Black Students (and Issues of Race and Perception) Matter

Perception_matters My nephew, a young black male who takes AP classes and is applying to college, has always had a hopeful and trusting attitude. But as he witnesses the senseless police killings of black males and the resulting non-indictments, his perspective has started to shift. He’s now more aware that to not be a statistic, he has to be twice as good, twice as smart, and 20 times more conscious of his actions. He knows that how black men and boys are perceived is integral to their survival. And, he knows that how black men are perceived doesn’t just matter in society at large — it also matters inside schools, where perceptions can limit opportunities and success.

In schools, bias against young black men shows itself in disproportionate discipline, but also seeps into classrooms in other pertinent ways. A new report by the Perception Institute attempts to explain how implicit bias, racial anxiety, and stereotype threat play out in schools and classrooms and offers insight into some of my nephew’s reactions. I share some takeaways from the research that if applied can help mitigate the weighty impact of recent events on young black males.

What this means for educators:

  • It means acknowledging that perceptions about race are a part of education. As a microcosm of society, schools harbor the very same perceptions, biases, racial anxiety, and stereotypes about black people that exist in society. Making these notions explicit is an important first step.


  • It means imagining in detail counter-stereotypic notions of black people to make positive exemplars salient and accessible. In classrooms, teachers can unknowingly express low expectations for black students because of their own exposure to negative stereotypes about these students’ academic capabilities (Tenenbaum and Ruck, 2007). Promoting the stories of high-achieving black students, as documented in this study of 415 young men in New York, can create different images. Rather than stoking deficits and recording student failures as is often the case, talking about how young men of color can and do succeed in urban education contexts is a concrete second step.


  • It means valuing the unique perspective of black students that involves “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Stereotype threat, the fear of confirming a stereotype that one’s group is less able than other groups to perform a valued activity (e.g., math or verbal tests), has been identified as pervasive in academic environments (Walton et. al., 2013). It can affect students as early as middle school and negatively impacts school performance. Because of recent events, the duality of experience of many black students could become more salient. My nephew, like so many other black students, feels a resurgence of pressure to counter the perception of being another “black statistic,” despite personal identification as intelligent, socially responsible, and high-achieving. The negotiation of these two selves is difficult and different for each black student who navigates it. Asking students directly about their experience and respecting it as distinctive to an individual is another concrete strategy.


  • It means recognizing that biases affect educators in complex ways. New research has found that teachers, too, can be affected by stereotype threat. Teachers who feared confirming a stereotype that they are racist provided black students with less critical feedback and more praise. This false praise leaves black students uninformed about the objective quality of their work and deprived of the necessary tools to learn and improve. Another concrete step to mitigate these negative effects is to train teachers on how to provide comments and criticism. For example, researchers suggest using statements like “I am giving you feedback because I have high standards, and I know you can meet them,” making clear the feedback’s purpose, while also promoting high expectations.

Our society is continuing to struggle with racial issues and equity as current events document, but educators and schools have the opportunity to tackle these issues head on and be a mechanism for change. The steps and actions noted above are a few examples, but the researchers at the Perception Institute have identified additional interventions that have proven to help eliminate racial biases as an obstacle to educational success. Educators can lead the way in creating positive cultural messages and diminish stereotypes by positively shaping the school context and messaging about black students. But the question remains: Will educators and other stakeholders embrace the opportunity to create conditions and ideals that promote racial equality, or will they perpetuate bias instead?




‘It Stops Today': Racial Profiling in the Classroom

RacialProfilingInTheClassroom The day-to-day realities of the impact of racial profiling come alive in the stories under the #AliveWhileBlack hashtag. But it’s not just tales of interacting with law enforcement or being followed around a store while shopping. Many of the incidents actually take place in schools, troubling encounters with educators in positions of influence and authority.

Reading through the tweets, you’ll find stories ranging from the more subtle (teachers never calling on black students or asking the only student of color in a class to give the “black perspective”) to the egregious — trying to forge a parent’s signature to place a student in special education classes, telling students that their work is too good so they must have cheated, telling students their college choices are too prestigious, etc. Those educators may have had good intentions, not wanting to overwhelm students, and their white students may have learned a lot in their classes. But their implicit bias caused them to set a lower bar for their black students, and by doing so hindered their growth. Researchers call this the Pygmalion (or Rosenthal) effect: The greater the expectations placed upon someone, the better they perform.

At The Education Trust, we have the honor of learning from educators who harness the power of high expectations to great effect. We study and share common themes that emerge from schools that are producing excellent outcomes for all their students, including students of color and students from families in poverty. One critical attribute of these schools is that their leaders foster a culture of high expectations for all students. One such school, Lockhart Junior High, even states it in its motto, plastered at the school entrance: “100 Percent Success, Every Child, Every Time.” Lockhart, and other schools like it, acknowledges the challenges its students face, but still expects them to achieve at high levels and gives them the support to get there.

These schools also show us that high expectations need to be coupled with high support for teachers. Clearly, both strong school leadership and fair and equitable funding are important to ensure that teachers across different communities can provide their students with the resources to support them in meeting high standards. Recognizing that, districts can create space for teachers to learn from and support one another, and they can encourage the strongest school leaders to go to the schools with the most room for growth.

Still, the influence of individual teachers and the expectations they communicate to their students cannot be understated. On a systemic level, to the extent that our country allows novice or unprepared teachers to disproportionately teach low-income students and students of color, we’re reinforcing low expectations for those students. States can urge institutions of higher education to prepare new teachers with skills to address the needs of all students. More broadly, teachers whose students do not show adequate academic growth during the year need to know that their students, and they, can and must do better.

Many individuals, schools, and districts are already working on creating cultures of high expectations for teachers and students, and they deserve high praise and support. But, as with protests, action by one person or in one community is not as powerful as synchronized efforts. As our country does the important work of airing, and hopefully addressing, painful truths about racial disparities in policing and judicial systems, we need to acknowledge that there’s more to be done. Anyone concerned with racial injustice must also work to effectuate education policies at all levels that support high expectations. Together, we can ensure that all students, regardless of their race or socioeconomic background, have access to schools and teachers who push them to achieve at their highest levels.



Education and Racial Justice: The Need for a Protest Within

Protest_within_school_lockers My whole life’s work has been bound up in the fight for racial justice. So my heart aches every time I confront evidence of how far we still have to travel until we leave behind for good the ugliness that rips our country apart.

I see that evidence virtually every day in the work I do at The Education Trust. In the voluminous data showing continuing disparities in everything from school funding to access to quality teachers to opportunities to enroll in advanced coursework. In the shameful words and practices of Americans — even educators — who should know better. In the disappointed eyes of the young black and brown men and women who want to serve their country but can’t because they can’t pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. Continue reading

Wasting Time

The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus as a mole, wearing a dinner-table-napkin toga and carrying a paper scroll. Whenever I hear educators promote the idea of “project-based learning” I get shivers from the memory of all the “projects” my kids did when they were going through school. Some were small wastes of time; others were colossal wastes of time.

I keep one such project in my office as a reminder of how foolish some assignments can be. It is a paper mole dressed as Democritus, an early Greek philosopher who formulated a theory that matter was made up of atoms. This project was assigned to my younger daughter as a high school sophomore in — and I can barely type these words with a straight face — Honors Chemistry. Continue reading

Why I Teach Where I Teach: I Feel Empowered

WhyITeachWhereITeach_1-05This post is a part of an ongoing series, called “Why I Teach Where I Teach,” which asks educators in high-need schools to share what has attracted (and kept) them in the challenging environments they’re in. They share important stories and experiences that should remind us all of the power of strong school leadership, a network of supportive colleagues, and the genuine opportunity to have a say in schoolwide decisions. Listen up! They’re teaching us.

Justin Stoeckel, a second-grade teacher at East Millsboro Elementary School in Delaware, which is 68 percent low-income, writes the fourth entry in this series. He began his teaching career when he joined East Millsboro Elementary six years ago.

Justin StoeckelI teach where I do because we are truly a team. There is an air of encouragement that is felt by everyone, from the staffers in the front office to the teachers in every classroom. Students (and teachers) feel comfortable asking questions or asking for help. We take a collective approach through weekly Professional Learning Communities, where we work with our grade-level colleagues to review assessment data and plan and align our curriculum accordingly. We also have “vertical alignment meetings” throughout the year to promote consistency in teaching and learning from grade to grade, and monthly peer learning walks allow us to visit and learn from our colleagues in action. These strategies help to ensure we meet all students’ and teachers’ needs. We are constantly finding, using, sharing, and reflecting on effective strategies that will meet an individual learning or behavior style. As a new teacher, I was helped and guided by not just my grade-level colleagues, but by all the faculty. My administrators encouraged me to find my teaching voice and empower me to use it every day. This encouragement is also passed on to students, as we push them to find and use their own voices too. Students share this same assurance with each other, creating a school environment that is a positive place for learning for everyone inside.

More resources from Ed Trust
In partnership with StoryCorps, we have put together a series of audio clips featuring teachers and administrators in three of our Dispelling the Myth schools. Here, a George Hall Elementary teacher echoes some of Justin’s same thoughts about collaboration. (See more interviews with teachers on our YouTube page.)

The Problem With Merit Aid



There is a misnomer in a term commonly used in higher education: merit aid. The use of “merit” implies excellence or worthy of praise, but unfortunately, in this context, merit is often synonymous with privilege.

Unlike federal and need-based financial aid, which take into account students’ financial circumstances, merit aid is awarded based on accolades — namely rigorous coursework and extracurricular activities. Academically, many low-income students can compete with their middle- to high-income peers (20 percent of students scoring at or above the 90th percentile on the ACT — a score of 28 or above — come from low-income and working-class families), but they are less likely to have access to the extracurricular opportunities that make a student an attractive candidate for merit aid. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re undeserving — nor does it mean they can’t demonstrate merit in other ways.

While high-income students generally have better access to more rigorous coursework and more qualified and experienced teachers, their advantages aren’t just limited to what happens in the classroom. When the final school bell rings, low-income students may need to work or manage family obligations, while their more privileged peers can participate in various activities like student government, athletics, marching band, or academic clubs.

Thus, when a low-income student applies for merit aid, his fast-food job might be viewed as less-deserving of a scholarship, even though flipping burgers may have been necessary to put gas in a family vehicle or keep food in the pantry — reflecting such merits as dedication and work ethic. Similarly, a low-income student may forgo extracurricular activities to care for younger siblings, exemplifying commitment, self-sacrifice, and service to others — merits that are undervalued or unnoticed on a scholarship application.

Essentially, the current definition of merit is limited in its scope and unfairly disadvantages low-income students, ignoring the hard work and grit of the underserved. As college leaders examine ways to make college admissions processes more “access aware” or “need aware,” they must reconsider how to define merit and how to award merit aid. Merit means much more than a list of extracurricular activities — and aid that is intended to recognize merit should exemplify that.

This post is written by Chelsey Jones, a higher education intern at Ed Trust.



Bringing Order Out of Chaos

One of the things that sometimes gets lost in all the talk about education is how complex schools are. Many of them are the size of small towns — complete with capital projects, transportation systems, food services, and recreation programs.

Even experienced school leaders can find themselves distracted from paying attention to the main point of school — to prepare the next generation to be educated citizens.

That is why it is important to study successful high-poverty schools for the lessons they have to share. How do they avoid the chaos that almost seems inevitable given all the factors pulling schools in different directions?

The thing I have observed about successful high-poverty schools is that they make all the systems work together rather than at cross-purposes, and in Huffington Post this week, I talk about a session at our national conference where three school leaders talked about coherence.

Why I Teach Where I Teach: A School Community Centered on High Expectations — For Everyone

WhyITeachWhereITeach_1-05This post is a part of an ongoing series, called “Why I Teach Where I Teach,” which asks educators in high-need schools to share what has attracted (and kept) them in the challenging environments they’re in. They share important stories and experiences that should remind us all of the power of strong school leadership, a network of supportive colleagues, and the genuine opportunity to have a say in schoolwide decisions. Listen up! They’re teaching us.

Crystal Byrd is a special education teacher at Calcedeaver Elementary School in Mount Vernon, Ala., where most students are “MOWA Choctaw,” or descendants of American Indians. Crystal, who has taught for eight years — all at Calcedeaver — writes the third entry in this series.

Crystal Byrd

Calcedeaver Elementary School is a high-performing, Dispelling the Myth school. We call it the “best kept secret” in the Mobile County Public School System. However, it is no secret why I love teaching here. Being a part of a community that places a high importance on education, while remaining true to its rich American Indian heritage, has driven my passion to teach at Calcedeaver. This is not just a school; it is a second home to students and staff alike. The community embraces the school and encourages us through their strong faith. Community members make regalia for the Pow Wow at Culture Fest; local preachers attend and encourage the student-led “Meet You at the Pole” each year; grandparents help students in the lower grades through our Grandparents Program; the local MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians sends workers here to help support the daily operations of the school; and many of the local Choctaw residents are employed school leaders. The school culture — which sets high expectations of all employees and openly shares the vision to remain focused on achieving while nurturing the students — positively drives me to do more and to make a greater difference. I teach at Calcedeaver because this is where my heart is! The framework that makes Calcedeaver a great school is built on a passion to teach the whole child, and being a part of this framework is my way to make a positive difference in the lives of students in a community that I love. Continue reading