Racial Justice in Education: How Can We Assess Racial Climate in Schools?


The recent racial unrest across the nation has not left any area of our society untouched. While there has been a focus on police brutality, issues including racial mistreatment, racial inequality, and racial injustice have remained unfortunate realities in American life. Racial injustice is prevalent in education, economics, housing, technology, politics, health care, social welfare—the list goes on.

Needless to say, education has always had racial tensions and undertones; yet, we have largely been reluctant to acknowledge race and racism, grapple with it, talk about it, and put its ugly remnants behind us. A 21st-century analysis of race would reveal that it still remains the elephant in the room—the issue no one wants to acknowledge or discuss. However, as much as we attempt to ignore it, look around it, over and under it, race remains a constant reality in our schools and classrooms.

In this moment, it is critical for educators of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to develop the courageous muscle to acknowledge race, racism, and all of their complexities. It’s time to make sure that the calls we have seen across the country to end racial injustice do not stop at the entrances to schools across our country. To be clear, schools have come quite a way in creating more racially inclusive learning environments than in days past. Long gone are the days of racial hostility that required national guards escorting Black students into schools, while groups of angry white mobs shouted profanity-laced words. But the danger in today’s moment is that the pernicious effects of racism are subtler, layered, and not always visible—yet they are equally damaging.

Racial Equity in the Classroom: 5 Areas of Focus

Here are five areas that schools can examine to assess how they are doing when it comes to achieving racial justice in education.

1. Racially Inclusive Curriculum

What and who we teach matters. An analysis of school curriculums in all subject matters should ask:

  • Are the stories, struggles, triumphs, and contributions of people of color present?
  • Are students engaging in literary texts authored by people of color?
  • Do their math textbooks highlight examples lived and demonstrated through diverse fields?
  • Do science lessons speak to the contributions of scientists of color such as Mae Jemison or Katherine Johnson?

Not only does a racially inclusive curriculum send a powerful message, the images, posters, sayings, and visual representations convey who is visible and who is not visible in what we see, think, and learn about in our classrooms.

2. Discipline Policies

This has long been an area of discussion. Despite ongoing efforts to reduce racial disparity in suspensions and expulsions, schools have not gone far enough to eradicate the differences in how students of color are disciplined compared with their white counterparts. A 2018 report published by the Black Minds Project and the Black Male Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), found that the statewide suspension rate for Black males in California public schools was 3.6 times greater than the statewide rate for all students, even as the suspension rates among Black males have dropped since the 2011-2012 school year.

"As much as we attempt to ignore it, look around it, over and under it, race remains a constant reality in our schools and classrooms."

It has been important for education leaders to analyze disciplinary data disaggregated by race, but now schools must go a step further and identify the teachers who are more likely to refer students and the types of infractions for which their students are being referred. And school leaders must ask if they need to rethink school policies if they continue to disproportionately affect students of color—or, in many cases, school leaders must start boldly sending students back to classrooms and require teachers to find ways to engage them in learning.

3. Building Relationships

The ability to feel connected in schools is one of the most powerful tools in teaching and learning. Yet, we know that students of color often feel less of a sense of belonging to schools compared with their white peers. It’s important for school leaders to talk to students of color and understand what their relationships and levels of connectedness look like with adults in the building.

Many teachers do an amazing job connecting with students across the racial spectrum, while others, not so much. I recently authored a book with two classroom teachers titled No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships (Heinemann) which offers a number of strategies that teachers can use to connect with all students, but in particular students of color.

4. Access to Higher-Order Classes

At the elementary school level, many districts have Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) programs designed for students who may be more advanced academically. At the high school level, students who are enrolled in Honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses are typically on a track for postsecondary education.

Unfortunately, this is one of the areas where racial injustice occurs. In many schools across the country, students of color are woefully underrepresented in these higher-order courses. Research has shown that students of color are rarely recommended for the GATE programs by their teachers; the tests used for GATE entrance are often culturally biased; or students of color are assumed to not have interest in them.

The same goes for AP and Honors courses—opportunities that are often missed out on by students of color even when showing strong academic potential. Analyzing racial representation in higher-order courses and programs is an important step in any racial audit.

5. Diversifying School Staff

The importance of race and ethnicity is important to read, think, and learn about, but perhaps the most important step we can take is ensuring students see diversity in schools. Thus, the makeup of school personnel—teachers, administrators, counselors, therapists, nurses, and volunteers—should reflect ethnic and racial diversity. While many districts lament not being able to attract educators of color to their schools, a strategic plan to aggressively and sustainably recruit and retain educators of color should be a high priority.

The work of racial justice in our schools and classrooms is not an easy process that is done indiscriminately or in a lock-step fashion. To be clear, this can be a painful and difficult process, because schools will learn that they are not as racially inclusive as they believe. But change can and must occur. There must be a deep-seated, and sustained willingness and conviction to truly understand the manner in which racial inequities continue to play out in our schools. It’s imperative that all teachers and school leaders be a part of the solution. Honestly and frequently examining our practices, policies, and opportunities is a much-needed step toward healing and creating racial equity in education.

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Read about HMH’s commitment to racial justice and equity in education, and how we are using our platform to make much-needed change.

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