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May 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 8
Online Exclusive

Responding Systematically to Racial Inequity in Schools

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School leaders often respond to racist conditions or events as "one offs." They need to look deeper at culture and systems.

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For decades now, research has made it clear that students of color are underserved in our schools and are experiencing racial bias at all levels (Chandler-Ward & Denevi, 2022). The majority of school leaders are aware of this reality, and most have expressed a desire to help drive change, but the results are spotty at best. Schools aren't doing a good enough job of addressing the complex issues of racism in the curriculum and school community culture. Students of color are still not getting the supports they need to thrive—and white students aren't getting the skills they need to understand and challenge racism.

The Problem: A Lack of Systemic Response

Since the vast majority of current leaders in our schools identify as white (Chandler-Ward & Denevi, 2022), we need more effective strategies to help these leaders consistently apply the growing body of antiracist knowledge to the work they do each day. During our work with school sites across the country, the feedback we've received from colleagues of color continues to show that most white leaders have only a surface understanding of the ways racism may be showing up on campus. Even when they can identify a racist behavior at school, leaders usually don't develop an institutional response. There is often a one-off acknowledgement that addresses a particular symptom of racism but fails to treat the disease. Similar to the way many white people confronted by racism tend to slip into a narrow, dualistic defensive posture, claiming "but I'm not racist," institutions are too often limited in their perspective of what it means to be antiracist. They struggle to see the myriad, complex ways in which racism operates in schools—focusing only on the two ends of what we might think of as a continuum of racist beliefs, approaches, or systems and not on any of the points in between.

Each School Has a Racial Identity

Research makes clear that individuals come to understand their racial identity through experiences over time and across various contexts (Tatum, 2017). We believe that, similarly, schools need to understand and grapple with their racial identity as institutions. In other words, each school has its own collective racial identity (we sometimes explain this by saying that each school is "raced") and that identity impacts policies and procedures, curricular initiatives, recruitment and retention, and other systemic issues.
In our extensive work with education leaders across the country, we have applied Janet Helms's white racial identity statuses (Helms, 2019) to institutional practices and analyzed how white supremacy operates in school systems. Figure 1 shows a summary of six stages adapted from Helms's model that a predominantly white school may occupy in relation to antiracism. Our goal is to illustrate the contours of how cultural norms associated with whiteness often operate as unnamed and unmarked, and thus pass for "normal" (Frankenberg, 1993). By identifying where a school is in its racial development, we hope to help leaders more effectively see markers of racism, then target specific steps for intervening and implementing enduring antiracist policies and practices at their school that will help to ensure all students thrive. The kind of change we need requires an unflinching look at the places our behavior may not align with our values. For schools, this means being clear about the gaps between espoused beliefs in racial equity and the realities on campus.

The kind of change we need requires an unflinching look at the places our behavior may not align with our values.

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Our education system in this country was created by and for white people. Apart from the few institutions created to serve people of color specifically, such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), ours are predominantly white educational institutions whose histories and ideologies generally center whiteness as the dominant culture. Most educational power structures reflect that history today, even at institutions with a higher percentage of racial diversity.
In our book Teaching and Learning While White, we encourage school leaders who want to truly counter this continuing dominance of whiteness to take a holistic approach to developing effective antiracist institutions. Doing so starts with carefully examining a school's culture, practices, and beliefs to clearly discern the institution's racial identity and the steps it can take to develop effective antiracist strategies for that school. The key point is that schools can't effectively address racial inequities without first understanding where they are and where they need to go.

Stages on the Journey Toward Antiracist Education

By understanding how each stage shown in Figure 1 operates, and where their school stands in this system of stages, school leaders are better positioned to name and subvert racism across an institution. Just as it is rare for individual white people to fall solely into one particular stage of these six stages, one aspect of a school can be aligned with one stage while another might align with a different stage. And in the wake of some racial crisis, an institution might move swiftly into a different stage with some institutional practices, but not others. It can be more helpful to think in percentages, meaning an institution may locate itself at, for instance, 50 percent in one stage and 50 percent in another, to allow for more nuance. When applied broadly to mainly white schools, the stages of racial identity development can point to inconsistencies and areas for strategic antiracist interventions.
Each institutional status requires its own kind of response from school leaders toward more antiracist education. For the sake of this article, we'll walk through the Pseudoindependent stage—a middle stage where many schools find themselves and where schools often get stuck—and examine how a leader could use the examples from that particular status to develop a more targeted, useful antiracist practice or policy—and thus move the school toward the Autonomy stage.

Common Ineffective Actions—and How to Do Better

In the Pseudoindependent stage there is a growing sense of urgency within the school to take action. Schools seek to fix racial equity problems, often rushing to find solutions without consulting with those who are most impacted by racial bias, justifying the absence of people of color in the work as not wanting to put any extra burden on them. Paradoxically, these schools often contact alumni and create student panels so the institution can learn from their experience, only to proceed in ways that contradict these stakeholders' testimony.
In our experiences as teachers and administrators as well as in our current work to support school leaders, we often see schools at the Pseudoindependent stage engage in the following three less effective responses to racial inequity in their school. For each common response, we offer accountability and assessment measures school leaders and staff might take to transform these rather predictable responses into more effective antiracist strategies:

1. Creating book clubs that support intellectual understanding of racism.

Message sent: Intellectual work will be enough to change behavior.
Accountability measures: Book club members agree to pilot a new evaluation process that has them reflect on their racial literacy before and after the book club experience and name ways they have actually shifted their professional practice based on what they learned through the reading and discussion.
How to assess: Do colleagues of color perceive that white participants are responding to feedback about their racial bias with less defensiveness and greater humility? Are white educators in the school interrupting incidents of bias and racism at school more frequently?

2. Firing teachers or staff who do racist things as the only response.

Instead of providing training and accountability for all teachers, leaders distance the institution from the offending person's behavior (portraying that person as "one bad apple").
Message sent: Racism isn't a systemic issue; it's just the fault of a few "bad" white people, so individuals are easily disposable. If you make a racial mistake, there's no coming back. This enables the institution to wash its hands of the situation and avoid any responsibility or require any institutional change.
Accountability measures: All employees are given training and support so they know what to do if they or a colleague does or says something racially problematic or racist. As incidents are reported, the institution then has a way to hold employees accountable and a process to respond and address the harm. Termination will be considered if there is no way to make a repair.
How to assess: Design a mechanism for reporting incidents of racist behavior or speech or serious bias. Leaders review those reports regularly to notice patterns of racist incidents and whether staff are responding in effective ways.

Even when they identify a racist behavior at school, leaders usually don't develop an institutional response. There is often a one-off acknowledgement that addresses a symptom of racism but fails to treat the disease.

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3. Representing race in the curriculum and texts, but only within the oppressor and oppressed paradigm.

Message sent: Sets up people of color as passive victims with no agency who didn't resist or challenge the status quo. Highlights only "bad" white people, implying that white people have no personal stake or role in challenging racism. No model of cross-racial solidarity.
Accountability measures: Annually, review curricular materials by grade level and subject area to assess where and how race is being represented. Are people of color represented in their full humanity? Are there models of white people working with people of color to challenge racism? Regularly have teachers report on the overall impact they see racial representations within the curriculum having on students' learning experiences and feelings about their work in school.
How to assess: On a consistent basis, collect student feedback to gauge the impact the curricula have on students' school experiences, disaggregate the responses by race, and use what students' experiences show to guide teachers to make necessary shifts. Notice whether there are complex classroom dialogues around race beyond just the simplistic either/or—for instance that Thomas Jefferson was both an advocate for emancipation and owned over 600 enslaved people at the same time. Students can usually navigate such conversations when teachers purposefully complicate the narrative on racism and individuals beyond being just "good" or "bad."
One school that we worked with was struggling to move away from many pseudoindependent behaviors that weren't leading to the kind of institutional change they were seeking. We suggested that they bring a group of teachers together to pilot a new student feedback process. Previously, the school had sporadically collected feedback at the end of a course—which prevented any kind of "course correction" during the actual teaching of the class. They had never compared feedback across departments or disaggregated the feedback by race, and many of the teachers described the feedback as either not helpful or mean-spirited. Too often when teachers ask for student feedback, they don't talk with the students about how to give effective feedback; they just assume students know how to do it. The ability to give and receive feedback is one of the most critical (and often underrated) antiracist skills. We helped this school develop a racial literacy component to their teacher evaluation process that included teachers collecting and analyzing feedback, and sharing with their students a summary of that feedback ("here's what I heard") as well as sharing with colleagues on this process ("here are the shifts I made based on their feedback").

Empowered and Effective

School leaders who've used this kind of institutional analysis have shared with us that they feel more empowered and effective. They are better able to focus their efforts and work to make observable behavioral changes and cultural shifts. Holding white colleagues accountable through such analysis not only supports the well-being and education of all students, it also helps with teacher retention rates as colleagues of color begin to see that the institution is actually serious about making progress, beyond just lip service.
Schools have been in an endless cycle of wringing their hands and chasing the latest and greatest new initiative that will "finally end racism" in their institutions—often without taking tangible, measurable actions. Especially at a time when we are experiencing huge levels of burnout for educators, it's critical that school leaders identify ways to stand in our integrity, do what we know is best for children, and create lasting change.
References

Chandler-Ward, J., & Denevi, E. (2022). Learning and teaching while white: Antiracist strategies for school communities. W.W. Norton & Company.

Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. University of Minnesota Press.

Helms, J. (2019). A race is a nice thing to have: A guide to being a white person or understanding the white persons in your life (3rd ed.). Cognella Academic Publishing.

Tatum, B. D. (2017). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? And other conversations about race. Basic Books.

Jenna Chandler-Ward, a former teacher, is cofounder (with Elizabeth Denevi) of the blog and podcast series Teaching While White, and founder of the Multicultural Teaching Institute, which offers learning for educators on issues of identity in education.

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