Why Racial Inequity in Schools May be the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

One of the biggest challenges for teachers in meeting the needs of diverse learners is a curriculum model that is one size fits all.I am sitting crossed-legged on my sofa, watching my nieces (thanks to FaceTime) who live 2,000 miles away as they excitedly show me their newly decorated rooms. It occurs to me that my young nieces are growing up in a rapidly evolving world. They are also growing up in a time when the demographics of their friends and peers, fellow K-12 students enrolled in public schools, are rapidly evolving as well. The racial makeup of today’s classrooms looks much different than it did 10 years ago. Students of color now account for nearly 50% of the K-12 student population and census projections show that the trend will continue. As the landscape of education continues to change, as educators, we are called to critically examine our own perceptions around race and the ways it impacts student learning. Yet, talking about race is taboo. And well, awkward.

According to a recent article in Education Week, Grassroots Educolor Group Spotlights Racial Inequities, despite racial tension between law enforcement and the communities they serve, we have a tendency in education to dismiss race as an issue. After all, we are 60 years post Brown v. Board of education, and we have an African-American president. However, as the achievement gap remains steady and wide between students of color and their white counterparts, (Lee, 2014), one thing remains clear – the status quo isn’t working. At least not for all our students.

As part of an organization deeply dedicated to helping all students learn, I reflect on ways we dismiss race as an issue in schools and consider the resulting consequences. By ignoring issues of race and chalking up achievement differences to individual defects rather than systemic issues, are we not only maintaining the status quo, but promoting it? And how can we, as educators at NWEA work to better support students through assessments?

One of the biggest challenges for teachers in meeting the needs of diverse learners is a curriculum model that is one size fits all. Mix in high-stakes testing with punitive accountability and you have the perfect storm of continuing the cycle of an unlevel playing field when it comes to educating our students. One strategy for better serving students of color is to provide educators with appropriate resources to support students (Ferlazzo, 2015). Assessments like MAP help support teachers both by measuring student growth over time, and by providing a picture of current student performance, regardless of grade level, rather than perpetuating the emphasis on proficiency.

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commented in a 2014 landmark speech that education is, “The civil rights issue of our time.” Perhaps the civil rights issue of today is the intersection of our belief that race is no longer an issue, the resulting inequities in education, and our unwillingness to talk about it. The optimistic news is that this is also our opportunity to do better. For all our students.

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Ferlazzo, Larry. “Response: teachers don’t leave high-poverty urban districts; they are exiled.” Education Week.com. Last modified May 9, 2015.

Lee, Trymaine. “Education racial gap wide as ever according to NAEP.” MSNBC.com. Last modified May 7, 2014.

Sawchuk, Stephen. “Grassroots ‘EduColor’ group Spotlights racial inequities.” Last modified May 13, 2015.