Courageous Conversations in the Classroom Part III: Discussing Racial Inequity in the Elementary and Secondary Classroom

By Ishani Das, CEI Intern

What is the child’s right to learn? This is the central question that Glenn Singleton, creator of the Courageous Conversations protocol, poses to readers in his book, Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools (2015). The answer is seemingly obvious: every child has a right to learn. Nevertheless, as Singleton demonstrates, the racial achievement gap in American public schools reveals a different picture. Studies conducted by Ruth Johnson (2002), the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University (2015), and several others have established that there is a significant achievement gap between Black, Brown, and Indigenous students in comparison to White students. Despite the best intentions, the data suggests that the child’s right to learn is, in part, determined by their race (Singleton, 2015).

As Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor put it, “Race matters” (Singleton, 2015). Even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors, racial achievement gaps still persist. For example, a study found that White students outperform not only poor Black students, but also Black students from upper- and middle-income brackets. This evidence suggests that in order for the racial achievement gap to be bridged, it is vital that educators address racism in schools, both systemic and interpersonal. More and more schools are accepting the challenge of developing this moral stance into a deep, personal conviction to dismantle systemic and interpersonal racism. In an attempt to make the task a little easier, Glenn Singleton created a course and a set of tools to help facilitate courageous conversations about race. The set of tools includes Four Agreements, Six Conditions, and a Compass, which you can read more about in Part I of this series.

Facilitating Courageous Conversations About Race in Elementary School

Since their conception, Singleton’s course and tools to successfully facilitate courageous conversations about race have been widely used in the United States (Singleton, 2015). Moreover, the program has been incredibly successful in bridging the racial achievement gap. For example, upon noticing wide racial academic achievement gaps, Del Roble Elementary School in San Jose, California, a school whose student body has large representation from Black, Latino, White, and Asian populations, decided to implement the Courageous Conversations About Race Protocol. The school focused on how the students’ teaching and learning experiences at the school differed because of their race. As a result of undertaking this endeavor, the school’s Academic Performance Index improved by 43 points compared to the year before. Particularly, the school found a 59-point improvement for Latino students, with improvement at 51 points for Asian students, and 23 points for White students (Singleton, 2015).

Broward County Public Schools, located in Florida, enrolled 300 of its educators in the course on Courageous Conversations About Race in 2018 (Gonzalez, 2019). According to teachers and educators, the course helped them to realize why addressing the issue of race was an important step towards equity as well as the importance of acknowledging and honoring differences.

Facilitating Courageous Conversations About Race in Secondary School

In an attempt to deepen their understanding of the importance of racial identity in education and to narrow their racial achievement gap in their secondary schools, Newton Public Schools in Massachusetts began using the Courageous Conversations About Race course and tools in 2018 (Newton Public Schools, 2018). The school district tackled the racial equity issues it was facing from three different angles:

  • It organized conferences for all families in the school district to begin a dialogue around race and culture. The participants of these conferences attended Courageous Conversations About Race workshops to give them the tools to talk about their racial identity.
  • The school district also offered the same training and safe spaces to students to discuss the significance of their racial identities in the context of high school. Among students, the school has specifically shifted its focus from an anti-bullying to anti-bias education.
  • Teachers also received Courageous Conversations training separately so that everyone in the district gained this valuable knowledge.

After the rise of racial incidents following the 2016 Presidential elections, San Rafael High School organized a two-day seminar for its teachers, students, parents, and administrators to dialogue about the impact of racism in academic achievement disparities utilizing the Courageous Conversations Protocol (Navarro, 2018). The students recognized that the student body often self-segregated into racial groups, and all participants were asked to reflect on the impact race had on their lives.

Lessons and Suggestions for Facilitating Conversations about Race

Building on Singleton’s framework, Katherine Cumings Mansfield at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and Gaëtane Jean-Marie at Rowan University in New Jersey analyzed two empirical studies to explore the leadership practices that disrupt educational inequities (2015). Some of their findings for leaders who do this well include:

  1. Collecting and using school data to understand the conditions of student learning.
  2. Designating school leaders who can be aware of and bring attention to the broad socio-cultural realities of the school.
  3. Accepting students’ intersectional identities readily.
  4. Assessing the impact of new policies and practices on the student body, specifically marginalized students.

Given the current political climate, and rapidly changing demographic of the American population, the significance of addressing the impact of racial identity on a student’s experience cannot be undermined. Albeit difficult and uncomfortable, the undeniable success of the Courageous Conversations About Race program proves the rewarding nature of the process through collaboration of students, parents, and educators. Moving forward, schools can use data to drive investment in more resources like Courageous Conversations About Race in order to help all students succeed and achieve.

References

Gonzalez J. (Host) (2019, April 26). Episode 120: How one district learned to talk about race. .

Johnson, S. (2002). Using data to close the achievement gap: How to measure equity in our schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Mansfield, C., & Jean-Marie, G. (2015). Courageous conversations about race, class, and gender: Voices and lessons from the field. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 28(7), 819-841.

Navarro. (2018, September 25). How racial incidents after the 2016 election brought  “Courageous Conversations” to SRHS.

Newton Public Schools. (2018). Race and achievement district initiatives at Newton public schools.

Singleton, E. (2015). Courageous conversations about race: A field guide for achieving equity in schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

The Education Opportunity Monitoring Project (2015, Feb.). Racial and ethnic achievement gaps.

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