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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

‘Being Nice Is Not Enough to Make Racism Disappear’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 12, 2020 18 min read
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(This is the final post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to respond to educators who say they “don’t see race” when they teach?

In Part One, Makeda Brome, Ashley McCall, Cindy Garcia, Jamila Lyiscott, Julie Jee, Kendra M. Castelow, Ed.S., Janice Wyatt-Ross, and Maurice McDavid “weighed-in” on the question. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Makeda, Ashley, and Cindy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Dr. JoEtta Gonzales, Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., Sarah Norris, Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, Leah B. Michaels, Gina Laura Gullo, Kelly Capatosto, and Cheryl Staats contributed their responses.

In Part Three, Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D., Paula Mellom, Rebecca Hixon, Jodi Weber, Kala Williams, Dennis Griffin Jr., and Amanda Koonlaba, Ed.S., shared their thoughts.

In Part Four, Ronardo Reeves Ed.D., R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, Cindi Rigsbee, and Erika Niles added their answers.

Today, Dr. Karen Baptiste provides her commentary, which responds to the question and expands on it.

I’ve also included the next question-of-the-week after her commentary.

The school-to-prison pipeline

Dr. Karen Baptiste started her career in the New York City Department of Education and is known for high-energy professional development at national conferences on brain-based learning and Universal Design for Learning, designed to reach the varying degrees of diverse learners. She served as an instructional manager responsible for coaching educators through the largest special education reform in educational history for students across N.Y.C., reaching 1.1 million students. She’s also supervised the implementation of a districtwide coach-credentialing program for over 300 coaches and 14,000 teachers in the Broward County public schools:

One of the biggest problems facing the U.S. today is the mass incarceration of black and Hispanic youths. The truth is that schools in the United States remain separate and unequal despite the abolishment of Jim Crow and the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education moer than 65 years ago. Mass incarceration has become another form of institutionalized racism for social control. The statistics are alarming:

  • By 2015, black and Latinx youths represented 32 percent of the United States population but accounted for 56 percent of the incarcerated population. (NAACP, 2017)

  • Black youths are up to five times more likely than whites to be incarcerated. (EJI, 2017)
  • Children as young as eight years old are being sentenced as adults (EJI, 2017)

The school-to-prison pipeline, a set of policies and procedures that set up a pathway for schoolchildren to go from school to the criminal-justice system (Anti-Defamation League, 2015), along with zero-tolerance school policies, are examples of how mass incarceration continues to manifest. This is an issue that affects everyone, regardless of race; according to the Vera Institute of Justice and CNN (2012), states are annually spending an average of $20,000-$60,000 to house one prisoner, compared with the average cost of $9,000 to educate one student. Currently, 75 percent of incarcerated individuals are high school dropouts. In all, taxpayers are paying an estimated $80 billion per year to incarcerate children and adults

Students of color have been and continue to be underserved or not served at all by public education. Schools in under-resourced communities are often forced to employ unqualified or ineffective teachers to work with the highest-need population. This means that these teachers are often unprepared to create culturally relevant classrooms, and schools struggle to address common disempowering mindsets, such as middle-class white bias, or bias from black educators who do not come from the same cultural background as their students but fail to confront their bias because they are also black. In a study conducted by Okonofua & Eberhardt (2015), they found that unconscious bias led to black students being punished more punitively by both white and black teachers equally.

Additionally, in the U.S., more than 1.6 million students are attending schools that have hired police officers instead of guidance counselors (Pew Research Center, 2013). The lack of access to guidance counselors in schools with zero-tolerance policies puts students, particularly students of color, at risk to engage in behaviors viewed as unacceptable by schools—making it difficult for students to redeem themselves. The residual effects of these zero-tolerance policies have resulted in black and Latinx youths being disciplined more frequently and harshly for minor infractions such as cellphone use, being out of school uniform, or talking back to the teacher. And without structures to set up teachers to help underserved students succeed, teachers will never feel empowered nor prepared to confront the unjust practices that feed the pipeline (Pane & Rocco, 2014).

All hope is not lost in eradicating the school-to-prison pipeline. According to Ladson-Billings (1995), there are identity-affirming practices within an educator’s locust of control. While she did not directly address the school-to-prison pipeline, teachers who provide students with academic success, develop cultural competence, and teach students how to challenge the status quo can begin to eradicate the pipeline. How can teachers start to do this?

Academic success can eradicate the pipeline

What negative academic mindsets might your students have from micro-aggressions that they’ve encountered in and out of school?

In low-socioeconomic communities, students also often experience sarcasm (which means tearing of the flesh) from adults they should trust. The use of sarcasm from teachers sends an alert to the brain that the person is under threat and should prepare for “fight or flight.” During this experience, the blood rushes from the frontal lobe of the brain down to the arms and legs to prepare the body, dropping a person’s IQ by 40 points (Tate, 2004). Using sarcasm to build relationships with students is ineffective and does not build a trusting, safe environment, no matter how well-intentioned the teacher may be. Let’s be honest here, adults don’t even like sarcasm!

Students from underserved communities continue to be placed at a disadvantage through low-rigor lessons, failing to push students to gain awareness of the world outside of their zip code. They may also spend a lifetime attempting to catch up to their peers because from birth until to age 4, there is a 4-million-word gap in their vocabulary compared with high-income children (NPREd, 2018).

Students across all racial lines can develop or experience negative academic mindsets at some point throughout their schooling experience. The human brain remembers negative experiences three times more than positive experiences (Hammond & Jackson, 2015). The brain feels safest and relaxed when we are connected to others we trust to treat us well. Teachers can easily connect with students using small gestures like smiling, giving a thumbs-up, or checking in 1:1 with a student. These are trust generators that send a message that you are cheering for them and to persevere as they keep pushing through.

Despite researchers predicting that the minority population in the United States will become a minority-majority by 2045, black students continue to suffer from double segregation through poverty and race, while Latinx students suffer from triple segregation through language, race, and poverty (Gandara & Aldana, 2014). Pedagogy is never neutral. It can be used to inform, assuage pain, and improve educational conditions. Or it can be used to create division, a hierarchal class system, and disproportionately track students of color into special education and out of Advanced Placement classes.

Ferguson (2003) stated that teachers can generate positive behavior and deeper engagement across all racial lines when they commit to “high help with high perfectionism.” He refers to this as an anti-racist strategy that serves a dual role to raise achievement while simultaneously narrowing the academic gap between demographic groups. What does high help and high perfectionism look like?

  • Provide students with meaningful and actionable feedback to develop a growth mindset and counter learned helplessness.

  • Utilize positive narration to acknowledge positive behaviors or academic grit that students are exhibiting, helping to counteract a fixed mindset you may have about students’ behaviors. Replace “I’ll wait” or “Anderson is about to stop talking and pay attention” with “Anderson is silently tracking the speaker.” Do not use narration to embarrass or coerce the students to follow your directions.

  • Use a no opt-out of learning approach through effective use of cold calling with sufficient wait time when calling on students to answer questions. After posing a question to students, wait time is an effective strategy that a teacher can use to give students between 0-60 seconds (depending on the question) to think about and formulate their response before answering. Giving students wait time and not opting out of learning increases risk-taking, embraces mistakes, and gets all students to participate.

  • Use of the gradual-release framework lifts the cognitive load from the teacher to the student through the I Do--->We Do--->You Do Together--->You Do Alone process.

Schools must create an asset-based culture that maintains cultural competence

To significantly improve the quality of education for children in schools where dropout and incarceration rates are high, educators must consistently develop positive relationships through empathy, respect for their students’ cultural norms, and highly engaging lessons that empower student voice and choice. I often enter schools where educators are exposing students to other cultures that society has deemed “acceptable” all while subconsciously oppressing their students’ own culture. How can teachers begin to develop a culturally competent classroom?

  • Tap into multiple modalities while teaching and explain the purpose of what students are learning. Many teachers make the mistake of just teaching the “what” and never teach students the purpose. Connect lessons to students’ lives outside of school. Tell students why they are learning this information, helping them develop true ownership over their learning that becomes intrinsic. I frequently hear teachers say, “They don’t care about school.” When I hear those statements, I push to challenge the teacher’s mindset about why students make those statements, and those are the students who tend to care the most.

Note that students who have been historically marginalized, denied access to rigorous courses/lessons, and experienced trauma often revert to the phrase, “I don’t care,” because they feel powerless, voiceless, and hopeless about their situation. Students need their basic needs met before they can focus on academics. Youths who live in high-crime neighborhoods, who may be hungry or homeless are thinking about their next meal or their own safety, not the math lesson. They may be in “survival mode” and struggle to see the connection between the math lesson to their current life situation.

  • Build relationships by spending time with students, getting to know them and their families, learning about their cultural values, norms, and who and what’s important to them. For some students, the result of their education is literally life or death. I’ve visited many prisons where youths are detained, and whenever I ask, “How did you end up here?,” I get the same responses, such as: “School was never a place I felt welcomed,” “I dropped out of school because the work was boring,” and “My teachers never cared about me so I left.” When students become disengaged from the learning process, they engage in nonproductive behaviors that result in office referrals, suspension, or expulsion. Teachers who implement highly engaging and culturally relevant lessons send a critical message that they care way too much about their students’ success and life to let them opt out of learning.

Teach students how to challenge the structural racialization of the education system

Districts and schools can implement alternative discipline that keeps students in school and class with effective supports to remedy disruptive behavior. When students are removed from class or suspended, there are lifelong repercussions for them academically and socially. How can educators provide effective supports to students, setting them up for success?

  • Empowering students to “develop a critical consciousness whereby they challenge the status quo” (Ladson-Billings, 1995) requires schools to adopt curriculum and include books in school libraries that are relatable to students’ lives, academically rich and rigorous, and include units of study that represent true history of blacks and Latinx, not just in America, but across the globe.

  • Replace punitive consequences that are based on low expectations with a consistent discipline hierarchy that communicates high expectations, accountability, and a deeper investment to students.

  • One of the most harmful things a teacher can do is to offer praise attached to low expectations. Adjust your language to recognize grit and perseverance in students rather than praising basic expectations (“You’re doing a good job being quiet”) and discounting intelligence. Society has repeatedly told underprivileged students that they are inferior and devalued, so teachers must give affirmations that communicate high expectations. Rather than feeling sorry for students or giving students a pass on completing challenging assignments, think about why students are in school in the first place. If every teacher they had believed that they were not capable, that means nobody has taught them the skills needed. No wonder they struggle! This sympathetic approach is downright dangerous for students and puts them at an even greater disadvantage. Step in to discomfort and push students beyond what the student even knew they were capable of.

School leaders must be critically conscious of this status quo and challenge it by replacing staff interview questions about diversity with questions about racial equity. This sends a message to candidates that schools need educators who are comfortable with being uncomfortable and willing to confront their own biases. DiAngelo (2018), who wrote White Fragility said, “No white person—no matter how well-meaning is exempt from the forces of racism.” It’s imperative for white people, especially white educators, to acknowledge inherent racism and be courageous to talk about it.

Being nice is not enough to make racism disappear, and saying you are colorblind is not enough to challenge racist ideologies and eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline. When a person says they are colorblind, they are denying a person of color’s very being, not affirming their reality, and increasing the likelihood of perpetual racism. Research has shown that we do not treat people equally, whether it’s gender, religion, education level, socioeconomic status, or race (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012). If this were not the case, redlining in real estate or zoning schools would not exist.

Societal messages through media have always stereotyped people of color as violent and inferior to whites, making people believe as early as age 4 that being white is better. Ignoring racial differences through the phrase of being colorblind does not support students to challenge the racist messages that they encounter in and out of school. This ultimately leads students to feel emotionally and mentally unsafe in schools because the people they are supposed to trust the most in schools are not advocating for their basic human rights.

The school-to-prison pipeline can start in any teacher’s classroom. Educators with less experience with diversity often consciously or subconsciously alienate the black children in their classrooms, mistaking cultural humor or norms for the belief that, “Black boys just can’t behave” and falling into a power struggle with students. I’ve walked into countless classrooms and witnessed teachers yelling at 5-year-olds, “Get out of the class now!” for talking back. I’m also in classrooms where teachers group students by their abilities, behavior, or intelligence. These types of harmful practices successfully set children up to go from school to prison because the child is already internalizing that their very presence is not accepted in school or liked by their teacher. Students do not feel emotionally safe when they are excluded and thrown out of class. The pipeline always starts with a referral that leads to suspension, school arrest, exclusion, and expulsion. Countless hours of lost instruction make dropping out inevitable—no student wants to go to a place where they are always yelled at, thrown out of class, and where there is no sense of belonging.

While there is much work to do in this country, I have visited schools with courageous and bold leaders who are working tirelessly to eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline. These schools:

  • Reduced their reliance on suspensions by adopting inclusionary practices where students are taught discipline, kept in classrooms, and provided safe spaces in schools to receive support from competent, caring adults when they are in crisis.

  • Don’t manage behavior; they implement culturally relevant pedagogy that students can relate to that keeps students engaged, and disruptive behavior is naturally minimalized.

  • Have effective leaders that support teachers in developing an empowering mindset that is essential to serving youths.

  • Prioritize adults building positive, life-altering relationships with students by honoring them as individuals, respecting their cultural backgrounds, and valuing the life experiences their students bring to learning.

  • Moreover, decisions made are in the best interest of children and prioritized over adult feelings. They talk about implicit bias, race, and privilege in education, while addressing the implications and responsibility of every adult.

In addition to these practices, schools can:

  • Staff the building with teachers representative of the student population. Hiring more black and Latinx educators does not equal equity, but having highly-effective black and Latinx educators is essential to exposing students to curricula relatable to their lives. Race is a social construct, and the history depicted in textbooks is a one-sided story where blacks are dehumanized and fit into the story. Therefore, having curricula that highlights black inventors, entrepreneurs, and the true history of contributions made by blacks to society will foster confidence, a growth mindset, and a sense of pride to love themselves. Black liberatory education is successful when educators are willing to teach students about their history and connect their ancestral contributions to present- day practices; engage parents and the community in the learning process; and teach students how to develop positive mindsets about themselves and their ideas of success so they can challenge the political landscape that stifle their communities.

  • Hire an outside agency with a neutral perspective to conduct an equity audit so students aren’t blamed for low test scores but, instead, look at their access to highly-qualified teachers, the curricula used, and the implementation of it. If so many students are failing, it’s not the students.

  • Combat a shortage of highly-qualified teachers by working with real estate brokers to create “workforce housing,” where teachers are provided affordable housing to encourage them to live in the community where they teach.

See references here.

Thanks to Karen for her contribution.

Next Question!

The next question-of-the-week is:

What are the biggest dangers facing schools, teachers, and their students right now?

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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