10 reasons why discussing race in class improves outcomes for all students

Discussing race and racism in school reduces prejudice among white students and students of color
By: | October 26, 2021
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Not allowing students to discuss race or racism in schools is both unrealistic and harmful, a new report says.

First, there are developmental considerations, as children become aware of race and can experience positive and negative emotions about their ethnic groups even before they start school, says “United We Learn,” an Aspen Institute guide to how educators can better recognize America’s racial diversity.

Some 86% of children ages 6-11 think people are treated unfairly based on race in the U.S., and half said they thought about racism often, according to a Sesame Workshop study cited by the guide.

On the other hand, “United We Learn” also noted that children can develop implicit biases early and kids who have negative views of other races/ethnicities experience lower achievement outcomes.

“There is a lot of empirical research about how to teach about race, including significant benefits for both white students and students of color,” said Ross Wiener, executive director of the Aspen Education and Society Program.

“This research isn’t being applied as policymakers make consequential decisions about the treatment of race and racism in schools. It is crucial, right now, to slow down, consider the evidence from research and experience, and apply that knowledge to improve teaching about race and racism,” Wiener said.

When kids become aware of negative stereotypes about themselves, the stress created can limit their capacity to learn and this can lead to a lasting drag on achievement.

Also, teachers’ expectations have a profound influence on students’ academic confidence but teachers’ biases more often harm Black, Latino or indigenous students, the report says.

Here’s how K-12 leaders and their teams can create more inclusive climates and boost students’ belief in their academic abilities:

  • Research shows discussing race and racism in school reduces prejudice among white students and students of color.
  • Telling schools to ignore students’ awareness of race, racism and stereotypes leads to increased prejudice.
  • Educators at all levels should promote culturally responsive practices—research shows that student outcomes improve when courses teach the history of race in America.
  • Learning experiences must recognize diversity and promote empathy, belonging, collaboration and intellectual curiosity.
  • Helping students develop positive ethnic-racial identities improves academic outcomes, health, and overall well-being.
  • Children with positive ethnic-racial identities are also more likely to have positive attitudes towards students from different ethnic-racial groups.
  • State and district leaders should prioritize diversifying the teacher workforce.
  • Having teachers who are caring and supportive is the most important factor contributing to students’ sense of belonging.
  • Outcomes improve for all students when belonging is fostered through well-designed academic instruction.
  • Providing teachers with sustained learning experiences about relevant history, policy and research reduces educator biases.

The report noted that 9th- and 10th-grade students in Tucson USD who completed ethnic studies courses had significantly higher rates of passing state achievement tests and graduation. San Francisco USD 9th-graders who took ethnic studies had substantially higher attendance and grade-point averages and earned more credits.

However, the report calls for more research into anti-bias training for teachers. Studies have shown, for instance, that interventions focused on white privilege can have unintended and undesirable results.

Families remain the primary source of ethnic-racial socialization for youth, the report noted.

“Schools play an important role in preparing young people to live, work, and thrive in a diverse, pluralistic society,” Wiener said. “We need adults to model serious and evidence-informed conversations about race and racism so young people have positive role models to emulate. This is a teachable moment for Americans to live into our shared values, seek common ground, and address contentious issues responsibly.”