Educators have a moral and professional responsibility to teach and lead on issues of race and racism in schools – this is what children need, what most parents want and what research demands convincing.
But the evidence base on what works — and what doesn’t — in effectively teaching about race and racism is not well known or cited with confidence, even by many education leaders. This leaves a void that cynical politicians are filling with odious new laws that overburden teachers and basically legislate education malpractice.
We realized that research wasn’t really accessible to most education leaders when we held cross-party roundtables last year at the Aspen Institute to explore what was behind new policies that restrict race education. To fill this gap, we synthesized the leading scholarship on addressing race and racism in education. Now, we call on educators to leverage research to shift public discourse away from politics and divisiveness toward one centered on evidence, outcomes, and the broad consensus on teaching about race that most Americans argue.
The situation is dire: Policymakers have proposed legislation limiting how race and racism can be taught in schools in 42 states, and legislation has already been enacted or similar means of restriction put in place in 15 states. Under a new Tennessee law, activists are seeking to delete iconic stories from the curriculum’s civil rights movement, including a children’s story by Ruby Bridges about her own experience integrating public schools in New Orleans.
In a concrete example of the absurdity created by these laws, a school leader in Texas advised teachers they must present an “opposing perspective” on the Holocaust. Many of these misguided laws purport to prohibit teachers from triggering certain emotional responses in students, forcing them to avoid explicit treatment of racism in their classrooms at a time when young people are yearning to know more about what is going on around them. of them.
Children know that racism exists in America and want to learn how to improve it. A Sesame Workshop study found that 86% of children aged 6 to 11 surveyed report that people in the United States are treated unfairly on the basis of race; nearly half of children say racism is a priority for them. It’s not just young people who want schools to teach about race and racism: According to a recent survey commissioned by the Policy Innovators in Education Network, even though 86 percent of parents want students to learn to love America, 86 % also want students to learn about “the terrible things that have happened in our nation’s history regarding race so that students can learn from them and improve the future.”
Parents say they are more concerned about the politicization of curriculum decisions than their children contracting COVID-19 or being bullied at school.
Moreover, the parents really don’t want politicians to usurp these educational decisions: In a recent survey commissioned by Learning Heroes, parents say their main concern about this school year is “that politicians who are not educators are making decisions about what students learn in the classroom. Strikingly, parents report being more concerned about the politicization of curriculum decisions than about their children contracting COVID-19 or being bullied at school.
Research suggests three attributes of effective practice when teaching about race and racism. First, teaching on these subjects must be academically rigorous. It does students no good to have lessons watered down, especially on such serious and important matters as race. Second, instruction on race and racism should reflect cultural competencemeaning that students’ backgrounds and contexts must be taken into account to create connections between their lived experience and what they learn in school. Finally, good teaching about race and racism fosters students’ ability to ask themselves why things are the way they are and if/how they should be otherwise, which is sometimes called critical thinking or critical awareness.
We know from research that ignoring racism in schools increase prejudice, while explicit teaching about race and racism reduces prejudice and improves student learning. In rigorous studies of ethnic studies courses in Tucson, Arizona.and San Francisco, student attendance improved, grades increased, and high school graduation increased among students who took these courses. These are results appreciated by both conservatives and liberals; policy makers should empower teachers to do this job well. Expanding the offering of ethnic studies is one proven strategy, and enriching the teaching of history and social studies is another. Issues of race and racism can be integrated into curriculum subjects.
Even under legislation to censor educators and limit effective practices, there are still many things that education officials box to better reflect research and support high-quality teaching about race and racism. Educators should select teaching materials that promote serious and nuanced classroom discussions about race and racism with more diverse heroes and authors, more primary source material, and discussion prompts that facilitate in-depth inquiry and debate. rich. District and school leaders should provide teachers with more consistent training, time to practice, and coaching on how to sponsor serious, race-sensitive conversations.
And while we’re working on those medium- and long-term strategies, educators should limit short-term solutions that don’t actually solve the problems. For example, short, intensive bias training does not reduce bias., but is easy to implement and all too common in schools and central offices. Research on the use of ‘white privilege’ interventions suggests they can undermine empathy for white people living in poverty without significantly reducing racial prejudice. Good intentions are not enough when it comes to addressing race and racism in schools; we also need good practices.
Education officials have been put on the defensive by a well-orchestrated political campaign to smear and undermine the treatment of race and racism in schools. So far, public discourse has been short on evidence and long on ideology from both ends of the political spectrum, which is ground that educators are wise to avoid. However, educators can assert their leadership by speaking clearly and courageously about the strong research base on which they are built, explaining the harm caused when politics supersedes good practice, and uniting to reduce bias and expand justice through education.