizing tax dollars on one innovative idea after another to improve academic performance, efficiency, or other structural characteristics of the schools. And in the process of reform based on numbers and test scores that de-emphasizes the more difficult to measure skills, we are also witnessing the emergence of a very real “school to prison pipeline” that significantly and disproportionately impacts our minority communities. It is time we acknowledge and face that any child cannot reasonably be expected to succeed in life if they are denied the opportunities of a quality education. Lack of opportunity and quality education establishes the pathway to incarceration. 

We need to identify potential academic problems much earlier. We also need mentorship intervention when it comes to discipline issues. This is a start. As Kati Haycock points out “concerns expressed solely by the sufferers of injustice — as powerful as their numbers, voices, and resolve are — are less likely to spur fast action than when they are carried on the collective shoulders of a broad and diverse coalition.” 

Second, if we are purposeful and intentional in our actions, we can “narrow the achievement gap.” School performance by black and Latino students has climbed by a full grade level over the past two generations. Yet achievement disparities have narrowed only slightly compared to white students, perpetuating a significant gap that clearly divides America. The causes of those gaps are multiple and complex, so our policies, no matter how well-crafted, must be adjustable. But early childhood education, health care, housing, after-school and summer programs, and other social and economic supports, must be considered. We must narrow the achievement gap among racial lines, as well as between lower- and middle-class children. 

Finally, teachers are the single most important resource we have to ensure that our children learn. We have to make sure we retain our best teachers in our most challenging classrooms. Recruiting and retaining great teachers is the key to improving education, ending the school to prison pipeline and narrowing the achievement gap. If we focus on these goals we take the important step toward healing the open wounds of racism in our state and country. 

Rita Pierson stated: “Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” 

If we want to fight racism: we need more champions. 

J.C. Bowman
Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville



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