The Real Reason Black Kids Benefit From Black Teachers

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CreditK. L. Ricks

For black students, having even one black teacher can make a huge difference. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which found that that black boys who had a black teacher during their elementary school years were less likely to drop out of high school. It also linked the presence of black teachers to kids’ expectations of attending college.

I wasn’t surprised to hear this. I’m one of a small fraction of black teachers in my district. I know that, as much as many would like to think that good intentions and talent are the only important qualities for educators, students respond differently to teachers whom they can relate to.

The week before the study was released, I showed my ninth graders a film about Kalief Browder, a black teenager who was arrested at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, spent three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime and died by suicide after his release. I was moved by the impassioned mini-essays about police brutality and stop-and-frisk my students produced and the honest experiences they shared. I realized it’s not just that my students live these topics every day. It’s also that they are teenagers who have seen me interact with law enforcement during our trips off campus. They trusted me because they knew I lived them as well.

The fact that my skin color matches that of my students doesn’t give me any superpowers as an educator. But it does give me the ability to see them in a way that’s untarnished by the stereotypes, biases and cultural disconnects that fuel inequality and injustice — like the outlook that made Trayvon Martin, carrying Skittles, appear dangerously suspicious to the man who took his life. Like the assumptions that studies show make people see black boys as less innocent than their white peers.

I’m connected to them because of our shared racial identity. But it’s more than that: I’m familiar with the world they inhabit. I can see their charms and challenges, without the filters of “minority” or “urban” or “at risk.” And I show them, through the pizza I order for their birthdays. Through the full days without schoolwork that I offer them from time to time because life is hard and we all need a break. Through teenage comedy that I laugh at with them, before reminding them not to make said jokes in certain settings. Through the pictures of my wife I show them — my wife, who looks like us.

To be clear, many of my nonblack colleagues see our kids’ incredible potential just as I do and are powerful advocates for them. The ability to treat students like people and love the mess out of them doesn’t rely directly on race.

Still, we live in a world of zero-tolerance policies, where students are kicked out of class for the “insubordination” of refusing to move to a different desk or for drinking juice, and where everyday misbehavior can elicit a call to the authorities. I find myself wondering, have the adults responsible never wanted to sit near their friends? Did they not drink juice in high school? Can they not see younger versions of themselves in our kids?

Black students need teachers who understand that they’re capable of the full range of anxieties and insecurities, greatness and success, hilarious moments and generous surprises. The amount of melanin in my skin is neither necessary nor sufficient for this: It’s not a magic formula. But I can remember a time when I looked and sounded like my students. That helps me see myself in them, and all they’re capable of. I hope they can see themselves in me.

New Crop of Young Adult Novels Explores Race and Police Brutality

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Students in Philadelphia waiting for an autograph from Angie Thomas, whose novel, “The Hate U Give,” won critical raves. CreditMark Makela for The New York Times

Angie Thomas started writing her young-adult novel, “The Hate U Give,” in reaction to a fatal shooting that took place some 2,000 miles away. But to her it felt deeply personal.

Ms. Thomas was a college student in Jackson, Miss., when a white transit police officer shot Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old African-American man, on a train platform in Oakland, Calif., in 2009. She was shocked when some of her white classmates said he had probably deserved it. She responded with a short story about a teenage girl who is drawn to activism after a white officer shoots her childhood best friend.

That story grew into a 444-page novel, as shootings of unarmed young black men continued.

Ms. Thomas worried that no one would publish a young-adult novel about such a raw and polarizing subject. Instead, 13 publishers bid in a frenzied auction. Balzer & Bray bought it in a two-book deal, and Fox 2000 optioned the film rights.

When “The Hate U Give” came out last month, it became an instant critical and commercial hit, with more than 100,000 copies in print. The novel — one of several new children’s books that use fiction to address police shootings of unarmed black teenagers — debuted at the top of The New York Times’s Young Adult best-seller list, and has drawn ecstatic praise from critics, librarians, book sellers and prominent young-adult novelists. John Green, the author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” called the work “a stunning, brilliant, gut-wrenching novel that will be remembered as a classic of our time.”

“The Hate U Give,” which takes its title from a phrase coined by the rapper Tupac Shakur, is one of a cluster of young-adult novels that confront police brutality, racial profiling and the Black Lives Matter movement. Several are debut novels from young African-American writers who have turned to fiction as a form of activism, hoping that their stories can help frame and illuminate the persistence of racial injustice for young readers.

“For me, specifically for black teenagers, it’s a reflection of what we’re all facing right now,” said Jay Coles, a 21-year-old college student from Indianapolis, who sold his first novel, “Tyler Johnson Was Here,” to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers this year. Mr. Coles said he had started writing the book, which centers on a black teenager whose twin brother is shot by a police officer, as a way to process his depression and rage after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012.

This fall, Crown Books for Young Readers will publish Nic Stone’s debut novel, “Dear Martin,” about a black high school scholarship student at an Atlanta prep school who becomes a victim of racial profiling when an off-duty officer fires at him and his best friend during an argument at a traffic light.

In “Ghost Boys,” a middle-grade novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the ghost of a young black boy who was shot by a white police officer witnesses the aftermath of his death, and meets the ghosts of other black boys, including Emmett Till, the black teenager who was killed by white men in 1955. The novel, which Little, Brown Books for Young Readers will release next spring, was partly inspired by the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Teachers and librarians across the country have embraced the new body of children’s literature dealing with racial bias and injustice. Hundreds of schools and libraries have ordered copies of “The Hate U Give.” Other recent young-adult novels about violence against black teenagers, including Kekla Magoon’s “How It Went Down,” have been used in high school classrooms to talk about racial inequality.

Some educators see fiction as a particularly potent tool for engaging with volatile topics and instilling empathy in young readers.

“Kids have so many questions, and they want to engage on these topics,” said Deborah Taylor, a youth librarian in Baltimore. “We kind of shy away from the notion that this is a fact of life for our kids.”

The cluster of novels is also arriving at a moment when the children’s book industry is struggling to address the lack of diversity in the stories it publishes, and the scarcity of children’s books by African-American authors.

While the number of children’s books featuring African-American characters has grown in the last decade, the number of books by black authors has barely budged, according to data collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. Out of some 3,400 children’s books published in 2016, 278 featured black characters, up from 153 in 2006. But only 92 of those books were written by black authors, roughly the same number as a decade ago.

The epidemic of police violence against unarmed African-Americans has been well covered through nonfiction, in books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award, and Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.” But children’s book authors have only recently begun to tackle the subject in greater numbers.

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Ms. Thomas’s first novel explores the issues of racism and police brutality. It set off a bidding war among publishers.CreditMark Makela for The New York Times

“This isn’t a literary trend. This is an issue of our time,” said the novelist Jason Reynolds, who teamed up with Brendan Kiely to write “All American Boys,” a 2015 novel about an African-American teenager who is assaulted by an officer who mistakes him for a shoplifter at a bodega.

Over the last two years, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Kiely have visited more than 100 schools around the country, speaking to some 40,000 students about the book. Mr. Reynolds said they occasionally encountered resistance from nervous school administrators. Scheduled talks at a school in Newark and a young-adult literary festival in Texas were canceled over concerns about the politically charged topic, Mr. Reynolds said.

The overwhelmingly positive reception to “The Hate U Give” has stunned Ms. Thomas, 29, a former teenage rapper who worked as a church receptionist in Jackson while finishing her novel. “I knew that while the topic was timely, it was also controversial,” she said.

“I say, ‘It probably will make you uncomfortable,’” she said. “I’m not here to give you comfort.’”

As a bookworm growing up in a poor neighborhood in Jackson, Ms. Thomas didn’t have many literary role models. She tore through the Harry Potter books and other series at the library after school, but characters whose lives felt familiar to her were scarce.

“For me, hip-hop was a mirror when young-adult books were not,” she said. “I could see myself in a Nas song more than I could see myself in a book.”

In her first year at Belhaven University, she took a creative writing class, and felt out of place as the only black student in the classroom. One day, her professor asked students to talk about their travels over the summer. Ms. Thomas, who was raised by her single mother and grandmother, had never left Mississippi. When she got to her car in the parking lot, she cried.

But her professor encouraged her to draw on her own experience in her writing. “He told me that my stories, and the stories of people in my community, mattered,” she said. When she turned in the story about Starr, the narrator of “The Hate U Give,” he told her that she could turn it into a novel.

“The Hate U Give” takes place in a neighborhood modeled on the community Ms. Thomas grew up in, where drugs and gang violence were inescapable but people looked out for one another. Starr shares many of the author’s traits — she loves basketball and Tupac, and shuttles between two worlds: her affluent, mostly white private school and her impoverished neighborhood.

One night after a party, Starr watches as her friend, Khalil, is pulled over, shot and killed by a white police officer. She struggles with the risks of coming forward as a witness, as protests erupt in her neighborhood.

“I wanted to make this as personal as possible, so that people can understand why so many of us are so hurt and so angry,” Ms. Thomas said.

Since the book’s release on Feb. 28, Ms. Thomas has been touring the country, and has had emotional discussions with young readers. At an event in Jackson, a group of girls in middle school told her that they had never met an author who looked like them.

On a recent afternoon in Philadelphia, Ms. Thomas met with 41 teenagers from local schools who had gathered in a basement at a library. She wore a camouflage jacket covered with buttons bearing slogans like “Resist,” and put on a flower crown that one of the students had given her.

The students laughed when she described how she had to send her book editors links to the Urban Dictionary definition of “lit,” a slang term, and cheered when she told them that the novel was being adapted into a movie.

One student asked who inspired her to keep writing when she faced so many obstacles. A young man asked her about a central character modeled on Tupac. Others asked her about the challenges of writing about such a contentious topic.

“I want you to realize your voice matters,” she told the students. “Writing is a form of activism.”

What Biracial People Know

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CreditLynnie Z.

After the nation’s first black president, we now have a white president with the whitest and malest cabinet since Ronald Reagan’s. His administration immediately made it a priority to deport undocumented immigrants and to deny people from certain Muslim-majority nations entry into the United States, decisions that caused tremendous blowback.

What President Trump doesn’t seem to have considered is that diversity doesn’t just sound nice, it has tangible value. Social scientists find that homogeneous groups like his cabinet can be less creative and insightful than diverse ones. They are more prone to groupthink and less likely to question faulty assumptions.

What’s true of groups is also true for individuals. A small but growing body of research suggests that multiracial people are more open-minded and creative. Here, it’s worth remembering that Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, wasn’t only the nation’s first black president, he was also its first biracial president. His multitudinous self was, I like to think, part of what made him great — part of what inspired him when he proclaimed that there wasn’t a red or blue America, but a United States of America.

As a multiethnic person myself — the son of a Jewish dad of Eastern European descent and a Puerto Rican mom — I can attest that being mixed makes it harder to fall back on the tribal identities that have guided so much of human history, and that are now resurgent. Your background pushes you to construct a worldview that transcends the tribal.

You’re also accustomed to the idea of having several selves, and of trying to forge them into something whole. That task of self-creation isn’t unique to biracial people; it’s a defining experience of modernity. Once the old stories about God and tribe — the framing that historically gave our lives context — become inadequate, on what do we base our identities? How do we give our lives meaning and purpose?

President Trump has answered this challenge by reaching backward — vowing to wall off America and invoking a whiter, more homogeneous country. This approach is likely to fail for the simple reason that much of the strength and creativity of America, and modernity generally, stems from diversity. And the answers to a host of problems we face may lie in more mixing, not less.

Consider this: By 3 months of age, biracial infants recognize faces more quickly than their monoracial peers, suggesting that their facial perception abilities are more developed. Kristin Pauker, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and one of the researchers who performed this study, likens this flexibility to bilingualism.

Early on, infants who hear only Japanese, say, will lose the ability to distinguish L’s from R’s. But if they also hear English, they’ll continue to hear the sounds as separate. So it is with recognizing faces, Dr. Pauker says. Kids naturally learn to recognize kin from non-kin, in-group from out-group. But because they’re exposed to more human variation, the in-group for multiracial children seems to be larger.

This may pay off in important ways later. In a 2015 study, Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor at Duke, found that when she reminded multiracial participants of their mixed heritage, they scored higher in a series of word association games and other tests that measure creative problem solving. When she reminded monoracial people about their heritage, however, their performance didn’t improve. Somehow, having multiple selves enhanced mental flexibility.

But here’s where it gets interesting: When Dr. Gaither reminded participants of a single racial background that they, too, had multiple selves, by asking about their various identities in life, their scores also improved. “For biracial people, these racial identities are very salient,” she told me. “That said, we all have multiple social identities.” And focusing on these identities seems to impart mental flexibility irrespective of race.

It may be possible to deliberately cultivate this kind of limber mind-set by, for example, living abroad. Various studies find that business people who live in other countries are more successful than those who stay put; that artists who’ve lived abroad create more valuable art; that scientists working abroad produce studies that are more highly cited. Living in another culture exercises the mind, researchers reason, forcing one to think more deeply about the world.

Another path to intellectual rigor is to gather a diverse group of people together and have them attack problems, which is arguably exactly what the American experiment is. In mock trials, the Tufts University researcher Samuel Sommers has found, racially diverse juries appraise evidence more accurately than all-white juries, which translates to more lenient treatment of minority defendants. That’s not because minority jurors are biased in favor of minority defendants, but because whites on mixed juries more carefully consider the evidence.

The point is that diversity — of one’s own makeup, one’s experience, of groups of people solving problems, of cities and nations — is linked to economic prosperity, greater scientific prowess and a fairer judicial process. If human groups represent a series of brains networked together, the more dissimilar these brains are in terms of life experience, the better the “hivemind” may be at thinking around any given problem.

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CreditLynnie Z.

The opposite is true of those who employ essentialist thinking — in particular, it seems, people who espouse stereotypes about racial groups. Harvard and Tel Aviv University scientists ran experiments on white Americans, Israelis and Asian-Americans in which they had some subjects read essays that made an essentialist argument about race, and then asked them to solve word-association games and other puzzles. Those who were primed with racial stereotypes performed worse than those who weren’t. “An essentialist mind-set is indeed hazardous for creativity,” the authors note.

None of which bodes well for Mr. Trump’s mostly white, mostly male, extremely wealthy cabinet. Indeed, it’s tempting to speculate that the administration’s problems so far, including its clumsy rollout of a travel ban that was mostly blocked by the courts, stem in part from its homogeneity and insularity. Better decisions might emerge from a more diverse set of minds.

And yet, if multiculturalism is so grand, why was Mr. Trump so successful in running on a platform that rejected it? What explains the current “whitelash,” as the commentator Van Jones called it? Sure, many Trump supporters have legitimate economic concerns separate from worries about race or immigration. But what of the white nationalism that his campaign seems to have unleashed? Eight years of a black president didn’t assuage those minds, but instead inflamed them. Diversity didn’t make its own case very well.

One answer to this conundrum comes from Dr. Sommers and his Tufts colleague Michael Norton. In a 2011 survey, they found that as whites reported decreases in perceived anti-black bias, they also reported increasing anti-white bias, which they described as a bigger problem. Dr. Sommers and Dr. Norton concluded that whites saw race relations as a zero-sum game. Minorities’ gain was their loss.

In reality, cities and countries that are more diverse are more prosperous than homogeneous ones, and that often means higher wages for native-born citizens. Yet the perception that out-groups gain at in-groups’ expense persists. And that view seems to be reflexive. Merely reminding whites that the Census Bureau has said the United States will be a “majority minority” country by 2042, as one Northwestern University experiment showed, increased their anti-minority bias and their preference for being around other whites. In another experiment, the reminder made whites more politically conservative as well.

It’s hard to know what to do about this except to acknowledge that diversity isn’t easy. It’s uncomfortable. It can make people feel threatened. “We promote diversity. We believe in diversity. But diversity is hard,” Sophie Trawalter, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, told me.

That very difficulty, though, may be why diversity is so good for us. “The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise,” Katherine Phillips, a senior vice dean at Columbia Business School, writes. “You have to push yourself to grow your muscles.”

Closer, more meaningful contact with those of other races may help assuage the underlying anxiety. Some years back, Dr. Gaither of Duke ran an intriguing study in which incoming white college students were paired with either same-race or different-race roommates. After four months, roommates who lived with different races had a more diverse group of friends and considered diversity more important, compared with those with same-race roommates. After six months, they were less anxious and more pleasant in interracial interactions. (It was the Republican-Democrat pairings that proved problematic, Dr. Gaither told me. Apparently they couldn’t stand each other.)

Some corners of the world seem to naturally foster this mellower view of race — particularly Hawaii, Mr. Obama’s home state. Dr. Pauker has found that by age 7, children in Massachusetts begin to stereotype about racial out-groups, whereas children in Hawaii do not. She’s not sure why, but she suspects that the state’s unique racial makeup is important. Whites are a minority in Hawaii, and the state has the largest share of multiracial people in the country, at almost a quarter of its population.

Constant exposure to people who see race as a fluid concept — who define themselves as Asian, Hawaiian, black or white interchangeably — makes rigid thinking about race harder to maintain, she speculates. And that flexibility rubs off. In a forthcoming study, Dr. Pauker finds that white college students who move from the mainland to Hawaii begin to think differently about race. Faced daily with evidence of a complex reality, their ideas about who’s in and who’s out, and what belonging to any group really means, relax.

Clearly, people can cling to racist views even when exposed to mountains of evidence contradicting those views. But an optimistic interpretation of Dr. Pauker’s research is that when a society’s racial makeup moves beyond a certain threshold — when whites stop being the majority, for example, and a large percentage of the population is mixed — racial stereotyping becomes harder to do.

Whitelash notwithstanding, we’re moving in that direction. More nonwhite babies are already born than white. And if multiracial people work like a vaccine against the tribalist tendencies roused by Mr. Trump, the country may be gaining immunity. Multiracials make up an estimated 7 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, and they’re predicted to grow to 20 percent by 2050.

President Trump campaigned on a narrow vision of America as a nation-state, not as a state of people from many nations. His response to the modern question — How do we form our identities? — is to grasp for a semi-mythical past that excludes large segments of modern America. If we believe the science on diversity, his approach to problem solving is likely suboptimal.

Many see his election as apocalyptic. And sure, President Trump could break our democracy, wreck the country and ruin the planet. But his presidency also has the feel of a last stand — grim, fearful and obsessed with imminent decline. In retrospect, we may view Mr. Trump as part of the agony of metamorphosis.

And we’ll see Mr. Obama as the first president of the thriving multiracial nation that’s emerging.

THE DIVERSITY DIVIDE

National Association of Elementary School Principals

Recent studies show lack of racial diversity among educators in America.
By Robert Bittner
Principal, January/February 2017

Several recent studies have explored the issue of racial diversity in American education. “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce” (2016), developed by the U.S. Department of Education, uses cold numerical data to underscore the fact that, despite some very modest gains, today’s education workforce is nowhere near as diverse as today’s students. The report cites a handful of programs across the country that are working to correct that deficiency. Yet, like most studies, the focus is on reporting current conditions, with questions of why and what can be done left unanswered.

A study by The Education Trust, “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers” (2016), by Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie, puts a human face on the data, at least where black educators are concerned. (A separate report on Hispanic teachers is forthcoming.) While acknowledging that “building a diverse teacher workforce is complex,” the authors’ interviews with black teachers across the country emphasize the need to do just that and to help point the way to solutions.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 51 percent of all elementary and secondary public school students were white, 16 percent were black, and 24 percent were Hispanic. Among teachers, 82 percent were white, 7 percent were black, and 8 percent were Hispanic. As for principals, 80 percent were white, 10 percent were black, and 7 percent were Hispanic.

The “Racial Diversity” Study Summarizes The Key Findings In Three Main Points:

  1. Racially speaking, elementary- and secondary-school educators in the United States are relatively homogenous and not as racially diverse as their students or the population in general.
  2. Diversity decreases at multiple points across the teacher pipeline through which teachers progress in postsecondary education, teacher preparation programs, and retention. (See infographic on page 17.)
  3. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and alternative routes to teacher certification—including online institutions—tend to enroll a more racially diverse population of teacher candidates than other colleges and universities. For example, the study notes that 16 percent of all black teacher candidates attend an HBCU; however, that number represents a mere 2 percent of all of those preparing to teach.

There are signs of very modest improvement. For example, the survey points out that, although a large racial imbalance between educators and students remains, educator diversity has increased over time. In the 1987-1988 school year, 13 percent of public school teachers were teachers of color compared with 18 percent in 2011-2012, a 5 percent increase over more than 20 years. (During the same period, the proportion of black teachers actually decreased slightly.)

In 2011-2012, the percentages of new black and Hispanic principals were higher than the percentages of experienced black and Hispanic principals, suggesting growth here as well. But, again, gains were modest: 11 percent of black principals were new versus 8 percent with prior experience; similarly, 8 percent of Hispanic principals were new versus 5 percent with prior experience.

Student Perception

Of course, students of any race and background can be taught well by teachers of any race and background. But “The Importance of Minority Teachers,” a study by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin, published in the October 2016 issue of Educational Researcher, suggests that teachers of color may have an edge in the classroom—at least in urban schools, the focus of the study. “There is consistent evidence that students have more favorable perceptions of minority teachers than white teachers,” the authors write. “[Hispanic] teachers are more positively perceived by students … Students perceive black teachers more than their white peers to hold students to high academic standards and support their efforts, to help them organize content, and to explain clearly ideas and concepts and provide useful feedback.”

Although Hispanic students didn’t have particularly favorable perceptions of Hispanic teachers, black and Asian students had particularly positive perceptions of black teachers. In addition, “students in the ‘Other’ racial category also report that black teachers are particularly caring.” These perceptions are critical: “Students’ perceptions of teachers are associated with motivation and achievement,” the study notes.

Cherng and Halpin touch briefly on why teachers of color may make such a positive impression in the classroom. They found, among other conclusions, that Hispanic and black teachers simply are “more multi-culturally aware than their white peers,” significant because “higher levels of multicultural awareness are linked to better classroom environments.” As a result, these teachers are uniquely equipped to “help empower youth of all racial/ethnic identities.”

Such findings echo those of Griffin and Tackie, authors of the “Through Our Eyes” report. “Teachers of color bring benefits to classrooms beyond content knowledge and pedagogy,” they report. “As role models, parental figures, and advocates, they can build relationships with students of color that help those students feel connected to their schools. And they are more likely to be able to enhance cultural understanding among white colleagues, teachers, and students. Acting as ‘warm demanders,’ they more frequently hold high expectations for all students and use connections with students to establish structured classroom discipline. Furthermore, they are more likely to teach in high-need schools that predominantly serve students of color and low-income students.”

Added Pressures

Whether they are driven by personal concern for students and community or a perceived need to go the extra mile simply to prove themselves (as both educators and role models), black teachers, in particular, are likely to experience workday pressures beyond those faced by their white colleagues. In fact, “Through Our Eyes” focus group respondents acknowledged a sense of overarching obligation toward their students that extends far beyond academics, leading them to act as “parent, hairdresser, chauffeur, advocate, counselor, and cheerleader.” And because they are more likely to teach in high-need environments, those added pressures take an even greater toll. Neither the “Racial Diversity” nor the “Through Our Eyes” study pinpoints direct causes for teachers’ decisions to leave the profession. But the fact that black teachers leave at a higher rate than white teachers suggests that there is a personal price to pay for striving to be an educator, role model, spokesperson, disciplinarian, mentor, and parent all rolled into one.

Teacher Diversity Diminishes At Each Point.

Postsecondary Enrollment

All states require a bachelor’s degree as the first step toward teacher certification. Yet even at this early point the demographics have shifted: the racial composition of college graduates is already less diverse than it is among public high school graduates. In 2012, for example, 62 percent of all bachelor’s degree students were white, whereas only 57 percent of those graduating from high school were white.

Enrollment in Education Programs

In 2012, 73 percent of students majoring in education at colleges and universities were white. The study acknowledges that this is not the only path for potential teachers. Teacher preparation programs—which may or may not be provided in association with an established college or university—deliver state-approved curricula that give enrollees an initial teaching credential. Even in teacher preparation programs associated with a college or university, the study found that enrollees were less diverse than the larger student body.

Postsecondary Completion

The “Racial Diversity” study notes that bachelor’s degree completion is lower for black and Hispanic students than it is for white students. For students beginning college in 2008-2009, 42 percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanic students had completed a bachelor’s degree after six years, compared with 73 percent of white students. Graduates have become more diverse over time, but it is happening very slowly. In 2000, 77 percent were white, 11 percent were black, 8 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were other. By 2012, 73 percent were white, 12 percent were black, and 11 percent were Hispanic.

Entering the Workforce

Among those beginning postsecondary study in 2007-2008, 82 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients certified to teach K-12 by 2012 were white, 4 percent were black, and 9 percent were Hispanic. Citing a 2011 study, “Racial Diversity” suggests that the low numbers of black and Hispanic certifications may reflect licensure exam performance; teachers of color, on average, score lower on licensure tests and pass at lower rates than white colleagues. Nonetheless, the authors note, “the racial composition of new teachers entering the teaching profession is more diverse than the racial composition of all teachers,” hinting that, once teachers of color embark upon a teaching career, retention becomes the greatest challenge.

Teacher Retention

Teacher retention data follows a familiar pattern: there are more white teachers in the same position from one school year to the next than teachers of color. There are many reasons why this is the case, with “Through Our Eyes” data suggesting teacher burnout, lack of administrative support and understanding, unrealistic expectations (from administrators, colleagues, even students), and more. In addition, “Racial Diversity” notes that most black and Hispanic teachers work in urban schools, which tend to be high-stress, high-turnover environments.

The reasons go beyond high-need students. The lack of diversity among teachers and administrators increases the likelihood that teachers of color work alongside white colleagues and bosses. At best, this situation can enrich the work environment for everyone. According to  “Through Our Eyes,” however, “best” is not the typical black teacher’s experience.

“[Black teachers] face racial discrimination and stereotyping that leave them feeling alienated and restricted from participating in the school community, impacting their ability to be effective and ultimately their desire to remain in the profession,” the report says. “Despite their feelings of alienation, they take on extra responsibilities and are often assigned additional duties because of their unique strengths, leaving them burdened and taxed. These same abilities and attributes can often leave black teachers stuck in such rigid positions as the school disciplinarian. These unyielding categorizations often limit their opportunities, advancement, and abilities to hone their craft.”

The report concludes, “The issues that stifle the development and empowerment of black teachers are so deep-seated that it will take honest and critical examinations of school cultures and systemic processes in order for school and district leaders to develop the trust, support, and collegial working environments needed to recruit and retain teachers of color.”

No Easy Fix

Neither study is intended to be prescriptive or to recommend practical steps to move past “deep-seated” issues. “Racial Diversity,” though, highlights three diversity program success stories from across the country. Developed independently, these programs take similar approaches, fostering future educators from within the community.

  1. In Boston Public Schools (BPS), 37 percent of teachers are nonwhite, with black teachers representing 25 percent of new hires in 2015-2016. The district’s commitment to improving diversity is bolstered by the BPS “High School to Teacher” program, which identifies city high-school students with teaching potential, provides mentors and college prep courses, pays half of students’ college tuition, and, if they are successful, funnels them into teaching jobs. Eighty-seven percent of program participants are black or Hispanic or both.
  2. The Call Me MiSTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) Initiative, sponsored by Clemson University in South Carolina, is expanding the pool of teachers in the state with local initiatives, drawing from among the state’s underserved and at-risk communities. The program provides tuition assistance, a support system, and help with job placement.
  3. The Teach Tomorrow in Oakland program in Oakland, California, also recruits from the community. It seeks out Oakland Unified School District alumni, community members, middle- and high-school students, paraprofessionals, out-of-industry professionals, and student teachers. It then provides educational and financial support, including training, tutoring, interning opportunities, and classroom resources.

ACCESS THE SOURCES

“The Importance of Minority Teachers: Student Perceptions of Minority Versus White Teachers” by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin, Educational Researcher 45, no. 7 (2016)

“The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce,” U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service (2016)

“Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers” by Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie, The Education Trust (2016)

These efforts are creating change, but they remain the exception. According to the “Racial Diversity” study, “All stakeholders must do more to support teachers of color throughout the teacher pipeline. From getting more students of color into postsecondary education, to ensuring teachers of color are placed and supported in their roles in the classroom, improving each step in the process can help capitalize on the diversity of our nation.”

There is no one, decisive moment when the demographics of the classroom suddenly break down and a diverse student body is no longer reflected by a relatively homogenous group of teachers. The fact is, the “Racial Diversity” study finds, “diversity diminishes at each point along the way to becoming a certified teacher.”

Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist.

What Happens When Students Notice Racial Bias

(CNN)Children rarely forget the moment when a teacher might inadvertently display a racial bias.

Sara Sidner, CNN’s Los Angeles-based national and international correspondent, remembers sitting in class as a child while her teacher stood and starting taking roll, marking down the race of each student in the room.
“He was trying to figure out whether I was black or white, and he looked at me, and he said, ‘You know what; you’re a smart kid; I’m going to check white,’ ” said Sidner, whose mother is a white British woman and whose father is African-American.
“It definitely had an impact on me,” she said. “It made me want to fight back and say, ‘I can be black and smart. Those are not separate entities. Those are not different things.’ “
It turns out that when black and Latino middle school students notice racial bias at school, they are more likely to lose trust in their teachers and other authority figures, according to a study published in the journal Child Development this week.
The study also showed how establishing trust in their teachers can have life-long consequences for middle school students, even making a significant difference in their likelihood of attending college, said Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the study.
“There’s this kind of hidden construct of trust that teachers and schools are influencing all the time and maybe not knowing it, and they have these far-off, far-flung consequences, like college enrollment,” Cohen said.
“A lot of the things that happen to us during our teenage years end up sticking with us. A disproportionate number of our memories, for instance, come from our teenage years. If you suffer a depressive episode in your teen years, you’re more likely to suffer one later on in adulthood,” he said. “This developmental stage is important.”

Trust linked to success in school

The study involved 277 middle school students in Connecticut who were surveyed twice yearly about their perceptions of school from sixth to eighth grade, and then were tracked to indicate whether they enrolled in a four-year college after high school. About half of the students were white, and about half were black. Their teachers were white.
The researchers assessed each student’s trust in school by including statements in the survey such as “I am treated fairly by teachers and other adults at my school” or “students in my racial group are treated fairly by teachers and other adults.” The students could select whether they agreed or disagreed with each statement.
The survey results showed that while the trust students had in their teachers declined from sixth to eighth grade overall, that trust plunged faster for black students and had a more significant association with their likelihood of attending college.
Among black students, when their trust in school declined, their rate of college enrollment was about 43%, but when their trust increased, it was about 64%, said David Yeager, a faculty research associate at the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center and a co-author of the study. So, there was a difference of 21 percentage points.
Among white students, when their trust declined, their rate of college enrollment was about 54%. When trust increased, college enrollment was about 62%. So, there was a difference of only 8 percentage points, Yeager said.
The researchers also surveyed 206 middle school students in Colorado over a one-year period. About half of the students were white, and about half were Latino. Their teachers were white.
The surveys showed that a loss of trust was more significant among the Latino students and emerged more prominently in the seventh grade.
But the study has some limitations.
“I would love to see researchers try to replicate that sort of ‘trust gap’ in other schools and see if they get it. We only looked at two schools,” Cohen said.
“How general it is, is a question. I think it’s general for two reasons. One is, it does match with other research,” he said. “The second reason is that these two schools, they’re pretty different. They’re from different regions in the United States. One is the Mountain West; one’s in Connecticut.”

Is there a flaw in the education system?

Middle school, a time when adolescents are carving out their identities, may be when a student needs encouragement from a trustworthy authority figure the most.
Yet, in most middle schools, such encouragement is lacking — and that might be because standardized exams are higher-stakes starting around then, said Chris Emdin, associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and author of the book “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too.”
“It’s part of elementary school practice for young people to feel like the teachers love them and to feel as though, ‘you’re valuable. You’re smart.’ It’s almost like part of the discourse in elementary education,” said Emdin, who was not involved in the new study.
“But when you get to middle and high school, the focus becomes less on the social and emotional development of the learner and more of an emphasis on the content area,” he said. “What’s flawed about the system is that, at the point where youth are most vulnerable in carving out their identities is the point where teachers are least prepared to help in developing trust and confidence. So it’s at that age that we need to sort of really infuse practices that let kids know how much they are loved and how brilliant they are.”
Once a teacher affirms a child’s abilities, that child is more likely not only to believe in his or her own abilities but to trust that teacher, Emdin said.
He added that students, especially those of color, thrive when they feel as if a teacher cares about them, is consistent in what and how they are teaching, and is someone students can trust.
“For young people, care, consistency and trust are the anchor of being engaged academically. If any of those three things are missing, then you can’t engage them,” Emdin said.
“So teachers have to be able to exhibit care, and they have to be consistent in the things that they tell young people,” he said. “If that happens, then young people feel like they can be trusted, and then that opens up a whole new world of possibilities.”

‘We can have more influence than we think’

For the new study, researchers also tested whether an intervention could improve trust in the teacher-student relationship.
At the same school in Connecticut where the researchers assessed a trust gap, 88 white and black seventh-graders were given a handwritten letter from their teacher, along with feedback comments on an assignment they completed.
Half of the students received a letter stating, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”
The other half received a letter stating, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
The students and the teacher were unaware of who received which type of letter.
The researchers found that after receiving the more encouraging letter about “high expectations,” fewer black students had discipline issues the following year than those who received the other letter, and they were more likely to attend a four-year college. There were no significant associations found between the letter and behavior or college enrollment among the white students.
However, Cohen said the results of this small experiment should not be misconstrued to suggest that giving a nice note to a student will increase their chances of going to college.
Join the conversation”That’s not the message. The message should be that we can have more influence than we think, through timely acts that recognize and validate kids’ potential,” Cohen said.
“The note that we gave kids was one example of this, and it worked, in this place, in this time, in this school,” he said. “Whether it would work in another school, I don’t know. I think it would depend. It’s not a magic bullet. The school where we used this note was one where the kids had the resources they needed to learn and to grow.”

Tips to help teachers build trust

Teacher and student relationships are improved when teachers make an effort to better understand a student’s life both in and outside of school, said Richard Milner, a professor of education and endowed chair of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the new study.
Based on research he has conducted in middle and high schools, Milner offered the following advice on how to build, cultivate and maintain trusting relationships with students:
  • Develop assignments that allow students to share aspects of their lives inside and outside of school.
  • Build powerful discussion opportunities for students to share their point of view across all subject areas.
  • Attend some extracurricular activities of students, such as a school or community play, sporting event or band concert.
  • Visit local community sites of students, such as churches, synagogues, mosques, beauty salons or community centers.
  • Interview or talk directly to students themselves, rather than talking about them.

How Diversity Makes Us Smarter

Scientific American

Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working

Credit: Edel Rodriguez

IN BRIEF

  • Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.
  • It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, nonroutine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way—yet the science shows that it does.
  • This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.

(Editor’s note (1/30/16): In response to President Donald Trump’s immigration order to close U.S. borders to refugees and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which has impacted scientists and students, we are republishing the following article from or 2014 special report on how diversity powers science and innovation.)

The first thing to acknowledge about diversity is that it can be difficult. In the U.S., where the dialogue of inclusion is relatively advanced, even the mention of the word “diversity” can lead to anxiety and conflict. Supreme Court justices disagree on the virtues of diversity and the means for achieving it. Corporations spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, yet they still face discrimination lawsuits, and the leadership ranks of the business world remain predominantly white and male.

It is reasonable to ask what good diversity does us. Diversity of expertise confers benefits that are obvious—you would not think of building a new car without engineers, designers and quality-control experts—but what about social diversity? What good comes from diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation? Research has shown that social diversity in a group can cause discomfort, rougher interactions, a lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, more concern about disrespect, and other problems. So what is the upside?

The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think. This is not just wishful thinking: it is the conclusion I draw from decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers.

INFORMATION AND INNOVATION

The key to understanding the positive influence of diversity is the concept of informational diversity. When people are brought together to solve problems in groups, they bring different information, opinions and perspectives. This makes obvious sense when we talk about diversity of disciplinary backgrounds—think again of the interdisciplinary team building a car. The same logic applies to social diversity. People who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand. A male and a female engineer might have perspectives as different from one another as an engineer and a physicist—and that is a good thing.

Research on large, innovative organizations has shown repeatedly that this is the case. For example, business professors Cristian Deszö of the University of Maryland and David Ross of Columbia University studied the effect of gender diversity on the top firms in Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 list, a group designed to reflect the overall U.S. equity market. First, they examined the size and gender composition of firms’ top management teams from 1992 through 2006. Then they looked at the financial performance of the firms. In their words, they found that, on average, “female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value.” They also measured the firms’ “innovation intensity” through the ratio of research and development expenses to assets. They found that companies that prioritized innovation saw greater financial gains when women were part of the top leadership ranks.

Racial diversity can deliver the same kinds of benefits. In a study conducted in 2003, Orlando Richard, a professor of management at the University of Texas at Dallas, and his colleagues surveyed executives at 177 national banks in the U.S., then put together a database comparing financial performance, racial diversity and the emphasis the bank presidents put on innovation. For innovation-focused banks, increases in racial diversity were clearly related to enhanced financial performance.

Evidence for the benefits of diversity can be found well beyond the U.S. In August 2012 a team of researchers at the Credit Suisse Research Institute issued a report in which they examined 2,360 companies globally from 2005 to 2011, looking for a relationship between gender diversity on corporate management boards and financial performance. Sure enough, the researchers found that companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing (that is, net debt to equity) and better average growth.

HOW DIVERSITY PROVOKES THOUGHT

Large data-set studies have an obvious limitation: they only show that diversity is correlated with better performance, not that it causes better performance. Research on racial diversity in small groups, however, makes it possible to draw some causal conclusions. Again, the findings are clear: for groups that value innovation and new ideas, diversity helps.

In 2006 Margaret Neale of Stanford University, Gregory Northcraft of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and I set out to examine the impact of racial diversity on small decision-making groups in an experiment where sharing information was a requirement for success. Our subjects were undergraduate students taking business courses at the University of Illinois. We put together three-person groups—some consisting of all white members, others with two whites and one nonwhite member—and had them perform a murder mystery exercise. We made sure that all group members shared a common set of information, but we also gave each member important clues that only he or she knew. To find out who committed the murder, the group members would have to share all the information they collectively possessed during discussion. The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups with no racial diversity. Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective. This perspective, which stopped the all-white groups from effectively processing the information, is what hinders creativity and innovation.

Other researchers have found similar results. In 2004 Anthony Lising Antonio, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, collaborated with five colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, and other institutions to examine the influence of racial and opinion composition in small group discussions. More than 350 students from three universities participated in the study. Group members were asked to discuss a prevailing social issue (either child labor practices or the death penalty) for 15 minutes. The researchers wrote dissenting opinions and had both black and white members deliver them to their groups. When a black person presented a dissenting perspective to a group of whites, the perspective was perceived as more novel and led to broader thinking and consideration of alternatives than when a white person introduced that same dissenting perspective. The lesson: when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.

This effect is not limited to race. For example, last year professors of management Denise Lewin Loyd of the University of Illinois, Cynthia Wang of Oklahoma State University, Robert B. Lount, Jr., of Ohio State University and I asked 186 people whether they identified as a Democrat or a Republican, then had them read a murder mystery and decide who they thought committed the crime. Next, we asked the subjects to prepare for a meeting with another group member by writing an essay communicating their perspective. More important, in all cases, we told the participants that their partner disagreed with their opinion but that they would need to come to an agreement with the other person. Everyone was told to prepare to convince their meeting partner to come around to their side; half of the subjects, however, were told to prepare to make their case to a member of the opposing political party, and half were told to make their case to a member of their own party.

The result: Democrats who were told that a fellow Democrat disagreed with them prepared less well for the discussion than Democrats who were told that a Republican disagreed with them. Republicans showed the same pattern. When disagreement comes from a socially different person, we are prompted to work harder. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.

For this reason, diversity appears to lead to higher-quality scientific research. This year Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard University and director of the Science and Engineering Workforce Project at the National Bureau of Economic Research, along with Wei Huang, a Harvard economics Ph.D. candidate, examined the ethnic identity of the authors of 1.5 million scientific papers written between 1985 and 2008 using Thomson Reuters’s Web of Science, a comprehensive database of published research. They found that papers written by diverse groups receive more citations and have higher impact factors than papers written by people from the same ethnic group. Moreover, they found that stronger papers were associated with a greater number of author addresses; geographical diversity, and a larger number of references, is a reflection of more intellectual diversity.

THE POWER OF ANTICIPATION

Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.

Members of a homogeneous group rest somewhat assured that they will agree with one another; that they will understand one another’s perspectives and beliefs; that they will be able to easily come to a consensus. But when members of a group notice that they are socially different from one another, they change their expectations. They anticipate differences of opinion and perspective. They assume they will need to work harder to come to a consensus. This logic helps to explain both the upside and the downside of social diversity: people work harder in diverse environments both cognitively and socially. They might not like it, but the hard work can lead to better outcomes.

In a 2006 study of jury decision making, social psychologist Samuel Sommers of Tufts University found that racially diverse groups exchanged a wider range of information during deliberation about a sexual assault case than all-white groups did. In collaboration with judges and jury administrators in a Michigan courtroom, Sommers conducted mock jury trials with a group of real selected jurors. Although the participants knew the mock jury was a court-sponsored experiment, they did not know that the true purpose of the research was to study the impact of racial diversity on jury decision making.

Sommers composed the six-person juries with either all white jurors or four white and two black jurors. As you might expect, the diverse juries were better at considering case facts, made fewer errors recalling relevant information and displayed a greater openness to discussing the role of race in the case. These improvements did not necessarily happen because the black jurors brought new information to the group—they happened because white jurors changed their behavior in the presence of the black jurors. In the presence of diversity, they were more diligent and open-minded.

GROUP EXERCISE

Consider the following scenario: You are writing up a section of a paper for presentation at an upcoming conference. You are anticipating some disagreement and potential difficulty communicating because your collaborator is American and you are Chinese. Because of one social distinction, you may focus on other differences between yourself and that person, such as her or his culture, upbringing and experiences—differences that you would not expect from another Chinese collaborator. How do you prepare for the meeting? In all likelihood, you will work harder on explaining your rationale and anticipating alternatives than you would have otherwise.

This is how diversity works: by promoting hard work and creativity; by encouraging the consideration of alternatives even before any interpersonal interaction takes place. The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise. You have to push yourself to grow your muscles. The pain, as the old saw goes, produces the gain. In just the same way, we need diversity—in teams, organizations and society as a whole—if we are to change, grow and innovate.

Identity, Affinity, Reality

NAIS

Winter 2012

“I hate it when we talk about Martin Luther King and everybody stares at me,” a second grader said.

These words weren’t shared in a classroom. The girl who experienced this emotion revealed her feelings to students who knew firsthand what it meant to be a child of color in a predominantly white school. In the safe zone of her affinity group, she shed light on a classroom dynamic that might otherwise have remained hidden.

Even in the most progressive independent schools, issues of race often lie just below the surface of children’s daily experiences. In the relative security of an affinity group, these realities come to life. Affinity groups are places where students build connections and process “ouch” moments from their classes. Children talk about the isolation they sometimes feel. The relationships students gain through race-based affinity groups enable them to feel less alone with their emotions and help them build a stronger sense of self. At the same time, faculty facilitators gain valuable insights into ways their school’s curriculum and culture can support children on the road to identity development.

So, why isn’t every school clamoring to promote affinity groups?

When Do Children See Race?
I (Kimberly) am the director of diversity and multicultural practice at the Gordon School (Rhode Island). One early May morning, a faculty member of color walked into my office. Her son, who happens to be one of the few African-American children in his kindergarten class, was told by a classmate that he wasn’t invited to a party because he is brown.

The boy’s teacher handled the interaction between the children with gentleness and care, using it as a learning opportunity for both students. Nonetheless, the encounter stirred worries for the boy’s mother, stemming from her own childhood and school memories attached to race. She had hoped her son would not have to hear those words of rejection so early in his school journey, if at all.

I remember the stinging feeling of such an event. When my own daughter was in third grade at another independent school, she shared how it felt to hear another classmate say, “I hope I can dance with a normal white boy,” as her class was preparing for a colonial day re-enactment.

These are not isolated events.

Many adults believe that children see race only when it is pointed out. But as Beverly Daniel Tatum makes clear in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, children as young as three years old notice physical differences such as skin color, hair texture, and the shape of facial features. The research shows that, even in infancy, children demonstrate in-group preference. Consider the experiment conducted by Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas.1 Bigler randomly gave four- and five-year-old children red or blue T-shirts. She observed them while they played with each other freely at recess. Afterwards, when she asked children in red T-shirts, “How many reds are nice?” they said, “All.” When children in red T-shirts were asked how many students in blue T-shirts are nice, they said only “some” are nice, but other blues are dumb or mean. Bigler noted that children “form these preferences on their own and naturally categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.”

Racial identity is being shaped from the outside and constructed inside, meaning that children struggle to understand the connection between their external experiences and their internal feelings and reactions they have to observed differences.

The physical features that children see — such as eye shape, skin color, and hair texture — are connected to our society’s description of race. In their book, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards describe this physical recognition as children’s first encounter with racial differences. They conclude that racial identity is “being shaped from the outside and constructed inside, meaning that children struggle to understand the connection between their external experiences and their internal feelings and reactions they have to observed differences.” The authors describe four interacting factors that affect children’s racial understanding: the larger society in which they live, their families and other significant people, their individual life experiences, and their stage of cognitive development.

A longitudinal study entitled “Race and Sex as Factors in Children’s Classroom Friendship Choices” further supports this notion of preferences.2 A friendship nomination questionnaire was given to 80 boys and 65 girls in grades one through four and six. The results showed that race played a significant role (though less pervasive than gender) in children’s friendship choices, particularly when considering same-sex friendships.

Identity and Success in the Independent School
How does current research inform us about the experiences of children of color in schools where the dominant racial culture is white? A 2003 study by Edith Arrington, Diane Hall, and Howard Stevenson examined the variables that lead to success for African-American students in independent schools.3 Of the students interviewed, 75 percent reported making a special effort to fit into their school communities, 82 percent reported that they had negative school experiences, and 40 percent did not believe the school treated all students the same. The authors concluded that, “for black students, success is best defined by a strong sense of connection to the school community; a positive sense of self across contexts, but especially in the school; social and emotional health; and a racial identity that would serve as a resource as they develop, but particularly when students encounter racism.”

Another Independent School article by Michael Thompson and Kathy Schultz (2003), focusing on the “Psychological Experiences of Students of Color in Independent Schools,” highlights the fact that students of color, because they are in predominantly white schools, often experience intense social loneliness.

In Can We Talk About Race?, Beverly Daniel Tatum writes that it is essential for schools to actively address the “continuing significance of race and racial identity in ways that empower and motivate students to transcend the legacy of racism in our society.” She defines the ABCs of creating and maintaining an inclusive learning environment: A is for affirming identity; B is for building community; and C is for cultivating leadership. In this article, we emphasize “affirming identity” because we believe that one’s racial identity — reflected in the curriculum, faculty and staff, and/or classmates — helps to avoid what Tatum describes as “invisibility or marginality that can undermine student success.”

Facing the Tough Questions
The research is there. The need is there. So why do many schools hesitate to establish affinity groups? It’s mostly a matter of institutional will — and a willingness to take on critics and skeptics.

For any independent school that makes an effort to establish affinity groups — whether your school is deeply invested in multicultural education or just starting to examine the possibilities for your institution — you are bound to encounter resistance. At the Gordon School, which earned the Leading Edge award from the National Association of Independent Schools in 2004 for its work in equity and justice, one board member anticipated the response from the community when learning of the need for affinity groups. She knew it would be difficult for all school constituents “to come to the understanding that children of color can still be hurt in our school, even after we have done what feels like so much incredible work on diversity and multicultural practice.”

Introduce affinity groups and, on cue, some concerned parent will say, “I can’t believe you’re promoting segregation at our school, in this decade, in this post-racialized country. For goodness sake, we have a black president!”

You may even be accused of segregation or reverse racism. “My child tells me she wants to participate,” says a parent. “She thinks it’s not fair because white kids can’t join. My white student is being denied this opportunity.”

Undoubtedly, some of the most complex questions about affinity groups will be presented to you in the hallway or at pick up time. Sixty seconds, surrounded by other students or parents, simply isn’t enough time, nor is it the place, to consider these issues thoughtfully. However, this is a good opportunity to tell the parent that it is normal for a young child to question race in this manner, and to commend the parent for having a dialogue about race with his or her child. The latter point is important because too many in our culture avoid the topic, as if they believe it’s incendiary.

You can validate parents’ concerns by confirming that, yes, sometimes things do feel unfair, especially in the eyes of a seven-year-old. Make a plan with the parent to continue the conversation with you when everybody has more time to talk. Get the voices of dissension through the door, because if you don’t, those voices will go underground and undermine your efforts to create affinity groups.

Building relationships with skeptics is an essential step in the process of creating affinity groups. A bit of listening and friendly discussion goes a long way. If you can help parents understand racial identity development and clearly express the goals of your affinity groups, you may in fact create newly empowered allies.

Research indicates that starting a program in the younger grades can allieviate some of this peer pressure while providing the opportunity for students to practice discussions about race.

How do you define racial identity development? Tatum describes it as “the process of defining for oneself the personal significance and social meaning of belonging to a particular racial group.” Children internalize aspects of racial identity from the adults and peers around them. For students of color in predominately white independent schools, resisting negative stereotypes and affirming carefully considered definitions of themselves are critical to counterbalance the limited number of role models who mirror them racially.

Over time, in our experience, more members of the school community will come to understand that well-facilitated, racial affinity groups are gatherings that facilitate positive identity exploration, where people can pose questions and process issues. As a learning base, affinity groups offer affirmation of identity, empowerment of the individual, and empowerment of the group within the learning community — all things worth fighting for.

Planting the Seeds of Change
Nearly a decade ago, Gordon School developed a Strategic Plan for Racial Diversity and committed itself to multicultural and anti-bias education. Two adult race-based affinity groups developed at this time: Parents of Students of Color (POSOC) and Faculty and Staff of Color. POSOC began meeting in the evening, with childcare provided. The informal get-togethers in the childcare area became the first school-supported opportunity where children of color from nursery to eighth grades could gather — even though the primary meeting was for adults. Children who participated began asking their families when the next POSOC night would be and demanding to go to childcare “so they can be with their friends.” The desire for students of color to gather and play in a majority experience did not go unnoticed.

In 2004, the school’s diversity committee created a task force to research student affinity groups in school settings. Committee members visited exemplary elementary school affinity group programs at Shady Hill School (Massachusetts), Nashoba Brooks School (Massachusetts), and The Orchard School (Indiana), as well as programs located at independent secondary schools and colleges. At the same time, Gordon also embarked on its first Racial Climate Assessment — “racial climate” defined as the current perceptions, attitudes, and expectations that inform the educational experience of various racial/ethnic groups at an institution.

The assessment included data from division directors and middle school students. Broadly, perceptions of the students’ needs and experiences were as follows:

• Students live in two worlds, both of which are critical of them.

• Students of color continue to sit alone within some classrooms.

• Middle school students were asking for affinity group meetings.

• Students of color felt an affinity with each other already.

• On their own initiative, students of color sought out faculty of color for support.

• The curriculum was driving some racially linked feelings.

• Students of color reported feeling socially lonely, isolated, and devalued.

• Race was used as one element in creating classroom groupings and cross-grade “buddy” pairs.

In 2006, based on these findings, Gordon created Common Ground, a race-based affinity group for the lower school (grades one to four). The task force decided to start with lower school students because the research reveals that it could be difficult starting affinity groups in middle school, especially an affinity group that can point directly to difference. Developmentally, middle school students feel the pressure to “blend in,” and middle school programs in other schools found it a challenge to recruit students based on this fact.

Research indicates that starting a program in the younger grades can alleviate some of this peer pressure while providing the opportunity for students to practice discussions about race. The hope is that, when they reach middle school, the students who have participated in an affinity group in elementary school will feel more empowered and positively informed about their racial identity.

Common Ground met for one hour, once a week, after school, for eight sessions a season. It was a free and voluntary program for families of color. The school decided it would not be appropriate to charge for a program that exists because the greater institution was, in effect, broken.

Although participants included children of various races and ethnicities, and they belonged to several different social circles, they found commonality when they discussed their experiences as minorities in the school. During the first few years, nearly 50 percent of eligible families participated.

Learning from Experience
While working as a Spanish teacher at an independent school in the early 1990s, Zenaida Muslin observed a peculiar phenomenon. Her school would admit intellectually talented students of color, but by the end of the school year, academically, they would fall to the bottom of their classes. She concluded that her school was not prepared to support students who are linguistically, racially, and socioeconomically different from the majority. This realization inspired her first effort to create affinity groups for students of color.

Can a White Teacher Facilitate an Affinity Group of Color?

When Gordon School launched its Common Ground affinity group, there were no teachers of color in the lower school, due to maternity leaves. This presented a dilemma. Could a white teacher facilitate an affinity group for students of color?

After some deliberation, I volunteered to co-lead the affinity group with a fifth grade faculty member of color. My logic was simple: I didn’t think that all diversity work should be on the backs of faculty of color, and I thought it would be beneficial for students in Common Ground to have a white adult ally they could identify with.

Like other affinity group facilitators, I participated in ongoing identity development. I also had some experience leading a white affinity group among interested faculty in my school. I engaged in dialogue and activity on numerous occasions at the White Privilege Conference and took part in a weeklong dialogue at the Social Justice Training Institute.

Six years later, I’m still at it. Common Ground now serves over 70 percent of Gordon’s students of color, who comprise approximately 30 percent of the student body. The program is facilitated by four women — one who is white and two who are faculty members of color.

White teachers who are thinking about leading race-based affinity groups in their schools need to think deeply and ask themselves some difficult questions, such as:

• What do I understand about my racial identity as a white teacher/person?
• How do I feel about issues of race as they relate to children’s school experiences?
• What issues are unresolved around my racial identity?
• How does my racial identity affect the way I relate to my students and colleagues within and outside of my school community?
• How do I help children of color find their voices to express their school experiences?

There is no perfect pathway or map to arrive at the answers to these questions, but it is important that we engage in conversation and collaborate with colleagues, administrators, parents, and board members to think about ways to address, affirm, and support all students around racial identity development. — Julie Parsons

In 2000, Muslin moved to the Bank Street School for Children (New York), where she serves as diversity coordinator. Here, she founded lower school race-based affinity groups that start in first grade and meet once a month for 45 minutes, facilitated by two teachers of color. At the same time that students of color work in their affinity groups, white children also discuss issues of race and identity. A follow-up lesson for the full class takes place during the same week of the affinity group meeting, allowing for cross-racial dialogue. The majority of students of color participate in the affinity groups, which encompass 70 to 80 percent of their student-of-color population.

Muslin describes experiencing “push back” from a handful of parents — primarily white parents, but also from those who have children of color, and from a smaller number of parents of color — but she also notes the value of the program.

“Our families need to be more forward thinking,” says Muslin, “and realize that race continues to be an issue in the 21st century and is a part of our human condition — and that our children need to understand the importance of this fact.”

Several schools have been doing this work for 10 years or more with clear success. Randolph Carter, a diversity consultant and director of the Eastern Educational Resource Collaborative, started a lower school affinity group at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School (Virginia) in 1999. Carter’s group initially started in kindergarten, but he soon felt that second grade was a better starting point, as children of this age could understand the purpose of the group. The program ran from September until May during the lunch period, when he met with students by grade, once weekly. Eventually, the groups morphed into what he described as “multiracial groups,” as students were allowed to bring friends. Carter recognized the need for white children to engage in dialogue about race. He emphasizes, however, that racial affinity groups alone are no substitute for the broad institutional change that needs to take place in schools.

Even after 10 years of diversity and inclusion work at their schools, Elizabeth Denevi of Georgetown Day School (Washington) and Sandra Chapman of the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (New York) indicate that they still experience pushback from some parents around the issue of race-based affinity groups, but they also see the clear value for students.

Chapman encourages parents and colleagues to recognize that the white members of their community already spend much of their time surrounded by other white people. “For families of color, the affinity group experience can be profound,” says Chapman. “It creates that safe space inside the school building.”

Both Chapman’s and Denevi’s schools begin affinity work in lower school with informal meetings of children while their parents participate in parents of color meetings. More formal affinity groups for children begin in fifth grade.

Schools considering affinity groups can explore approaches taken by schools in various stages of race-based affinity work by visiting the websites of Shady Hill School (Massachusetts), Friends School in Baltimore (Maryland), The Hamlin School (California), The Village Community School (New York), and The Orchard School (Indiana). Even better, see if you can visit these schools to observe the positive impact of affinity groups on the entire school community.

Where to Begin
Schools interested in launching affinity groups for elementary age students of color can draw from the experiences of those who have been traveling this path now for several years. Although every school may bring unique challenges to the table, this short list of goals can guide educators in their program development.

• Conduct a Racial Climate Assessment to obtain useful data about students’ school experiences.

• Facilitate positive identity exploration, self-awareness, pride, and self-esteem through books, games, discussion, and structured play activities that connect students to each other.

• Provide students with the opportunity to discuss topics of race, identity, and diversity in a safe space that will enable students of color to develop their voice.

• Encourage and develop leadership skills.

• Develop accurate language and vocabulary to describe themselves and others.

• Increase the school’s ability to recruit and retain families and teachers of color.

• The purpose of the affinity group is to provide a majority experience for students regularly who are in the minority at school.

At Gordon, we have also learned to be flexible with regard to each student’s needs and the group’s desires. We want Common Ground to stay dynamic and to be fun. Ours is essentially a play-based program. Our third and fourth grade students receive more formalized programming around race and identity.

Some schools choose to focus on a theme for each season. Fall can be a time for building a sense of group identity and community. Winter weather makes a good time for projects such as scrapbooks, dance, and cooking that provide opportunity for more in-depth identity work. Spring is a good time to focus on closure, on celebrating what you’ve learned.

Every group creates its own traditions, whether it’s celebrating the graduation of our fourth graders into middle school or sharing our goodbyes to our friends moving into new schools. Many resources exist to help facilitators with social and emotional learning activities, including Open Circle (www.open-circle.org); Tribes Learning Community (www.tribes.com), the Roots and Wings Foundation (www.rootsandwingsnj.org), and various education and diversity-related websites.

Past participants are another valuable resource. These middle school mentors can have a profound effect on the developing identity of an elementary school child.

Supporting Adults
As we worked to establish our lower school affinity group at Gordon, we had board approval, and also met with lower school faculty to educate them about the nature of the affinity group structure. We encouraged faculty to connect with the facilitators about the experiences of students of color in the classroom. In addition, we shared strategies with teachers that aid in addressing parents’ concerns and questions about the purpose of the program. We have since learned that it is not a one-shot deal, but that we need to be continuously engaged with school personnel about how to talk about common ground with students and parents. Children will have developmentally appropriate questions and teachers need to respond accordingly. In 2008, Gordon School provided a forum for the school community to learn about Common Ground and voice questions. Voices of dissension were welcomed. In Spring 2012, we will be having a panel discussion about the value of affinity-group programming in elementary school.

Building a Common Language
First graders may not fully understand why they join an affinity group. By third or fourth grade, however, students often can articulate what the affinity group means to them and why it’s important.

This confidence becomes especially important when they feel scrutinized by other students who want to know what they’re “doing in there.” Affinity groups help to reduce the pressure on these children by giving both students and adults in the school community a common language in which to discuss not only the program, but also larger issues of race and diversity. Affinity groups are a present-day Band-Aid for the conditions and experiences children of color are having in predominately white affluent schools. In the larger context, schools must be prepared to examine systemic changes in their institutions to provide a more equitable space for all students. All students — not just students of color — must be engaged in examining and clearly understanding the multiple facets of identity.

Eventually, “positive racial identity development” may become a standard element in the school lexicon, fitting seamlessly along terms like “developmentally appropriate” or “academically rigorous.”

Julie Parsons is a kindergarten teacher and affinity group facilitator at the Gordon School (Rhode Island). Kimberly Ridley is director of diversity and multicultural practice at the Gordon School. The authors wish to thank writer Cindy Elder, a parent of two children at the Gordon School, for her generous assistance in editing this article. For more information about the Gordon School’s affinity groups, visit www.gordonschool.org.

Notes

1. Bigler, Rebecca, 2009. “See Baby Discriminate,” Newsweek, September 2009.

2. Graham, James A., Robert Cohen, Susan M. Zbikowski, and Mary E. Secrist, 1998. “A Longitudinal Investigation of Race and Sex as Factors in Children’s Classroom Friendship Choices,” Child Study Journal, v28, n4, 1998.

3. Arrington, Edith G., Diane M. Hall, Howard C. Stevenson, 2003. “The Success of African-American Students in Independent Schools,” Independent School, Summer 2003.