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Lessons from Exceptional School Leaders

by Mark F. Goldberg

Table of Contents

Chapter 5. Discrimination, Racism, and Poverty

The United States is a country where concerns about discrimination, racism, and poverty are pervasive. When I interviewed Seymour Papert at MIT (Goldberg, 1991a), I expected our conversation to be primarily about computers and LOGO, the program he devised for elementary students. Yet Papert was more eager to talk about the “activist streak” that had developed in him as a boy in his native South Africa, where he opposed apartheid. For Papert, the driving force in all his work was including minorities in every possible educational opportunity, and his belief that computers may help level the playing field.

In another interview, with E. D. Hirsch Jr. (Goldberg, 1997), Hirsch stated how deeply he had been affected as a young man by Gunnar Myrdal's 1944 book on race in the United States, An American Dilemma. For all his adult life, Hirsch has felt that the “avoidable injustice” of not providing minority children with a proper education must be eradicated, and he is convinced that the Core Knowledge curriculum that grew out of his best-selling book Cultural Literacy helps to correct this injustice. The basis for Hirsch's conviction is that lack of “prior knowledge” is responsible for the below-average performance of many poor and minority children on standardized tests.

An enormous and growing population in the United States is composed of non—English-speaking people and people of color. Demographer Harold Hodgkinson notes that early in the 21st century, 68 percent of the students in California will come from homes where English is not the dominant language. At some point in this century, the majority of U.S. residents may be African American, Hispanic, Asian, or one of three or four other minority groups (Goldberg, 2000b). Poverty is another major concern and not necessarily related to one's racial background or language of commerce.

The diversity of cultures and economic status in the United States is a universal concern that affects every educator. Although far fewer minority and indigent residents live in Maine or North Dakota than in Florida, Texas, New York, or California, children who grow up in Maine or North Dakota will often go to college in other states and frequently end up residing in other states. Every citizen needs to know how to live and work with people from different backgrounds. Every educational leader has a stake in seeing that all children are well educated and that color, ethnicity, religious background, and economic status never bar a child from a good education.

The recommendations in this chapter are intended to apply to any group that Shirley Brice Heath calls a “subordinated population” (Goldberg, 1992). These people are not typically treated as well in schools as they deserve to be. They may be poor whites in Appalachia; African Americans in a large city; or Hispanics, Asians, or others who do not fit the stereotype of middle America that seems to linger from Norman Rockwell portraits. Increasingly, as the late Ernie Boyer said, “It is the gap between the haves and have-nots” (Goldberg, 1995) that creates the rift in American culture; and this division crosses racial and ethnic lines. The Cuban daughter of two well-educated parents in Miami or the son of two well-educated African American parents in Philadelphia may not be in great difficulty, but their cousins a few blocks away may face school problems that threaten to overwhelm them.

Sadly and unfairly, all people of color are more suspect of crimes or imminent violence in our society, without regard to socioeconomic status, observable indicators, or realistic evidence. The New Jersey state trooper case on racial profiling in 2000—which revealed highly suspect federal guidelines for approaching members of minority groups—has publicized the extent to which African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Italian Americans are the targets of law enforcement officers. Too often, their treatment in school has many of the same characteristics. Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University lamented that she “watched a whole group of my middle child's friends ‘tracked’ down [to lower levels of classroom groupings] in middle school, primarily African-American children who had been in a gifted and talented program in elementary school” (Goldberg, 2001).

Prejudice is such a complex topic that even simple discussions about it are difficult. Prejudices against poor people of every color and background are obvious, as are the prejudices of minority groups who have bad feelings about other minority groups, as well as minority groups who harbor prejudice toward the perceived majority culture. Other prejudices include stereotyping, discriminating against, and even attacking, people based on their sexual orientation. Anti-Semitism and pervasive xenophobia are other forms of prejudice. The overarching point here is that all forms of discrimination must be placed under a bright light, defeated in every way possible, and represented as intolerable in all settings, and certainly in our schools. (See box, p. 86, for ways to work toward defeating prejudice in the school environment—all addressed in this chapter.)

How to Fight Discrimination, Racism, and Poverty

  • Make defeating prejudice a priority.
  • Include the whole community in defeating prejudice.
  • Change your own attitude.
  • Think achievement
  • Understand diverse cultures.

Make Defeating Prejudice a Priority

Safety, Then Antidiscrimination. After ensuring the physical safety of students and staff, defeating every form of prejudice must be the highest priority in school districts. Of course, schools have a serious mission to educate every student to a high standard. Explaining why a student failed a test, however, does not present the same challenge to a school administrator as does explaining why a student was badly injured or subjected to unceasing taunts—racial, sexual, or religious. Everyone involved in the education profession is obligated to work hard on curriculum and preparing for each day of administering or teaching, but when a student is in physical danger or is subjected to any serious form of prejudice, schoolbooks and budgetary issues take a back seat. Think about the following example of how one superintendent dealt with racism.

Dealing with Racism: Superintendent Example
In the fall of 1990, David Jackson was in his first months as a school superintendent in a predominately white Long Island, New York, school district (Goldberg, 1990/1991). One day, he heard that someone had scrawled racial epithets on the wall of a boys' rest room in the high school. To his credit, he immediately stopped what he was doing and went to see the writing for himself. That day he convened a group that included the high school principal and the head of the teachers' association. Jackson stated clearly that he wanted everything done to find who had defaced the walls and to let other students know this action was deeply wrong and would not be tolerated.
Jackson informed the school board about this incident and personally followed up for days until he was satisfied that school and district staff took this crime seriously. Jackson kept raising the issue at administrative council meetings and made defeating racism a priority. His approach to the problem demonstrated the inappropriateness of racism in the school setting and that the approach to it reflected the culture of the school system. He made it clear that racism would never be tolerated in that district.

Reaction Plus Action. School leaders can learn several lessons from this superintendent's actions in the wake of the incident:

  • The leader's reaction—whether it's the superintendent, the principal, or a teacher—must be immediate. You can't say, “I won't tolerate racism, and as soon as I finish the budget, I'll put together a group to work on this.”
  • All of the school leaders—superintendent of schools, teachers, student government leaders, board members, local clergy and community leaders, president of the teachers' association, and others—must make it clear that racism in the school is unacceptable. People who wish to act out prejudices must know that they will find support neither in the school community nor in the larger community (more information about the larger community follows in the next section of the chapter), and that these communities consider prejudiced behavior as aberrant and unacceptable.
  • Steps taken must be specific, and they should be both short-term and long-term. Some examples of responses to racism are discipline procedures, meetings, classroom discussions, changes in curriculum, parent workshops, board policy, district newsletter articles, and community activities in which students are included.
  • Be sure to follow up after racist incidents. Everyone knows that one-day overreactions are just that. Like summer storms, they are soon over and forgotten. Two weeks later, the principal should be asking the student government and the other administrators what they have done and what their plans are for the long term. She should schedule another meeting a few weeks after the incident to report all that the administration has done and to discuss what others have done. Discussions about addressing the problems of racism should appear as regular agenda items at school meetings until all parties agree that consideration of it should be given continuing status—one of several important items to be considered two or three times each year. Of course, if another serious incident occurs, this item immediately goes to the top of the agenda again.

Include the Whole Community in Defeating Prejudice

Get Everyone Behind You in the Fight Against Intolerance. Motivate all leaders in your school and community to involve themselves in the effort to defeat every form of discrimination or offensive behavior. When untoward behavior occurs, proper handling of the situation is apparent when the perpetrators—whether they are ever identified or not—feel isolated and unsupported. School employees and volunteers need to go on record as being against discrimination. School leaders can encourage others to speak out—the mayor and other elected officials, leaders in various religious communities (including immigrant and nontraditional groups), police officials, local union officials, and leaders in neighborhood homeowners' and tenants' associations. Every person in a position of influence should take a clear vocal and written stand against discriminatory behavior. Ideally, all these people will be on record before an incident occurs as opposing any form of prejudice. A side benefit is that community leaders will thus become more involved with the school community.

Learn Some Community Outreach Principles. Consider the following methods of involving the community in the fight against racism (also, note that many of these tactics can help schools dealing with other crises, such as gun violence):

  • Bringing community members together before an incident occurs can be the work of the Parent-Teachers Association (PTA) or board of education, or the broader-based joint effort of several constituencies in the local community. Some schools can even treat this outreach effort as a class project in a high school social studies elective or as part of service learning. Note that you are not predicting antisocial behavior and do not want to make a racist incident a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, you do want to be prepared for an untoward occurrence, and you realize the unfortunate fact that in any complex community incidents do take place, although the school hopes that its efforts can diminish the frequency and virulence of those incidents. Try to “sign up” people you can depend on in this effort and to learn the best ways to contact them when you have information or need their help.
  • When small groups come together to discuss possible responses, they can prepare letters and other statements that need only be altered slightly when an actual incident occurs. Figure out how to make an immediate response in various media: via local radio or TV programs, student newspaper, district newsletter, school Web site, other local Web sites, board meetings, church services, union meetings, civic meetings, and any other forum that will help. For the most part, the small groups that meet from time to time to prepare for incidents represent only a fraction of the total group. Gathering students, teachers, administrators, school support staff, and local leaders in a single group is not likely to happen often, if ever, although one annual meeting is a good idea if that is not too great an imposition on everyone's time.
  • Reach out for help to all obvious organizations in your community. Contact churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious centers. Talk to the local representative of the National Urban League or the Anti-Defamation League. These organizations and dozens like them have a long history of dealing with prejudice and can share useful information with people in the school community.
  • Someone—perhaps a teacher or PTA member—should head up this effort and should use an e-mail Listserv or some other technique for keeping people informed of meetings, problems, incidents, and helpful background material. The school can handle some smaller incidents at that level, while serious incidents demand publicity and more vocal condemnation. Whatever action results, the whole group needs to be kept informed and on alert. The group might sponsor a one- or two-page e-mail newsletter that goes out three or four times each year at a regular time and keeps people informed of progress and incidents, as well as refers them to meetings, articles, Web sites, or TV programs of special interest.
  • Having students role-play their responses to racist incidents is helpful, because many bright and well-intentioned students have no experience in dealing with this type of situation. Ask students: How will you talk to your team, club, or class? What will you do if you face some opposition? What support can you line up so you are not fighting social evils alone? What can you do before an incident occurs?
  • Establish a method for disseminating facts quickly to the media and others in the community. Perhaps establish a small team (five to seven members) of people in the school district who are willing to gather on a Sunday or early in the morning after a serious incident to put the known facts together and relate publicly a factual account of what occurred. In such situations, rumors are rampant, and counterbalance is necessary. Perhaps one central office administrator, one building administrator, three teachers, and a couple of older students would make a good team. You need administrators because you will require access to phones, computers, and copying machines. Always be careful of misinformation. Do not go beyond the facts you can confirm. State clearly that your report reflects the facts as they are understood at this time, but the incident is still under investigation. Have all information go through a single spokesperson—probably an experienced and highly respected administrator or teacher—to avoid conflicting stories.
  • The perpetrator of a discriminatory act should find no public support or approval. Look at each group, particularly student groups, with influence among young people. Establish a relationship with those groups before an incident occurs. Try not to miss any significant constituency in the community. Changing peoples' hearts and deepest beliefs can often take generations, but changing behavior and beginning deeper changes can start now.

Change Your Own Attitude

Look at Your Own School or District Placement Policies. Take a careful look at where minority and poor children are placed in school. Are a disproportionately low number of minority children in college-bound, upper-track, gifted, or Advanced Placement (AP) classes? Probably so, and everyone can recite the stock answers to the dilemma: “They're not smart enough,” “Their parents don't care,” “They don't come from a tradition of learning,” “The family is dysfunctional,” and other unthinking responses. What can we do to move more minority and poor children into academically advanced classrooms?

Look at Successful Schools. When people make a concerted effort to start special schools, academies, or programs for disadvantaged students, they seem to succeed despite all the real, exaggerated, or untrue stock responses. Principal Debby Meier has done this in New York with several elementary and secondary public schools populated almost entirely by minority students. Dennis Littky, the former principal of the Thayer Academy (a public school), has had great success with poor and lower-middle-class white youngsters in Winchester, New Hampshire. In Texas, many schools in minority areas that had not been doing well have now achieved the state's highest ranking of “exemplary.” Magnet, charter, and other special schools in Massachusetts, Maryland, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are experiencing similar results.

Think Achievement

Schools leaders can take many actions to help bring disadvantaged and minority children into settings that are more appropriate to advanced academic needs (see box on p. 95).

Active Encouragement

  • Start early.
  • Work with the family.
  • Take a risk.
  • Remedy academic deficiencies.
  • Assume that poor and minority students want to go to college.
  • Broaden your understanding.
  • Ask questions.
  • In case of offense . . .
    • Gather information.
    • Include community cultures in schools.

Start Early

Begin working with disadvantaged and minority children the moment they enter school to make sure they believe they can learn. When these children are not doing well, find out as quickly as you can the reasons for their performance. Although each child who is not achieving at the local standard can't have an individualized education program (IEP), as is required in special education, providing these children with extra help or other resources can keep them from falling behind.

Work with the Family

Stay in close touch with parents or guardians. Perhaps you can conduct parent workshops so the adults can learn how they can help the school or their child. Yale psychiatrist James Comer has made excellent use of parents as resources in his efforts to reform schools. Depending on the individual parent's skills and availability, in the Comer Plan parents and guardians might do anything, from serving on decision-making committees to baking cakes for fund-raisers to tutoring children, including their own. For some of the tasks, workshops are needed to help parents understand how they can play an important role.

Take Risks

One way to step out and take a risk is to place in higher-level classes every minority or disadvantaged student who can possibly succeed. Provide help and support for these students. What budget is available for tutoring? Are older students or community members available to serve as tutors? Can any businesses in the area provide support? Some businesses agree to release an employee for an hour or two each week to tutor a student in need. Is there a retirement community in your area? Is there any way this often-willing constituency can help in school—particularly with tutoring?

Remedy Academic Deficiencies

Do what it takes, within reason, to help minority and disadvantaged students overcome any academic deficiencies that keep them from moving to upper-level classes. Poor and minority students are not in upper-level classes often because they do not have the precise background to take, say, precalculus. Can students enter a summer program at the end of 10th grade to get them ready for 11th-grade precalculus? Can they receive extra help for as long into the school year as it takes until they can do the work on their own? Can they enter into after-school study groups with students who completed precalculus last year and are now doing well in calculus? Can you pay one or two mathematics teachers to run an after- school help course for two hours one or two days each week? What about math-major volunteers from a local college or the community?

Assume That Poor and Minority Students Want to Go to College

Begin talking to youngsters and their parents as early as 5th or 6th grade about what students need to do to prepare for college. Provide opportunities for Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) practice in high school. Poor students generally have considerably less tutoring in how to do well on the SATs than do more advantaged students. Hold meetings to familiarize parents with the test and to show parents what they can do to help their children. Acquaint students and parents with how, exactly, to find the help they need to succeed on these standardized tests. Be sure to publicize these meetings in a way that will reach your audience: church bulletins, district newsletter, local newspapers, homeowners' or tenants' newsletters, or other methods that may be appropriate for your community.

Understand Diverse Cultures

As mentioned earlier, school leaders must make serious efforts to understand the backgrounds and cultures of the learners in their school or district (see box). People from different cultures have their own idiosyncratic values and attitudes toward learning. But here's what they have in common: Virtually every parent or guardian of a minority student wants that student to be well educated. Often parents from minority cultures are the ones who are clamoring for charter schools and vouchers. For the many people who want to see public education thrive, schools need to work for students of different cultures, beliefs, and attitudes. Unless all parents feel comfortable under the umbrella of a well-functioning public school system, a partial alternative system that offers more choice, more home schooling, and more vouchers is inevitable.

Choice within the public school system is a good thing. Many educators, community leaders, and politicians, however, believe that choice outside the system may be a great benefit to a small number of students, but will leave the majority of disadvantaged students in an even weaker and less-robustly supported public school system. Most of the 53 million students in the United States are in schools that function quite well. The several million students who do not attend such schools, however, cannot all be accommodated in private, religious, or special schools; so the schools they are in must be renewed.

Ask Questions

When considering the different cultures that make up our society, think about their presence in the school systems:

  • What can you learn about how students from a country in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, or Central America feel about authority, homework, or the relative worth of different subjects? Should we change their beliefs? Should they change ours? Is there room for compromise? Some Middle Eastern students may have difficulty at first in accepting women as authority figures. Certain Hispanic cultures teach children not to ask many questions as a matter of courtesy and deference, and sometimes teachers and administrators misperceive this reticence as a lack of high intelligence.
  • What are the complexities in minority communities, and in what ways can teachers accommodate some special needs? What do those kids from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mexico, Laos, or Thailand—or anywhere—bring to the educational table? Again, don't assume anything just because you have some smattering of knowledge about one of those countries. The differences within a group may be substantial. Don't lump all Asians or Africans or Latin Americans together. Ask the children questions about their cultural background and preferences for how to learn. Become familiar with their community, and turn to their parents for additional information. You can't remake your school, but certainly every culture has its own learning styles, and what you learn may surprise you. Perhaps you can apply your new knowledge about one particular culture to your instruction of a much wider group of children.
    For example, many cultures teach students to defer to authority figures, sometimes to the point of extreme reticence. Of course, many students are simply shy—including students in the majority culture or students whose families have lived in the United States for years. This is an opportunity to teach all students about when it is appropriate, even expected, to ask questions, to challenge what they read and hear, and to state how they feel about issues.
  • How can we motivate people from the community to educate teachers? Can we bring people from the community's different cultures to faculty meetings and other settings so teachers can learn about a group's background, needs, customs, holidays, fears, hopes, assets, talents, and attributes? Perhaps some students who are celebrating a Muslim holiday or holiday season such as Ramadan seem to be unusually distracted this week. That student has had no breakfast, nor may that student eat during the day until Ramadan is concluded. Can you imagine an observant American-Catholic student in school on Ash Wednesday in a Muslim society?

In Case of Offense . . .

Gather Information. Often we assume we know everything about a group because we have worked with that group for a long time. We may even be members of the group we inadvertently offend. In the unfortunate case of a cross-cultural faux pas—which can occur in perfectly innocent circumstances—gather information directly and quickly from the best sources you can find in the community:

  • Knowing what may upset members of a group is often difficult. Sometimes only members of a particular group understand the subtleties of what hurts. You may not be able to take every piece of advice, especially in situations that are complex, but the more you know, the better you'll be at resolving problems.
  • Be humble. Quite simply, you are not an expert on all of the religious, language, ethnic, and other groups in your school or district. Every culture is complex, and many cities and large suburban communities are home to 10 or more minority groups. In large cities, students may bring 20 or 30 different native languages to the schools. Remember, too, that generalizing about any ethnic, national, cultural, or language group is—at best—misguided and offensive to all.
  • Be open to information from multiple sources: parents, students, leaders in the community, and people you may not even recognize as obvious or major leaders in the community. Sometimes people who represent a tenants' association or a small neighborhood club can tell you what is going on and what slights hurt students.

Include Community Cultures in School. Work as a faculty and a community to include important and excellent features of the minority communities in the curriculum. Care must be taken here not to cross a sensitive line between teaching and proselytizing, or even condescending. Even though in some communities several or many minorities are represented in the school, turning the curriculum upside down to represent a significant portion of each culture is just impossible. Finding some excellent children's books or mature works of literature that can be included in the curriculum, however, is certainly within the appropriate range of educational approaches. Teachers can come to know about important events in the culture and honor them in some reasonable way.

At the end of the Western calendar year, for example, many teachers acquaint students with the traditions Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Chanukah. This curriculum is not intended as religious instruction, but as a cultural-historical acquaintance with three important holidays that occur at roughly the same time in three different cultures. Certainly, too, high-quality literary works from just about every culture on earth with a written language can fit into virtually any school's curriculum. The main limitation here is the teacher's limited knowledge of other cultures. Attempts to find out about other cultures' literature is a fine way to establish relations with members of the local communities.

* * *

Many educational leaders are concerned about forms of discrimination in our multicultural nation. Clearly school systems should work to eliminate discrimination to whatever extent possible. After keeping young people physically safe, defeating prejudice must be the second priority in our schools. Actions taken to defeat racist comments and incidents, for instance, need to be thoughtful and swift and must include every element of the school community. All children must feel included in the school and should feel comfortable enough to have the opportunity to receive an excellent education. Teachers and administrators need access from the best possible sources to information on what hurts students and what can be done to help them. The backgrounds of everyone at school (including the teachers') are worthy of respect and honor, and people who wish to act out discriminatory feelings should feel unwanted and unsupported in the school community.


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