Tackling racism in education

Racism is a problem in our education systems. Whether you think it has reduced in recent years or not, it is clear to most impartial observers that it is still present, even if it may manifest in different ways in the US, the UK and Australia, and even though it coexists with other issues of prejudice such as classism, sexism and homophobia. A number of approaches have been suggested to tackle racism and so I would like to set-out three that I believe are the most promising and that may also have a positive impact in other areas of discrimination.

1. Reducing bias

I have written before about John*, a student I taught in the early 2000s in London. To briefly recap, John was a student with a Nigerian background who I first came across in Year 9 when running a revision class. He had recently narrowly avoided being excluded and so I was surprised to see him attend a voluntary class. I next caught up with him in Year 10 when observing a science lesson. The classes were ability grouped and John was in a low group. It wasn’t a particularly orderly lesson and John was calling-out a lot. However, he was calling out all of the right answers. When I investigated, I found he had been placed in this group on his test performance. He had apparently not completed one test, not caught this up and been assigned zero, which brought his average down. However, when looking at more rigorous standardised assessment data, he should have been in a higher group. Against some resistance, I insisted on moving him. From then on, he flourished, took physics at Advanced Level and the last I heard of him, he was going off to Cambridge to study engineering.

I have no doubt that racism factored into John’s treatment. It may not have been overt or even conscious, but it was present and this aligns with what we know about the way that bias affects teacher assessments. It was allowed to influence John’s treatment through the processes we had in place that gave too great a role for teacher subjectivity. We can therefore mitigate the effects by thinking about these processes.

Standardised assessment is key because it takes place at arms-length from the school and the standardisation process lets teachers know how this compares with other students in other schools. Sadly, the assessment I drew on in John’s case was discontinued soon afterwards.

It is also possible to put in place processes that anonymise internal assessments to try to prevent bias affecting assessment results. One simple way is to use regular multiple-choice quizzes or use technology to create self-marking multiple-choice quizzes. You can then triangulate between results on these objective assessments and other assessments. If there is a large disparity for some students then this should start a conversation. Where multiple-choice is not appropriate, then consider marking assessments blind to the students’ name. One method is for students to write their name on a cover page and then fold this back and shuffle the papers before marking. Where there are multiple classes taking the same subject and taught by different teachers, you can add a layer to this by taking it in turns to mark the assessments for the whole cohort rather than just your own class.

Software such as no more marking enhances this process for more subjective forms of assessment. Briefly, it presents, for example, two paragraphs written by students side-by-side. Teachers then simply decide which is better. Through multiple judgements from multiple teachers, a ranking is produced. Not only can this be anonymous, all paragraphs will be rated by multiple teachers and teachers are given feedback if their ratings are out of line with their colleagues.

2. A curriculum in tension

It is increasingly clear that progressivist disdain for knowledge or, as they misleadingly tend to term it, the rote learning of disconnected facts, has caused enormous damage and particularly to those students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We can think of this two ways. Firstly, the Simple View of Reading – a widely accepted model among reading researchers – views reading as the product of word decoding – turning the squiggles on the page into words – and language comprehension – knowing what the words mean. The latter is not simply about having a large vocabulary. If I were to ask an educated American to read a report about a cricket match, they would probably know what most of the words mean but they would still struggle to understand unless they know about cricket. School reading is the same and the knowledge you need to understand academic texts comes from science, history, the arts and all that other stuff that is so often overlooked when politicians insist on going back to basics.

The other way of viewing this is through the accumulation of schemas in long-term memory. Working memory – where we consciously process solutions to problems – is severely constrained but these constraints can be overcome by the almost effortless process of drawing on knowledge held in schemas in long-term memory. Again, such an argument calls for a carefully mapped, knowledge-rich curriculum to ensure that students are exposed to the most powerful and useful ideas (see here for resources expanding on this argument).

However, in countries such as the US, UK and Australia, for historical reasons, much currently powerful and useful knowledge comes from the Western European tradition. We could argue that imposing a white European curriculum on people with non-European heritage is a form of racism. However, if you then seek to decolonise the curriculum, you risk not giving students the tools they need to access academic knowledge. And so there is a tension.

I believe that the exact nature of the curriculum is essentially a political question that involves weighing these conflicting requirements. It ultimately should satisfy nobody in its entirety and it should not be decided by individual teachers or schools.

I would also make a bid for the inclusion of UK-style religious education. This is not about indoctrinating students into a particular religion but rather a study of the major religions of the world and what they believe. Not only is this powerful knowledge in its own right, it dispels many of the myths that can feed racism, antisemitism and islamophobia.

3. Freedom to innovate

People often look at disparities in outcomes between different groups, infer that racism is the cause and then call for quotas. However, we have to be careful with disparities. In the US, for instance, Asian-Americans are more likely to be accepted into top colleges than white students and it would seem odd to attribute this to pro-Asian, anti-white racism. Instead, disparities often have multiple, complex causes. For instance, in the US, the racist practice of redlining has seen black communities deprived of resources. It is not hard to see how this could lead to inadequate schools and inequitable educational outcomes.

One approach to shaking-up the system is to give more freedom to schools to innovate and this logic has led to policies such as Charter Schools in the US and Free Schools in the UK. Although Charter Schools don’t outperform the public system more generally, we have to bear in mind that they educate students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. In New York, many Charter Schools share buildings and catchment areas with traditional public schools and Thomas Sowell has completed an analysis comparing similar classes in Charter Schools and regular public schools that share the same building. Sowell’s analysis, while imperfect, overwhelmingly favours the Charter Schools.

If we look to the UK model, which I prefer, we see examples of schools such as Michaela Community School in London, a non-selective Free School serving disadvantaged students. Adopting a systematic approach to behaviour management, a knowledge rich curriculum and explicit teaching saw Michaela produce the fifth best performance in England at GCSE in 2019, its first cohort to participate, on the key progress measure the government publishes.

A system that supports innovation would also be one where people with very different ideas could try out new models of education. Writing in The Australian Education Researcher, Michelle Bishop, a Gamilaroi woman from New South Wales, has proposed a model of education based upon indigenous Australian culture that would be open to all. It is wrong to suggest that Bishop be given the chance to set-up a ‘school’ because she rejects the concept of schooling, but there should be the chance to try out different approaches. Such a model may not end up looking like Michaela or any model I would recommend, but I might be wrong. Even if Bishop’s project did not deliver an improved educational experience overall, there would no doubt be positive aspects that we could take from the project and perhaps incorporate into education more generally.

A practical approach

By now, it probably has not escaped your notice that my proposals are at odds with the views of many working in education who would sincerely see themselves as committed antiracists. It is unfortunate that the current cancel culture climate means that they are unlikely to read this and that we are unlikely to see a fruitful debate of these ideas. As Nick Cave has suggested, “[a] once honourable attempt to reimagine our society in a more equitable way now embodies all the worst aspects that religion has to offer.” But that’s where we are.

It is my view that these practical suggestions will have a more lasting and positive effect than telling disadvantaged working class students that they have white privilege or propagating the prejudiced idea that objective truth is a white European construct. But I may be wrong. I trust you to work it out for yourself. And while you are doing so, be kind.


*not his real name

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4 thoughts on “Tackling racism in education

  1. egg says:

    One thing that really disappoints me about education in Australia is how superficial education about indigenous people is. There are formal and ritualistic welcomes, constant requirements to mention or allude indigeneity in the curriculum, and lots of bureaucracy in general.

    I don’t mean to criticise this current approach because it’s probably better than doing absolutely nothing. It might make people a little more thoughtful or respectful. But I don’t feel it does much to enhance knowledge of or respect for indigenous culture, and to me that’s because the people promoting anti-racism tend also to be people who are opposed or indifferent to knowledge-based curriculum.

    Students in schools learn practically nothing about their local indigenous communities, whether it’s now or in the past. But there’s so much that could be learned in a detailed and rigorous way. It is very frustrating to me that students hear a genuflection to local culture at the start of an assembly or presentation but are taught practically nothing about how that culture lived or spoke: just “it was different and you should respect it”. Students might be taught about one cultural item, one word of language, one famous person. But if I search academic papers in anthropology, history, sociology, or linguistics, it’s immediately obvious that there is a large storehouse of knowledge which could be taught. This knowledge could give many Australians far greater knowledge of indigenous culture and consequently far greater interest and respect, and ultimately less racism. (You could say the same about minority cultures in pretty much every country.)

    The attempts at anti-racism I see are harmless and probably well-meaning, but often they are more like marketing than anything else.

    • Mike says:

      I think this is spot on.

      You’re right about the storehouse of knowledge – Australian Indigenous languages, for one thing, are full of complexity, subtlety and interest, and a study of them, however cursory, could easily be worked into a number of KLAs. But tokenism rules the roost these days.

  2. Chester Draws says:

    Michelle Bishop, a Gamilaroi woman from New South Wales, has proposed a model of education based upon indigenous Australian culture that would be open to all.

    An expressed preference.

    Her revealed preference is that she chooses to work in about the most colonial of all institutions — a university — and publishes treatises that are behind paywalls.

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