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Debating Race in School

How race affects tracking, placement, and more in public schools.
By Wayne D'Orio

Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, race remains a huge factor in education, affecting tracking, who gets suspended, and where the best teachers teach, said Geoffrey Canada during a panel discussion at a recent Broad Foundation awards event in New York City.

Canada, the president of Harlem Children’s Zone, drew on his career in teaching, and his own childhood, to articulate the many ways race continues to influence education. He spoke on the panel Race in America’s Public Schools with former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Russlynn Ali, a former assistant secretary for civil rights for the U.S. Department of Education.

Canada spoke most passionately about how schools continue to track students, even if that word never gets uttered. “The data is very clear—the darker you are, the poorer you are, the less of a chance that people are going to believe that you are going to be successful,” he told a crowd of more than 100.

“Adults assume they can tell whether a 7-year-old is ever going to amount to anything,” he said, referring to experiences during his childhood. While he was tracked in a high-performing class, he said, his brother wasn’t. “My mother freaked out. She went to the school, used some bad words, and got him in a better class.” His brother recently retired as an engineer for a nuclear power plant.

Today’s system is less overt, Canada said. Many students of color don’t take high-level courses in middle school, and are thus unable to qualify for or keep up with advanced placement courses in high school. “If you start worrying about AP in high school, it’s too late,” he warned. At Harlem Children’s Zone, he fixed this by upping the rigor of classes offered to seventh and eighth graders.

The panel turned to a discussion on discipline discrepancies, and Ali explained how data proves that black and brown students are disciplined much more severely, even as early as in kindergarten. “This problem has been pervasive for a long time,” she said. Black girls are disciplined more harshly than boys of every race except boys of color, said Ali, now the managing director of the education fund for the Emerson Collective, an organization concerned with social entrepreneurism.

Canada agreed, saying, “We’ve allowed a set of behaviors to become criminal. Kids are tossed out in the blink of an eye. They don’t learn how to manage their behavior.”

Villaraigosa addressed the thorny issue of tenure, arguing strenuously against it, while maintaining that he’s not anti-union, “What if I ran [for office] and said, ‘Vote for me, I’ve been here the longest,’” he said, to laughter. “We can’t have every decision made on how long you’ve been there.” He said that teachers instead should be paid based on their performance.

Canada agreed, noting that without merit pay, good teachers are often tempted to flock to better schools. This leaves students in inner-city schools with the newest or weakest teachers, he added. “You can’t teach AP classes if you yourself barely know geometry.”

In one area, however, Canada said race is not a factor. “Great teaching has no color,” he proclaimed. He argued for teachers who have both passion and knowledge. “People give up on these kids too quickly. Loving your students isn’t a prerequisite for great teaching, but it certainly helps.”

Image: Linda Rosier/New York Daily News via Getty Images

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