Will black parents shoulder the blame for race bias in my hometown’s schools?

This is the second part of a four-part series on the writer’s experience and research on the achievement gap in her hometown of Evanston, Illinois, a diverse suburb north of Chicago and home to Northwestern University. Read Part 1 here

Evanston formally and voluntarily desegregated its schools in 1966, but a persistent achievement gap has divided black and white students since then.

The gap made headlines when I attended schools there in the 1980s and ’90s and continues to today. The most recent report on black student achievement in District 65 reveals that blacks disproportionately fail to meet math and reading benchmarks, end up in special education classes or suspended from school.

Last year, only 10.4 percent of black students in grades 3-8 met college readiness benchmarks in math on the Measures of Academic Progress assessment. This compares to 59.8 percent of white students and 39.1 percent of students overall. A similar gap can be found in literacy scores, with 20.1 of black students meeting college readiness benchmarks in reading, compared to 72.2 of white students and 49.8 of students generally.

In addition to academic outcomes, black students in the district are widely identified as having learning and behavioral disabilities. Blacks make up 24.3 percent of District 65 students but 39.5 percent of students with an individualized education plan for a developmental delay and 49.1 percent of students with an IEP for an emotional disability.

Given my experience in the district and the fact that black students nationwide are overrepresented in special education classes, I can’t help but to question if such high percentages of black children legitimately have learning and emotional disorders or if these youth are the casualties of implicit bias in the classroom.

I’m not the only one with these concerns. The Evanston Now website reported that at a District 65 school board meeting last year, a black parent complained that her child was wrongly identified as having a learning disorder. More damningly, a former black teacher in the school district said that white teachers don’t know how to educate black students.

While these are sweeping generalizations, a recent study found that when black children have black teachers, they’re more likely to be identified as gifted.

At Lincoln, the elementary school I attended, the principal was black but the staff was nearly all white. Would a black teacher have sent a note home suggesting I had a learning disorder? It’s impossible to know, but research indicates it’s less likely. A black teacher may have felt more comfortable discussing this issue with my mother or pulling me aside and discussing my reading habits with me before issuing the letter.

To its credit, the District 65 school board appears to be taking the criticisms about its achievement gap seriously. It’s difficult for the district to elude the issue given that the academic gulf between black and white students has been referenced in Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Atlantic’s City Lab site and in books such as Mary Barr’s Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston.

In response to growing local and national concerns about its schools, District 65 has organized focus groups and community caucuses. It has worked with consultants on culturally relevant teaching practices, and board members have taken part in summits on racial justice.

Earlier this year, Superintendent Paul Goren presented a 10-point equity statement that outlines the district’s plans to narrow the achievement gap. Steps include retaining a diverse workforce that reflects student demographics, working with parents and community groups, and training staff to recognize implicit and explicit biases.

Addressing racial biases is among the most important steps the district can take to improve the academic performance of students of color. But community members of all racial backgrounds cite parenting and poverty for the achievement gap, noting that the gap is present even in kindergarten. They’ve suggested putting books in barbershops, visiting women in maternity wards and guiding them to bond with their babies.

They’ve also mentioned teaching parents how to navigate the school system, while others have raised concerns about single-parent families in the black community. Both concerns imply black families are largely responsible for the achievement gap.

Such thinking is misguided based on what I observed during my school years.

What do you think?
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Nadra Nittle

Nadra Nittle

Nadra Kareem Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She’s reported on education for the Los Angeles News Group, the Atlantic, EdSource and others. She was raised in Evanston, attended public and private schools in the area, and graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles with a bachelor's and master's degree in English.

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