We’ve reached a watershed moment in racial history. What will educators choose to do with it?
When high school junior Jadyn Page first watched the video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, she sobbed for 20 minutes. Then she got angry. Then she took action.
The Ohio student organized a socially distanced Students Against Racism Forum in a local park. Kids of all ages approached the open mic to share their stories. Teachers and administrators from Heath City Schools took notes. A panel of local allies answered questions.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m not racist,’” said panelist Dr. Talya Greathouse, a family practice physician at Licking Memorial Hospital. “It needs to be, ‘I’m anti-racist.’”
Across the United States, students and educators are not just speaking out against racism – they’re taking action to fight it. It’s a watershed moment in history, as COVID-19’s disparate impact on people of color dovetails with brutal images of Black people killed by police. Generations of trauma, much of it inflicted by white educational institutions, has boiled to the surface in a wave of anti-racism protests, sparking conversations that, for many educators and leaders of color, are long overdue.
“I think that this moment is a wake-up call for many,” says consultant Cheyenne Batista, who advises districts and other organizations on dismantling inequities. “For those of us who have been on the receiving end of injustice or lived a lifetime in the margins, a lot of this conversation is not easy, and a lot is not new. It’s a reckoning, a moment to consider the ways in which white dominant culture has had an impact on students, curriculum, day-to-day practices, family engagement and social-emotional learning (SEL).”
It’s also a chance for educators to scrutinize their own biases, as well the biases embedded in the institutions they serve and the technology they use, to root out systemic racism and determine what role education can play in building an anti-racist society.
“We need to unlearn what we’ve come to learn about schools and curriculum,” Batista says. “Any elements of education students experience – from the structure of the curriculum to what we’ve come to understand is strong pedagogy to the ways school schedules are designed and grades are assigned – are really informed by an institutional culture so baked in we can’t imagine otherwise. With COVID-19 forcing us to reimagine school schedules, curriculum and pedagogy, it’s a real opportunity to unlearn what we’ve come to learn.”
The task is massive, and not everyone agrees on where to start. Some believe it needs to happen from the top down, beginning with eliminating district policies that perpetuate a systemic culture of racism.
“We have to replace racist policy with anti-racist policy,” says Rann Miller, director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program in New Jersey. “We have to make schools a space where whiteness isn’t the default. It requires white educators to be uncomfortable and I'm not sure they're ready to be uncomfortable."
Others believe change needs to happen at the individual level first.
“What is hard for people to understand is that it’s about what happens in a classroom,” says Patricia Brown, technology specialist for Ladue School District in St. Louis, Missouri, and a member of the ISTE Board of Directors. “People want to say it needs to be a systematic change within the district, but what needs to happen first is people need to look at their own internal biases and their own experiences and think about how they’re treating the student right in front of them.”
COVID-19 and the digital divide
Before the pandemic forced schools to transition to remote learning, education consultant and former principal Wiley Brazier V was already spotting some glaring problems with education technology that could disproportionately affect students of color. It started when his son’s work didn’t show up in his teacher’s online learning platform.
“I’m a tech guy. I said, ‘That’s not us, that’s you.’ I’m sitting there with him, watching it, taking pictures and screenshots and texting them to the teacher. After all of that, he was still having issues in the system. Finally, after a month of this going back and forth, for some reason it just fixed itself.”
No matter how many safeguards are in place, he says, technology can still fail. When it does, how many students of color have tech-savvy adults who can advocate for them – especially in a remote learning environment, where they’re largely cut off from counselors, principals and other adults they could previously have turned to?
“Let’s say, for instance, I’m not a tech guru. Or I’m a student and I don’t have a parent who’s vocal like that. Now that we’re doing school virtually, what supports are there for those kids? I’m just highly concerned about that,” Brazier says.
When it comes to racism, technology can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, mobile devices and social media platforms can be powerful tools for capturing and exposing racist behavior, empowering students and parents of color to widely share their experiences with racism. On the other hand, they can also play a role in perpetuating the problem. Social media algorithms surface increasingly extreme content, sometimes leading users down a rabbit hole of racial extremism. Biases unintentionally programmed into artificial intelligence can lead to disastrous consequences for people of color. And educators such as Brazier fear the disconnect from face-to-face interaction is jeopardizing the ability to empathize – a critical factor in combating racism.
“When you take away the physical presence, it can leave a void for teachers to be able to get to know kids on a more personal level. You may not get the level of inquisitiveness that will happen naturally in a classroom. We don’t want the only way that teachers get to know their kids to be through the academic work they do.”
On top of that, digital equity issues continue to plague families of color. As COVID-19 shut down schools across the globe, the digital divide between privileged and underprivileged students became glaringly obvious. Disparities in technology access left schools scrambling to deliver devices and Wi-Fi connections to children of color and low-income households. In Calfornia, for example, a parent poll by The Education Trust–West found that 42% of families of color lacked sufficient devices at home to access online learning, and 29% were concerned because they didn’t have a reliable internet connection.
“Black students may or may not have access to the internet,” Miller says. “They may or may not have access to computers. They’re less likely to have the ability to log in and do the work. And particularly for older students, and this is across the board, high school students have not really been signing in. So there’s definitely a disconnect on top of the racism that has fueled the way in which we educate Black students in this country. Students are coming back to the school year, and maybe even next year too, at a deficit, and it’s not anything of their doing. Racism has created these conditions, and COVID only makes it worse.”
But it’s not just technology access that’s creating a deficit for students of color. Education consultant Desiree Alexander refers to the digital use divide, an equity gap that isn’t about devices and Wi-Fi so much as the disparity in access to teachers who are trained to teach effectively with them. There’s a big difference between digitized worksheets or drill-and-practice testing versus creative projects that harness technology for deeper learning – and students are more likely to encounter the latter at predominantly white schools.
“We are creating digitally illiterate students, and we think we’re doing good because we’re giving them 1:1 laptops,” she says. “You can give me a laptop or a phone or an iPad, but if I don’t learn how to use them for both education and business, then they’re just placeholders. Districts say, ‘We don’t have a digital divide because we have a Wi-Fi bus.’ That’s great, now who’s teaching them how to use it, to go deeper with it and to create with it?”
Miller worries about how far the opportunity gap will widen for Black students after the challenges they faced while learning remotely. How many Black students will be held back without being given the opportunity to improve? How many rising Black ninth graders will be barred from honors courses when they return to school in the fall? And how many will be disproportionately punished for perceived unruliness after missing months of school?
To counteract the effects of the digital divide, which have been amplified by COVID-19, it’s critical for teachers to become aware of the internal biases that often unfairly place the onus on students of color to overcome the equity gap.
“A lot of times, people have what I call a myth that there’s an academic achievement gap” when it comes to students of color, Brown says, “To me, that is looking at our students in a deficit model, as if the students are the reason for this gap. I think there are opportunity gaps. There are access gaps.
“I think if you try to ‘fix’ your students, you’re going to fail. Students are not the problem. Students are not the deficit. We need to look at the systems and the programming and the strategies that have been put in place and think about how we can change that so the adults are changing their behavior and not looking for students to do that.”
Creating anti-racist classrooms
While the Black Lives Matter movement swelled in outrage over the killing of George Floyd, students began leveraging social media platforms to call out racist behavior among their peers. Videos of fellow students using racial slurs or engaging in cultural appropriation surfaced and went viral, forcing many educators to examine the educational environments that had allowed such behavior to flourish.
“What our students encounter on a day- to-day basis in a lot of schools and a lot of classrooms is trauma,” Brown says.
Just how deeply is racism embedded in schools? Students, parents and educators report seeing it everywhere, from curricula and pedagogies biased toward white students to inequities in technology avail- ability and tech-enhanced instruction to disciplinary and testing policies that disproportionately impact students of color – all of which can hamper their ability to fulfill their academic potential.
District policies such as bringing police into schools, for example, contribute to a racist environment by unfairly targeting Black students, Miller says.
“Black students are negatively impacted when police are in schools. There are videos of police abusing Black students, and civil rights data shows Black students more than anyone else are arrested in school.”
Disciplinary policies also have a disproportionate impact on Black students, who are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. “A lot of school districts are engaging in discussions about restorative justice instead of immediately suspending a kid so students don’t lose time from the classroom,” says Miller, who would also like to see schools do away with standardized testing, which decades of research have proven detrimental to Black, Latino and Native American students, as well as students from some Asian groups, according to the National Education Association.
Not all of the necessary changes require district-level intervention.
“There are several things teachers can do in the classroom to provide a culturally diverse environment, from the posters on the wall to the books on your shelves to the stories you highlight,” Brown says. “It’s about being very intentional about what you choose and why you choose it – not just going with that cookie-cutter curriculum but digging deeper and finding ways to connect with students.”
Before teachers can create classrooms that foster anti-racism, however, they first need to confront their own biases and be- come culturally fluent.
“The No. 1 training, we need is bias training,” Alexander says. “If you can’t look at yourself and recognize your own bias, none of this is going to work. You are biased; it’s part of being human. Trainings provide a safe space to sit and look at that bias and then take it a step further to determine how it’s affecting your actions. How am I making decisions according to my bias, and how is it hurtful to my students?”
But the effort can’t end there. Anti- racism isn’t something schools can teach only during Black History Month (bit.ly/30dclHk) or as a response to current events, Miller says. It needs to be embedded in the fabric of the district.
“If we’re always doing it as part of our everyday curriculum and instruction and strategy, it just becomes part of what we do,” Brown says. “Look at the makeup of your students and think about how to incorporate different voices, perspectives and lenses; it’s just a natural thing you should do anyway. No matter what the makeup of your students is, whether it’s a full class of white children or children of color, those lenses and areas of learning should still be diverse in how you present that information to students.”
Teaching with anti-racist and culturally responsive viewpoint can put teachers, especially white teachers, in a vulnerable position as they grapple with their own biases – sometimes publicly. But Alexander encourages them to lean into the vulnerability.
“We all have to start somewhere,” she says. “You’re not going to suddenly become a Black Panther overnight. You’re going to make mistakes, and you can tell your students, ‘I may make mistakes because of my privilege, and I need you to call me on it.’ Being honest with students and giving them license and permission to call you on stuff – teachers feel they can’t do that. They feel they’ll lose their perceived control. It’s about giving up that perceived control and saying, ‘Hey, let’s go through this journey together.’”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with passion for finding out what makes learners tick.