Classroom Technology

Grassroots ‘EduColor’ Group Spotlights Racial Inequities

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 12, 2015 7 min read
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The Ferguson protests. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Freddie Gray. The 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala.

The past two years have provided numerous reminders of the painful collision of racial tensions and law enforcement. But today’s policymakers and educators have largely been skittish about exploring the problems of racial inequity and division in another public institution: K-12 education.

Now, a grassroots effort is seeking to change that dynamic by elevating the perspectives of parents and communities of color on education policy through an unexpectedly powerful and timely method: a Twitter hashtag.

That’s the idea behind EduColor, a collective of teachers, advocates, and scholars best known by the hashtag #educolor.

Not content with social-media influence, the group this month also launched a website, educolor.org, that offers such features as teaching resources, links, and a newsletter.

Education inequity tied to race and class is the source of some familiar yet still disturbing statistics about public schools. Students of color are taught mostly by white teachers. Public schools are resegregating at a swift pace. Black students are expelled at more than three times the rate of white students, and are four times more likely to attend schools with many uncertified teachers. Racial gaps in achievement and resources remain glaringly wide.

A New Debate

Yet, EduColor members say, much of the education policy debate has become rooted in ideological positioning around such topics as the place of testing, the role of charter schools, and teacher evaluation, while neglecting the role of race in schools and failing to examine how favored policy issues affect nonwhite students.

“We looked and we saw the amount of oxygen those issues are taking up in the ecosystem, and at the same time, we continued to see, when we would bring up these [racial] issues, that there was a dismissal of them,” said José L. Vilson, the well-known New York City-based teacher and author who founded EduColor.

“Now is the time to talk about these issues,” he said. “You cannot speak for students of color, or advocate for them, when you can’t even see them for who they are.”

In that sense, the debate EduColor has sought to promote represents a jolting change from the prevailing arguments over education-improvement initiatives.

In recent months, the group’s profile has risen, thanks to a number of well-trafficked chats it’s hosted on Twitter.

The most recent one concerned the education implications of code-switching, a term that, broadly defined, means changing one’s speech patterns when negotiating different racial or cultural contexts.

The conversation’s thrust: Why and when do students of color code-switch at school? How should teachers acknowledge, react to, or encourage the phenomenon?

As its Twitter presence suggests, EduColor has its roots in dialogue.

Mr. Vilson recalled attending an ed-tech conference in 2011 and being virtually the only teacher of color there. That realization led to discussions with other participants about the phenomenon and eventually to a greater awareness of such disparities. (This year, the conference known as EduCon hosted a panel specifically on diverse voices in education.)

Simultaneously, Mr. Vilson began connecting with other people who were concerned about what they saw as a lack of attention to race in education policy discussions, even among progressive activists and groups.

“Racial inequalities are evident in all other areas of life for communities of color—housing, jobs, pay, health services, even life expectancy—but schools are an oasis of colorblindness? Not possible,” said Melinda Anderson, a freelance writer and parent-activist who serves on EduColor’s steering committee. (Ms. Anderson is also a staff member of the National Education Association, but her work for EduColor is on her own time and doesn’t represent the union’s views.)

The steering committee includes eight individuals who volunteer their time planning for the group’s events. EduColor also counts about 50 invited members, among them Christina Torres, a former Teach For America communications staffer in Hawaii who recently returned to teaching.

Ms. Torres said she was attracted to EduColor when she began Twitter-debating a few of its early members on such sensitive topics as the impact of TFA on communities of color. The tone of those conversations was respectful rather than shrill, she said.

“We both know students of color are at the heart of our work, so it’s a lot easier to feel safe pushing on someone,” she said. “The reason we’re disagreeing isn’t because we think they’re a bad person. It’s because we’re trying to ground ourselves in a really difficult topic.”

EduColor conversations also appear to have given some participants the drive to bring up racially sensitive matters at their schools and in other member organizations.

Some activists, for instance, have taken both the NEA and American Federation of Teachers to task for what they see as rhetoric about addressing minority issues in education that’s not always matched by action.

In addition, in the wake of the death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York City police officer in 2014, EduColor activists were outspokenly critical of some New York teachers who wore T-shirts supporting the police department. They also called on the city teachers’ union to support cultural-competency training for teachers.

So far, EduColor doesn’t have a formal set of guiding principles, but certain themes have emerged.

Ending discipline policies that disproportionately affect nonwhite and poor students is one. For teachers, the group has focused on the importance of pedagogy and curriculum that build on minority students’ backgrounds and experiences. The group has also looked at how popular education trends like teaching “grit” may uniquely affect students of color.

What the group’s long-term impact will be remains an open question. But as research has recently shown, social media can serve as a powerful tool in the discourse about education.

A study co-led by Jonathan Supovitz, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, found that perceptions of the Common Core State Standards and the political debate surrounding them were influenced by the volume of tweets making use of the hashtag #commoncore.

Hashtag traffic is harder to track than Twitter handles, which are linked to individual users. But four of the EduColor’s group’s five chats have “trended” on Twitter, its leaders say. The EduColor hashtag was used about 700 times between April 28 and May 4, and had a potential reach of more than a million unique users.

Long-term engagement is probably a better gauge of impact, though, researchers said. “Most Twitter activity is momentary. The real question is, what stays persistent? It’s the persistent things that translate into the social movement,” Mr. Supovitz said. “It’s less a question of trending, and more a question of whether there’s a consistently increasing and stable volume” of engagement with the tag.

EduColor’s founders seem aware of the challenge. Its website’s tagline reads: “A movement, not a moment.” The group is also looking to growing beyond its social-media origins by moving into curriculum development and instructional training.

Whose Voices?

Mr. Vilson said another priority is using the group to elevate more education leaders of color. “I still feel like the discourse is often taken over by folks who are white,” he said.

But one challenge concerns the nature of social media itself: No one owns a hashtag on Twitter. That’s led on occasion to spats about who is authorized to speak about race and education using the EduColor hashtag.

The group “is a source of affinity,” said Ms. Anderson. “Given the fact that there are few to no spaces where people of color and voices of color can dominate, there is a certain privilege, dare I say, that comes from entering the debate and using the hashtag.”

Paradoxically, the fact that tensions exist around the hashtag suggests that the group’s attempt to spur a substantive dialogue is working.

“It’s one piece of evidence of their success,” Mr. Supovitz said. “But it’s also a threat, in that some organizations with a single issue or agenda like testing or common core might try to co-opt it.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2015 edition of Education Week as On Twitter, ‘EduColor’ Group Puts Race in Policy Discussions

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