“Nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Poet and activist James Baldwin couldn’t have cast the plight of Black children in America’s schools in a more creative way.
A recent study found that due to learning loss associated with COVID-19, Black students are projected to earn nearly $90,000 less over the course of their lifetimes. Compared to a $54,000 loss by White students.
Plainly stated, the education system in America did not work for Black children even prior to COVID-19 and now they are faring even worse as a result of the pandemic. Already rife with racist policies and practices and a lack of access to culturally responsive teaching, our inequitable system has now been completely overwhelmed.
The harsh reality is that Black children are more likely to attend a school that is both underfunded and underachieving. We continue to push against the persistent, prevailing and problematic notion that the fight for equality has been won and that we are living in a post-racial, color blind society. Our persistently unequal system has widened gaps along lines of race, affecting opportunity, achievement and social mobility.
It is no secret the impact of COVID-19 has been much more harsh on vulnerable populations—this includes Black students. Given this reality, hastening back to the “norm” is nothing more than a pass interference—effectively restricting opportunity to catch the pass by the defense in the game of football. Such penalties decrease the ability to reach the goal. If we truly desire to improve outcomes for all students—including Black students, we must leverage this opportunity to get Black kids to goal rather than return to normal
If so, Baldwin’s assertion is imperative—nothing can be changed unless it’s faced. And this is the reality we must face.
This moment presents a unique window of opportunity. Overwhelmingly, education policies have not worked for Black children. A prime example is “zero-tolerance” policies that effectively push students out of rather than supporting them to stay in school. These policies and others must change.
American author Isabel Wilkerson describes a caste system as “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups.” This description forces us to question whether our current approach to school funding—property taxes and average daily attendance—maintains a caste system. Have we put Black, rural and other underserved children at a disadvantage and in a lower “caste” through school funding policy?
Our current funding formula requires students to have the resources to win the game and take the hits—to have shoulder pads and helmets, but those resources require funds, which are scarce in many school districts.
It’s long past time that we re-shape how we fund schools. Forget the common refrain that our schools are funded well and we simply need to decrease administrative costs. Any analysis that omits the experience of Black and other underserved students—who are most likely to learn from underpaid, under-experienced and under-skilled teachers in severely fractured buildings and who have few opportunities for recreation—is devoid of truth.
The importance of anti-racist teachers to Black student success
Seventy percent of the educator workforce is White. While it is impossible for White people to fully understand the experience of Black people, we must ensure that White and Black educators alike do not intentionally or unintentionally submit Black children to racist teaching—which includes the devaluing of Black colloquial language, only putting resources that are Eurocentric in front of students for learning and treating Black cultural norms as misbehavior.
Now more than ever, with the racial unrest in this country, we must engage in conversations about race in schools and classrooms, and ensure teachers are prepared to lead conversations about race in their classrooms. Teachers should be required to participate in training on racial bias and what it means to be an anti-racist teacher. Black children need and deserve teachers who create space for them to process and who are willing to name the racial inequities that exist. Anti-racist teaching acknowledges that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in every element of life—including schools and classrooms.
Accountability results should measure and support, not penalize and shame
The largest share of “F” rated or low-performing schools are attended by the majority of Black students. Since 1954, many reforms have been instituted in the name of leveling the playing field for Black children. However, none have successfully achieved their stated goal. Despite well-intentioned efforts such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), the learning gap has gotten wider in many respects and the rate of progress for Black children has fallen significantly below that of their peers. The 2019 NAEP reading results showed Black 8th graders backsliding, receiving lower scores than in 2009 and 2017.
Black children do not need an additional reminder that they attend an underperforming school. As we grapple with the impact of COVID-19, student results on standardized assessments should not be utilized to reward or punish schools, teachers or students. To be clear, we need assessments and assessment results—without them we do not know who is learning. For now, we should not use them to make decisions about the quality of schools, teachers and leaders, but to make decisions about resource allocation and support.
We must ask ourselves, are we setting Black kids up to score or to win the game? Because “nothing can be changed until we face it.”
Dr. Phelton “Cortez” Moss is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Education at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. He also coordinates the Master of Arts Teaching Program. He is a former teacher, principal and Mississippi Department of Education leader. @PheltonMoss