Perhaps because of being raised in Selma, Alabama in the 1970s and 80s, race and racism are topics that have been on my mind for as long as I can remember. Although Selma holds a historical place in the Civil Rights Movement, progress toward inclusion and nonviolent communication in Selma seems to lag far behind towns of similar size in other parts of the country.
As a self-absorbed, privileged, white teen, I didn’t fully understand the major racial divide that ripped through Selma’s public high school in the ’89-’90 academic year. Although it was happening to my school during my junior year, I didn’t really try to understand. Now as an educator, educational researcher, and adult, I see what happened as a pivotal civil rights event that forever changed public education in our town.
The school superintendent at the time launched an aggressive fight against “tracking” practices in the public school system. He saw that racial inequities in instructional grouping practices resulted in poor outcomes for African American students. In those days, the youngest learners were “tracked” in Kindergarten and first grade into groups based on their performance: low, middle, and high, especially for reading. Presumably, the groupings allowed teachers to move forward with students who had already mastered the content, while allowing more time for students who were behind. But the students in the lower groups didn’t receive the same core instruction with supplemental instruction or intervention to improve; they received slower-paced instruction as a replacement for the core instruction.
The superintendent understood that this tracking into the low group without access to the higher, core instruction, was an educational death sentence. Those students never moved out of the low group. How could they? Instead, they sank further and further behind as the clock ticked loudly and days, months, and years accumulated. Although there were small performance differences among students in these groups in early grades, tracking led to a dismal trajectory of growth for those students in the low group, leaving most unable to read in high school. And who was tracked into the low group? The African American students.
In grade nine, the “high” group became Level I, the “middle” group Level II, and “low” group Level III. Selma High School had slowly built an impressive reputation for sending students in Level I courses to Ivy League and top-ranked universities at a rate that surpassed Selma’s all-white private schools. Because of this success, some of the more affluent white families, who had formerly supported these independent schools at the time of desegregation, began enrolling their children in the public high school in the 1980s.
To look at these overall outcomes, one would think the public schools were doing well and that Selma High School was a bright and rising star in an economically-depressed rural area. But access to a college preparatory curriculum was not available to all of Selma High’s students. Worse, this access was divided sharply along racial lines. Level I courses were almost completely white. I wish could find the data to know the percentages of students in Level II courses relative to proportion for the school. But Level III classes included only African American students. I remember walking down the halls, and by the racial makeup of each class knowing exactly what level course it was. By high school, the Level III students performed many grades behind on critical literacy, problem solving, and mathematics skills. They had a poor chance at career readiness, no chance at college readiness, and a far lower likelihood of high school graduation. The system was failing most African American students.
The battle over tracking became heated, and the board, comprising six white and five African American members, voted 6-5 not to renew the superintendent’s 3-year contract. There were boycotts of the school, the National Guard became involved, and most of the white parents in the school withdrew their children and enrolled them in Selma’s private schools. Sadly, a nearly complete segregation at the high school level persists in Selma today.
Although this experience remained important to me, it was not something I systematically brought into my courses, presentations, and books. As a teacher educator and researcher in special education, I certainly cared about issues of equity and ensuring that all students succeed. What I was missing, however, was an explicit and purposeful embedding of issues of racial inequity into my work.
At a Corwin conference this winter, I had the privilege of hearing a talk given by Glenn Singleton, author of Courageous Conversations about Race. Glenn has this amazing ability to kindly and gently apply serious pressure and discomfort to an audience’s thoughts about race. I watched as people shifted uncomfortably in their chairs and awkwardly engaged in the conversations he prompted. Just as I was sitting back comfortably offering a “knowing nod,” he induced a moral imperative that caused me to shift uncomfortably in my chair. This moral imperative compelled me to change the keynote address I delivered the next week.
Glenn said, “To the extent you do not include conversations about racism in your work, you are perpetuating it.”
Woah! I’m perpetuating racism? Not me! That seems harsh! I’ve been thinking deeply about racism since I was a teen. I’m an advocate! I stand up for people who are marginalized, correct people who use unkind or discriminatory language, and engage in tough conversations. But Glenn was telling me I needed to include these tough conversations in my presentations and my books, or I was perpetuating racism.
Flying to my next presentation, I realized in my talks and workshops on planning intervention for students who are behind grade level, I must include conversation about race. I had thought about how racism and unconscious bias intersect with intervention in early childhood, but I had never included it in a formal presentation. In this realization, I learned something about myself: I felt comfortable having small group conversations about race, but I was not comfortable that I had sufficient credibility in leading a conversation with hundreds of people on race, unconscious bias, and inequities in early childhood. After all, I’m white. My role is to listen to those who have experienced receiving racism, not to have an opinion about it, right? I used my feelings of being unqualified and fear of gripping my bare hands around the lightning rod as excuses for not publicly facilitating large conversations. In fact, sending this blog entry to Corwin has been difficult for me, knowing the size of the audience. But I do have well-developed thoughts on this topic, informed both by my experiences and the literature. This is only one tiny piece of the picture and through my lens, but I do have information to help audiences recognize inequities. I felt the pressure of my responsibility, then, to share.
Glenn’s words continued to echo in my mind as I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning in my hotel room to re-craft my session. I thought back to the events in my hometown in 1990 and realized Glenn was absolutely right: People have a lot of emotion and perhaps even great intentions, but not a lot of skill in having these conversations. Perhaps that is why the battle over tracking in Selma, although an essential one to have, failed in its outcome.
The next morning, as I spoke about intervention planning and progress monitoring in that session, I pressed hard on the issues of ensuring every student who was behind on a critical, gateway skill, must have access to high-quality, evidence-based interventions delivered by a team that cares and believes and expects that child to get there. We can’t only apply this process to students who have disabilities, but any student who is struggling with a skill. And we have to do this early. I shared the story of those students in Level III courses in 1989 who could not read. Those students weren’t less capable of learning—the system had failed to teach them.
Those students who both belong to a racial minority group and live in poverty experience multiplied risk—the risk of poverty and the risk of racism. Anyone can teach a group of students who is engaged, has ample resources, and low-stress families who are involved and never experience the receiving end of racism. You can’t stop those children from learning. A school hasn’t been successful because it got that group there. The measure of quality in education is if we can teach every group of students to criterion, including those who are vulnerable.—especially those who are vulnerable. This includes those students who have given up because systemic racism has told them they can’t achieve or access the same education and success as their white counterparts.
We need to rewrite the narrative for the student who has given up. Give that child a voice and a stage! Show that child the potential you see for leaderships and channel it in positive ways. That child will surprise you. Better, you could surprise that child and be the impetus for resilience desperately needed in a world that continues to tell that child, “You are less valuable because of your skin color.”
I’m sure I will do better in the conversations as I gain competence and confidence, but I had some success at that session. A principal from a residential school for detained youth offered comments about the session that were validating, but they also highlighted opportunities I’ve missed over the past 18 years of presenting. I heard from other participants who tell me what was happening in Selma in the 1990s is still happening today. When I ask if the lower groups are composed primarily of children from racial minority groups or children in poverty, I get the answer we all expect. I see it happen in my current city, where competitive, magnet programs are carefully placed in low-performing schools.
As we work to implement interventions for students who are struggling, we must understand multi-tiered systems of support/RTI as designed by the researchers. But we also must understand race and poverty, not only as interrelated variables, but also as separate variables that intersect with instruction in schools to create inequities. We must build a shared understanding that we don’t really have an achievement gap. We have an opportunity gap. Our work as educators presents pivotal moments in which we choose whether or not to see these inequities in opportunity. Moments in which we choose whether or not to act and compel change.
Sitting here in my beautiful university office enjoying a pretty nice life, I wonder where those 42-year-old former Level III students from Selma High School are today. How many are in poverty today? How many were denied the ability to learn skills needed to be employed? In 2016, Selma has a startling profile of violence. How many of those once-energetic kindergartners have become a part of that statistic because they were failed by the educational system? Then I think, “What could they have been if in Kindergarten they had access to the same core instruction as the white students?” How many who only needed someone to teach them to read would be professors, physicians, attorneys, politicians, or business owners? The answers to these questions should break our hearts. The answers should compel us to act and talk courageously, and with urgency.
Thank you to Glenn for helping me realize there is no neutral: you either engage in reducing inequities, or you perpetuate them.