Sohn: Schools' outrage is not training, it's equity still on hold

Sohn: Schools' outrage is not training, it's equity still on hold

August 13th, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

The fact that a training session for Hamilton County teachers became the object of controversy locally speaks volumes. What it says is that we need to continue a conversation about race — whether local conservatives think so or not.

The spat began earlier this month when nationally-known motivational speaker Robert Jackson addressed teachers in Hamilton County School's Urban Education Institute during a professional development session at Bayside Baptist Church. The presentation included slides on racism and white privilege. Some of those slides went viral when the head of a local conservative group known as Hamilton Flourishing posted them to Facebook. Hamilton Flourishing is a nonprofit think tank fashioned after The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank.

Examples of white privilege were that white people are less likely to be followed, interrogated or searched by law enforcement; their skin tone will not affect their credit or financial responsibility; when accused of a crime, white people are portrayed as good people; and they don't lose opportunities when mistakes are made.

One slide also said "people of color cannot be racist because they lack the institutional power to affect white lives."

In the social media post, Patrick Hampton, vice president of communications and community engagement of Hamilton Flourishing, said, "This is what Hamilton County employees and teachers had to sit through. This is called professional development. The liberal left is running the school systems and pushing their agenda onto our children with our tax dollars."

Hampton, a vocal critic of the public school district, said that taxpayers should be furious.

Well, yes. School leaders and many taxpayers are furious — furious that our schools are in such bad shape after years of "implicit" institutional bias, a bias defined largely, according to our leaders and to Jackson and other experts, as "unconscious" bias.

No one is calling teachers blatantly, deliberately racist. It is common sense to comprehend that we all come from different backgrounds and sometimes — no matter our different backgrounds — we fail to think about, let alone understand, others.

Consider:

» Data released in 2018 by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that an achievement gap persists nationally and statewide among children of color, poor children, children who don't speak English as their first language, and their white, wealthier peers.

In Hamilton County, nearly 60% of our third-graders cannot read on grade level. About 60% of our high school graduates aren't jobs ready in local employers' eyes. This in a school system which is 53% white, with 85% of teachers who are white. Most of the black and brown students are concentrated in downtown schools dubbed as the "Opportunity Zone." Many of those school scores were so bad they were at risk of being taken over by the state.

» The Hamilton County Schools district was flagged last year by the state of Tennessee for disproportionately disciplining black students, especially those with disabilities.

Tanji Marshall Reed, of the Education Trust — a national nonprofit education organization focused on closing gaps and disparities in education — said school districts need to look at their data, and teachers need to talk about disparities especially when it comes to race. "If the kids are uncomfortable, and kids are, it's because teachers are living, breathing, walking and teaching out of their bias and their underlying racist biases," she said.

Teachers? Try our school board. This is the school board that in early 2018 essentially put an equity task force on hold because board members didn't think the discussions should be public. Translation: The discussions shouldn't happen. Wait, aren't we often talking about "the conversation" we should have when local news stories highlight anything from police brutality to Confederate statuary to educational equity? Of course, with educational equity, we all too often just want to blame families — particularly black families. Our code is often "fatherless" families.

» Research shows that white teachers discipline students of color more than white students. Research also shows that teachers of color are more likely to recommend students of color for advanced courses or programs than white teachers and are less likely to discipline students of color. A 2017 study by John Hopkins University, found that black students with at least one teacher of color were 29% less likely to drop out of school.

Educators need to talk about this, Reed said. And when they do, it will change the way they teach.

That doesn't mean teachers will stop teaching anything — multiplication, reading, history. It simply means they will learn about and seek the best methods possible to reach all students — which is what teachers really want to do.

Ask yourselves: Is talking about "implicit bias" any less code than "fatherless families" or students "in poverty?"

No. Both are painful truths that we need to talk about, along with the culture that makes them painful. And we need to talk about this openly so we may finally move past the unintended consequences that hold back our children and our community.

Being culturally different is not a fatal flaw. Deliberately refusing to acknowledge bias of any kind is.

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