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Raising Race in the Classroom

Acknowledging differences and highlighting strengths

A classroom of wide-eyed fifth graders huddled around their teacher’s desk to look at a print of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence, a well-known painting that depicts the document’s authors presenting a draft to Congress.

“Tell me what you see in this picture. What is unique or different about it?” the teacher asked.

“Well, everyone’s white,” one student pointed out.

“Yes,” the teacher responded.

And saying nothing else, she moved on.

Moments like this, though uncomfortable, are too often missed learning opportunities.

The particular school in which this scene unfolded participates in the Double Check program, a professional

Catherine Bradshaw, professor of education and associate dean for research and faculty development

development program for teachers created both to increase student engagement and reduce disciplinary actions and special education referrals, which disproportionately affect students of color. Led by Catherine Bradshaw, professor of education and associate dean for research and faculty development at the Curry School, the goal of the program is to provide school-wide training and individualized coaching to teachers. Its ultimate aim is to integrate culturally responsive practices into classrooms.

Not Applicable?

Double Check coaches use a checklist of instructional elements to guide feedback to teachers on topics such as how a lesson addresses issues of diversity and cultural inclusiveness. Yet, when principals observe classrooms like in the scene described above, many write “N/A” next to those questions.

“Quite often the principals say they write ‘not applicable’ on their observations because they believe the lesson wasn’t relevant to culture. They think since it didn’t take place during Black History Month or when they were studying Martin Luther King Jr. or the Civil War that it can’t be culturally relevant,” Bradshaw said. “Our goal is to widen their lens and remind them that inclusiveness as it relates to race, culture and ethnicity is not just a special-occasion topic. It should be infused into all aspects of the curriculum.”

Why Race and Ethnicity Are Meaningful

Racial categories are a social concept—not biological— and they have complex ties to individuals’ day-to-day lived experiences. Many researchers at the Curry School see the examination of these classifications in their research as critical.

Joanna Lee Williams, association professor of education affiliated with Youth-Nex

“We are pushing researchers to establish more complex methodologies,” said Joanna Lee Williams, an associate professor affiliated with Curry’s Youth-Nex, a research center to promote youth development. “Paying more attention to the myriad ways in which race and ethnicity function as contexts for youth development, rather than ignoring these issues or treating them as surface-level categories, can promote healthy development among all youth.”

From Williams’ perspective considering race and ethnicity in research on young adults can result in more useful, informative and valid explanations of youth development. As she and colleague Nancy Deutsch noted in a recent paper, the role of race and ethnicity in research on youth development programs has not received enough attention. This void is particularly troubling, they said, because racial categories, which were developed to maintain the power of the dominant group, have historically been correlated to a child’s access to resources, the likelihood that the child will experience institutional discrimination, and the way that child defines and experiences positive development. The processes underlying these correlations often go unexplored, despite their importance for understanding youth development. Additional approaches will help balance generalizations with the unique experiences students have in everyday scenarios.

“For practitioners, on the other hand, the focus is on how programs are being designed to meet the needs of children,” Williams said, adding that they want to help educators identify how “curricula can honor and respect rich socio-cultural backgrounds and ensure equitable access for all.”

Other Curry researchers — studying another question entirely — found that the explicit consideration of race and ethnicity in empirical research may uncover factors that produce more positive outcomes for students of color. Jason Downer, associate professor of education and director of Curry’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), and CASTL’s founder and Curry School dean Robert Pianta observed positive outcomes for young children in classrooms in which students and teachers are of similar racial or ethnic backgrounds. Downer and Pianta believe this observation could directly lead to improvements in the quality of pre-K education nationwide.

Preschools are the most diverse places in America and offer us an opportunity to examine some of the factors that may contribute to effective education for a wide range of children in the U.S

“Preschools are the most diverse places in America and offer us an opportunity to examine some of the factors that may contribute to effective education for a wide range of children in the U.S.,” Pianta concluded.

As Williams pointed out, through its research and thought leadership the Curry School “is pushing back on the status quo, challenging dominant norms and assumptions,” and striving to improve outcomes for all students.

Closing the Discipline and Achievement Gaps

When academic researchers study outcomes of students of color in primary and secondary school, they often refer to two gaps: the discipline gap and the achievement gap. Put more simply, researchers find that, in general, students from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds are disciplined more frequently (the discipline gap) and show lower rates of scholastic achievement than their White counterparts (the achievement gap). Currently, several Curry researchers are designing and testing programs that may reduce or eliminate these gaps altogether.

Teachers’ referrals of students to be disciplined for misconduct contribute substantially to negative trajectories for those students. Students who receive a suspension lose instructional time, fall behind on coursework, become discouraged, and may ultimately drop out. Recent research shows each suspension decreases a student’s odds of graduating high school by an additional 20 percent. Furthermore, compared to their peers, suspended youth have a higher likelihood of subsequent interactions with the criminal justice system.

A team of CASTL researchers aiming to improve the motivating and engaging quality of instruction also collected data on discipline referrals made by teachers in a recent study. They worked with teachers using a suite of virtual coaching resources called MyTeachingPartner or MTP, which was developed at CASTL and has been tested with thousands of teachers in a variety of school settings.

A randomized, controlled trial provided one set of teachers (the “intervention” group) with one or two years of MTP coaching, which included different approaches to instruction and teacher-student relationship building techniques. The results of this study were astounding. After receiving only a year of coaching, teachers in the intervention group showed no significant disparities in discipline referrals between African-American students and their classmates. Furthermore, the effects of the coaching were sustained and maintained even after the coaching was withdrawn.

Dewey Cornell, professor of education and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project

Curry researchers are also reducing the racial discipline gap through the use of threat assessment to prevent violence. “A threat assessment team is a multi-disciplinary team of school staff available to help students involved in a crisis or conflict that includes a threat of violence,” explained Dewey Cornell, professor and director of Curry’s Virginia Youth Violence Project. The team usually includes administrators, counselors, psychologists, social workers, school resource officers and other staff who work toward the goal of helping students solve conflicts or concerns before they escalate into violence.

In comparing White, Black, and Hispanic students who received threat assessments across Virginia’s public schools during the 2014-15 school year, Cornell’s research team found no racial disparities in disciplinary outcomes, such as suspension, expulsion rates, school transfers, arrests by law enforcement or incarceration in juvenile detention.

One goal of the assessment teams is to appropriately respond to students who are making threats, as opposed to so-called “zero tolerance” policies, which typically treat all threats equally and often result in a student’s removal from school.  “Threat assessment gives school authorities a safe, practical and effective way to address threatening behavior by students,” Cornell said.

The achievement gap was considered by Curry researchers studying teacher archetypes — in particular, one referred to as the “warm demander.” Warm demanders nurture and care for their students without lowering academic expectations or standards. The data gathered by observing over 600 teachers across the U.S. revealed that teachers’ high expectations, an aspect of demand, was especially important for African American students’ academic growth. Specifically, said lead researcher Lia Sandilos, teachers who created challenging classrooms with high expectations showed higher achievement gains for African American students than teachers who did not. Sandilos cautioned, however, that being warm and caring is a necessary but not sufficient factor to boost achievement.

Although more work remains, increased equity – whether for discipline or achievement – seems not only possible, but within reach. To this end, Curry researchers are identifying mechanisms to close the discipline and achievement gaps.

Although more work remains, increased equity – whether for discipline or achievement – seems not only possible, but within reach. To this end, Curry researchers are identifying mechanisms to close the discipline and achievement gaps.

Taking the issue a step further, Daniel Duke noted in a recent review of studies addressing the achievement gap that focusing on only the gaps across racial categories leaves potentially important questions unanswered. He argued that analyses should include achievement variation within African American student groups, rather than only across racial groups. He raised a number of questions that racial group comparisons have not been able to answer. For example, Why do some districts register higher levels of African American achievement than other districts? Why do some states boast higher levels of Black student achievement than other states? Why do Black girls tend to do better in school than Black boys?

“Addressing these questions can provide insights that hold promise for reducing both within-race and between-race gaps,” said Duke, professor in Curry’s administration and supervision program.

The point of framing achievement problems in terms of comparisons within race and ethnicity, he concluded, is to prevent potentially misleading generalizations from being perpetuated. “When the full range of achievement for racial and ethnic groups is not recognized, the result can reinforce inaccurate stereotypes and encourage overly simplistic explanations for student achievement,” he said.

What If We Don’t?

“For a while there was a mantra about having a ‘color-blind society,’” Catherine Bradshaw noted. She now believes that educators must strive for a better balance in the classroom regarding discussions of race and diversity.

She and her colleagues at the Curry School are trying to drive the conversation beyond a culture-neutral, race-blind approach. “We want to acknowledge differences and highlight strengths — some are based on culture, some on race, and some are at the intersection of the two,” Bradshaw said. When education researchers consider race and ethnicity in their interventions and data analysis, they are seeing some ways forward to positive results.

“Curry is working hard on  issues of equity and inclusion,” said Bradshaw.  “This is a challenging issue, and we might not have all the answers today. However, particularly given our current political climate, this topic is becoming more important than ever.”

New Faculty

Three of the Curry School’s newest faculty members are also exploring issues around race, education and youth development. All are affiliated with Youth-Nex.

Katrina DebnamKatrina Debnam
Assistant professor of nursing and education; co-principal investigator on the Double Check grant

“My research has consistently and deliberately been focused on the intersection of health and education with a strong concentration on conditions that disproportionately affect communities of color.”

 Valerie Adams-BassValerie Adams-Bass
Assistant professor of education

“I am particularly interested in how Black adolescents interpret negative media stereotypes and whether the messages presented are internalized or buffered as a result of racial socialization experiences.”

Chauncey SmithChauncey Smith
Assistant professor of education

“My work is centered on adolescent sociopolitical development broadly. Specifically and most recently, I have examined the ways in which Black boys make meaning of their school experiences (such as the school environment, their experiences of racial discrimination and their relationships with peers).”


Additional Resources

Bottiani, J. H., Bradshaw, C. P., & Mendelson, T. (2016, October 13). A multilevel examination of racial disparities in high school discipline: Black and white adolescents’ perceived equity, school belonging, and adjustment problems. Journal of Educational Psychology (advance online publication).

Cornell, D., Maeng, J., Burnette, A.G., Datta, P., Huang, F., & Jia, Y. (2016). Threat assessment in Virginia schools: Technical report of the Threat Assessment Survey for 2014-2015.

Duke, D.L. (2016). Can within-race achievement comparisons help narrow between-race achievement gaps? Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (early view online).

Gregory, A., Hafen, C. A., Ruzek, E., Mikami, A. Y., Allen, J. P., & Pianta, R. C. (2016). Closing the racial discipline gap in classrooms by changing teacher practice. School Psychology Review, 45(2), 171–191.

Sandilos, L.E., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., & Cohen, J. J. (2016). Warmth and demand: The relation between students’ perceptions of the classroom environment and achievement growth. Child Development (early view online).

Williams, J. L., & Deutsch, N. L. (2016). Beyond between-group differences: Considering race, ethnicity, and culture in research on positive youth development programs. Applied Developmental Science, 20(3), 203–213.