The very idea of public education is to equalize opportunity. Every young person, regardless of their race, social class, or family background has access to the same high-quality teachers, curriculum, and programs. With such a system in place, graduation rates and achievement gaps between races and social classes should disappear.
Unfortunately, we built a system that consistently disadvantages black students.
Graduation rates for black students are far behind those of white students (1), black students are disproportionally punished within schools when compared to their white counterparts (2), and black students are underrepresented in the STEM fields in college (3). It’s time to stop blaming the students for our results, and for us to accept responsibility.
So what can we as educators do?
Acknowledge your whiteness
There is a good chance that if you are reading this, you are white. About 80% of teachers are white and an even higher percent of math teachers are white. A big step towards understanding the lived experience of black students is to recognize all of the things that you don’t even have to think about because you are white. Consider reading Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 paper on white privilege or reading Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility.
Stop over punishing black students
As teachers, we have hundreds of decisions to make each day. As part of our classroom management, we have to notice student behaviors and make quick decisions on how to react. Pay close attention to how you interpret certain behaviors coming from black students versus how you interpret those same behaviors coming from white students. Often, we believe that behaviors from black students are more defiant than those of white students and we hand out punishments accordingly. This misinterpretation and inappropriate assignment of punishment happens because of implicit biases. We don’t need to feel guilty about this, but we do have a responsibility to start reconstructing our brains to rid ourselves of these biases. The good news is that research has shown that our implicit biases are malleable (4).
The teacher who claims “I don’t see my students by the color of their skin” is missing the point. In the same way that it is important for us to know the family background of a white student who lost both parents to cancer, it is important for us to understand how the daily life of a black student is challenging because of the society we live in. They live a life where they are constantly fighting against stereotypes, being judged by their behaviors, being told they are criminal by the media, and living in fear of how they might be treated by the police. In order to best teach our black students, we need to see the color of their skin.
Consider alternate approaches to learning
Lecture, lecture, lecture. Now try 100 practice problems. While this teaching approach works well for some students (mostly white), this is not a good approach for reaching ALL of our students. We need to shift away from our desire to be in charge of the classroom towards an environment that empowers students to collaborate and construct their own knowledge. Consider a teaching approach like Experience First, Formalize Later (EFFL) where students work in small groups to “experience” the learning, before the teacher “formalizes” the lesson. Not only does a lecture approach disadvantage many black students academically, it also reduces the opportunities for us to get to build relationships with these students and for students to get to know each other. As educators, we are not only responsible to teach students content but also to teach them how to work with others, especially those who are different from them.
What can we do in AP Statistics?
Lower barriers of entry into AP Statistics. Do students really need a B+ or better in Pre-Calculus?
Educate and inform students early (7thgrade) about pathways to AP math classes.
Use culturally relevant context for your lessons. Check out Skew the Script for some help.
Less lecture. More EFFL.
We cannot just be non-racist; we must work actively to be anti-racist. We must examine our own practices and acknowledge that we may have been or are currently part of the problem. Complacency is not an option.