Why a System Level Approach is Needed to Counter Racism Within the Education System

Sarah Caverly

The death of George Floyd, along with racial inequities exacerbated by the global coronavirus pandemic, pushed racial justice issues to the forefront of our conversations in 2020. While the harmful impacts of racism on the lives and opportunities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color are well-known, racism persists in the everyday practices and policies of our organizations and institutions, including our education system.

Here are just some of the effects of systemic racism within education.

  • Black students are less likely than white students to have access to college-ready courses, and even when Black students do have access to honors or Advanced Placement courses, they are vastly underrepresented.
  • Research also shows systemic bias in teacher expectations, with non-Black teachers having lower expectations of Black students compared with Black teachers.
  • Black students more frequently attend schools with teachers who are less qualified, have lower salaries, and are new to the field.
  • Black students spend less time in the classroom due to disparate exclusionary discipline consequences, which further hinders their access to quality education.

Approaching Anti-Racism in a Systemic Way

Counteracting racism is an essential step in supporting students of color to access their full potential. To truly transform the current landscape, change is needed at the systemic level; this in turn supports and reinforces change at the individual level. Systemic change highlights the interrelationships and interdependencies of the educational system. Unless we fully recognize how the system—replete with institutionalized racism and privilege—is embedded within the solution, we will only be able to achieve minimal shifts for young people and their families.

Our collective refocusing on racism in 2020 sparked a deeper discussion on dismantling and rebuilding a stronger educational system, one that would support and engage all students through culturally responsive practices and policies. Several state education agencies and school districts began shifting toward achieving equity for all students by including a whole child approach and applying an equity lens. In a few instances, school districts elevated the importance of equity by establishing an equity office. However, we have yet to achieve true equity, and we must do more.

Systemic Changes in Austin

Image of RPAs in AustinThe Austin Independent School District (ISD), led by anti-racism expert and consultant Angela Ward, Ph.D., is a prime example of how a school district is addressing issues of persistent racism at the system level. (Photo, right: Austin ISD education leaders attend a CP&I training.)

Within Austin ISD, almost 60 percent of students are Latinx, approximately 7 percent are Black, and 30 percent are white. As often is the case, school populations reflect patterns of segregation across the city, and the majority of teachers are white women. While, in recent years, Austin ISD has improved student test scores and hired and retained more qualified teachers, these improvements are unevenly distributed and tend to occur in primarily affluent, well-educated, largely white neighborhoods.

Austin ISD is not unique in its student demographics, but it is unique in its approach and dedication to implementing equity-focused social and emotional learning programs. Over the past 10 years, Ward has supported and initiated system-level changes within Austin ISD to provide safe and supportive schools for all students and families—especially those of color.

Austin ISD’s Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness (CP&I) team, led by Ward, includes Culturally Responsive Restorative Practice Associates, who work across 11 schools; CP&I specialists; and a coordinator for restorative practices. Many of the team’s ongoing efforts focus on the system level and are sustained through deep engagement with administrators, educators, and families. Grant programs at the local, state, and federal level support the team’s work.

Here are a few ways in which the CP&I team works at both the system and individual levels to establish safe, supportive learning environments for all:

"Unless we fully recognize how the system—replete with institutionalized racism and privilege—is embedded within the solution, we will only be able to achieve minimal shifts for young people and their families."
  1. Initiating change among district and school leaders and staff: As the CP&I team has expanded its reach, more district and campus leaders and school staff began to understand how their personal lens affects how they make decisions for the students and families in their care. Austin ISD staff have engaged in anti-racist dialogue and identified and removed barriers that stand in their way of helping students succeed.
  2. Establishing restorative justice: In 2017, Austin ISD received a Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices (CRRP) grant through the U.S. Department of Education and a second grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2019 to support their restorative practice efforts. CRRP, differing from traditional approaches to school climate and discipline, supports the safety, well-being, and success of students by nurturing positive relationships, fostering school connectedness, and building social and emotional competencies. Specifically, restorative practices not only provide effective responses when incidents of disruption and harm have occurred (i.e., viable alternatives to removing students from classroom activities), but also offers methods and a framework for teachers and administrators to work with young people to build respectful relationships. To facilitate this process, restorative practice associates are embedded within each of the 11 Austin schools participating in the grants. AIR serves as the external evaluator for Austin ISD’s CRRP grant program and is examining implementation and district data to measure student and teacher outcomes. So far, AIR has focused on providing formative feedback to the development team and will focus on student and teacher outcomes during the 2020-2021 school year.
  3. Involving students in leading anti-racism efforts: More recently, the CP&I team established the Student Race Equity Leadership course for students. This leadership course, operating in two schools with plans to expand, is a yearlong elective course with the goal of increasing students’ racial literacy, sense of agency, and civic responsibility. Participating students say the course has been transformative. After the first pilot of the Race Equity Leadership course in one Austin ISD high school, students have already asserted their agency and voice. For example, students are now engaged in school planning meetings and engage educators in discussions of race and culture of their school. On Dec. 11, 2020, Austin ISD launched the first student equity council.  
  4. Engaging parents in conversations on race: Starting in summer 2020, the Race Equity Council, an advisory group to the CP&I team—that includes volunteer district staff and community members—began engaging Austin ISD families and parents in conversations about race. The team plans to continue this effort.

Next Steps for Austin—and the Education System

While there is limited evidence so far to demonstrate whether the CP&I professional learning sessions and efforts are leading to change in the Austin ISD, the district is undertaking evaluations to measure the influence on school climate, students’ experience with racism, teachers’ perception, as well as academic achievement.

In the meantime, Austin ISD’s continued focus on equity and anti-racism can serve as an example for schools and districts grappling with segregation, a history of racism, and inequity.