Equity & Diversity

4 Ways George Floyd’s Murder Has Changed How We Talk About Race and Education

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 21, 2021 9 min read
Tyshawn, 9, left, and his brother Tyler, 11, right, of Baltimore, hold signs saying "Black Lives Matter" and "I Can't Breathe" as they sit on a concrete barrier near a police line as demonstrators protest along a section of 16th Street that has been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington on June 24, 2020.
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For many Americans, the decision by a Minnesota jury this week to convict former police officer Derek Chauvin of the murder and manslaughter of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, came as a rare moment of accountability—a small bend in the moral arc of the universe, to borrow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous formulation.

Floyd’s tragic death, and the subsequent mass Black Lives Matter protests, also fueled a growing discourse about structural racism in American schools, especially over their racially lopsided teaching force, heavy police presence that overdisciplines Black students, and ethnically non-representative curriculum.

Dissatisfaction with those areas long predates the traumatic events of 2020—the seeds and groundwork for overhauling such things as school policing and curriculum reform, after all, were planted years ago and have been carefully tended since. But the events of last year have helped lend legitimacy and urgency to some of those efforts, social-justice educators say.

“Something I have noticed is that there has been a shift in normalizing at least a conversation about race, and understanding now that these racial issues do matter—and that they’re getting in the way of people’s conception of what equality means,” said José Vilson, a former New York City math teacher who is now a doctoral student in sociology at Teachers College, Columbia University. “I think they have a better understanding of the conversation some of us have been trying to have.”

What’s less clear, he said, is the extent of real, tangible change. More educators know at least the basic concept of “implicit bias,” even as there are signs that training that purports to correct it may not be effective. School leaders are, generally speaking, more attune to the scourge of anti-Black racism and the legacy of white supremacy, even as districts have been slower to address anti-Asian violence in the wake of the pandemic, and as those at the most important level of governance—the school board officials—frequently deny that racism is much of a problem in their schools. And reaching equity, in terms of how schools are funded, and district boundaries are set, continues to be elusive.
“I think there’s so much disparity even within so-called blue states like New York,” says Vilson.

That’s on top of those educators uncomfortable with newfound emphasis on race in schooling, not to mention a minority of educators who reject that emphasis outright, or are sympathetic to white supremacist ideas.

The multilayered governance of America’s school system practically guarantees that changes to policy and practice will be slow-moving and contested.

Nevertheless, Education Week’s reporting since the murder of George Floyd has illuminated four areas in which the discourse about race in schools is changing. Here are brief introductions—and plenty of links for you to explore in depth.

1. School policing is under fire.

A wave of school violence in 2018 led to the increased use of armed school police and other guardians, continuing roughly 30 years of policing presence in schools before Floyd’s murder. Almost 60 percent of schools have a sworn law-enforcement officer on campus at least once a week, most as specially hired school resource officers or SROs.

But that trend is now running headlong against a powerful—and mostly youth-led—push to do away with school policing.

Youth in Minneapolis, Chicago, and many other cities have all cited Floyd’s treatment as indicative of the way law enforcement view students of color.

“Black and brown kids know all too well that the cops violently assaulting protesters are the same ones placed in our school hallways, assaulting and racially profiling us,” said Chicago students involved in one of the city’s #policefreeschools campaigns, in a statement following protests there that began after Floyd’s death.

Districts’ reaction to this advocacy has varied. Some have retained SROs but specified that they should no longer handle routine discipline matters. Progress has been uneven in large cities. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which maintains its own school police force, cut the force’s budget by about a third, or $25 million, and will redirect some of that money to programs to support Black students. Others, like Chicago, have pushed the decision about SROs down to the school level.

Education Week has identified about 30 school districts in all that have either eliminated or cut funding for their school policing programs.

Even among those districts, though, it remains unclear how substantive these actions are. The news site The 74 reported that Minneapolis has considered hiring former police officers to make up a new security staff that will replace school police officers.

2. Language is powerful. Now, some of it is shifting

Achievement gap. Minorities. At-risk students.

Those are terms that have fallen out of favor in some K-12 districts. Sometimes it’s because they’re inaccurate: More than half of school-age children are nonwhite. But it’s also because of an increased awareness about how language itself can shape perceptions about groups of students.

You don’t need to be Noam Chomsky or another language theorist to agree with the idea that word choices are powerful. Research shows, in fact, that the framing of gaps in test scores among different demographic groups as an “achievement gap” can lead to lasting bias and or the misperception that something is inherently wrong with these students, compared to other ways of discussing them. (The term “opportunity gap” is sometimes used to emphasize that many students have not had the same access to quality teachers, extracurriculars, and stable housing as their peers, affecting their school performance.)

And early in 2020, California became the first state to change its label for students who aren’t on track to graduate, or who have struggled academically, from “at risk” to “at promise.”

“One of the reasons the name is so important is because of unconscious bias and all of the things we see play out when students are inappropriately labeled,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, the executive director of Education Trust–West, a research and advocacy organization focused on California students, at the time. “Changing the name is one important step, but there’s many other things to do as well.”

As her comment suggests, language fixes, by themselves, aren’t likely to change anything substantive about how students of color are treated. They should be coupled with concrete goals and steps for measuring progress. But the addition of new words to the school lexicon—anti-Black racism, implicit bias, and white supremacy—can set the stage for more honest discussions of race in schooling.

3. Debates about curriculum and race are red-hot.

Whose history do we teach? Which authors do we highlight? What do those narratives reveal about the stories and values Americans prioritize? And most of all, who gets to decide the answer to those questions?

Those big questions being raised about curriculum, while not new, are among the most evident signs of a shift in schools’ approach to race and representation—especially in their connection to what’s called culturally relevant pedagogy.

The basic tenets of culturally relevant education is that such teaching is academically rigorous; it respects and engages with students’ cultures and backgrounds; and finally—putting it squarely in the crosshairs of the nation’s culture wars—it contains a sociopolitical aspect that helps students to understand, critique, and begin challenging inequities in their own lives.

Some of the debates, like a current social-media war over the canon of English literature taught in schools, have roots in decades-old disagreements. On both sides, teachers and scholars are weighing the tricky, subjective literary and representational merit of classic texts versus young adult literature that more frequently features Black and Latino students.

But the debate over history and civics content has become the loudest and the most obvious example. Whether the New York Times’ pathbreaking 1619 Project, which puts the African-American experience at the center of the nation’s history, should be taught in schools or not has become an especially fierce debate.

There has been a swift response from critics to such efforts to reframe traditional history content. Three states have introduced legislation to ban the use of the 1619 Project in schools; eight states are considering more general prohibitions on discussion of racism and sexism. Then-President Trump set up a competing 1776 Commission project, which endorsed a far more traditional and sanitized approach to these disciplines.

A new teaching framework for history and civics teaching tries to split the difference, encouraging schools to inculcate a kind of “reflective patriotism” in students that builds their commitment to a “more perfect union” while not sugarcoating the nation’s history of racism and exclusion.

Math and science topics appear to be be less affected so far, despite some interest in social justice math and in the relationship between mathematical reasoning and civic functioning.

4. The lack of diversity of the educator workforce is again under scrutiny.

Longstanding concerns about the drastic disparities between a teaching force made up overwhelmingly of white women and the far more diverse population of students are back on top of many districts’ agendas, thanks to concerns that many white teachers aren’t racially literate enough to work with the students filling their schools.

This time, the importance of finding ways to improve the diversity of teachers is bolstered by a growing set of studies finding better achievement for Black students who are taught by Black teachers—and as scholars insist that it’s better for all students, Black or white, to be taught by a teaching force that better reflects America’s rich cultural and multiethnic tapestry.

“I do think there has been more bipartisan urgency to create pathways for more teachers of color to come into the field, perhaps prompted a little bit by the [former President Barack] Obama era and any number of racial and social justice issues in the national zeitgeist,” said Vilson. “As a word of caution, I hope that people aren’t thinking of teachers as a band-aid for serious, structural work on anti-racist and pro-justice work. Putting teachers of color in this space doesn’t make it any less racist.”

Among the challenges: an old debate about maintaining high selectivity of teachers while attracting and supporting candidates of color. Some states have loosened up licensing rules, while others, like Georgia, have eliminated various tests at least in part due to concerns that they were keeping qualified teachers of color out of the classroom.

Yet others say that the problem isn’t the licensing hoops; it’s the lack of support that candidates of color tend to get as they jump through them.

“The idea that you have to lower standards to diversify teaching is an erroneous calculation,” said Sharif El-Mekki, the CEO of The Center for Black Educator Development,” in response to a recent report that highlighted 200 teaching programs that maintain high standards and have improved their diversity.

Research is also starting to illuminate the systemic barriers that Black educators, especially women, face on their way to the principalship and other leadership positions in schools.

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as 4 Ways George Floyd’s Murder Has Changed How We Talk About Race and Education


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