Fair Representation

Urban districts strive to solve disproportionality in their schools

Story by Michelle Healy

Disproportionality isn’t a word that regularly pops up in casual conversation, but for school leaders invested in the work of improving urban education, it’s an essential part of the dialogue and the mission of equity. 

Numerous studies and reports have highlighted the many ways in which the disproportionate representation of students of color and low-income students impacts them academically. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, “children with disabilities are often disproportionately and unfairly suspended and expelled from school and educated in classrooms separate from their peers. Students of color with disabilities are overrepresented within the special education population, and the contrast in how frequently they are disciplined is even starker.”

In the last several years, urban school districts have focused considerable attention on the disproportionate rate at which these students are suspended and expelled from school. Many that report improvement credit the use of restorative justice practices, the disciplinary model that focuses less on punishment and more on counseling, addressing issues behind students’ misbehavior, and helping students learn strategies to solve disputes and manage their behavior.

Data leads the way

But what about the instructional side of disproportionality? What are school leaders doing to address issues around the under-representation of minority students and lower-income students in gifted programs and advanced curriculum such as Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB), and their over-representation in special education programs?

For most, data collection and analysis is the first step in creating a profile of the district that delineates trends and patterns and decision-making. “Very often, if we’re not looking at data or not really having evidence to support our thoughts on what’s going on in the district, then stereotypes and biases can thrive,” says Daniel Kelvin Bullock, executive director for equity affairs for North Carolina’s Durham Public Schools.

It was that analysis of data that revealed that black and Latino students in Durham not only underperform compared to their white classmates in end of 10th grade assessments and end of 10th grade course tests, but they also underperform compared to black and Latino students across the state on those measures. At the same time, white students in the district are outperforming other white students across the state.  

In a school system where 76 percent of students are black or Latino and over 81 percent total are students of color, those numbers “were jarring,” Bullock says. So much so that the district created the equity affairs director position a year ago. In that position, Bullock serves on the school district’s senior staff and reports directly to the superintendent. Among his responsibilities is the development of plans for narrowing opportunity gaps for students of color, and collaborating with district departments to analyze data and address areas of inequity.

When the data indicates that one group of students is at the bottom of every academic data set, and at the top of every discipline data set, “you have to say something’s not right, that there’s too much discrepancy, so let’s unpack this. Let’s see what’s going on,” says Minnie Forte-Brown, president of the North Carolina School Boards Association and a Durham school board member.

“There is no ZIP code to brilliance,” Forte-Brown says, but neighborhoods and communities do affect access to educational opportunities. “As the governing body and policymakers for school districts, school boards must be access-builders. That’s our job.”

Culturally responsive 

Research shows that hiring more minority teachers in the classroom can solve some of the problems of disproportionality. However, the obstacles to increasing the number of black and Hispanic teachers are well documented. 

No matter a teaching staff’s racial, ethnic, gender, or socioeconomic status, culturally responsive teacher training is crucial for schools addressing disproportionality, says David Kirkland, executive director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. 

The goal is to “change mindsets, practices, and beliefs” so that teachers, principals and other school leaders “have a complex understanding about how structural bias and structural racism works within the fabric of schooling” resulting in disproportionality.

Along with providing professional develop opportunities around culturally responsive teaching throughout the year, Kentucky’s Jefferson County Schools partners with the University of Louisville to sponsor a program that allows teachers to earn a diversity literacy certification.  

The program is “not to improve the curriculum, per se, but to improve pedagogy, introspection into what they as teachers need to bring to the classroom, and what their students bring to the classroom,” says John Marshall, Jefferson’s chief equity officer.

Gifted education 

Jefferson has undertaken “a very intentional plan” for increasing the number of teachers certified in gifted and talented education and “strategically placing them in schools where we have those at-risk populations who are traditionally underserved,” says Carmen Coleman, chief academic officer for the district.

A growing body of research shows that in many instances gifted black and Hispanic students are disproportionally denied access to gifted education because of the methods and instruments used. But that research also points out that there’s more to giftedness than being very good with math or being very good with literacy. 

To help it rethink and re-examine the tests and methods it uses to identify giftedness, Jefferson is working with Vanderbilt University Professor Donna Ford, whose work focuses on ways to “desegregate gifted programs and open doors to advance placement” for black, Latino, and low-income students. 

Additionally, there’s an emphasis on “educating everyone about a broader definition of student success,” Coleman says. “We’ve been so boxed in, feeling like those traditional test scores are the only indicators of success. We are helping everyone to think much bigger about what it means to be successful and how do we recognize and credential it. “

Special education

Black, Latino students, and socioeconomically disadvantaged students are more likely to be identified for special education than any other students. They are more likely to be labeled because of issues related to behavior, not necessarily because of a cognitive issue, Kirkland says. Research also shows that black and Latino students who require cognitive interventions are less likely than their white peers to receive them. 

Culturally responsive interventions also play a vital role, says Jennifer Meller, a senior consultant for PCG Education, a Boston-based firm that consults with school districts and state agencies to support curriculum development, professional development, and other programs. 

“It takes developing cultural sensitivity, particularly around evaluations and assessments, how support structures are put in place for students so that there isn’t an automatic assumption or automatic referral to special education, as well as a sensitivity to a student’s background and language,” says Meller, the former director of operations for the Office of Specialized Instructional Services for the School District of Philadelphia.  

“Schools have to understand where their students come from” and recognize the family’s comfort level with school system engagement, she says. Having an “active partnership” that “enhances home and school collaboration is crucial.”

Michelle Healy (mhealy@nsba.org) is associate editor of American School Board Journal


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