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raceAhead: Racism Explains the Academic Achievement Gap

September 14, 2016, 1:32 PM UTC

This month’s lead story in American Psychologist presents some important new thinking on the biology of race. Specifically, the biology of race-based “social stress,” and how the hormonal stress response of students of color struggling with racial barriers and stereotypes affects their sleep, mood, memory, ability to think, and ultimately, their grades. (If you or your library don’t subscribe, you can buy the article here.)

Bottom line: The very experience of being black or brown in America — particularly for those living at or near the poverty line — is stressing kids beyond their abilities to cope. And this, says the four authors, holds the key to eliminating the disparities in academic achievement that’s been dogging our education system for ages.

Of course, school and teacher quality matters, the authors say, but those factors don’t fully explain the reason for the persistent achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. “Key raced-based social stressors include perceived discrimination and stereotype threat,” the authors write. “Psychological and biological responses to these stressors, in turn, have implications for motivation as well as basic cognitive processes such as attention, memory, and executive functioning, all of which are associated with academic achievement.”

From this point of view, most of the interventions that we currently have in schools, from increased law enforcement to constant testing, are doomed from the start.

But other interventions can work, and here’s a story that will give you hope. Frontline has an excellent series of short pieces on education here, but I suggest you start with Omarina’s Story, about Omarina Cabrera, a struggling middle school student from Middle School 244 in the Bronx.

Omarina’s teachers began collecting specific behavioral data that they believed would help identify middle school kids at risk at an early stage. One piece of that data was tardiness, as being consistently late is a pretty good predictor of future academic disaster. And Omarina had been late or absent a lot, but not because she wasn’t trying: She and her mother had become homeless when they were evicted from their apartment, and Omarina had been too ashamed to tell anyone.

Though the data is the unspoken star of the story, it’s what the school staff did with the information that is instructive. They reallocated their resources so that kids who were struggling were matched with adults to help them process and cope. Omarina had a team of people who addressed her very specific challenges, like helping her figure out the shortest routes to school as she bounced between shelters or bunked in with relatives. One administrator actually traveled with her one day, and was shocked by the distance she was managing alone. The interventions helped Omarina deal with her emotions, make better decisions, and stay focused on her work.

Her twin brother, who we see mostly lying in bed, exhausted, was not as lucky.

Omarina is a lovely person and easy to relate to in many ways. She’s not angry and she eagerly accepts help. Creating a relationship with another type of kid — one who reacts to stress in more difficult ways to manage, will be tougher.

On Point

The Dakota Access Pipeline decision may be a turning point for Native AmericansJournalist Rebecca Solnit argues that the decision to halt construction at Standing Rock in North Dakota is a watershed moment for Native American rights in this country, a moment amplified by the outpouring of support from 180 different tribal nations along with non-native supporters. It is also a victory for the climate change movement, who has found a powerful partner in indigenous people.The Guardian

Salesforce names first Chief Equality Officer
Although details are scarce, there’s every reason to believe that this new role, announced by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff yesterday, will have a real impact on diversity, opportunity and inequality in the workplace. More news on the role is expected next week. The other CEO will report directly to Benioff.

Fewer marriages in China leads to economic worries but happier women
The dramatic decrease in the number of marriages — caused in large part by China’s aging population and  their one-child policy — has some experts worried about the future of China’s consumer economy. But China’s young, educated and ambitious women are feeling pretty good about their prospects for a happy life, right about now.
New York Times

Why are all the people of color on television so rich?
The TV editor for Paste Magazine raises an interesting question about diversity in entertainment — the vast majority of the beloved (or reviled) characters of color are either reasonably well to do or actually wealthy. Where does socio-economic diversity fit into the broader narrative of entertainment, as it reflects what we find acceptable about ourselves? The piece also works as a handy guide to what’s coming up in new productions.

Poverty declined in America last year, median income up
Some rare good economic news: According to a Census Bureau report, the number of Americans living in poverty posted the sharpest decline in decades. The median U.S. household’s income in 2015 was $56,500, up 5.2% from the previous year — the largest single-year increase since record-keeping began in 1967.
New York Times

The Woke Leader

The evolving Black Lives Matter movement
From the outside, BLM can feel like a shape-shifter, with official and unofficial chapters across the country, and internal debates on policy matters can seem almost impossible to resolve. How can one organization be effective both nationally and locally? It’s a question that the activists themselves are struggling to answer.

A fifteen year old kid just proposed a new hijab emoji
Rayouf Alhumedhi, a 15-year-old student in Berlin, Germany, was trying to start a group chat when she realized there was no emoji for her — and she is one of the 550 million people who wear a headscarf every day. With persistence and a little help from a new friend, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, she managed to figure out how to propose the emoji addition to Apple. She's still waiting to hear. 

How will we know if the algorithm is racist?
Kate Crawford, who researches the social impact of machine learning at MIT and NYU, offers a strong word of caution for artificial intelligence enthusiasts: We don’t yet know how to assess the effects of AI in the world.  The very same data systems that help identify a kid at risk are also being used to identify potential criminals. Except those algorithms have turned out to be biased and increased police harassment. What’s missing, she says, is a way to study and validate how AI is being used in social systems.


Always be a cultural anthropologist of your students, saying ‘This is how it’s playing out.  This is how they’re exchanging.’ Sometimes by even jumping right in they come down a notch ... It’s really studying interactions. It’s studying voice inflections, body language and I really believe it’s an under-focused dimension of how you train teachers to teach effectively.
—Christopher Emdin