Learning at Home Race & Racism

Why We Can’t Talk About Honors Programs without Talking About Race

Recently, some parents and educators have initiated a campaign to reinstate honors math and English classes in our middle schools for families who “choose to have such programs.” They are calling on parents to come down to the SFUSD Board of Education office this Tuesday, February 24 to demand reinstatement of a two-track option for parents: honors and regular classes.

I have been listening to arguments on all sides of the issue and hear the very real concerns that many parents and teachers express about our district not adequately serving the needs of GATE students. Many parents complain their children are “bored to tears” (actuall parent quote) and sit day after day in classes where they are asked to tutor or translate for their lower-performing peers. In reading comments on my blog, on the PPS-SF listserve, and in emails with concerned parents, I see a consistent themes. Parents express a confusion about the district’s decision-making policies, anger about not feeling included in decisions to remove of honors classes from schools, and frustration about feeling like their concerns are dismissed.

I applaud their involvement in our schools, and appreciate their advocacy in regard to quality instruction and high expectations for SFUSD students. It is time to make serious changes in the way we meet the needs of high performing students, and parents have waited long enough to feel like active partners in this discussion. I wholeheartedly agree there is a need to revamp our current system and demand accountability for teaching all students… including students who perform well beyond grade level expectations.

That said, the issues these parents raise, does not necessitate moving back in time to a two-track system. Proponents may believe that honors classes will provide more academic challenge for their children… but at what cost?

Proponents Present a False Choice

Tracking has always been a problem in our schools as it divides students into HAVEs and HAVE-NOTs. Proponents of tracking state that elimination of the middle school honors classes has created a “lack of choice” for families:

Before SFUSD acted last year to eliminate honors classes in middle school, we had choice. About half of the middle schools had honors classes, and half did not. Parents could choose which program they felt was right for their kids. If parents were worried that the availability of honors classes in a school was a negative for their child, they could avoid such a school. If parents thought a school with honors classes was right for their kid, they could choose such a school.

So basically what they are stating is that reinstating honors classes will give families more options in educating their kids. That sounds good right?

Well, actually… no.

Here, proponents present a false choice. If participating in honors classes were truly a “choice” – wouldn’t ALL families choose it for their children? Saying parents might choose to avoid schools with honors is ridiculous. It is more likely they would complain about their children being tracked out of honors into classes with fewer resources, less experienced teachers, and more high-needs kids.

In reality, students who get tracked into these types of classes, tend to be from poor or immigrant families unaware of other options. They often lack the ability to advocate for advancement due to language or social status. These students are often denied participation in honors programs based on being ill prepared due to poverty, language, or poor instruction in previous classes

“High-performing” students who participate in honors classes, may or may not receive access to more challenging curriculum as compared to similar students in heterogeneous classrooms. (There is research to support positive AND negative outcomes in this regard.) Conversely, research on the impact of tracking on lower-performing students is much more definitive – low-performing students suffer many negative effects.

Let’s Talk About Structural Racism

Proponents contend grouping students by math ability is “fair” and there is no systematic discrimination in track placement. So how do they explain the over-representation of Black, Latino and low income students in lower-performing tracks of a two-track system?

This, they say, “stems from low grades and test scores.”

This argument may sound good on paper, but it is fundamentally flawed. The very fact that black and Latino students are overrepresented in lower-performing classes is direct evidence that a system of structural racism is in place.

Before I go further on this topic, let’s take a step back and define what we are talking about…

According to a paper for the Race and Public Policy Conference titled: Chronic Disparity: Strong and Pervasive Evidence of Racial Inequalities – Poverty Outcomes (2004) by Keith Lawrence of the Aspen Institute on Community Change, and Terry Keleher, of Applied Research Center at UC Berkeley, structural racism is defined as the following:

Structural Racism in the U.S. is the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. It is a system of hierarchy and inequity, primarily characterized by white supremacy – the preferential treatment, privilege and power for white people at the expense of Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Arab and other racially oppressed people.

The paper goes on to state that some of the key indicators of structural racism are inequalities in “power, access, opportunities, treatment”, including policy impacts and outcomes, that are “intentional or not.” Structural racism is difficult to identify in institutions because it “involves the reinforcing effects of multiple institutions and cultural norms, past and present, continually producing new, and re-producing old forms of racism.”

How is Structural Racism Evident in Our Schools?

School segregation is one example of structural racism. My grandparents were not able to attend high school because they were not allowed to attend their all-white neighborhood schools. They, like other blacks at the time, were presented with the false “choice” of all black schools that were often too far away to attend. For example, my grandmother on my father’s side would have had to travel seven miles in order to attend the all-black high school in central St. Louis, MO.

Even when blacks did make the extra effort to attend segregated schools, the education they received was inferior to that of their white peers. My father was lucky enough to be one of the only “negroes” to attend John Dewey Elementary in Evanston, IL. He received an excellent education there. On the contrary, his cousin Charles, who was at the same grade level, attended an all black school in St. Louis. My father told me that he sometimes went to school with his cousins when he would visit them. When he did, he recalled feeling embarrassed for being singled out by teachers for being the “smartest kid in class.”

My father was a bright young man. But he was definitely no brighter than all his cousins and their peers. On these visits, he realized how lucky he was that his parents had not only moved north from Missouri to Illinois, they had moved just across the dividing line between Evanston, IL’s poorer quality black school and the higher quality (white) school.

These examples show how the “choice” argument totally fails. My grandparents were given a “choice” to attend a black high school, that was extremely difficult to get to each day. My father had the “choice” to attend a superior elementary school, only because his parents knew and were able to move across a district dividing line. It’s not a choice for all families if all families don’t have the means to make the choice, let alone know the choice exists.

The More Things Change the More they Stay the Same…

After the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 schools were ordered to desegregate. But anyone who has ever worked in public schools knows segregation and discrimination didn’t end that day. In an article by the New Republic, author Arit John explains why schools may be more ethnically diverse than they were sixty years ago, but differential treatment is still alive and kicking.

Even Well-Integrated Schools Treat Black Students Differently, Sixty years after Brown v. Board from the New Republic

America’s classrooms may not be separate, but they’re still not equal


A 2012 study from the American Sociological Association found, “Substantial scholarly evidence indicates that teachersespecially white teachersevaluate black students’ behavior and academic potential more negatively than those of white students.” The study analyzed the results from the Education Longitudinal Study, a national survey of 15,362 high school sophomores, as well as their parents and teachers. Again, the evidence showed a bias among white teachers that favored white students.Racial diversity, teachers and students

Ironically, it was Brown that led to massive decline in the number of African American teachers. Segregated counties often operated two school districtsone for blacks and one for whites. When the school districts integrated thousands of African American teachers were fired or laid off. Today’s teacher force reflects that decline in diversity. A new report from the Center for American Progress found that 80 percent of public school teachers are white, while nearly 50 percent of students are minorities.Read more here.

So, What’s Happening in SFUSD?

In San Francisco, our schools are even more ethnically diverse. The teacher pool may be as well, though I’m quite confident it does not reflect the ethnic makeup of the population it serves. (SFUSD recently launched a concerted effort to increase hiring of African-American teachers, so hopefully this will continue to improve.)

Follow along with me on this…

  • IF systemic racism is defined as “preferential treatment, privilege and power for white people” and…
  • IF the key indicators for systemic racism are the evidence of inequalities in “power, access, opportunities, treatment” … intentional or NOT,
  • THEN we should be able to identify systemic racism in our district, by identifying areas of racial inequality.

Let’s take a look at our own data on district participation in GATE by race to see how we are doing…

SFUSD GATE Percent Participation by Race

| Create infographics


Clicking on the circle graph representing SFUSD demographics above you can see that Asians are the largest ethnic group of students in our district at 44% of the population. If you click on the GATE graph, you see they represent 66% of the GATE population. While Black students make up 9% of the general population, yet only 4% of the GATE population.

How do these numbers square up? Why are Asians and whites overrepressented in GATE programs while black and Latino (and Samoan) students are woefully under-represented? Should we chalk this all up to poverty? Parent education levels? Cultural predispositions? I don’t think so…

Going back to proponents arguments that honors classes are not discriminatory, we see their argument is not only flawed, it expresses racial bias.

  • IF any student can participate in the program if they so wish, and…
  • IF selection of students is based solely on grades and test scores, and…
  • IF black and Latino students are underrepresented in higher performing classes, and…
  • IF structural racism is NOT the cause…
  • THEN IT ONLY FOLLOWS that the lack of representation of blacks and Latinos in higher performing classes must be due to the students themselves.

Another Round of the Blame Game

The argument presented above is a very difficult one to listen to. It denies the very real impacts of structural racism in our system and then tells students and families (either implicitly, or overtly) that if they are not able to successfully navigate a flawed system, it is their own fault.

Let’s see what Mychal Denzel Smith of the Nation has to say about this:

Americans Insist on Being Delusional About Racism

Mychal Denzel Smith on July 3, 2014 – 1:54 PM ET

The headline to this ThinkProgress story reads “A Black College Student Has The Same Chances Of Getting A Job As A White High School Dropout.” At the same time, this Pew Research Center study shows that 63 percent of Americans believe “Blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for own condition.”

How do these two things square with each other?

They don’t. But that doesn’t actually matter. Americans aren’t swayed by facts or statistics but by narratives. The narrative we have internalized with regards to racism is one of unimpeached progress. We’ve gone from slavery to Jim Crow to civil rights to a black president without a hitch.

Meanwhile, the thing that black parents across the country have told their children for generations about having to work twice as hard to get the same things that are handed to white people, remains true. Yet 63 percent of Americans choose to believe black people are unambitious, or lazy or incompetent. Racism, the kind that limited opportunities for black Americans, is a thing of the past, we would like to believe.

Read more here.

Whether they are aware of it or not, the message Iproponents of a two-track system are sending (folks who have in many cases, benefitted from systems of structural racism in the past) is “Our kids deserve better! Other people’s kids are not my concern (and are in many cases part of the problem). If getting a quality education for my child means other people’s children don’t get served, or are actually held back .. Then so be it, it’s not my concern.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know tracking in honors is NOT the solution. Parents of all backgrounds feel angry and frustrated when they express concern for their children and their pleas go unanswered, or worse yet are dismissed. GATE parents know their children deserve more from our education system and are demanding the district’s attention to meet the very real needs of their kids.

And let’s be fair, the district could do a better job to involve and inform families in the ways it plans to support GATE students. Unfortunately, in the absence of that communication some parents have grown tired of waiting and are now connecting the dots, sometimes incorrectly.

What we need is more services and structures to support students who excel. These new services can’t come at the cost of our most underserved children and families. These new services should not rebuild structures that deny children access to upward mobility because of their race, language or ethnic background, or their families prior success in a notoriously biased education system of our parents and grandparents day.

Here are a few of my recommendations about what we SHOULD DO to make our education system better for ALL students (not just those who come from families that already have assets, not just those whose parents know how to navigate the system.)

What we SHOULD do:

  1. Redesign GATE – The new program should align with gifted research, brain-based learning and the new standards, curriculum, and assessments. This redesign should answer questions like: Which students are identified to receive services? How are services best delivered? etc.
  2. Increase systemic supports for teachers in meeting the growing demand to educate diverse student learners – This can be achieved in various ways, including (but not limited to): class size reduction, team teaching, curriculum, technology, training and site-based coaching.
  3. Support parents in advocating for the needs of their children – Engagement is a critical factor of successful instruction–if students are “bored” it is our job as educators and community members to come together to find new ways to challenge and support them.
  4. Explicitly incorporate GATE into the district’s student support framework – Ultimately, I believe GATE student support should be explicitly incorporated into the Response to Intervention (RTI) educational model that the district is using to provide specific supports to focal groups of students with specific learning needs.

What we SHOULD NOT do:

  1. Re-create a two-track system – It’s high time we stopped separating students into “smart” vs. “lazy” and figured out how to support all students. In my experience in schools (roughly 20 years!) any two track system is a formula for a segregated and unequal education system. Students are placed in a track early on in their academic career (sometimes as early as the fourth grade!) and can never gain access to college and career-going courses and opportunities. Research shows that even the label of “underperforming” hinders students performance leads to lower achievement over time.
  2. Reinforce the “us” vs. “them” mentality when dialoguing about solutions for our schools. – Education will always be a hot topic. Parents and teachers are passionate about our children and schools. It is inevitable that there will be differing viewpoints about how to best serve our kids. That said, name-calling and disrespectful language and behavior toward teachers, district staff, students or families only widens the gaps between us and prevents us for working together for the best of all our kids. Calling teachers “incompetent” or parents “entitled” or students “lazy” (and I have heard both of these words uttered) does nothing to solve the problem of educating all our students. Where do we agree? Where can we find common ground? How can we listen better to one another’s very real concerns? How can we help each other help our kids?

The Last Word…

We need to TALK ABOUT RACE. OK, this is a hard one, but if looking at the history of bussing has taught me anything, I’ve learned that you can’t just administrate change and think that’s going to do the trick. The predicament we find ourselves in now is a great illustration that if we don’t investigate our assumptions and own internalized bias (we ALL have it people!) we will continue to recreate systems of social inequity in new ways.

Teachers, parents and students need to talk more about race and the impact of bias in our society. Those of us who have benefited from racially biased systems of the past (or just “got lucky” like my parents) need to be especially aware of how our actions impact others. We cannot right all the wrongs of society, but we had better not unwittingly contribute to keeping systems of structural racism in place.

Our district has recently adopted an Ethnic Studies curriculum, we need to ensure it is robust and well supported in its implementation. Additionally, we need highly skilled leadership to ensure this conversation is going on at every level in the district and among families, educators and community partners. We need to have these conversations in our churches, homes and in our schools. We have a new generation counting on us to do right by them and we are well positioned to make changes we have not been able to make in years. Let’s make it happen!

Does any of this make sense to you? What do you have to say on this? Please post your comments below. (Because I know this is a very HOT topic, I request that commenters refrain from inappropriate language or personal attacks. Please bring up real issues and concerns and name your truth, and try to do it in a way that encourages rather than diminishes discussion of multiple perspectives.)

Related reads: It’s Time We Stopped Playing the Blame Game with Gifted Programs, Ruby Bridges, Civil Rights Hero

3 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Talk About Honors Programs without Talking About Race

  1. the entire concept of “gifted” is wrong. We need to have a school system that allows students to ask questions, and then help them answer them. John Dewey explained why this is what has to happen. As long as we use our educational system to sort and socialize rather than educate, we will never get rid of structural elitism. As long as on 20 percent of US jobs are good paying jobs and people think that educational achievement represents “merit” for those jobs, we are going to have inequality of opportunity. We need to follow the Finnish example and get rid of private schools and base all public education on equity, not merit. until that happens we are going to be chasing our tails.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Private schools are “exclusive” for a reason… they exclude. Thanks for your comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *