Equity & Diversity Opinion

Are We Preparing Students for College, Career, and Incarceration?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 14, 2015 5 min read
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Whoever said “Sunshine is the best disinfectant” should have added “if you have the courage to face what the sunshine reveals and do something about it.” Perhaps it is our lack of courage, or simply a desire to not face what isn’t pretty, but the matter of how children of different races are handled still needs some sunshine shed upon it.

In their recent Stanford Study, “Two Strikes: Race and the Disciplining of Young Students,” Stanford psychologists Jason Okonofua and Jennifer Eberhardt wrote:

Black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their White peers, a fact not fully explained by racial differences in socioeconomic status or in student misbehavior.

Not in My School!
Before defending that it doesn’t happen, or that it happens because black students misbehave more often, or whatever excuse allows a step away from the conversation, consider (again from Okonofua’s and Eberhardt’s study):

Teachers may be especially likely to respond harshly to a Black student misbehaving over time, compared with a White student, because Black students are frequently stereotyped as troublemakers in school contexts. Research shows that teachers commonly perceive Black students to have more negative demeanors, to have a longer history of misbehavior, and to earn lower grades than White students do.

One way to rationalize that black students are treated fairly and similarly to white students is to assert that they act out more, rebel against rules more, or fail to achieve more, but there are fundamentals beneath those explanations, even if they may be factually supported, that are not being addressed. This study is shining light on something that is very difficult to face.

...what we have shown here is that racial disparities in discipline can occur even when Black and White students behave in the same manner. We have shown experimentally, for the first time, that teacher responses can contribute to racial disparities in discipline. In fact, teacher responses may even help to drive racial differences in student behavior--differential treatment by teachers, to some extent, may inspire repeated misbehavior by Black students.

Are white educators perpetuating the very negative behaviors in black students that socialize them differently than white students? While we are busy working on preparing students for college and career are we busy preparing other students for the prison pipeline with a different set of expectations? None among us would happily step out and answer yes. But it is important that we examine behaviors, studies like this, and the data found in each school. It is important to open the discussion and keep it open now or others will open it for us.

Let’s Find Out If It Is “In My School”
While shaking our heads trying to make sense of this, let’s turn to the current focus on white police officers and their behavior with black men. The authors of the study posit that negative racial stereotypes contribute to teachers’ views of infractions over time “as a problematic pattern. The first infraction informs how the second infraction should be read--heightening teachers’ concerns and escalating harsh disciplinary treatment.” If we have thought as we watch the unfolding news stories about police officers that there may be a stereotype influencing their behavior, there is benefit in shining the same light in our schools.

We are all, after all, human beings. We strive to be inclusive and fair, but it is something that needs constant work. We are not suggesting that schools treat black students differently on purpose. But the blindness of each person’s unconscious mind and even innocence is calling for light. Remember, those police officers graduated from our schools. We have some degree of responsibility for the manner in which stereotyping behavior affects the adults in our society, especially if we participated in it ourselves and allowed it into our schools and districts.

It is a courageous person who can dig into their own darkness and reflect on their own behaviors, wonder about them and confront them as potentially damaging to another. Even more challenging is doing so as a leader and then working to bring to light patterns within the organization. As schools have evolved, affirming goals to educate ALL students have become common. We are at a choice point. We can believe that what we are doing is not doing harm and accept that things are as they will be...or...we can listen and learn how our behaviors may very well be able to influence changes in our schools and our society and take action. The charter school principal who hit the news last week for calling out “black people” who were leaving school commencement ceremonies, said later that the “devil was in the room”. Well, really, let’s confront our devils before they slip out in public or harm a child.

This issue is a deep one for all of us. Accepting that our beliefs and behaviors contribute to the pain of others takes courage. Bringing this truth to others and leading an organization through this hard conversation takes more than courage. It involves being able to:

  • look at the data honestly and openly
  • create and hold safe spaces for people to question, reflect, share feelings, fears, and concerns
  • believe that change can happen
  • become the model

If educators don’t take this issue on openly and honestly, only some students will be recipients of the hard work we are doing to get them college and career ready. And having been part of our process, those who graduate to be police officers in this next generation will likely face the consequences of their yet to be unveiled biases. We can make a difference, but the light must be shed with the courage to do something about what is learned.

For more on this topic, watch urban sociologist Alice Goffman’s TED Talk “How We’re Priming Some Kids for College - and Others for Prison”

Psychological Science. 2015, Vol. 26(5) 617-624 © The Author(s) 2015
DOI: 10.1177/0956797615570365 pss.sagepub.com

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.