Racial categories make it easier for education researchers to compare students and probe achievement gaps, but they can also create inappropriate narratives about students’ potential, argued Gloria Ladson-Billings in last night’s 8th annual Brown lecture in education research.
The American Educational Research Association sponsors the lecture each year in honor of the famous Supreme Court school desegregation case, which was based in part on research that found “separate but equal” schools for children of different races unequal. Ladson-Billings, the urban education chair and a curriculum and instruction professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argued that education research has great potential to improve students’ lives, but it must confront its own deep structural biases with regard to race and education.
“As a young scholar I was deeply disturbed by the way race was dealt with in my graduate studies,” she recalled. “The research was quick to establish categories like race, class, and gender as logical ways to consider human variation and to promote notions of superiority and inferiority within those categorical boundaries.”
Researchers should think hard about why they are including race in their category designations. An intervention can be designed to help students who are struggling to read&mdash’period—rather than “low-income and minority children” who are struggling to read, she noted. Because children often fall into multiple categories—or “live across categories"—experiments that account for shifting social and cultural dynamics will not only be less biased, but more accurate generally, she said.
Finally, Ladson-Billings also called for researchers and educators to focus more study on places and interventions in which black and other minority students are successful, rather than research “organized around failure.”
The full text of the speech will be posted online in coming weeks.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.