More questions than answers about the racial imbalance in Michigan's schools

Aug 18, 2014

Credit Derek Bridges / flickr

The death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown and the resulting chaos in Ferguson, Missouri is an extreme example of the long tail of a racial power imbalance. 

Racial power dynamics between police and the communities they patrol have historically been, and still are, important for communities in Michigan and across the country to address. But, a less explosive version of this racial power imbalance plays out elsewhere every day.

It's in our schools.

Michigan's teaching profession is 97% white. The number of students of color, meanwhile, is 26% and growing.  Michigan's public school system is the third most racially segregated in the country, so most schools are made up of primarily white students or primarily non-white students. In both of these settings, most of the teachers are white. This is something we've seen all over the state

Anna Jacob Egalite is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School who does research in this area. "There are lots of people calling for aggressive recruitment of minority teachers," Egalite said over the phone from her office.  Over that past few years there have been millions of both public and private dollars spent on recruiting more teachers of color into the education system to address this racial imbalance. 

Race plays out in a number of ways in education; disparate discipline policies and suspension rates, variations in special education identification and services and stereotype threat, when internalized prejudice affects performance because of lower expectations, are just a few.  

But there is a lack of rigorous studies that could tell us more about how these two central things - race and school - work together and influence the outcomes for all of our kids. Recruiting more teachers of color isn't going to make up for this lack of knowledge.

What do we know?

  • We do know diversity in education matters. As Jeffrey Milem's work points out, a diverse learning environment can be more intellectually and socially stimulating than a homogenous environment. But Milem is one of few researchers who has looked past what diversity in primary and secondary education can bring beyond developing empathy. 
  • As much as diversity matters, it's not the most important thing. As a kid, having a teacher that matches your racial or ethnic background is much less important than having a great teacher, the data is unequivocal. In terms of the achievement gap, the data seem to point to a kid's income rather than their race as more predicative of them progress in school.
  • For non-white students, having a teacher of their race or ethnicity can have a positive effect. There's some research showing that role modeling, positive student-teacher interactions, and time spent with students can improve when a student and teacher are of the same race. But there's very little research that explores why this is true or how far the benefits extend.

Ignoring the issue just makes it worse

Dustin Dwyer found out when he interviewed Rebecca Bigler about studies she's done on bias and kids in school that kids are not "colorblind" to race or ignorant about how it plays out in the larger world. Bigler also said kids just get more confused the less adults around them talk openly about how perception and prejudice could play out.  

Right now we seem to be living through a similar phenomenon on a larger scale.  We  know race matters in education, but few people are exploring exactly how it matters. With more research for that questions, we may be able to start looking for answers as to how kids of all races and ethnicities can have an equal shot at educational opportunity.