Dr. Erica Turner, author of Suddenly Diverse, to Present at the Wisconsin Book Festival: Unraveling the Complex Strands of Academic Inequity (Part 2 of 2)


UW-Madison Professor and Researcher Dr. Erica Turner grew up in the Bernal Heights district in San Francisco.

by Jonathan Gramling

On some levels, Dr. Erica Turner was placed into the midst of the educational issues as a child that she now studies at UW-Madison and wrote a book about called Suddenly Diverse. Turner was born and raised in Bernal Heights, just south of the Mission District in San Francisco. Her parents — her father was African American and mother Chinese American — were well-educated and placed education at the center of family life and values. And her parents — particularly her mother — were very intentional about their children’s education.

In Suddenly Diverse, Turner talks about the efforts of two school districts in Wisconsin — given the pseudonyms Milltown and Fairview — to deal with diversity issues and to serve their students in a more equitable way.

When we talk about education reform and equity, people sometimes think about adjusting things on the fringes instead of major change to the system itself. Take tracking as an example.

“When people talk about tracking, they are often concerned about and are sensitive to the fact that students can be placed by perceived abilities in different classes,” Turner said. “And those students who are in the lower track classes may never be able to access opportunities, whether they are to learn a trade, but also higher-level offerings in terms of academic offerings, college readiness courses they would need to attend a flagship like UW-Madison and other universities. And so it can be a form of internal segregation, which means that students don’t have equal opportunities in the schools that they attend. In that piece — it’s not in the book, but based on the same kind of places — I argue with a colleague who worked at another district in California that often school districts are concerned about that issue, concerned about tracking and racial inequality that it can produce. The response is to try to open up access to those

courses, but not actually to rethink of what becomes stratified opportunities through those tracks. That’s another thing that I kind of do in my work, help people think about what actually is equitable or just in schools. Thinking about access and opening up access is a very common way of thinking about equity. And we often don’t think about just transforming the system. It’s access to the existing system often, not transforming the system itself. That’s what you might call an ‘equity trap.’”

In very simple terms, efforts are being made so that the education that marginalized students are learning “looks like them.”

“People are very familiar with the idea of culturally-relevant pedagogy, which is a concept developed by our local luminary Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings as well as other scholars who have notions of good teaching where there is a lot of research that shows that students do well, especially those who are marginalized, when there is recognition and connection to their own cultures and backgrounds and that those are valued in schools. A good and important question is trying to make sure that students have those opportunities in their schools that are addressing the diverse students and helping them think critically about the world around them.”

The challenge is to equip a predominantly Euro-American teaching staff — which exists across the country — to institute these changes. It’s an excruciating personal journey.

“They do the training. They look a little different in the two districts. In Milltown, they had a cultural relevancy training. In Fairview, it was more of an anti-racism type training. It was called Difficult Discussions. It was kind of about how do we interrogate and think about the role that culture and racism may play in teachers’ practices in the schools. And how can we make your teaching more relevant to the different students you have in your classroom? In both cases, they had tried to do these things and found that there was quite a bit of what they perceived to be insurmountable teacher backlash to doing these kinds of trainings. In Milltown, that lasted one day. In Fairview, they did much better. They did a few years of this training being done a couple of times a year. But eventually teachers were kind of offended by the idea that the problem was their teaching. I guess I want to say that on the one hand, it can feel like all of the issues of student achievement are being dropped on the lap of teachers who are not in any way in control of all of the factors that shape whether or not students do well on these measures  and tests. On the other hand, teachers — we know from other kinds of research — are about as racist as the regular population of the U.S. And so there is no reason to think teachers are less biased in their practices or their beliefs. But the concern that the district had was, ‘If teachers don’t go along with it, you can’t change the practice in classrooms.’ They saw what teachers needed to change. They were getting data back from their No Child Left Behind showing it. But the schools were not doing as well. There were disparities along racial lines. They thought about ways of getting teachers to change what they would do, but not offend them in the process. It’s not that they immediately thought, ‘Oh, the solution is this one that largely ignores racial inequality just looking at data. In fact, they had tried something else, found there was a lot of resistance to it and then happened on these other data-monitoring strategies as ways to address inequalities in academic outcomes.

That’s how the district people understood it to be and looked for other evidence in the district and artifacts and saw there were plenty of teachers saying, ‘This isn’t the problem we have. Why are they forcing us to do this?’”

In the face of changing demographics — not to speak of uncertain commitment to public education by state legislators — there are no easy solutions to complex issues, issues that have become a part of the fabric of the school systems themselves. On some levels, school systems are going to have to grind it out with change coming incrementally each year.

“There probably isn’t a special sauce,” Turner said. “I hope when people read the book that one of the things that they come away with is an understanding of just how difficult a situation the leaders in these districts are in. It’s really systemic and structural problems. And so, although I think, of course, people in charge or the teachers or the families all have a role to play at some agency in helping to go over decisions about the decisions they make. We are all acting — especially these district leaders — within a system that is already inequitable. And then being asked to make equity out of this without changing anything about schools or society. And that’s kind of a losing formula I would say. It’s not that it isn’t possible. It’s just that it is very hard, especially without recognizing what the barriers actually are.”

Milltown and Fairview can take some comfort in the fact that they are not alone.

“As I got into it, I learned more and understood more that these larger sets of challenges and pressures operate in both districts despite their differences,” Turner observed. “And it’s not just these two districts. Many of the conditions that these districts are under exist across the country, in other places in Wisconsin and nationally. And when I talk to school leaders and other groups, they recognize these things, the kinds of dynamics and discourses and practices that are very common in their own systems.”

In the end, we are all in this together.

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