In a culture of school reform that focuses on student achievement as measured through standardized curriculum and testing, marginalized groups are traditionally less successful. For students who come from high-risk backgrounds such as being a person of color, living in poverty, being an immigrant, having limited English proficiency, and/or having a learning or developmental disability, success in today’s schools is limited, and the confidence and self-esteem of children can be irrevocably damaged (Larson, 2010). Leaders need to “recognize that the academic child is not easily separated from the social, emotional, and economic turmoil that often undermines his/her real opportunities to learn” (p. 327). By addressing these broader needs of students, educational leaders can create better support systems to enhance those opportunities for learning.
Historically, gaps in academic achievement between white and non-white students have been explained through the lens of culture. The culture of some minority groups has been seen as a subtractive to academic achievement, such as the framework of oppositional culture applied to African American and Latino students. At the same time, characterizations of other groups are seen as additive to academic achievement, such as the quiet compliance and studious nature of some Asian ethnic groups (Warikoo & Carter, 2009).
Warikoo and Carter (2009) examine these differences through the lens of “native minority” groups—those whose lineage are either indigenous to the United States or were forcefully brought here through slavery or conquest; and “immigrant minority” groups—those who have immigrated more recently to the U.S. The cultural-ecological theory behind this lens explains the differences between the groups as their reactions to discrimination and invisibility. Immigrant minority students see school success as a means to upward mobility in society, where native minority students view certain behaviors that are expected for school success (i.e., “acting white”) as beneficial only to the dominant culture of the white, middle class (Warikoo & Carter, 2009).
Research has found that many students of color from “native minority” groups are frequently successful in balancing high academic achievement with maintaining their ethnic identity, rather than engaging in oppositional behaviors (Carter, 2006; Warikoo & Carter, 2009). At the same time, some students of color do choose to maintain their cultural identity at the expense of high achievement, and others choose to assimilate to the dominant white culture and resist others’ accusations of “acting white” (Carter, 2006).
In counterpoint to the historical lens of looking at culture as the reason for academic achievement, presenting achievement data aligned to race/ethnicity influences teacher expectations and may become a self-fulfilling prophecy (Pollock, 2001; Riley et al., 2015). Pollock (2008) cautions us against making quick claims about children of color and how they react to school, and to avoid shallow analysis of culture in school. Pollock (2001) notes that the expectation for achievement to be racially ordered—that achievement and race are collapsed in the discourse of education—perpetuates stereotyping and low expectations for students of color.
McKenzie and Scheurich (2004) identify four equity traps, or ways of thinking that prevent high expectations for students of color. Equity traps are found at the individual and collective level, and are reinforced among educators through interpersonal communication and individual beliefs and assumptions. The traps include a deficit view of students of color, attributing a lack of success to student deficits such as cultural inadequacy, lack of motivation, or poor behavior; racial erasure, such as refusing to see color and prioritizing other factors such as economics as the cause of poor achievement; avoidance and employment of the gaze, or surveillance for the purpose of controlling behavior, where teachers might leave schools with higher expectations to avoid being scrutinized in their teaching of students; and paralogical beliefs and behaviors where conclusions are drawn that are not supported by the evidence available, such as seeing one’s own negative teaching behaviors as the fault of the students’ behavior (McKenzie & Scheurich, 2004).
These equity traps are prevalent in thinking and speaking about students of color in the education system. Kozol’s (1991) seminal work, Savage Inequalities, was instrumental in bringing awareness of the persistent problems that students of color face in their schools and communities. However, it has been criticized for perpetuating a deficit viewpoint of these schools and communities. Farmer-Hinton et al. (2013) “reauthor” Kozol’s work, focusing on a strengths-based perspective of their East St. Louis community through a poignant discussion of the sources of familial, aspirational, resistant, navigational, and social capital available to them while growing up. Reframing thinking about students, their families, and the communities in which schools are located is a useful step in overcoming deficit thinking (McKenzie & Scheurich, 2004).
Toward a Socially Just and Equitable Education System
Social justice should not be considered separate from the goal of student achievement (Kapustka et al., 2009; Wasonga, 2009). Social justice leadership explicitly works to reduce marginalization in schools. Teaching for social justice effectively reduces achievement gaps due to race and class, because teachers and school administrators take responsibility for student learning and hold high expectations for students (Kapustka et al., 2009; Nieto, 2004; Okun, 2015). In addition, teachers connect with families and communities to build a strengths-based connection from students’ academic lives to their home lives and experiences. Teachers assist students to develop social and political consciousness, hold a sense of agency, and develop their own positive cultural and social identities (Dover, 2009; Freire, 2005).
Schools exist in a complex social context made up of external policy, government, and community influences. In order to implement sustainable change, leaders must look at the whole system in which schools are situated. Banks and Banks (1995) suggest that we focus on teaching strategies and practices that help diverse students gain the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to effectively create, participate in, and sustain a just and democratic society.
Implications for Leading Change
Adair (2015) proposes five recommendations to address discrimination in schools. First, teachers should “pursue reciprocal, equalizing relationships with parents and communities” (p. 2) in order to support student success in the classroom and minimize intimidation on the part of families. Second, schools should look into ways to incorporate diversity of cultural and ethnic backgrounds into classrooms, building on children’s “funds of knowledge” (González et al., 2005). Next, teachers should use a pedagogical approach to curriculum that allows for diverse perspectives and approaches to learning, and encourages critical thinking. Fourth, schools and teacher preparation programs should prepare teachers to work effectively with immigrant populations, and children of color, through emphases on diversity and English as a Second Language instruction. Finally, policy makers should invest in schools and programs that are effective in providing marginalized populations with high-quality and rigorous academic experiences.
Nieto (2004) proposes that teachers avoid a colorblind approach by “acknowledging the differences that children bring to school, …admit[ting] the possibility that students’ identities may influence how they experience school and how they learn, …and making provisions for them” (p. 146) in the classroom that incorporate their strengths and lives. Teachers must hold high expectations for the achievement of all students and explicitly teach the skills and discourse needed to succeed, setting aside conversations that racially stratify academic success (Lipman, 1995; Pollock, 2001; Riley et al., 2015). Teachers should also be flexible in their approaches to teaching in order to respond to the diverse needs of students and find ways to effectively help students bridge academic success and cultural identity (Carter, 2006; Delpit, 1995; Lipman, 1995). Teachers must also examine their own implicit biases and assumptions, along with constructions of whiteness and privilege, in order to avoid perpetuating oppression (McIntyre, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 1995).
School administrators can assist teachers and themselves overcome paralogical beliefs and behaviors through having teachers visit classrooms where other teachers are being successful, use instructional coaches to demonstrate successful teaching strategies, and developing advocates for equity among the teaching staff (McKenzie & Scheurich, 2004). Teaching should be made transparent so that individuals don’t hide themselves away in low-performing schools to “avoid the gaze” (McKenzie & Scheurich, 2004). Schools may wish to use equity audits to examine the ways in which inequities are propagated. Audits are done by examining how white and non-white students are placed in courses, and with which teachers (Carter et al., 2014; McKenzie & Scheurich, 2004; Riley et al., 2015). Administrators should adopt social justice leadership practices to promote equity in their schools and districts. They can also support teachers in examining biases through questioning and exploring race-based assumptions and discourse within the school setting (Pollock, 2001).
The above recommendations can support change in practice within classrooms and schools, and lead to societal and structural change that benefits people of color. With consistent and conscious implementation of such practices, reflection on praxis, and flexibility in responding to the diverse needs of diverse groups, we can begin to see a shift in educational outcomes for students of color. Over time, we may be able to move away from collapsed discourse of race and achievement, looking at data on academic achievement in new ways.
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