Teachers Advised to ‘Get Real’ on Race

By Debra Viadero — January 29, 2008 7 min read
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Everyone at Columbus High, the pseudonymously named school where researcher Mica Pollock taught in the 1990s, worried about the “hall wanderers”—students who roved the building, seemingly unimpeded, while their peers sat in class.

Yet, although a disproportionate number of the wanderers were African-American, educators at the highly diverse high school shied away from raising the race flag when the hallway problem came up in faculty meetings. The issue was left to fester.

That pattern of response—or nonresponse—is what Ms. Pollock came to describe in an award-winning 2004 book as “colormuteness.” In other words, teachers saw a problematic racial pattern but, in an effort to appear colorblind, refused to talk about it in public.

Mica Pollock, an associate professor of education at Harvard University, is the editor of a forthcoming volume of essays on race in schools.

Now, Ms. Pollock circles back to that tough issue in a book due to be published in June by the New Press, of New York City. Called Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School, the volume contains 65 essays from scholars who offer advice for educators on recognizing when everyday classroom practices exacerbate racial inequalities and on becoming more constructively conscious and open about race.

“When should educators be race-conscious, and when should they be colorblind?” Ms. Pollock said in an interview this month. “I realized this was a can of worms nobody could address individually.”

Chapters offer advice—drawn from both research and personal experience—on grouping students in mixed-race, mixed-ability classrooms, providing minority students with supportive feedback, forging relationships with black parents, choosing posters for the classroom wall, and a range of other potential minefields.

“In educators’ everyday life is where the massive dilemmas of dealing with a racially unequal nation touch down,” said Ms. Pollock, an associate professor of education at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

“Generic advice to be colorblind or to celebrate diversity worries me because it’s not that usable by the teacher, … and I didn’t want researchers giving vague advice, either.”


In an era when the U.S. Supreme Court is putting sharp limits on race-conscious student-assignment policies, though, the guidance that Ms. Pollock and her colleagues offer is bound to draw detractors.

Facing Race

In Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School, scholars on race and education offer pointed questions designed to raise educators’ consciousness of how common educational practices affect children who are members of minority groups. For instance, they ask teachers:

• Can you think of a time when you or someone you know felt “spotlighted” or “ignored” in class because of race?
• What successes and problems have you had in attempting to “balance” students in small groups by race, gender, or ability?
• When does placing students in racially and ethnically homogeneous environments assist them, and when does it harm them?
• Can you think of an example in your teaching when a student asked you a question or made a comment about race? How did you respond?
• How can educators talk more precisely about who needs to provide which opportunities inside schools to help dismantle racial disparities, without raising the defenses of colleagues who feel blamed by the analysis?
• When does sharing another racial or ethnic group’s language or dress respect differences? When does it mock them?
• How can an educator talk simultaneously about successful scientists of color and about the underrepresentation of minority groups in the sciences?

SOURCE: Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School

“I’m skeptical that race has to be at the forefront of educators’ minds in every aspect of school business,” said one such critic, Roger Clegg, the president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Falls Church, Va.-based group that supports what it calls “colorblind public policies.”

“Doing so can reinforce stereotypes and be counterproductive,” he added.

The researchers who contributed to the new volume maintain as well that certain ways of dealing with race upfront can promote rather than dismantle stereotypes. Clear advice on tackling race-related issues in schools is needed precisely because racism in education, or the perception of it, is still hard for many educators to recognize, address, or discuss honestly, they say.

“We talk about racial achievement gaps, but that’s not the same thing,” said Wendy Luttrell, an associate professor of human development and education at Harvard. Her essay, based on case studies of six Massachusetts secondary schools, focuses on how teachers of different races, and different generations, respond to hearing students say the “n-word.”

“The most important thing, I think, is for teachers to be talking with each other about how they work with students and confront any kind of inflammatory language among students,” she said.

Unintended Effects

As several of the essays show, even teachers operating with the best of intentions sometimes don’t recognize when their actions affect students who are members of minority groups.

For example, in her chapter, Beth C. Rubin, an assistant education professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., describes how a school system’s efforts to end tracking—the practice of grouping students in separate classes by academic ability—inadvertently stigmatized minority students in one high school classroom. In that class, a teacher’s careful efforts to balance student work groups by race, gender, and ability enraged an African-American student.

“You trying to get all the black kids away from each other, before we cause a nuclear holocaust!” the student exclaimed. Meanwhile, the white students in the class, most of whom were high-achieving, relegated the minority students in their groups to roles that gave them little opportunity to hone their academic skills, according to Ms. Rubin’s account.

“I guess I’m asking teachers to think about race a little differently, and not so much about having to have kids equally distributed among groups,” Ms. Rubin said in an interview. “And also,” she added, “to think of group work as skill-building over the course of the year. You might start kids in pairs and then maybe create enough scaffolding so all kids can fully engage.”

Indeed, several of the authors say, minority students can benefit from occasionally and temporarily working together, a practice that one author refers to at the high school level as “cocooning.”

“Sometimes the most effective antiracist strategy for helping students of color to navigate high school and move on to college is to give them opportunities to be ‘cocooned’ for some period of time in contexts that allow them to analyze in a safe environment what it means to be a racial-ethnic group member in and out of school and to draw inspiration and support from those who have traveled the same road before them,” writes Patricia Gándara, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-director of the Civil Rights Project there.

The trick may be to balance those opportunities for students with experience “crossing boundaries” in mainstream classrooms, Ms. Gándara says.

Setting a Tone

Balance is also key to the kind of instructional climate teachers should provide in racially diverse classrooms, according to Ronald F. Ferguson, the director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative. He calls in his essay for tempering high academic expectations—or, in Mr. Ferguson’s term, “high perfectionism”—with an openness to helping students and answering their questions.

“It’s, ‘I’d love to help you, but we’re never really done until we do it the right way,’ ” said Mr. Ferguson. “It’s not, ‘That’s good enough, we’re going to move on,’ or ‘I can’t take your questions now.’ ”

Mr. Ferguson’s advice grows out of results from longitudinal surveys of elementary school students in 500 classrooms in small cities and inner-ring suburbs in Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and a handful of other states. In classrooms with the heaviest concentrations of black and Hispanic students—those where a quarter or fewer of students are white or Asian-American—students were more likely to report at year’s end that they had put forth their best effort when their teachers were perceived to be practicing both “high perfectionism” and “high help.”

In the same vein, Geoffrey L. Cohen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, recommends that, in offering students critical feedback, teachers convey the idea that the criticism reflects a high standard, and that they believe in the student’s ability to reach that standard. In laboratory experiments with college students, Mr. Cohen has found that such messages can be more motivating for minority students, who are often wary of the feedback they get from teachers, than when educators overpraise them or give the same feedback to all students.

“Being a member of a stereotyped group puts one in a sort of bubble in which one can’t be certain whether the critical feedback comes from bias against their group or a teacher’s motivation to help one improve,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview. “In general, though, whites can enter a school situation thinking, ‘Teachers here believe in me.’ ”

While thoughtfully tackling race-related issues in the classroom can be painful, experts on the subject say, schools pay a greater price by failing to do so.

For instance, when teachers avoided publicly confronting the racial implications of Columbus High’s problem with “hall wanderers,” private faculty conversations took a turn for the worse.

Teachers began to cast blame on students, their values, and their families, according to Ms. Pollock’s account. They never recognized that they had also contributed to the situation by ejecting African-American students from their classrooms in disproportionate numbers, and by failing to question why security guards had allowed black students to wander in the first place.

“You can’t fix a machine without discussing where it’s broken,” Ms. Pollock said.

Coverage of education research is supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Teachers Advised to ‘Get Real’ on Race


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