Q&A

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.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”