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February 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 5

Confronting Inequity / No More "Waiting on 16"

Honor students' experiences to curb the school pushout problem.

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EquitySchool Culture
Recently, I overheard a group of three students talking about school as they walked from their bus stop toward a corner store. The gist of their conversation was that at least two of them were looking forward to their 16th birthday so they could "quit" school. "Man," one of the students shared, "I'm just waiting on 16"—a sentiment with which one of his friends expressed clear agreement.
Although in their conversation these students used the word "quit," a more careful analysis of their rationales for leaving school might suggest that they were being "pushed out," as Monique Morris (2016) describes in Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. The third student in the group shared that he was going to "just graduate" and then get a job, and suggested to the other two students that they do the same. But the other two maintained that school was not "for" them—that they weren't "school people."
In retrospect, I wish that I had been bold enough to walk up to the group of teens and engage them. I wish I had asked for more detail about their reasons for either (1) wanting to leave school (or succumbing to being pushed out) or (2) continuing to just show up at school to graduate and get a job. But although I didn't talk to them, what I heard was a good reminder for me that all over the United States, many students are just "waiting on 16" so they can leave school.

From Disengaged to Connected

What is it about how schools are structured that causes some students to believe they are not "school" people? How do we create the types of conditions where students—every single one of them—see the value of education and develop a love for learning? We educators must do much more to help students like the three I overheard see themselves as "school" people.
But I don't mean that schools need to make a greater effort to get students to conform to the regular normative ways in which schools are organized. My point is that schools need to change so that students see themselves—their identity spaces and their goals and aspirations—reflected, honored, and embraced in school. And we need to help students realize how a true education that cultivates lifelong learning is different from "schooling" (Shujaa, 1994); build insights into how they can improve their own lives and local communities (including situations they are grappling with at home); and understand the multiple layers of their own brilliance, strength, potential, and abilities—both inside and outside of schools.
To accomplish these four interconnected aims, educators—school leaders, policymakers, teachers, and school counselors—must resist the urge to teach the way they were taught. They must resist the inclination to follow curriculum and instructional practices that do not connect with students' lives and ultimately do not help students learn in ways they find meaningful.
Beyond those general precepts, there are also a number of instructional and dispositional shifts educators can make to transform the learning experiences of disengaged students like the ones I overheard (Milner et al., 2018):
  • Adopt a learner lens. Educators shouldn't presume that they know everything, but instead deliberately and assertively learn about the life experiences of their students.
  • Engage in critical self-examination and reflection. Educators can engage in introspective activities to discover their own strengths, weaknesses, privileges, and needs, and encourage students to do the same. Both groups must work to examine how they might contribute to creating a classroom climate of learning and development for all.
  • Encourage student involvement in expectations and rules. Allow, rely on, and expect students to participate in setting classroom expectations, norms, and routines so that they gain a sense of agency and buy-in in the instructional context. Students should believe and know that the classroom space is indeed theirs.
  • Develop caring, empathetic attitudes and dispositions. Educators should attempt to understand their students and work with them to solve problems rather than seeing students as the enemy or "other." One way teachers can demonstrate care is by handling disciplinary infractions inside the classroom with equity, consistency, and personal understanding, rather than sending students to the office.
  • Reject deficit thinking. Educators must believe that students are in fact intelligent and capable, and that they bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise into classrooms. They should see students as assets, not liabilities.
  • Cultivate cultural and racial awareness and understanding. Educators must understand that students' experiences are shaped by historical, social, and political factors. They should attempt to connect with students' cultural and racial backgrounds and build curricular and pedagogical practices that align with their needs and interests.
  • Avoid color-blind ideologies. Educators must recognize and acknowledge each student's race as a central dimension of who they are; it influences how they see and experience the world. Try to know students as their complete selves, not just their fragmented school identities.
  • Develop and maintain trust. Educators should cocreate a trusting environment for students by establishing bonds, maintaining high expectations, and cobuilding the classroom community.
  • Strengthen parental, family, and community partnerships. Educators should build and maintain partnerships with parents, families, and the community to identify and scaffold learning opportunities in the classroom.
  • Build on students' technological interests. Educators should recognize that students' interest in and engagement with technology and digital devices are intellectual assets from which curriculum and instructional practices can be built.

Better Birthdays

As educators, we have a real opportunity to change the way schools operate. Educators shape school structures and systems more than they sometimes realize. Classroom teachers who make intentional shifts in their practices to honor students' experiences can create conditions where all students see themselves as "school" people and can develop in students a love and appreciation for learning and growth, both inside and outside of school.
When we change and do better by our students, their 16th birthdays will be a different, more positive kind of marker.
References

Milner, H. R., Cunningham, H. B., Delale-O'Connor, L., & Kestenberg, E. G. (2018). "These kids are out of control": Why we must reimagine "classroom management" for equity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Morris, M. (2016). Pushout: The criminalization of black girls in schools. New York: New Press.

Shujaa, M. J. (1994). Too much schooling, too little education: A paradox of black life in white societies. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

H. Richard Milner IV is a professor of education and Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Racing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2015) and coauthor of "These Kids Are Out of Control": Why We Must Reimagine "Classroom Management" for Equity (Corwin Press, 2018).

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