Mica Pollock is an Associate Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Building on her experience investigating claims of discrimination in schools at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Dr. Pollock studies how youth and adults struggle daily to discuss and address issues of racial difference, discrimination, and fairness in school and community settings.
A fundamental debate erupts whenever U.S. educators discuss “achievement gaps.” Do educators’ everyday actions really contribute that much to racial disparities? Or are such disparities caused by parents, by peers, by “society,” by “poverty,” by children themselves?
We need to get much better at discussing this issue in education. As I have shown in my research, simplistic debate over who is “to blame” for “achievement gaps” often keeps us from adequately serving children of color in particular. For example, when people argue that disparities are caused solely by particular players (e.g., “parents”), they miss out on potential collaborations that would support student success. When people relentlessly blame actors other than themselves for student outcomes, they fail to figure out which of their own actions might assist children better.
When I worked investigating discrimination complaints in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) between 1999 and 2001, I encountered this “who’s to blame?” debate every day. I analyze the debates I experienced in my newest book, Because of Race: How Americans Debate Harm and Opportunity in Our Schools.
Advocates for white students with disabilities predominantly filed complaints at OCR. They always argued that educators’ everyday actions mattered fundamentally for students’ school success. Advocates for students of color also came to OCR to argue that educators’ everyday actions contributed fundamentally to students’ educational outcomes. These advocates said that how teachers taught students and disciplined them mattered. How security guards followed children mattered. How educators placed students in classes and programs mattered. How principals responded to peer harassment mattered. How superintendents distributed resources to school buildings mattered. Like the white parents filing disability cases, parents and advocates for students of color demanded what I call everyday justice. They asked educators to provide specific students with particular additional opportunities to learn and thrive in their daily lives.
In Because of Race, I analyze how educators often responded angrily to these demands. All the educators we met believed in equal opportunity in general. But when advocates demanded that educators provide children of color with additional opportunities inside schools, educators often offered the following four rebuttals:
1) Educators had the best intentions toward students of color and should not be blamed for children’s unhappy experiences in schools.
2) Educators’ opportunity provision for students of color should not be “prescribed” or forced by “outsiders.”
3) Providing more opportunities to students of color was impossible.
4) Everyday actions by educators are too “small” to matter much to children’s outcomes.
I want to tackle rebuttal 4 in this post. Are educators’ everyday actions too “small” to contribute much to achievement gaps? Are educators’ everyday actions too “small” to remedy them?
As I describe below, research on student achievement shows that the everyday ways educators interact with students contribute fundamentally to each student’s academic pathway — and thus, to student outcomes in the aggregate. Research on teacher “efficacy” also shows that to serve children well, educators must believe that their everyday acts fundamentally affect children’s trajectories. Otherwise, they assume that children’s fates are sealed and stop trying.
But educator activity is of course not responsible in isolation for student outcomes, so a school leader talking as if it is will just make teachers too defensive to listen. School leaders need to situate educators’ actions as one crucial contributor to children’s trajectories.
Here’s one transformational way of talking about the role of educators’ everyday actions. Students’ academic fates are built through real time interactions, as children interact with educators and peers and parents and the various other people and situations in their lives. Stated otherwise, students are reacting to educators on a daily, even moment to moment basis, even as they react on an ongoing basis to their parents and peers and to their experiences outside of schools. In turn, educators are reacting to children on a daily, even moment to moment basis, even as they also react to families and to the ways families raise children. It is the accumulation of these everyday interactions that creates student achievement. Through these interactions, children “become” youth who are attached to schools and successful in schools, or youth who are not.
Students of course help create their own academic fates over time! But remember, students are always reacting in real time to educators’ acts and to the opportunities provided in educational settings. In schools, students are constantly having interactions with educators that either support skill-building, or don’t. Similarly, over a child’s life, her everyday interactions with educators either support or detract from her positive relationship with her school. Books by Angela Valenzuela (1999), Nilda Flores-Gonzalez (2002), and Prudence Carter (2005) all demonstrate how in large part through interactions with school adults, students of color either build positive relationships to schools or turn off to specific schools over time.
I wrote a short article called “From Shallow to Deep” that lays out, for educators, this way of thinking about the consequences of their everyday interactions over time (See the December 2008 issue of Anthropology and Education Quarterly). In it, I urge that we avoid shorthand explanations for why “groups” achieve and instead examine how specific everyday interactions between educators, students, and families have real consequences for students. Students and parents can be asked directly about how their interactions with educators are affecting them. More generally, a school leader can ask her staff: who got you to the graduation stage? Who was involved in your SAT score?
Here’s another transformational way of talking about the role educators’ everyday actions play in large “systems” of racial inequality. I find economist Rebecca Blank’s model of “cumulative disadvantage and advantage” (2005) incredibly helpful for educators who are trying to figure out where their everyday actions “fit in.”
Blank shows that racial inequalities of opportunity and outcome in American life have accumulated and keep accumulating in three ways: over generations; across domains like health, housing, and schooling; and over the lives of children within schools themselves. In the professional development work I do with teachers, I add my own examples to illuminate each point.
First, how did race-class inequality accumulate over generations in the United States? Here’s one example. In the 1830s, free public education was proactively extended to European-descended children in the U.S., while simultaneously, antiliteracy laws denied enslaved African-descended children in the South the right to learn to read at all. (See the work of historian James Anderson ). In 1930, 85% of Mexican-American children in the Southwest went to school in purposefully segregated, inferior-resource environments, were tracked to vocational education, and were encouraged to drop out after elementary school in order to work in manual jobs. (See the work of historian Ruben Donato ). As some children went on to higher-paying jobs than others, such experiences had serious consequences for families’ wealth accumulation. Thus, opportunities provided and denied along the lines of “race” became fundamental inequalities of class. Though many white people are poor, white children today are disproportionately not poor, and children of color (including many post-1965 immigrants from Asia and Latin America) disproportionately are. Even people of color who take home salaries equivalent to “whites’” do not enjoy similarly accumulated intergenerational wealth (Lareau & Conley, 2008).
After World War II, for another example, the G.I. Bill extended housing and educational subsidies preferentially to “whites.” (See the work of anthropologist Karen Sacks ). Due to the distribution of these and other post-WW II benefits, “African Americans whose parents came of age in the 1940s and 1950s will receive less than one-tenth the inheritance of their white peers” (Blank 2005, 15).
Here’s a personal example of such “cumulative advantage.” My own grandfather, who didn’t go to school past elementary school, benefited from the GI Bill (as Karen Sacks shows, Jews were treated as “white” after World War II). He bought a house. The wealth he and Grandma accumulated through their housing purchase helped provide a tax base supporting well-equipped public schools in their neighborhood. This helped my father get to college. When he got his first job as a professor, Grandma and Grandpa helped him buy a house, using the wealth they’d accumulated after selling their own. Growing up, I attended sufficiently-resourced public schools with a similarly adequate tax base. I went to college without even imagining NOT going to college. When I was ready to buy a house, I had my down payment ready. It included not just my own hard-earned savings, but also small gifts from my family stemming from two generations of accumulated housing wealth. Today, my job supports reasonable mortgage payments on that house and subsidizes health care for my children. I could afford to send my children to a private day care that helped prepare them for school. This is “white privilege” in action; it’s real money. My grandfather went to work every day until the day he died; individuals in each generation of my family have worked incredibly hard. Yet we all also benefited from a government subsidy assisting us to accumulate wealth. And, I had teachers who treated me well, throughout, in those well-funded schools. Those educators did not act in a vacuum; their acts did not launch me to graduation single-handedly. But their acts played a fundamental role in my drama as educators reacted to me, and I to them.
This brings us to Rebecca Blank’s second form of “cumulative advantage and disadvantage.” How does racial inequality accumulate today across domains? Blank notes that disparities in health care, housing, and family employment exacerbate disparities in education. I cite Richard Rothstein’s book Class and Schools to demonstrate this in more detail. If a child has no health care and thus no glasses, she can’t see the board and she fails the test. If she has not eaten a substantial breakfast because her parents can’t afford it, she can’t concentrate on the work. If she is constantly moving between neighborhoods due to a lack of affordable housing, she can’t build relationships with her teachers. If she is staying up late caring for a sibling while a parent works a night shift, she can’t stay awake in class. Since racially segregated schools are also class-segregated schools, schools often cluster such poverty-related disadvantages (and middle-class advantages) within their walls. In the 1970s and after, post-Brown court decisions to not fully desegregate the nation’s schools ensured that the accumulated economic inequalities of segregated neighborhoods would keep accumulating (see Orfield & Eaton, 1996). Due to racially-driven housing choices, low income white people also share neighborhoods, amenities, and schools more often with wealthier whites than do people of color (PRRAC 2008). In today’s schools and neighborhoods, “white” children still most often enjoy the cumulative advantages of disproportionately well-financed and resourced schools (Hochschild & Scovronick, 2003; Kozol, 2005), privately funded preschool (Kirp, 2007), and, extracurricular activities, housing stability, nutrition, and health care (Rothstein, 2004; Lareau, 2003).
As Sonia Nieto and John Diamond each argue in my new edited book for teachers, Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real about Race in School, educators need to respond to situations of accruing disadvantage while never lowering standards for children as if they can’t overcome such disadvantage. Educators need to ask, what can we do to support children’s achievement in this situation, in collaboration with other opportunity providers? That “what can we each do?” spirit is central to well-known collaborative interventions, like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone.
That brings us to Blank’s third point. Blank argues that racial inequality of opportunity and outcome in education also accumulate each day inside schools. For example, she notes, white students are disproportionately likely to be put in a high “ability” group in elementary school; someone put in such a group in elementary school is more likely to get better instruction and end up in A.P. classes and then college later on. Remember our discussion above: educators’ everyday actions are not solely responsible for students’ academic outcomes, but they contribute fundamentally to them over time. Pedro Noguera shows in Everyday Antiracism that educators often discipline students of color disproportionately, and particularly harshly; this everyday act has fundamental consequences for students’ relationships to their schools. As Karolyn Tyson, Mia Ong, and Beth Rubin each demonstrate in Everyday Antiracism, old ideas about how “smartness” looks and which “groups” are “smart” still play out unintentionally in educators’ everyday decisions about gifted placement and ability grouping and tracking, with fundamental consequences for how students think about their own intelligence and potential. Everyday Antiracism offers 65 short essays, each training educators’ attention on one routine action in their work. We show that through attending closely to their everyday interactions with students, educators can also fundamentally counteract racial disparities.
I add another discussion to Blank’s when I am doing PD for educators. Still with us in our schools today are not just the race-class inequalities accumulated over generations, but also many of the ideas about inferior and superior “races” that were put in play to justify those inequalities. Everyday Antiracism engages these issues. As I describe in my own essay in the book, “No Brain is Racial,” one key myth plagues school contexts: the lie that some “race groups” are more intelligent than others. This myth has been in the air for several hundred years: the accumulating American system of race-class inequality was supported in part by unabashedly racist “science,” which rationalized the increasingly unequal status of “the races” by arguing incorrectly that internal differences, like “intelligence” or motivation or ethics, accompanied external physical differences (See Stephen J. Gould’s Mismeasure of Man , and a great book written for teachers, How Real is Race?, Mukhopadhyay, et al., 2007). In 1735, as unpaid African-American slaves fully replaced European indentured servants as exploited laborers, Linnaeus “scientifically” classified four “races” using visual appearance; he called “whites” not just “fair” and “blue-eyed” but “acute and inventive.” Such imagined equations between physical appearance and internal capacity would remain a central plank of the racial “worldview,” which justified the inequality system being organized along these very “racial” lines (see Smedley, 1999). Blatantly racist ideas about superior and inferior “races” dominated American scholarship through the early 20th century (Montagu 1997/1942, p. 80). Many of these ideas continue to have fundamental repercussions for children in schools, as some children are treated as less smart, less valuable, or less complex than others.
To sum up: educators need to keep considering the consequences their everyday acts have for children’s trajectories over time. Absolutely, preexisting inequality situations constrain schools and teachers. Some students show up in schools that lack books; some students show up in schools with theatres and electronic equipment; some students show up having attended private preschool. Racist ideas about “types of people” circulate in the world, not just in schools. Educators can’t combat this context singlehandedly, but they respond to it each and every day. In this multi-player and multi-generational drama we call education, how educators treat students every day contributes fundamentally to each student’s school achievement. A student in one of my classes told us a related quote from the Talmud: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” I translate this for educators as, “You are not solely responsible for student achievement, but you are also fundamentally responsible for it, in interaction with many others.”
What’s the answer? Ongoing inquiry. Educators can literally ask themselves, their colleagues, their students, and their students’ families: Does this act provide an essential opportunity? Does it assist a student, or harm him? How might a young person respond to the act? Which alternative act might help this child fulfill his full potential? And what collaborations must we pursue to support, collectively, the development of our students? This constant questioning is an essential part of teaching well in a society where “achievement gaps” are accumulating every day. Everyday Antiracism attempts to support such inquiry into educators’ everyday practice.
School leaders take note: in any conversation about student outcomes, educators understandably will argue that someone else, not them, creates achievement disparities. So, school leaders need to first make the case to educators that educators’ everyday acts contribute fundamentally to students’ achievement. Consider assigning this post itself as a conversation starter.
I am creating more professional development tools to help educators talk through how student achievement takes shape in a “fragmented” inequality system, where racial disparities are created over time by many players in interaction inside and outside schools. I am drafting a fourth book for this purpose, which I’ll probably call Analyzing Educational Inequality: A Practical Guide. Stay tuned!
I’ll look forward to hearing your reactions to this post. When this discussion ends, please join me on my own blog, schoolracetalk.org, for more conversation.
Anderson, J. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Blank, R. M. (2005). Tracing the economic impact of cumulative discrimination. American Economic Review, 95(2), 99-103.
Carter, Prudence. (2005). Keepin’ It real: School success beyond Black and White. Oxford:
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Donato, R. (1997). The other struggle for equal schools: Mexican Americans during the civil rights era. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University Of California Press.
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