Pictured: U.S. Department of Education General Counsel James Cole, Jr. addresses the Urban Child Symposium at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
By Karen Webber
There was a flurry of informative education conferences in the area this month and I was honored to be a speaker on two of the three conferences I attended and an enthusiastic participant in the third (download the slides from my presentation here). The annual Urban Child Symposium at the University of Baltimore School of Law has become a staple among educators, researchers and others for convening practitioners in the area on foundational topics facing Baltimore City children. The Albert Shanker Institute held its’ annual conference in Washington DC focused this year on “the Social Side of Education.” The American Educational Research Association (AERA) was also in Washington DC for its 100 year anniversary conference entitled “Public Scholarship to Educate Diverse Democracies”.
The Toll of Poverty
In Baltimore City, a district where nearly 85% of the student body lives in poverty, the Urban Child Symposium aptly focused on “Educational Inequality and Poverty,” and poverty was a topic of discussion at the other conferences as well. Poverty has deleterious effects on student behavior and teaching and learning and is itself a risk indicator for difficulty in school and adulthood. While Baltimore sits at the extreme end of concentrated poverty, a whopping 51% of all public school students live in poverty nationwide, making appropriate education support for students living in poverty a national imperative. When poverty is combined with exposure to lead paint, violence, neglect and/or abuse, hunger, or other traumatic events, the odds of an impoverished student’s success in school diminish appreciably. Recent data analyses offered by Professor Raj Chetty of Stanford University debunk upward mobility myths and indicate that there’s only a 7.5% chance of rising economically from the bottom 5th to the top 5th in the United States and the chances are even slimmer if you live in a poor, segregated community like many in Baltimore City.
Another relevant theory advanced at each of the conferences I attended was that of “racial threat.” Racial threat posits that high concentrations of African Americans in a place (school, community, jail, event, etc.) generate a perceived threat to safety or economic and political control, which triggers an overwhelming tendency for institutions to intensify social controls and punitive practices in reaction to this perceived threat. In a school context, racial threat is evidenced through the use of excessively harsh and punitive discipline measures to “control” African American students. This phenomenon is particularly relevant in Baltimore City where the public school population is 84% African American. OSI-Baltimore has been involved for over a decade to change the overly harsh and punitive zero tolerance and “push out” practices that plagued the Baltimore City School System. The good news is that OSI-Baltimore led a successful campaign to promulgate progressive state and local policies which contributed significantly to Baltimore City suspensions being reduced to an all-time low in 2014. The difficult news is that there is still considerable reluctance among educators to move from familiar punitive ways of addressing school discipline to more restorative methods of resolving student conflicts which is evidenced in a slow rise in out of school suspensions in 2015.
Social Emotional Learning and Restorative Practices
The highly accomplished former Superintendent of the Montgomery County School District, Joshua Starr, participated as a panelist in the Albert Shanker Institute’s conference. He spoke emphatically about the dire need to focus resources on students’ social-emotional learning as a means of reducing discipline and achievement gaps between white and black students. Through use of targeted educator training and discourse, Starr was able to reduce suspensions in his district by 50% during his tenure which had a significant impact on discipline disparities.
Discussions related to social emotional learning continued as presenters in each conference reiterated the importance of cultivating caring adult relationships for students in schools to ameliorate some of the twin effects of racism and entrenched poverty. There was steady support for the use of restorative practices in all schools for the benefit of all children, but especially for those students who are trapped in punitive school environments. Restorative practices assist educators in creating positive relationships with students, by shifting the adult presence in a conflict or conversation from authoritarian to facilitator. All relevant parties to a conflict or issue are brought together, generally in a circle, to discuss and resolve the conflict at hand. Efforts are made to restore the aggrieved party and to return the offending student back into the school community once the harm is repaired. With the use of restorative practices, student discourse and accountability rather than adult administered punishment are at the center of the action, which builds sentiments of responsibility and community throughout the school. City Springs Elementary Middle School and Hampstead Hill Elementary Middle School are among a growing number of Baltimore City schools that have successfully implemented whole-school restorative practices which have resulted in amazing outcomes for students, teachers and parents.
Black Lives Matter
Interesting conversations also emanated from a powerful Black Lives Matter session hosted by AERA. Panelists discussed the historic intentionality of racial marginalization and impoverishment in communities all over the nation which left entire populations – especially African American communities – bereft of the benefits associated with American life. Chicago surfaced repeatedly as a hotbed of inequity and marginalization among its communities of color and related schools. Panelists spoke of the need for the American public to exercise the same economic might and intellectual intentionality to undo those factors that were used to create these racial and economically disadvantaged “ghettos”. In this stimulating session panelists and participants also wrestled with controversial assertions regarding the “success” of integration as a reform effort.
Professor Prudence Carter of Stanford University stated that in her research African American and Latino students bused into majority white, affluent high schools did not outperform their peers in non-integrated schools. After holding focus groups with these students, Professor Carter attributes these students’ lack of academic and social traction to the fact that the targeted high schools made little effort to embed students of color into the fabric of the school community. These students were left to assimilate to the best of their ability and expressed feelings of alienation and defeat. Participants also expressed the need for teacher preparation programs and education schools to focus on equity, implicit bias and other relevant concerns. Other participants spoke of a need to deliberately invite white women educators into the equity conversation due to their large representation on the teaching workforce.
This is a powerful time to be an advocate for equitable education. As we continually unearth many of the barriers that prevent poor students and students of color from succeeding at their potential, we also have at our disposal effective practices that ameliorate many of the damaging effects of these circumstances. In the next four years, OSI-Baltimore will advocate to implement, district wide, progressive policies that are on the books which create positive and equitable conditions in schools that will facilitate excellent teaching and learning and success for all students.