Our Racial Equity Plans Must Be Better

Ryan Davis

For the foreseeable future, school will be different. Online learning and partial reopenings pose challenges that demand our immediate attention, especially in regards to equity.  Yet such challenges also bring into sharp relief a school system that already needed transformation.  So, with one eye on the present, we must have the other on the future.  We have a moment now where we can intentionally plan for a different approach to school, one that is more deeply dedicated to equity and justice.    

For almost two years, Racial Equity has been one of the Three Pillars for Jefferson County Public Schools. It is a bold and important move resulting in a district-wide Racial Equity Plan as well as a unique Racial Equity Plan (REP) developed by each school.  REPs have the potential to lay out ideas and actions to dismantle the systemic and individual racism we know exists in our schools.  

Yet after looking over the REPs for our comprehensive high schools, I can’t help feeling underwhelmed and discouraged.  Of course, the REPs vary greatly: some are sparse and narrowly focused. Others sprawl with Pollak-esq splatterings of edu-jargon. Some seem filled out with dutiful compliance; some feel like a school taking a risk to try something new; some read like a regurgitation of things already in place.  

If they have one thing in common it is this: they simply aren’t enough.  They speak neither with the enormity nor urgency that is needed. REPs also overlap a great deal in the Areas of Focus and the Solutions that they identify.  These commonalities show high school REPs striving with good intention, yet in ways that are insufficient, and sometimes problematic, for addressing the racist structures that are deeply embedded in our schools.  

Common Areas of Focus

Many REPs target disparities in behavior data, particularly suspensions. At a district level, Black students make up about 66% of suspensions but only about 30% of the population. Such disparity not only affects the students who are suspended, but also the students who see the disproportionate punishment of students who look like them. Without a doubt, suspension disparities must be addressed.  

Yet, consider two facts together: 1) REPs do not include suspension disparities as one in a long list of focus areas — REPs that focus on suspensions typically only identify one other area of focus, if that; and 2) the vast majority of Black students are never suspended. So while addressing suspension disparities is essential work, that work does not directly impact the majority of Black students.  The potential reach of the REP severely limited when suspension reduction is its primary, or only, work. 

Moreover, when disparities are defined by a single number (i.e. suspension rate), there is a tendency to focus on manipulating the indicator without addressing the real issues. Adequately addressing suspension disparities requires a much larger interrogation, not just of the behavioral systems at the school and district level, but also of our curriculum and how we define the primary purpose and fundamental structures of school. Yet, recent reports provide evidence that current behavior efforts may be more about gaming a statistic than about truly transformative work to support Black students.   

Perhaps more concerning, the focus on improving test scores in many REPs reinforces rather than deconstructs racist concepts of teaching and learning.  Educators have almost universally and persistently questioned the value of test scores.  What does it say about our plans to support Black students if they are centered around something we actually value very little?  More critically, Ibram X. Kendi writes in Why the Achievement Gap is a Racist Idea

The testing movement does not value multiculturalism. The testing movement does not value the antiracist equality of difference. The testing movement values the racist hierarchy of difference, and its bastard 100-year-old child: the academic achievement gap.

Test scores aren’t just a product of a racist system, they are a producer of it.  An anti-racist approach would end the use of test scores as a means to sort, rank, and label students rather than attempting to refine a tool that has been used for racist ends since its inception. Some colleges and universities are already making this move — more than 700 have decided not to require ACT or SAT scores, including recently the University of California

At best, REPs that focus on improving test scores seek to improve skills that are relatively meaningless while perpetuating the White mirage of meritocracy.  At worst, they strengthen a racist system that deinfrancheises students and distorts our view of them and of what school could be.  

More positively, many REPs focus on improving a ‘sense of belonging’.  This goal is more universal than suspension disparities and further away from the racist ideologies of testing. But, of course, belonging should also only be the start.  REPs could go further in naming the need for Black students to also feel a sense of ownership and leadership. Additionally, especially for addressing a factor that can feel abstract like ‘sense of belonging’, REPs need systemically oriented, concrete, and revolutionary solutions.  

Common Solutions

Many Racial Equity Plans rely heavily on a strategy of Professional Development.  Plans run the spectrum from specifying only three hours of training to stating that within a single year staff will be trained on all of the following: Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, Implicit Bias, Social Emotional Learning, Trauma Informed Care, and continued implementation of PBIS.  Ironically, both ends of the spectrum paint an all too familiar picture of Professional Learning as a one-time delivery of information rather than an on-going process of transformation — deep, personal, and time-consuming work.   

Certainly, personal and collective growth must be at the heart of equity efforts.  But, Professional Learning as a solution to racial inequity can feel like the inaction Tre Johnson writes about in “When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs”. Training and Professional Development are most often passive and easily ignored by many. How many colleagues would tune out such PD because they do not believe themselves to be racist? So while transformative professional growth is an essential step, REPs do not explicitly frame the work in this way. 

From the systemic perspective, many plans defer work to the Professional Learning Communities.  If PLCs are the hub of planning and collaboration, then they must be engaged in equity work.  But, that work must be more than an additional check-box on a lengthy minutes form.  Without more information, it is difficult to know if schools are asking PLCs to make equity the central focus of their work or it is merely a short appendix to an already written book.  

In many ways, much of the predominant PLC system remains rooted in the racist conception of the achievement gap. It has become a highly-prescribed and narrow way of thinking about teaching and learning.  Again, consider questions from Dr. Kendi’s essay, “What if, all along, our well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap has been opening the door to racist ideas?What if our educational system focused on opening minds instead of filling minds and testing how full they are?”

If PLCs are truly driving anti-racist work, they must be able to interrogate the PLC system itself —  to ask whether it orients teachers more towards opening minds or towards filling and testing them, to ask whether it values difference.  PLC systems tend to focus on funneling students towards a standard outcome with external, predetermined indicators of success. In contrast, researcher Yong Zhao has long advised that we “start with the individual child, instead of what others think [that child] should become.” For PLCs to be part of anti-racist work, they must be allowed (and even encouraged) to develop truly student-centered and personalized approaches instead of ones more adherent to standardization and testing. 

Regrettably, REP strategies also reinforce racist conceptions of the achievement gap through the creation of academic intervention courses and the use of data (usually test scores) to adjust how students are assigned to tracked courses.  The practice of tracking most certainly rests on the ‘racist hierarchy of difference’ and has been referred to as ‘modern day segregation’. Tinkering with the gatekeepers still leaves intact a system fundamentally built on inequity.  

Intervention efforts stem from such well-intended desires to help.  Yet, especially at the secondary level, intervention is still primarily founded in the racist conception of the achievement gap.  Intervention asks us to notice first perceived deficits rather than to protrize developing the strengths and passions of our students. Moreover, at the secondary level interventions tend to focus not on deep, conceptual development, but rather ephemeral drill and repetition of skills.  

Intervention time often comes at the sacrifice of electives or other student interests. Intervention can come with stigma and feed negative self-identity.  Certainly, we need to support students, and some type of intervention may be a part of that. But, REPs have not grappled with the racist and transactional underpinnings of the dominant understanding of intervention that has been casually adopted by most high schools in recent years. 

Interventions also often represent an ‘auxiliary’ approach to equity.  Intervention often positions the needs of students, and thus the students themselves, as external to the core structure of class.  Rather than significantly challenging the structure of course or approach to school, intervention preserves a system that values inequity and discourages difference. It still prioritizes the students for whom those systems were built.   

Similarly, some REPs also establish electives, clubs, and mentor groups.  To be clear, schools need clubs, electives, and mentor groups, especially those designed for and by Black students.  They can be valuable resources to the students who can access them, but they still constitute an auxiliary approach to equity.  Acknowledging race on the perfieray does not necessarily challenge the racists constructs of the larger system, nor does it engage the whole school in anti-racist work. Such ‘auxiliary’ approaches typify the tension between necessary yet insufficient ideas seen in REPs. 

One of the only whole school strategies found in high school REPs is the use of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS).  PBIS can be difficult to discuss as implementation can vary widely. Positively, PBIS can increase clarity and reduce discretionary punishment that is more often directed at Black students. Some schools also use PBIS to detect and address systemic issues.  Yet, such benefits do not outweigh the consequences of adopting the ideology of PBIS, especially when those benefits can be gained by other means.  

Systems like PBIS are built on outdated, behaviorist thinking that is anthetical to anti-racist values. Researchers like Alfie Kohn have implied that such programs are akin to treating students like lab rats, manipulating and coercing behavior through rewards and punishment. Such approaches are built on faulty assumptions about how humans work (for more read Daniel Pink’s Drive or Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards), and so tend to treat students as less than human.  Moreover, the ‘ideal’ behavior sought in PBIS programs can be heavily culturally biased.  On the whole, such programs are neither humanizing nor liberatory.  

Alternatively, Restorative Justice approaches tend to be founded on a completely different view of people and behavior.  They value humanity, difference, and reconciliation over mechnicization, sameness, and compliance.  Unfortunately, only three of the high school REPs included Restorative Justice as a strategy.  

What’s Next

The tension between the necessity of the work and its insufficient, or problematic, conception in current REPs points to our need for deeper praxis — the on-going dialogue between action and theory.  The current set of high school REPs layout a set of actions that develop an ideological approach racial equity.  The assumptions and beliefs of that theory must be examined to inform future action. Some of those conceptual critiques are outlined above, but there are other, broader concerns.     

For instance, on the whole, high school REPs take a deficit perspective toward racial inequity — they treat Black students as a problem to be solved.  They ask why Black students aren’t meeting certain indicators, neglecting to interrogate whether the indicators themselves are founded in racist thought.  

Alternatively, an asset based approach to REPs would focus more on identifying and developing gifts and talents, finding areas of genius and success (even if they are outside the school walls) and bringing them into the classroom.  Such REPs would be framed in terms of how our systems prevent and discourage students, specifically BIPOC students, from expressing their natural brilliance (instead of being framed as how the students aren’t succeeding in the system). A solely deficit-based lens can severely warp our individual psychology and our systemic approach to anti-racist work.  It can lead to paternalism, White Savoir-ism, and the reinforcing of racist systems.  

Paradoxically, the plans also feel devoid of race.  Their framing of disparities in behavior and testing data could easily apply to any group with disparities. In many REPs, race could be replaced by gender, socio-economic status, or language learner status without necessitating other changes in the plan.  In other words, REPs have not thought specifically and critically about race.  

One risk in writing this is that it is read too sharply. As insufficient as I find our REPs to be, I’m also intensely proud of our district for taking this first step. We have put pen to paper.  Now we have time for the red ink and big exs and exclamation points.  We’ll revise and rewrite, and then again and again.  The work is never finished.

It also must be acknowledged that a REP does not represent the totality of anti-racist work done at school. Individuals and groups of educators surely go well beyond the work specified in REPs.  And, REPs should not be required to document the totality of this work lest they become burdensome, bureaucratic documents that actually discourage the work.  We cannot allow REPs to become merely an act of compliance (though some already appear to be).  

Rewriting REPs are as much a part of the work as executing the plan.  We cannot just assess our progress in implementing the current REPs, we must continually interrogate the goals and paths they define, digging deeper each time.  If we do not take the time now to re-invigorate them with ideas that are truly revolutionary and transformative, we will continue down a path that is already well-worn with ideas that ultimately hurt our students, especially our BIPOC students. They deserve a better way, and I am confident we can help make it.     

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