Ready or not, America is watching its student population grow more diverse.
For the first time in the nation’s history, the overall student population is now less than half white. And while many schools remain deeply segregated, others are growing more mixed as Asian, black, and Hispanic families move to the suburbs and whites settle in gentrifying urban neighborhoods.
But there is a difference between diverse schools and ones that are integrated, says Amy Stuart Wells, a Teachers College professor who has long studied race and education. History has shown that seating students of different colors side by side isn’t enough — real integration requires schools to adopt inclusive curriculums, teachers to reflect on their own biases, and students to learn how to interact across race and class lines, she says.
To help with that work, Stuart Wells has put together a four-day conference that will feature talks with titles like “How could I possibly have a positive racial identity!? I’m White!” and “When Celebrating Diversity Just Isn’t Enough.”
Chalkbeat recently spoke with Stuart Wells about what it takes to create diverse schools and about the conference, which she said is one of the first of its kind. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Chalkbeat: Can you start by explaining what inspired this conference?
Amy Stuart Wells: I’ve been studying school desegregation for a long time: the history of it, what happened, and what didn’t happened when we first desegregated schools in the middle of the 20th century. We basically focused on student-assignment plans and made sure there was racial diversity at least within buildings, if not within classrooms, and then kind of left it for the educators to deal with or not.
I know from my research on those schools and that history, talking about race was a taboo. Nobody talked about issues of race. It was basically an assimilation project, where you bring in students of color to schools that were usually predominantly white. And the whole project was about assimilating them into these white middle-class norms and ways of seeing the world.
We see now that there’s so many ways curriculum can reflect issues around race. And as we’ve seen last week and throughout the last year, race clearly matters, and policing and responses to policing.
So I think we’re right to start to realize now that we’re not colorblind and that race matters in schools.
In past cases you’ve studied, what were some of the challenges that arose when schools became more diverse, but they didn’t really address that?
Several things. Race is often this elephant in the classroom that no one’s talking about, but everyone’s aware of. Oftentimes students of color felt that their voices and perspectives weren’t valued in that context.
But also white students wanted to talk more. All of a sudden the population of their schools and their classrooms changed and there was no place for them to talk about that either. The students were living with race every day in those schools, but nobody was talking about it.
The adults in the building: I don’t think they felt equipped, and they didn’t feel like that was part of what they were supposed to be doing — to help students deal with that or reflect those different racial perspectives and histories in their curriculum.
Most of this was happening in the 70s and early 80s. We’re now several decades ahead and we’ve gone through this era of K-12 school accountability and colorblind ideology. And what I think we now realize that those ways of thinking about K-12 education are not serving our students well, and certainly not preparing them for the universities and larger society where there’s ongoing racial tension.
Moving forward to today: When a school is really trying to foster a diverse and integrated community, what are the best practices for doing that?
A lot of it begins with the hard work teachers need to do around their own racial biography.
For white teachers — and there will be several sessions around this at the institute — to really think about how race does matter even though they are white. How it matters to their own identity, how it matters in their interactions with students and their understanding of students’ abilities. [It’s] broadening out what we know and how we know it, and allowing for students to grapple with meaning and deeper questions and challenge each other and their understandings and interpretations.
It’s this deeper, richer learning that we should all be doing anyway, but it’s really important in these very diverse classrooms.
One of the sessions at the conference will focus on science instruction in diverse classrooms. Something like science or math seems very straightforward, so how do you factor in diversity or culturally responsive teaching?
The title of Chris Emdin’s talk is called “Reimagining Rigor.” He’s challenging these notions that by using hip-hop pedagogy it’s not a rigorous way of teaching science. It’s going to be really powerful.
It’s a common theme, whether it’s science or math, and certainly with literacy and social studies, is giving students ownership and allowing them to interpret and reinterpret in their own language some of the scientific data and information that we talk about in one way. That’s so important in the real world. You ask any scientist and they say that’s what we do.
There’s an effort happening now to get a more diverse teaching force. I could imagine someone saying that this type of training is a Band-Aid, but it doesn’t solve the problem of the lack of diversity among teachers.
I’m all for getting more teachers of color. But I doubt there’s going to be a day anytime soon in this country where we’re not going to have a large percentage of white teachers, and we’re not going to have a large percentage of teachers teaching students whose race is different than theirs.
Hopefully we’re going to have an increase in teachers teaching in racially diverse classrooms, which is challenging no matter what your racial/ethnic background is.
And hopefully we’ll have a more diverse teaching force. And hopefully this kind of institute and thinking about race within schools will be helpful when we do.