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«Toward Positive Youth Development, Transforming Schools and Community Programs Shinn, Marybeth (Editor), Professor of Psychology, New York University ...»

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Toward Positive Youth Development, Transforming Schools and Community Programs

Shinn, Marybeth (Editor), Professor of Psychology, New York University

Yoshikawa, Hirokazu (Editor), Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Print publication date: 2008, Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2010

Print ISBN-13: 978-0-19-532789-2, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195327892.001.0001

Chapter 6 An Intervention in Progress: Pursuing Precision in School Race Talk

Mica Pollock This chapter discusses an intervention in progress. What I am working to improve is not typically measured nor classically “measurable.” Unlike other contributors to this book, I am not trying to make an explicitly quantifiable intervention, for example, to assist high school students to take fewer drugs. Rather, I am trying to assist educators to talk and think more precisely about the complex issues of race they face in their own institutions. This intervention attempts to counter a damaging habit I have studied: in educational settings (as elsewhere), we often talk about racial issues reductively, quickly, and with in sufficient information. Equally destructive, we also often refuse to talk about racial issues at all (Pollock, 2004a).

In a 3-year ethnographic study of a school and district in California, reported in Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School (Pollock, 2004a), I found that refusing to talk about race, which I call “colormuteness,” can have harmful consequences in schools. For example, when educators just talk about “low achievers,” racial achievement gaps often stay unaddressed. When educators just talk about “the kids getting suspended,” racially disparate suspension patterns often continue unabated. Educators’ lives are made far more difficult when solutions remain unexplored. Yet conversations about race often display confused, murky, and partially informed thinking about racial inequality and racial disparities in education. This imprecise talk too is very consequential: when educators talk imprecisely about how disparities might be dismantled, they pursue this goal imprecisely as well. For example, my research suggests that people who analyze black students’ disproportionately low test scores as simply a result of “black culture” or analyze Latino dropout rates as a result solely of Latino parenting will be less likely to seek to end p.102 improve their teaching of black or Latino students, or to improve the in-school experiences of such youth (see also Diamond, 2008; Louie, 2008). In my second ethnographicanalysis of contemporary arguments over racial inequality in schools (Pollock, 2008a), I found once more that educators who were resistant to discussing the role their own behaviors played in student outcomes were less likely to set forth to improve students’ in-school experiences.

For the past several years, I have been using my research on race talk to help both preservice and inservice educators (teachers, principals, and superintendents) analyze how they currently talk and do not talk about race issues in their schools and districts. We do what linguists call “metapragmatic” analysis: we talk about our own talking, and its consequences for students and school communities.

Educators in schools and districts talk about racial issues all the time, if often only in private. More privately, as I found in Colormute, they discuss how white teachers and students of color get along, which students get which opportunities, where various “racial groups” of students sit at lunch, and so forth. Particularly, in private, they discuss racial patterns in who is being suspended or put in Special Education, the purported “attitudes” of various “culture” groups toward schooling, and so on. Increasingly publicly in the era of No Child Left Behind, they discuss things like “achievement gaps”: for example, how various racial and ethnic groups are achieving on tests and on school-based measures of achievement such as grades and graduation.

Why intervene into such race talk? Because the ways in which educators talk about race issues in their schooling settings have major implications for how they analyze and address core issues of racial inequality there. Talking is an action that both reflects people’s thinking on social problems and produces (or does not produce) further action to address those problems. Many scholars have proved that through everyday talk in social settings, people inside schools make crucial decisions about whom to serve and how. 1 Other scholars who study social problem solving have demonstrated that if a community wants to improve its own circumstances, it has to talk about its own social problems and analyze both causes and solutions precisely. For example, Hart (1997) demonstrates that children trying to solve environmental problems must precisely analyze those problems’ production; Fine, Roberts, and Torre (2004) show the same for youth in New York researching local and national racial “opportunity gaps.” So do Carlson and Earls (2002) trying to work with youth to analyze and address community problems in the United States and internationally. Kegan and Lahey (2002) show the same for adult professionals busy trying to improve their own social settings: “how we talk affects the way we work.” Problem analysis involves talking. When people work to solve dilemmas, tensions, and inequities in their own social settings, they must seek to discuss and analyze those issues precisely and thoroughly. Hence, I work with preservice and inservice educators to think through how they talk (and do not





end p.103

talk) precisely about racial issues in their institutions. I define precise race talk as talk that thoroughly and clearly analyzes the various actors, actions, and processes involved in the issue under discussion. In school settings, this includes talk that clearly discusses what specific subpopulations of students need from schools in order to succeed, talk that thoroughly and clearly analyzes the actors and acts that produce a racial disparity, and talk that clearly discusses which everyday acts by educators move students (particularly students of PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2003 - 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/oso/public/privacy_policy.html).

Subscriber: Indiana University - Bloomington; date: 12 September 2011 Toward Positive Youth Development, Transforming Schools and Community Programs Shinn, Marybeth (Editor), Professor of Psychology, New York University Yoshikawa, Hirokazu (Editor), Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education Print publication date: 2008, Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2010 Print ISBN-13: 978-0-19-532789-2, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195327892.001.0001 color) toward educational opportunity and which acts move them further away from it.

Theories of Measurement and Change Many well-known professional developers trying to prepare educators to engage issues of diversity urge educators to talk more about race in order to strive for racial equality of opportunity and outcome (Singleton & Hays, 2008). I, too, urge educators to avoid colormuteness whenever refusing to talk about race will be harmful to students. Yet in my interventions to try to make race talk in education more precise, I am urging (as does Singleton) that educators talk not just more about race but also more skillfully.

Researchers examining educators’ “race talk” often imply that they measure educators’ comments about race as more or less “racist.” 2 I instead “measure” race talk on a scale from reductive to thorough and from murky to clear. I measure precise race talk in contrast to race talk that is too vague or confused to afford thorough analysis of educational problems. In my professional development efforts with

educators, I suggest three racial topics that educators 3 can typically discuss more precisely:

1. Educators can pursue more precise talk about student subpopulations and their needs.

2. Educators can pursue more precise talk about the causes of racial disparities.

3. Educators can pursue more precise talk about the everyday educator acts that actually assist students of color and those that actually harm them.

In describing typical talk about each topic below, I offer a set of questions and, in two cases, a graphic tool designed to get speakers to think metapragmatically about whether their own race talk is precise enough. 4 Let me state clearly that my goal in this work is not to prompt paranoia or what critics call a “politically correct” institutional environment that actually keeps people from talking about race issues out of fear that they will sound “racist” (Ely, Meyerson, & Davidson, 2006).

Rather, I urge that educators struggle toward precise analysis of shared social problems, through discussions that are inherently difficult.

Thus far, I have not literally assessed

end p.104

“how well” educators have done in these conversations; rather, I have asked participants to attend to the snags and dilemmas encountered as they attempt to talk about racial issues. Most of all, I prompt educators to consider whether their own conversations are assisting them to serve their students’ needs. This intervention assumes that educators are motivated generally to help children and that to some extent they will be motivated to make their discussions more precise once they recognize how imprecise talk makes it difficult to analyze and meet children’s needs.

This theory of change also assumes that to some extent, educators are motivated to better serve their students of color, typically on the receiving end of racial disparities, and to close racial “achievement gaps.” Some are motivated directly by desires to not be racist and to do a better job of educating youth from diverse backgrounds and some are motivated more indirectly by federal and state requirements to measure the achievement of racialized groups. Some just want to be more successful teachers and administrators. Most educators, like most Americans, subscribe generally to an ideology of equal opportunity (Hochschild & Herk, 1990). A subset of educators seem to lack motivation to offer students of color additional opportunities in specific circumstances; depending on how demands for opportunity proceed, educators can sometimes angrily denounce demands to assist students of color in particular ways (Pollock, 2008a). But educators often lack not motivation to serve students of color equitably, but a clear analysis of how to do so (Harding, 2006; Hollins & Guzman, 2005; Watson, 2007). One might argue that my tools for more successful “race talk” offer skills that are useful only to those motivated to talk more precisely or successfully. But some participants also become more motivated by the understandings that an analysis of their discourse produces. After seeing that insufficient explanations of achievement gaps lead to insufficient efforts to close those gaps, for example, educators have much more desire to pay attention to their race talk.

–  –  –

Educators trying to describe the needs of students of color in school buildings often retreat to using general, race-loaded words like “urban,” “inner city,” “disadvantaged,” or “at-risk” when analysis gets too controversial or too

–  –  –

complex. Such aggregated words often serve to gloss over the actual needs of student populations and subpopulations. These words do PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2003 - 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/oso/public/privacy_policy.html).

Subscriber: Indiana University - Bloomington; date: 12 September 2011 Toward Positive Youth Development, Transforming Schools and Community Programs Shinn, Marybeth (Editor), Professor of Psychology, New York University Yoshikawa, Hirokazu (Editor), Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education Print publication date: 2008, Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2010 Print ISBN-13: 978-0-19-532789-2, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195327892.001.0001 often describe what Cicourel (1981) calls “macrostructures”: “urban” students do often live in cities, after all. (Of course, the race-loaded, imprecise nature of the word “urban” is revealed when adults call suburban or even rural students of color “urban,” especially if they wear attire associated with hip-hop culture.) General words like “urban” and the like do not actually describe what particular students actually need from social settings in order to succeed in them.

Talk that describes the needs of “all students” might be called “hyperaggregated.” Such talk often dominates educator and policymaker discourse (in the district I studied in Colormute, “all students can learn” was a mantra repeated on mission statements and in administrator conversations). Talk of “all students” needs can also sometimes be accurate: all students do need attention, care, and support from their teachers. But often, as shown in my research (Pollock, 2004a), such hyperaggregated talk of student needs actually substitutes for any discussion of specific subpopulations’ needs, as people talk only about “all students” rather than the needs of smaller groups of them.



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