The major motion picture “Just Mercy” tells the true story of an innocent African American man condemned to death by a system built on false assumptions and racial bias.
The film is garnering increased attention amidst the nation’s outrage over a history of murders and threats visited on African Americans, outside of any semblance of due process. Too often, these result in horrifying outcomes, like those for George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
Sadly, I know from personal experience that false assumptions are made not only on the streets, but also in our schools.
“Just Mercy” is the personal memoir of author and civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson’s work exposes an enduring presumption of guilt about children of color, and he states this unflinchingly in describing the school-to-prison pipeline.
American education, often a battlefront for operationalized prejudice, is fraught with discriminatory outcomes.
Schools are no exception to race-based codes and racialized justice systems, and educators are not immune from the biases our nation has fomented.
Black students are subject to more aggressive disciplinary actions in comparison to white peers. Students of color are less likely to be given access to accelerated opportunities in secondary schools, and more likely to be placed in remediation when they head to college.
In each case, children of color are cast as the problem. Racialized presumptions and inequitable opportunities at the root are overlooked and unaddressed. Too often, we don’t see our Brown and Black children as brilliant, even though we know that expectations of children affect the outcomes they attain.
Professor Deborah Ball masterfully illustrates how every classroom is fertile with opportunities to elevate children or, conversely, to stifle them. Ball unpacks micro-moments where teachers send implicit and explicit messages to students. She calls them “discretionary spaces,” and they are myriad: A teacher is estimated to have 1,200 to 1,500 student interactions every day. Ball challenges us to “take as axiomatic the brilliance of Black children” to receive students as capable contributors.
District of Columbia Public Schools Teacher of the Year Ashley Kearney sees it this way: “Students can drive the content with their interest. I can’t assume they’re wrong until I investigate how they’re thinking about a problem.”
As a student, Kearney was placed in low-level classes, sight-unseen. She later had a teacher tell her he was surprised she could pass an Advanced Placement exam. “Adults can create barriers to students’ innate progress with a ‘they can’t’ attitude,” she says. Fortunately, she had family and, later, teachers who pushed her beyond her comfort zone, and inverted her earlier experiences by exposing her to advanced material without hesitation — expectations that she now brings to her own classroom.
Even well-intentioned efforts require a shift from assuming a deficit in our students toward a presumption that they are made of genius and resilience. Sara Knueve, a Student Services coordinator who supports an elementary school and system-wide work in the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, recently told me how early efforts to introduce social-emotional learning led some staff to shape students into dominant cultural norms. “It was no wonder,” Knueve says, “when surveys indicated that Black students felt like they didn’t belong.”
During my career with D.C. Public Schools, I have seen examples of how things can be different. At one alternative high school where I was principal, we knew from observation and research that students matching the profile of our bright yet “off-track” students were not given access to rigorous content, and that this creates a downward spiral on achievement. Rather than creating hurdles and gateways for access to rigor, we built our entire upper-grade curriculum on the foundations of the Advanced Placement literature courses, ensuring that every student had access to rich language and challenging analytical tasks. Despite dissent suggesting “these kids can’t handle” that rigor, we mapped this work back into the 9th and 10th grades. We were able to build a ramp to rigor and move our school to the 99th percentile on national growth rates.
Adult preconceptions depress Black student achievement, but surmounting bias is not simply about easy personal choices; our collective expectations have filtered through a history rife with racist paradigms. Our charge as educators is to make an informed choice about which presumptions of character and capacity we bring into our classrooms. If we first presume children are not only innocent but brilliant, then we might see less preoccupation with classroom control, and more student-centered, authentic learning experiences. We might reject budgets that give schools more security officers than counselors.
When I was principal of a diverse, dual-language elementary school, we confronted a persistent gap in outcomes for African American students. I asked administrators and faculty a question: If we know that the kids are equally capable at such young ages, then what are we doing that’s perpetuating this gap? Faculty decided to start self-guided book studies and professional-development sessions on adult mindset and equitable practices. We analyzed and adjusted our own mindsets about perpetual inequities for students. That year we cut the outcome differential in half, and the team became an established faculty committee that recently led district-wide orientation on our journey.
At a deep level, the needed shifts in practice and policy require a presumption that the role of education is to unlock every child’s ability to express their brilliance. The Aspen Education program and our networks of district leaders and policymakers operate on the belief that schools are meant to forge pathways to creativity, industry and opportunity.
We commemorate Juneteenth. Why not make that sentiment last all year? I have fond childhood memories of summer celebrations of Black community and Black culture.
We can create classrooms and systems founded on elevating the genius of Black and Brown children. Schools, too, can be the places where students ask tough questions, find their voices and construct new understandings. When we make space for the brilliance of our children to shine in full, they solve the problems we give them, mathematical and otherwise. That would be worth celebrating.
This story about racialized presumptions and inequitable opportunities in education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Gene Pinkard is Director, Practice and Leadership, of the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program. He previously served in Washington, D.C., schools as a teacher, administrator and district leader.