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Profoundly Antiracist Questions About Schools

This article was originally published in Teachers College Record and is reprinted with permission.

There are deeply ingrained structural inequalities in schools that require immediate action. As antiracist educators, we must ask questions about school equity to disrupt the inequality of school outcomes we continue to see today. Who teaches the students? Who gets new schools? Who graduates from high school, and who goes to college? Who gets labeled and sorted? What can (antiracist) educators do? These questions are profoundly antiracist because they are overwhelmingly multicultural. By asking profoundly antiracist questions about schools today, I highlight areas and issues of schooling that require immediate action, antiracist efforts, to address the inequalities that exist as evidenced by educational statistics. Based on the analysis of school outcomes presented in this research note, it becomes clear that Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) students continue to experience disparate school outcomes in America. Such inequalities reveal that BIPOC children are taught by underpaid teachers, learn in schools that are falling apart, are labeled and sorted at disproportionate rates, and endure a curriculum about other people, and generally are being underserved in schools, as evidenced by the school outcomes. Educators must take immediate antiracist actions to ensure that school equity does not continue to be defined by racial inequality.

In 2002, Sonia Nieto asked educators, school leaders, and policy makers profoundly multicultural questions about school and equity in the United States. Looking closely at educational statistics and asking stakeholders and practitioners to take a long hard look at equity and the promise of equal opportunities, Nieto effectively argued that the concept of equity in schools had become a “fiction.” Though called multicultural, these questions were profoundly antiracist at the time and are meaningful for us to revisit today, 20 years later, in hopes that we may see improvements in school equity as evidenced by school outcomes. Thus, I ask profoundly antiracist questions about schools 20 years after profoundly multicultural questions were asked to see how we have progressed, if at all.

Who teaches the students? Who gets new schools? Who graduates high school, and who goes to college? Who gets labeled and sorted? What can educators do? These questions are profoundly antiracist today. Similar to the multicultural educator, an antiracist educator today refers to the intentional efforts made to create equitable opportunities for all students (Kendi, 2019). As Kendi suggests, an antiracist is “someone who expresses the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity” (p. 1). Thus, antiracist educators must ask questions that seek to uncover inequalities in schools and actively work to undo them, particularly when it has been revealed that such inequities fall along racial lines.

The comparison in this research note focuses on distinctions and disparities between urban schools and suburban schools. According to USDA zoning guidelines, the intent of the focus is based on the notion that 75% of U.S. public school students live and learn within urban city limits and go to school in urban areas. Rural schooling outcomes are more closely related to urban school outcomes for similar reasons; lack of resources, school funding, geographic size and resource-sharing all place strains on students and schools in rural areas. This situation has recently given rise to the term “high-needs schools,” which encompasses rural and urban schools. The key distinction for me has to do with population and numbers of students residing urban and suburban districts. There are simply so many more students studying in urban schools, and the disparities are so stark between more affluent suburban schools and urban schools that I believe the emphasis on suburban and urban is a warranted and justified focus for this research note.

Antiracist educators adhere to antiracism as a descriptive term, one defined through action in the moment. As opposed to racism as something static that someone is, antiracism sees actions as either racist or antiracist as they occur in the moment. As such, one is not racist or antiracist as a cognitive act in perpetuity; rather, their actions in each moment can be one or the other. To be antiracist, one is choosing to actively work against racism in the moment. In one moment, an educator can be actively working against inequity, espousing that all groups are equal, making their actions antiracist. However, in another moment, while reflecting on the shortcomings of Black and Latinx students, the same educator’s actions can be racist. Hence, antiracist educators are those whose actions consistently seek to address issues of equity and seek to further understand aspects of school structures that promote disparate outcomes and stifle equal opportunity and equity of school outcomes.

Being an antiracist educator requires action, praxis — it is not a static way of being. One is not antiracist regardless of their actions; it is not a mindset, but a set of perpetual actions toward a common goal, the elimination of racist actions in schools. Put simply, inaction does not and cannot lead to the act of antiracism; only antiracist acts can do that. Thus, to be antiracist, educators are required to engage in a sustained set of actions aimed at undoing systemic racism in schools and society.

Being antiracist (and racist) is a choice that each of us is capable of making as educators at every moment. Choosing to believe that all people are equal and acting in ways to support policies that reduce inequalities is something we must do actively, not passively. There is no such thing as neutral when educators chose to act or not when confronted with instances of racism, including the outcomes of school policy and practice. By asking profoundly antiracist questions about schools today, I highlight areas and issues of schooling that require immediate action, antiracist efforts, to address the inequalities that exist, as evidenced by educational statistics. 

Who Teaches the Students?

Teachers are a unique demographic group in the United States: overwhelmingly female and white, and overwhelmingly middle class (Bristol, 2016). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2017–2018), 89% of all elementary school teachers are female, and females make up 76% of teachers overall. In a recent article in Education Week, the question was asked, “Who is the average teacher?” (Will, 2020). While the answer—a 43-year-old white woman with 10 years of experience — won’t surprise many, a closer look at who is teaching the children reveals some interesting trends. In the past 20 years, for example, the percentage of Hispanic teachers has grown from 7.8% to 9.3%, a modest increase in teacher diversity (NCES, 2017–2018). Currently, about 7% of the teacher workforce identifies as Black, indicating no change (less than 1%) in the past 20 years. While the number of diverse teachers has grown to some extent in the past 20 years, it has failed to keep pace with the increasingly diverse population growth of students, leading to an increased gap in parity (Villegas et. al., 2012) between who teachers are and who students are. Coupled with a growing body of evidence that indicates all students benefit from having more diverse teachers (Albert Shanker Institute, 2018)—particularly Black and Latinx students, males in particular, who are at the greatest risk of being failed by schools (Gregory et al., 2010) — there is undoubtably a great need for more teacher diversity (Bristol & Martin-Fernandez, 2019).

Nationwide, just under 50 million students are enrolled in public schools in urban areas (NCES, 2017–2018). Similarly, according to the same data, just under 20 million U.S. students are enrolled in public schools in suburban districts. Roughly 2.5 times more U.S. students are enrolled in urban school districts than suburban school districts. Whereas there are roughly 958,000 teachers in urban schools, there are 1,098,000 in suburban schools. In other words, there are more suburban teachers despite there being far more urban schoolchildren. Similarly, the average schoolteacher salary in suburban schools is $58,470, while the average urban schoolteacher makes $54,860. We have a larger, better paid teacher workforce servicing suburban America than we do urban America, suggesting that the teaching of suburban children is of greater value. Despite the larger number of students in urban America, we invest more in teachers in suburban schools in terms of both numbers of teachers and pay disparities.

Who Gets New Schools?

Recent interest in ventilation systems and air circulation in schools has raised the question: Who gets new schools? Despite our recent interest in school buildings, long-standing patterns reveal disparate, unequal structures around school infrastructure. The average school building in the United States is 45 years old (NCES, 2013). However, for cities that share an industrial historical background, schools are, on average, 60–70 years old. For example, nearly half of Baltimore City public schools were erected before 1960, and just 3% have been built since 1985 (Cohen, 2018). The resulting difficulties around who gets new schools precede the Covid-19 pandemic; countless urban schoolchildren have historically endured cold temperatures in winter and sweltering heat in summer while in school. The patterns we see in Baltimore are unfortunately dispersed across high-needs areas spanning the United States, resulting in various problems associated with inadequate school buildings; these include poor ventilation, inadequate climate control, mold, asbestos, crumbling conditions, and an inability to add on classroom space despite population growth.

Despite the widespread nature of school facility shortcomings, there remains a paucity of attention paid to these problems as education policy experts frequently choose to focus on curricular and other issues (Zhao, 2009). Seemingly the expectation here is that children who are learning in cold schools that are falling apart should simultaneously pull themselves up. Considering that the vast majority of U.S. students study in urban areas—areas that have historically prospered during a past manufacturing time—it would seem that this has now become a national school infrastructure crisis and should be a serious policy concern. Perhaps this is a school funding issue; roughly 80% of school capital costs fall on local budgets, with less than 20% coming from states, and 12 states provide no funding whatsoever (Filardo, 2016).

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David A. Fuentes, Ph.D., is professor and dean’s faculty fellow in the College of Education in the Department of Teacher Education at William Paterson University. He also serves as co-director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

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David Fuentes

William Paterson University