That doesn’t appear to be helping our schools. Racism, however we define it, is still a worthy topic in class. But a university professor who has been working to encourage that discussion tells me our children are not learning much from the way we are doing it.
Melanie Killen is a psychologist in the University of Maryland College of Education. With her team she has developed a Web-based and teacher-led program designed to promote intergroup friendships and reduce prejudice and bias. Hers is just one of many unsung efforts to teach this topic, but it helped me with my thinking.
My main complaint about the current debate is that many people, including some officeholders, are saying students are being indoctrinated into thinking our country is racist. Anyone who has spent time with schoolchildren knows they have their own ideas about that and other things. Human beings in general often don’t think the way they are told to by people in authority, although they may keep that to themselves. I learned that living in Communist China.
Killen knows much more than I do about how kids form opinions. “Children have basic social-cognitive skills to make judgments about what’s fair or right,” she said. “But their group identity gets in the way of always enacting on their fair principles. Unfortunately, kids get bombarded by negative stereotypic messages about groups, and this makes it confusing for them when it comes to deciding whom to include or exclude in everyday peer encounters.
“The best way to help children and adolescents figure this out . . . is for them to learn from their peers, which we refer to as ‘bottom-up,’ or more technically, ‘facilitating relationships of mutual respect,’ ” Killen said. “Classic research in developmental psychology has shown that children learn about fairness and equality principles from their peers. . . . When children work out conflicts, they negotiate, discuss, debate and bargain. These are relationships of equality. It’s not easy for children to interact with adults this way. . . . It’s more effective for adults to enable children to teach each other about why excluding someone because of their race or gender is wrong and unfair than for teachers to teach this lesson.”
Killen’s program, Developing Inclusive Youth, has children individually watch videos in which someone excludes a peer based on factors such as ethnicity, gender or immigrant status. The children in the video talk about it. Then a trained teacher leads a classroom discussion that gets both sides.
Killen and her team are still checking the effectiveness of what they are doing. They compare their work to what happens with control groups not taught this way. “Our eight-week program produced statistically significant results. . . . Children were more likely to view interracial exclusion as wrong, more likely to associate positive traits with peers of different racial backgrounds and more likely to express a desire to play with other kids from different racial and ethnic backgrounds,” she said.
Like other such attempts, the work of Killen and her team will need to be assessed by independent scholars and used more widely before we know if it is making a difference. Do such efforts work differently in districts where one race is predominant? As is typical with such research, the large, diverse district where Killen is working does not allow her to reveal its name.
I told Killen that I wondered how she could ever succeed. Many parents, particularly White parents, but parents of other races as well, fear that any discussions of ethnicity will turn into lessons about why White people are racists.
She said I am overlooking the fact that “all parents want their children to form friendships, do well in school and succeed academically.” She said fostering intergroup friendships and reducing stereotypic expectations about others helps children feel like they belong, reduces the achievement gap by motivating children to go to school and lowers stress.
That makes sense, but how long is it going to take? Educational researcher Joseph Hawkins told me he remembered taking a leave of absence from Maryland’s Montgomery County school district three decades ago to do research at what is now the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice project. “Even back then there was a lot of anti-racism stuff around,” he said. “Even back then a lot of what was available for schools was highly developed. So one thought I’ve always had about today is this: What took people so long to catch up and adapt some of the things that have been around for decades?”
Killen said there have been no objections to her program from parents in the district where her team has been working for two years. Reactions elsewhere may be different. Some of these raging debates are not grass-roots opposition in communities but organized by politicians and others intent on stirring up division. Complaints at school board meetings can lead administrators to shelve even promising programs to avoid their district being defamed on cable news.
When arguments get heated, the natural tendency of teachers, parents and students, like most human beings, is to talk about something else. That impedes learning. It may be time for those of us who admire efforts such as Killen’s to show up at school board meetings and say we don’t want our children’s educations ruled by news eruptions.