How Do We Pursue Equity in Education? By Learning, Unlearning, and Muddling Through.

The areas of K–12 education that demand a transformation of thought and action are multiple, and we must lean in to this vital work.


Facing History and Ourselves seminar photo
Race and Membership Seminar, Facing History and Ourselves, New England, 2017. Photographer Tom Kates


Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We commonly hear that meaningful historical education is a cornerstone of democracy and, thus, essential to promoting equity within our society. Less discussed is the importance of educators themselves having access to perspectives that place the field, and current student outcomes, in historical context. For us to begin leveraging the power of education to drive equity, it is crucial that educators deepen their knowledge of the history of K–12 education and its relationship to society at large.

At Facing History and Ourselves, we have embarked upon Teaching for Equity and Justice (TEJ) work with schools across the country to help educators and schools rise to this challenge. Our goal is to have teachers grapple with how we got here—a status quo in K–12 education that reflects profound educational inequity.

In an article published by the Brookings Institution, “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education,” author Linda Darling-Hammond writes: “Over the past 30 years, a large body of research has shown that four factors consistently influence student achievement: all else equal, students perform better if they are educated in smaller schools where they are well known (300 to 500 students is optimal), have smaller class sizes (especially at the elementary level), receive a challenging curriculum, and have more highly qualified teachers. Minority students are much less likely than white children to have any of these resources.”

An additional manifestation of unequal opportunity is found in the fact that for too many students of color, the curriculum that is presented to them fails to reflect their histories and experiences. Meanwhile, research shows that students who have been exposed to culturally responsive teaching methodologies exhibit more positive self-concept and substantially higher levels of school engagement, enabling them to better access the resources and opportunities that their schools do offer.

So what is driving our failure to attend to and resolve these issues in K–12 education?

Though it might be tempting to attribute some of these trends to teachers’ and school leaders’ unconscious bias, this purely psychological explanation ought to be merely an entry point into a more rigorous examination of inequity in schools. When teachers enter the classroom without sufficient knowledge of some of the historical and contemporary factors shaping student experiences, their lack of exposure can absolutely result in real, if unintentional, consequences for students of color. These are consequences that arise even if the teachers themselves do not consciously hold racist beliefs, and this effect is exacerbated by the fact that America has a primarily white teacher population serving a population of students from historically marginalized racial groups.

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is one of many important figures who have shaped academic discourse about how racism operates through people and institutions that do not consciously hold prejudicial beliefs. In Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (2006), Bonilla-Silva shows that systemic racism does not require the existence of consciously racist individuals for those individuals to perpetuate racism. However well-meaning the actors, he argues, individuals operating within a racist system who fail to challenge that racism are a significant part of the problem. Further, Bonilla-Silva argues that commitment to concepts like color blindness (i.e., the notion that not acknowledging race eliminates racism) and multiculturalism are also destructive because they obscure the devastating dynamics of modern-day racism and make it harder for people to pinpoint the areas where change and disruption are needed.

The areas of K–12 education that demand a transformation of thought and action are multiple. Teachers must understand that Black boys and girls have been disproportionately sent to the office not because they are more prone to breaking the rules but because of a host of factors that converge to criminalize Blackness and Black people beginning in childhood. Inviting educators into an analysis of historical racism and historical inequity helps to demystify this punitive bias. Beyond discipline referrals, there are a number of quantitative outcomes that are directly related to racial inequity, including access to advanced and Advanced Placement courses; tracking into remedial courses and Special Education; expulsions and suspensions; and lack of access to extracurricular activities beyond sports.

Another major way that racism, and the historical legacies of white supremacy culture, shows up in schools is by shaping how we understand intelligence itself. Alfred Binet, the French psychologist who invented the IQ test in the early 1900s, thought that testing should be used as a tool to improve instruction. Yet testing was embraced by proponents of eugenics, a now debunked field that purported to establish a scientific basis for racial and social hierarchies and advocated programs and policies aimed at solving the nation’s problems by ridding society of “inferior racial traits.” Far from anything that could be described as unconscious bias, this deliberately racist strategy has left a legacy that is evident in the practice of widespread testing today. This practice has stigmatized a whole generation of young people and entrenched the notion that intelligence is fixed. In our TEJ work at Facing History, educators learn that the so-called achievement gap is a direct result of not heeding Binet’s warning about the proper use of tests.

The academic “achievement gap” is a fundamentally racist framework because it essentially raises the educational experiences of white and middle-class children up as the standard for achievement over and against the often divergent experiences of many kids of color. Consider the lifelong impact of having your intelligence measured in ways that may not accurately capture your abilities, your needs, and the social conditions that shape your learning process. This harmfully narrow understanding of intelligence is perpetuated in schools when we fail to interrogate its development, its core assumptions, and its profound impact.

The racial inequity that is evident in K–12 education has arisen through a complex array of factors over the course of centuries, and it will take time to align today’s schooling with equity and justice. But as we lean into this vital work, we must be committed to muddling through the challenges that the process of unlearning inevitably brings. Invoking multiculturalism and inclusion will not disrupt the systemic forces that continue to drive racial inequity in education in the absence of an unwavering commitment to learning, unlearning, and hard work.

Dr. Steven Becton is chief equity and inclusion officer at Facing History and Ourselves, where he leads internal DEI strategy and external educational equity strategy. His research is on the historical context of educational inequity and its implications for disrupting oppressive pedagogy in the interest of more student-centered and transformative learning experiences in K–12 schools.

Kaitlin Smith is marketing and communications writer at Facing History and Ourselves, where she develops and edits content that invites readers to reflect on the dynamic interplay between education, history, current events, and social justice.


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