As America’s students grow more diverse, a leading researcher explains how schools can adapt

PHOTO: Teachers College
Amy Stuart Wells is a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Ready or not, America is watching its student population grow more diverse.

For the first time in the nation’s history, the overall student population is now less than half white. And while many schools remain deeply segregated, others are growing more mixed as Asian, black, and Hispanic families move to the suburbs and whites settle in gentrifying urban neighborhoods.

But there is a difference between diverse schools and ones that are integrated, says Amy Stuart Wells, a Teachers College professor who has long studied race and education. History has shown that seating students of different colors side by side isn’t enough — real integration requires schools to adopt inclusive curriculums, teachers to reflect on their own biases, and students to learn how to interact across race and class lines, she says.

To help with that work, Stuart Wells has put together a four-day conference that will feature talks with titles like “How could I possibly have a positive racial identity!? I’m White!” and “When Celebrating Diversity Just Isn’t Enough.”

Chalkbeat recently spoke with Stuart Wells about what it takes to create diverse schools and about the conference, which she said is one of the first of its kind. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Chalkbeat: Can you start by explaining what inspired this conference?

Amy Stuart Wells: I’ve been studying school desegregation for a long time: the history of it, what happened, and what didn’t happened when we first desegregated schools in the middle of the 20th century. We basically focused on student-assignment plans and made sure there was racial diversity at least within buildings, if not within classrooms, and then kind of left it for the educators to deal with or not.

I know from my research on those schools and that history, talking about race was a taboo. Nobody talked about issues of race. It was basically an assimilation project, where you bring in students of color to schools that were usually predominantly white. And the whole project was about assimilating them into these white middle-class norms and ways of seeing the world.

We see now that there’s so many ways curriculum can reflect issues around race. And as we’ve seen last week and throughout the last year, race clearly matters, and policing and responses to policing.

So I think we’re right to start to realize now that we’re not colorblind and that race matters in schools.

In past cases you’ve studied, what were some of the challenges that arose when schools became more diverse, but they didn’t really address that?

Several things. Race is often this elephant in the classroom that no one’s talking about, but everyone’s aware of. Oftentimes students of color felt that their voices and perspectives weren’t valued in that context.

But also white students wanted to talk more. All of a sudden the population of their schools and their classrooms changed and there was no place for them to talk about that either. The students were living with race every day in those schools, but nobody was talking about it.

The adults in the building: I don’t think they felt equipped, and they didn’t feel like that was part of what they were supposed to be doing — to help students deal with that or reflect those different racial perspectives and histories in their curriculum.

Most of this was happening in the 70s and early 80s. We’re now several decades ahead and we’ve gone through this era of K-12 school accountability and colorblind ideology. And what I think we now realize that those ways of thinking about K-12 education are not serving our students well, and certainly not preparing them for the universities and larger society where there’s ongoing racial tension.

Moving forward to today: When a school is really trying to foster a diverse and integrated community, what are the best practices for doing that?

A lot of it begins with the hard work teachers need to do around their own racial biography.

For white teachers — and there will be several sessions around this at the institute — to really think about how race does matter even though they are white. How it matters to their own identity, how it matters in their interactions with students and their understanding of students’ abilities. [It’s] broadening out what we know and how we know it, and allowing for students to grapple with meaning and deeper questions and challenge each other and their understandings and interpretations.

It’s this deeper, richer learning that we should all be doing anyway, but it’s really important in these very diverse classrooms.

One of the sessions at the conference will focus on science instruction in diverse classrooms. Something like science or math seems very straightforward, so how do you factor in diversity or culturally responsive teaching?

The title of Chris Emdin’s talk is called “Reimagining Rigor.” He’s challenging these notions that by using hip-hop pedagogy it’s not a rigorous way of teaching science. It’s going to be really powerful.

It’s a common theme, whether it’s science or math, and certainly with literacy and social studies, is giving students ownership and allowing them to interpret and reinterpret in their own language some of the scientific data and information that we talk about in one way. That’s so important in the real world. You ask any scientist and they say that’s what we do.

There’s an effort happening now to get a more diverse teaching force. I could imagine someone saying that this type of training is a Band-Aid, but it doesn’t solve the problem of the lack of diversity among teachers.

I’m all for getting more teachers of color. But I doubt there’s going to be a day anytime soon in this country where we’re not going to have a large percentage of white teachers, and we’re not going to have a large percentage of teachers teaching students whose race is different than theirs.

Hopefully we’re going to have an increase in teachers teaching in racially diverse classrooms, which is challenging no matter what your racial/ethnic background is.

And hopefully we’ll have a more diverse teaching force. And hopefully this kind of institute and thinking about race within schools will be helpful when we do.

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.