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Five Strategies to Address Racial Bias in Bronx Schools and Beyond

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Everyone is born with a shopping cart. As we grow up, we add items that represent who we are and how we see the world. But these items include ideas about inferiority and superiority that can unintentionally harm the ways we interact with the people we serve, especially students, said Edward Fergus, Ph.D., the guest speaker at the virtual eighth annual Barbara L. Jackson. Ed.D., Lecture, “The Equity Lens Needed for 21st Century School Reform,” on Oct. 21. 

“What’s the stuff in our shopping cart that we carry from our lived experiences, growing up and that we continue to maintain, that come into the areas of our schooling that we do with our children?” said Fergus, an associate professor of urban education and policy at Temple University who has worked with more than 75 school districts on educational equity and school reform

As the nation faces a pandemic of racism, Fergus explained how an educator’s lifelong mindset can harm low-income and minority students. He laid out five strategies to combat bias-based beliefs and develop better school practices. 

The Insidious Nature of Ingrained Beliefs

There are disproportionate numbers of students from low-income and minority backgrounds who experience behavioral referrals, suspensions, and tracking, he said. The root of these patterns originated centuries ago, when white colonists enslaved and brutalized Black and Native American peoples. Over time, a person’s “whiteness” determined their status in American society and became the ideal social identity, whether consciously or subconsciously. 

“We are mired in continuous ways in which we do [things], whether it’s schooling, policing, or healthcare systems,” said Fergus. “I think we’ve come to recognize over the last eight months that in all of those areas there’s still a manifestation of oppressive habits and where those habits come from.” 

These ideologies infiltrate the way we interpret images, too, Fergus said. He pointed to a Texas geography textbook published by McGraw-Hill in 2015 which characterized slaves as “workers.” An article about a victim from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 describes a dark-skinned man as “looting” a grocery store, whereas another article describes two white-skinned people as “finding” food. These are among the many subtle acts that uphold the social identity of whiteness and subordinate others, said Fergus. And sometimes, we do it to ourselves. 

“We maintain it through our own personal networks. Who do we hang out with? Where do we live? Who do we have lunch with?” Fergus said. “All of those things sustain the manner in which we keep things within our shopping carts, and we don’t complicate them enough.”

Interrupting the Status Quo: Five Strategies

The solution is grounded in social psychology research, or a “developmental journey” that everyoneespecially educatorscan use, said Fergus. He described five strategies to challenge our implicit bias-based beliefs: counter-stereotypic imaging, individuating, perspective taking, intergroup contact, and improved decision-making. 

Counter-stereotypic imaging means countering negative biases by saturating your environment with diverse pictures, images, and symbols and being intentional about the books and posters your students view in your classroom, even on a virtual Zoom lesson, said Fergus, who elaborates on these ideas in his book, Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity, (Corwin, 2016). 

Individuating is having regular one-on-one conversations with people from different backgrounds to see them for their individual qualities instead of as part of a stereotypic group, Fergus said. 

Perspective taking means walking in the shoes of “the perceived other.” If a student skips class or punches another student, said Fergus, ask them, “What’s happened to you? What made you behave this way?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?”

Inter-group contact is using the power of positive, sustained dialogue with individuals across different groups to expand your perspective, said Fergus, showing photos of comedian Ellen DeGeneres and former president George W. Bush sitting together at an NFL game and rapper Snoop Dogg and media mogul Martha Stewart cooking side by side. 

Lastly, improved decision-making is slowing down your initial reaction to someone and asking yourself what assumptions you’ve made about that person’s cultural identity, gender, and background. “There’s an onslaught of information that you read because of the stereotypes that live within your shopping carts, and you make behavioral decisions,” Fergus said. “How do we slow down those habits so that we are interrupting the stereotype that we carry?”

Applying Fergus’ Strategy to Bronx Schools

At the end of Fergus’ presentation, four leaders in the Bronx spoke about how they are using his work to improve equity in their schools: Meisha Ross-Porter, GSE ’21, executive superintendent for the Bronx; Denise Williams, instructional lead for equity and access for the Bronx Central Office and a first-year student in Fordham’s Ed.D. program; Lori Baker, principal of the Walt Disney Magnet STEAM School; and Harry Sherman, principal of Castle Hill Middle School. The panel was moderated by Elisabeth Stosich, Ed.D., assistant professor at Fordham’s Graduate School of Education. 

Fergus’s research prompted Walt Disney Magnet STEAM School to take a look at their own student statistics. Baker said her school realized that the percentage of girls being referred for interventions was higher than boys, but boys were more frequently pushed into self-contained classes. As a result, the school changed its referral system and helped educators better understand the response to intervention process. 

Sherman said that white educational leaders like himself need to surround themselves with multiple perspectives to help them effectively serve their students. 

“Awareness of my own learning and my own blind spots and the power of having a close accountability partner who I can be real with, who can help me see those blind spots so that I can do the work better, is essential,” said Sherman, who praised his assistant principal. “I don’t need to go out there and be perfect, but I need to be able to be transparent about my own learning and growth and not be asking people to do things that I’m not doing.” 

The panel agreed that one of their biggest obstacles in achieving racial reform right now is the COVID-19 pandemic. Ross-Porter said that educators cannot allow the “persistent problem” to be overtaken by the virus. Williams recalled some advice that a GSE professor, Margaret Terry Orr, once gave her: “Time is a value choice. You choose what you spend time on.” 

“There are so many things being asked of us right now, but you have to be able to see past this moment,” Williams said. “It’s about organizing our efforts to see beyond the pandemic, to deal with this problem of systemic racism that’s been a pandemic for hundreds of years.”

The Barbara L. Jackson lecture series is named in honor of the late Barbara L. Jackson, who served as a professor in the Division of Educational Leadership, Administration, and Policy at the Graduate School of Education for more than two decades and as chair of the division from 1997 to 2003. 

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