Fifth graders crowd around their teacher’s desk to glimpse John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence.” The painting depicts the Declaration’s authors presenting a draft of the document to Congress. The teacher asks the students to describe what they see.
“Well, everyone’s white,” one student says.
“Yes,” the teacher responds, and then moves on with the lesson.
Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education point to this classroom scenario to demonstrate the need for instruction that delves unafraid into issues of race and equity. The Double Check professional development program, led by education professor Catherine Bradshaw and operating in 30 middle schools in Maryland, aims to foster classroom environments where students feel acknowledged and understood. The idea is that teachers should learn to “double check” themselves: stop, and think things through. What’s at the root of a student’s behavior? What’s behind that comment? When the student pointed out there were only white people in the painting—an intuitively insightful observation—the teacher might have acknowledged the observation and explored it, rather than dismissing it.
“Not all teachers are comfortable saying something to the effect of: ‘You’re right. They are all white. Why do you think that is the case?’” said Bradshaw, and it’s the goal of Double Check to help teachers get there. The teacher should have encouraged discussion through further questioning of the class, Bradshaw said. They might have even taken up issues of gender, since there are no females in the painting either, and the teacher could ask, ‘Who else isn’t there?’
None of this is easy, admits Bradshaw, who said teachers are already juggling differentiating lesson plans for different learners, classroom management, and other issues. “While it is hard for us to plan for the unexpected, what we want to do is give teachers the skills and the confidence to tackle these moments,” Bradshaw told Education Week. “It’s scary. The lesson could go in a very bad direction. But the teacher could have leveraged the student’s comment on the painting if she had the right training.”
Double Check’s coaches aim to get teachers and principals out of what Bradshaw calls the “special occasion teaching” mindset, where race is taught only during Black History Month, or women’s accomplishments only during Women’s History Month. The principal who observed the lesson on the Declaration of Independence painting had written “N/A” on the teacher-observation form under “anything related to culture.” It did occur to the principal afterwards, when she was discussing the lesson with Double Check staff, that the student’s comment raised the opportunity to talk about race.
Yet talking freely about difficult issues requires a safe space and a healthy teacher-student relationship. Statistics show students of color are referred to the principal and punished at higher rates than white students, Bradshaw points out. Double Check’s coaches help teachers to cultivate productive classroom behaviors. Sandra Hardee, a Double Check coach, works with teachers to promote positive behaviors by helping teachers to build relationships with students and to praise students when they make the right choices, like raising their hands instead of calling out. (In this Education Week article, Stephen Sawchuk describes a clinical simulation designed to help preservice teachers develop cultural sensitivity.)
Hardee said teachers come to understand that they don’t have to tackle a bunch of goals at once. Achieving just one goal can have many impacts. “Student engagement, more participation, better classroom management—it’s going to happen when the students feel more comfortable and when they trust the teacher,” she told Education Week.
With funding from the Institute of Education Sciences, the Double Check program is undergoing a four-year study examining nearly 6,000 teachers’ attitudes and practices and more than 13,000 middle school students’ perceptions of school climate and equity. The study is also evaluating student behavior and academic performance following a one-year participation in the program. Data from previous Double Check studies have shown a reduction in black, male students being referred to the principal when they have teachers who received the Double Check training.
Bradshaw stresses the need for training on equitable practices woven into teacher preparation, professional development, licensing, and accreditation. (My colleague Madeline Will wrote in this blog post about a recent study highlighting the need for teacher prep programs to deepen educators’ racial awareness.) School districts often provide PD on equity and culture annually. Yet, according to Bradshaw, there is no data to show these efforts are working. She hopes the Double Check study will fill that gap. Still, much more work needs to be done. “It’s not a quick fix, here’s the Band-Aid, you’re culturally proficient now,” she said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.