An explanation for why students of color fail is taking hold in schools across the country. The thinking goes like this: Students of color fail because they’re not motivated enough. They’re not well-behaved enough. They’re not “gritty” enough. Parents are to blame, too. They’re not involved enough. They don’t care about education enough. Some don’t understand English enough. If these students are to succeed, this narrative goes, parents and students will need to make some drastic changes.
This popular thinking is flawed. During my first year as a bilingual elementary school teacher in San Antonio, I attended a professional development session that helped me understand why when a historian taught us about the city’s long history of red-lining.
San Antonio’s story is a common one: In the early 20th century, the federal government created color-coded maps which signaled that the city’s predominantly low-income, West Side and East Side neighborhoods were “hazardous” for lending, based on the notion that Black and Latinx neighbors were high-risk borrowers and would undercut property values. Those neighborhoods received little financial investment, and because the schools in the area were funded primarily by property taxes, they deteriorated and segregated more with each passing year.
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Understanding the roots of San Antonio’s inequity transformed my thinking about my students. It became clear to me that it wasn’t deficiencies in students, their families, or their cultures that created the city’s infamous “racial achievement gap.” Rather, it was the deficiencies of laws, policies, and norms of schools and society that propagated this gap. It is this institutional racism we must fix.
You can’t tackle a problem you can’t see. Educators and education leaders at all levels must understand that institutional racism is sewn into the fabric of our school systems. They must also recognize other types of institutional biases that are based on, for example, students’ disability status, socioeconomic background, home language, or country of origin.
Institutional racism is the reason it’s so hard to find curriculum that isn’t Eurocentric. It’s why so many schools with large numbers of Black, Latinx, and Native American students are routinely staffed with the newest, least qualified teachers. And it’s also why these schools have poorer facilities, fewer resources, and are more likely to focus on discipline over counseling.
These institutional inequities are borne out by hard numbers. Consider funding: A recent EdBuild report found that predominantly White school districts receive a striking $23 billion more in funding than school districts who mostly serve students of color.
If we downplay the existence of these structural inequities, we risk harming students who deal with them in their daily lives. Not only does it allow us to abdicate our responsibility to remediate these disparities, but it also harms students in another way.
One 2017 study leveraged longitudinal data to assess this phenomenon, finding that students who both experienced inequities and believed that society is meritocratic were more likely to exhibit risky behavior and lower self-esteem in their middle school years. Social psychologists speculate that students of color who accept the widely held view that society is fair may therefore conclude that their own racial group does not succeed because it is inferior.
Far too many teachers continue to believe that schools provide an even playing field where all students are naturally rewarded when they work hard. Why is that?
Part of the problem is that most teachers are not required to learn about institutional biases. In a recent study, I examined teaching standards in all 50 states. While only 28 states ask teachers to confront their own personal biases, even fewer (only Alabama, Minnesota, and Washington) explicitly ask teachers to educate themselves about institutional biases that affect student success. This matters because a state’s teaching standards generally influence the types of teacher-preparation curriculum, professional development sessions, and evaluation systems teachers will encounter throughout their careers.
It’s time to raise the specter of institutional racism in education. Teacher preparation and professional development ought to sharpen teachers’ structural awareness, inviting frank conversations about harmful school norms, historical denials of opportunity, modern school segregation, and more—and give them the tools to explain these realities to their students. Teachers can take charge of their own learning, too, by engaging with literature, groups, and Twitter chats centered on equity.
To be sure, examining institutional injustices openly and honestly can be difficult. Social psychologists may have an explanation as to why: We like to cling to the belief that schools and society are meritocratic because it offers us a sense of stability and makes us feel good about ourselves. This is what experts call a “system justifying belief.” Indeed, it allows those at the top to believe that they earned their place while others earned their place at the bottom. It’s no surprise, then, how uncomfortable many of us feel to uncover that the status quo isn’t so fair after all.
But we’ve reached the point where comfort cannot be our highest consideration. Today’s learners are more diverse than ever, and they’re living and learning against the backdrop of rampant racial bullying and unequal access to just about anything—education, healthcare, and even clean air. If we continue to ignore the greater structural forces behind these disparities, we waste a powerful opportunity to build a teaching workforce that is committed to pushing for institutional change.
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A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Roots of Inequality