I want to be clear. I teach in a private high school in Silicon Valley. Many* of the students at my school are white and come from wealthy families. Most of them have gone to either very good public schools or very good private schools, where most students received a generally good education in mathematics. It may not have been perfect, and our students may have slipped through the cracks, or been told that they weren’t math people, or somehow may have received the message that higher math wasn’t going to be for them. Yet those students were still exposed to the important ideas that they were expected to see, from fractions through basic algebra, from area formulas through linear equations and graphs. When that group of students has “Algebra 1” on their transcript, and they received a B in the class, we have no reservations about putting them into a Geometry class.
Our school also has a large number of students of color, and many* of our black and brown students came from very different schools. While most of Silicon Valley is quite expensive, there are pockets and neighborhoods up and down the peninsula that are considered low income areas. In some of these neighborhoods’ schools, some of our students receive a very different math education. I have seen students who received an A in an Algebra 1 class who had never seen a parabola, who had never factored a trinomial, and who were not consistently able to solve a single variable linear equation. In most cases, this was no fault of their own, and it is not my place to fault their Algebra 1 teacher.
These two different experiences are not an accident. Make no mistake about it, this is systematic racism. As Morgan Fierst posted in a conversation on twitter:
This is my point.. pretending this is an unintended consequence of the system is bullshit.. the system is doing what it is designed 2 do
— Morgan Fierst (@MsFierst) August 18, 2017
She is absolutely right. But what to do about it? The obvious answer is to dismantle the system, but how does that happen? There is definite harm happening in some elementary and middle schools that serve primarily students of color, but one thing that has become clear to me is that, as a white male high school teacher, I have no right to go in and tell other teachers, especially K-8 teachers of color, how to do their job better. My role is to find the leaders among K-8 teachers and teacher leaders of color and support them, and back them up, and give them my power to dismantle the system.
And what about my school? One of the deciding factors in me taking a job at my school was the high retention and low turnover rate. In my four years, we have had a science teacher retire (and then pass away), an art teacher go to graduate school, and a sign language teacher decide to become a stay at home mom. We have hired three outstanding replacements for those teachers, but only one was a person of color. One third of new faculty hires being non-white is an impressive number if we were hiring 200 people or 40 people, but not when hiring only three. I am not in charge of hiring, and I don’t know how much of an emphasis was made on looking for non-white teachers to interview. We are a small school and don’t have a lot of resources for hiring, and we are not a target school for lots of graduates of teacher credential programs. Maybe we couldn’t have done any better.
Our Head of School retired this past year, and there was an exhaustive search for just the right candidate. Our search committee decided on three very competent finalists, and again, one out of those three was a person of color. My question to each of those candidates was the same: “Our school prides itself on the diversity of our student body, but our faculty doesn’t look the same. We have an amazing and talented group of teachers, but we are mostly very white. Without firing faculty members, how would you improve the diversity of our teachers and staff?” It was an unfair question, and one without an obvious answer, but it was also a question where it was clear which one of the members had given it a lot of thought long before I had asked about it. No surprise, it was Phil Gutierrez, the one candidate who hadn’t lived with white privilege, and I am very happy that he is now on board as our new Head of School. I don’t think he has the answer (because, really, does anyone have the answer yet?), but I do feel that he has the same goal in mind.
For me, in my closed world of math education, the goal is to make sure that the higher level math classes have the same diversity as our general student population, and that our students who choose STEM careers in more rigorous schools are a diverse group of students. However, the end result of those students who enter 9th grade not prepared for success in Algebra 1 or Geometry (despite what their transcript may say) is that they don’t take higher math or attend rigorous schools or choose STEM careers at the same rate as their white peers. They end up either taking a Pre-Algebra class and end up “behind”, or they struggle to keep up in their Algebra 1 or Geometry class, doing lots of extra work and getting extra help to catch up to their peers on the fly. The extra work and extra help takes extra energy and time that they frankly shouldn’t have to put in. Yet, what options do they have? What options do I have? And what options does our school have?
Over the past few days, I have read and followed and participated in several Twitter threads about these questions of equity and diversity. One blog post by Matt Vaudrey could have been written by me (if I was a better writer, and maybe got a few more squares in privilege bingo). Two new people I found to follow on Twitter, Twila Dang and Morgan Fierst, pushed me hard to think more about the systemic racism that exists, and made me wonder where I and my school still have work to do. Because the fact is that the moment a student becomes my student, their background, their previous experiences, every math class that they’ve experienced in the past is a real part of them, but it cannot be an excuse for why I can’t help them to be the best mathematician that they can be during the time I get to spend with them. As I write this, I realize that I’ve taken great care to focus on students with disabilities and non-male students, to help these traditionally disenfranchised groups see their potential and embrace their abilities in mathematics. I am proud of the work I’ve done in this area, and receive a lot of positive feedback and accolades. I have to wonder, though, why I haven’t made the same concerted effort with students of color. After 16 years of teaching, it’s a difficult realization, but one that I’m glad I finally made. Maybe this is the catalyst for the next phase of my teaching career. I think I have more clarity on my goal for year 17 and beyond, but I welcome any suggestions and feedback.
*To be clear, there is a diversity of economic backgrounds within each ethnic group, and I don’t have the hard data. I believe it is sufficient to say that most of our students from wealthier families are white and many of our students of color come from families and neighborhoods that most would consider lower-income. There are always exceptions to these generalizations. I also acknowledge that I am only discussing white, black, and brown students, and leaving out other significant parts of our population. I also haven’t brought learning differences into this post, which would further complicate the discussion, but these should all be important parts of any discussion of equity in education. I guess that’s the difference between an informal blog post and the book I wish I had the time (and skill) to write.