Addressing Racial Inequities in Educational Outcomes

Author: James Gray, Dean of the Mathematics Division, Pima Community College

At the recent American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges Conference in Toronto, I attended a session about corequisite math courses that was presented by a Strong Start to Finish member institution. I learned two important lessons. First, students are far more capable than teachers give them credit for. Second, I had to grow to be an effective teacher of corequisite math. Particularly for the students I was least effective at teaching: my Black, Latinx and Indigenous students.

As is the case with many institutions that have implemented corequisite remediation, the presenter showed significant increases in the rates of college level math completion — particularly for racially minoritized students who are disproportionately placed in below college level math and writing courses. As I approached the presenter after the session, another attendee expressed concern, stating “Students are coming in so unprepared these days.” How many times have colleagues used the language of causation to explain that students are failing because they lack foundational math skills, critical thinking, learning mindsets, motivation, the time, or that their families don’t value education, or that the pandemic resulted in learning loss? Despite any sense of rigor and precision in these causal explanations, these statements often go unquestioned and position students as the authors of their own failure while ignoring evidence to the contrary. Asking students to bear the burden for their lack of success is so normal that teachers do it without realizing it.

To my delight, the presenter did question calling students unprepared. She asked the attendee to consider the possibility that educators misjudge students as evidenced by the many students who successfully completed the course despite scoring low on a placement exam.

The types of evidence that are often used to make inferences about students and their (lack of) capabilities include success rates, placement exams and even our perceptions of how students view themselves. When disaggregated by race and ethnicity, success rates and placement exams show inequities that are so prevalent that it is taken for granted to be a natural occurrence. Our image of successful students is so strong that instructors often suggest to students that their inherent behaviors, attitudes and emotions are associated with failure.

Dr. Estela Bensimon, founder and retired director of the Center for Urban Education at the USC Rossier School of Education, wrote about the Imagined Successful Student in her article, “The Underestimated Significance of Practitioner Knowledge in the Scholarship on Student Success.” In it, she argues that the variables regarding student success that are noticed, and thus studied, are variables that focus on the commitment, academic effort, goal-orientation, autonomy and self-regulation of individual students. She notes, “If we continue to concentrate only on what students accomplished or failed to accomplish when they were in high school and what they do or fail to do once they enter college, our understanding of success will be flawed, as well as incomplete.” 

Her point is that we, the instructors, are an under-studied variable in the success of students. In practice, I take this to mean that if instructors believe that racial inequities in outcomes are the result of students’ lack of preparedness, motivation or a learning mindset, then we will always work to fix preparedness, motivation and mindsets rather than considering how our practices and our relationships with students may be a variable that contributes to the formation of our deficit perceptions of students in the first place.

Just as the presenter asked the attendee to think critically about the evidence that contradicts the narratives of students as unprepared, I am asking you to search for the evidence in your own institutions that shows students are, in fact, capable, and that racial inequities do not exist uniformly across instructors. During my time with the Center for Urban Education, I worked with dozens of schools and hundreds of faculty members to help them study their own practices using race-conscious inquiry, including the use of instructor level data.

At each school that I had access to instructor level data, there were outlier instructors for whom racial inequities either did not exist or they did not follow the stereotypical hierarchical patterns. There were always instructors for whom Black men were the highest performing group. There were always teachers who were highly effective with Latinas. There were always environments where Indigenous students thrived. Their practices are seen as valuable and effective by these students, the relationships created mattered and high levels of success were the norm.

The fact that there are such teachers at every institution establishes that students are more capable than we give them credit for. Persistent racial disparities in educational outcomes are not a natural occurrence, and if instructors wish to improve educational outcomes for these students, we must study ourselves as a variable in their success.