Tag Archives: Civil Rights

If we really want to close the achievement gap

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raylawni_Branch

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raylawni_Branch

What drives me crazy about conversations about the achievement gap between minorities and whites is that we don’t talk about the causes. Before we get to solutions we should look to why the achievement gap exists. The thing is, that conversation is uncomfortable. I see three main historical reasons that are intertwined racism, poverty, and segregation.

Everyone knows that during the Jim Crow era, blacks were forced into separate schools that were inferior in every way to white schools: resources, buildings, money, teacher training, etc. Segregated schools were definitely not equal and put blacks at huge disadvantages. Segregated schools contributed to huge income gaps (along with institutional racism such as redlined housing and unfair hiring practices). So today we have a legacy where many blacks live in poverty and still attend defacto segregated schools in urban areas due to white flight to either the suburbs or private schools.

So how should we proceed based on these historical causes of the achievement gap? Well there actually is evidence (and here) of some successful ideas to close the achievement gap through integrating schools by busing minority students to white suburb schools or other ways of desegregation. Unfortunately there is about ZERO support for this type of program. Why? Partly because of the costs of the busing, but mostly the vocal complaints of white parents who don’t like it.

Researchers know that integration leads to all kinds of positive effects for blacks and also does not “harm” white achievement (I would add that it would have many benefits for white students being more understanding and empathetic of blacks).

The other thing that we could do as a society is address the wealth gap and actually do something to help people make a living wage and get out of poverty as we know that socio-economic status is the most important factor in measuring student achievement. Of course, blacks are disproportionately poor due to the same historical factors of segregation and discrimination.

Why don’t we address integration of schools and poverty? Well for one they would require the government to actually do something and many whites would oppose these actions with thinly veiled racism. These problems are outside of the control of local school districts and would require state or federal involvement.

If we really want to leave No Child Left Behind, we could start by fixing the causes of the achievement gap instead of blaming urban schools, teachers, students, and their parents. Instead we punish failing schools and closing them we could integrate schools and address the problem of poverty.

Why we haven’t talked about racism.

I want my students to talk about racism. What it is. Does it still exist? What does it look like? I want them to discuss stereotypes and prejudice. I want them to debate whether affirmative action is still necessary. I want them to discuss what to do about illegal immigration and to analyze “white privilege.”

But I don’t want them to just argue from viewpoints that they already hold mostly based on their family and community background. I have students from rural, urban, and suburban neighborhoods. Some live in areas with virtually no diversity while others live in places with virtually no Caucasians( a different kind of no diversity). I want students to bring their life experiences to the conversation, but that alone is not enough.

We are in the middle of a project on Civil Rights focusing on the African American perspective. We have not talked about the previously mentioned questions. My students are not ready yet. Many of my white students do not understand the sacrifices made to end segregation by thousands of regular people. Segregation did not end just because MLK gave a speech in DC one day. Many people were abused and many people died in the struggle for equality. My white students need to understand the seriousness of the abuses and the commitment to the struggle.


Many of my minority students also do not know the history of the Civil Rights movement. They have spent too many years learning about “dead white guys.” They know about Dr. King and Rosa Parks, but they didn’t know this. They don’t know about Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, or the hundreds of students that were Freedom Riders. Minority students are empowered when they read about how people of their race stood up and claimed their right to a “seat at the American table.”

This is why I teach history. Once all of my students appreciate the struggle for freedom and equality in America, then we will discuss all the current issues of our day. We have worked hard not to turn this project into white guilt but rather a celebration of the everyday heroes who stood up for their inalienable rights. We do not ignore the atrocities of our past but use them to understand how legal equality does not automatically mean actual equality. I want all of my students to be empathetic, compassionate citizens who will shape their part of the world for real equality.

We haven’t talked about racism yet because we are not quite ready. But we will…

KKK in our town? What?

We started a new project today on racism and African-American Civil Rights. I thought I would share the process of our entry event. First without any explanation we watched this story on Youtube.

Part 1

Part 2

We then had a discussion about them and how racism still exists “in parts of the United States.” My students also pointed out that it depends on “where you are, especially in the south.”

Next students took the White/Black preference test from Harvard. This test measures whether you have a preference for European Americans or African Americans. I am not sure how accurate it actually is, but that alone led to a rich discussion afterwards. We did talk about the philosophical basis of the test and whether or not students thought it was valid. Either way we agreed that it was possible to have biases at times without realizing it.

The final step to our entry event was for students to view this slideshow. We have just finished a project on the Great Depression and looked at many primary source photographs. We have been talking about doing the work of a historian and looking for clues to history from the pictures.

Students were engaged with the pictures and it turned out that for those who noticed the date on the photograph that a quick Google search brought them to an article about them.

When we talked about them as a class most students were very surprised to learn that the “parade” was in Grand Rapids, our city. Many students did not realize the KKK was active in Michigan or even in the north. Others were surprised that there were women members and that their faces were showing. Some students expressed concern that they had never been taught about this before.

The progression of these activities drew students into the topic and we definitely had them hooked. Now we moved into sharing our Driving Questions and had students generate Essential Questions (this is what we call “Need to Knows”). We are finishing the year with a theme on rights so we have a theme question on top of the Driving Questions. Also to frame the question: “Who is an American?” I used a couple of quotes to give them some context. Here is a screenshot of the Google Doc. The top part in green is our state standards. Students each take a line underneath and add their own questions generated from both the state standards and the entry events.


We have not shared with students yet, but their final product will be a web page on a local Civil Rights place/event. We then hope to make a walking tour of Grand Rapids Civil Rights places with QR codes that link to their webpages. We are excited for students to leave this project with a lasting impression that racism is part of the history of the North and Grand Rapids in particular. We also want students to realize that racism is still among us but that they can make a difference in sharing with others the great progress that has been made in the past.