Marilee Coles-Ritchie: Anti-racist education policies Utah needs now

I have been called out! I’ve been an educator for 30-plus years, including elementary, secondary and adult education in U.S. public schools and internationally.

My awareness about the need to be anti-racist began during my first multicultural education course at the University of Utah and has continued because of amazing mentors and students in a variety of contexts. I continue to mess up, learn more, reflect and keep working to do better.

In Ibram Kendi’s book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” he calls us to make anti-racist policy changes in our sphere. A person who works to be anti-racist actively works to dismantle the structures, policies, institutions and systems that create barriers and perpetuate race-based inequities for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color, described here). In my role as a teacher educator, I hold sacred the deep intellectual and emotional work of guiding teachers to being anti-racist because their work with youth will impact generations. These five policy changes are a part of those discussions:

1) Decrease standardized tests.

Why? BIPOC students, particularly those from low-income families, have suffered the most with the explosion of high-stakes standardized testing in U.S. public education. They have undermined equity by focusing on predominately white urban experiences and steering teachers away from contextual teaching to teaching to the test.

How? Legislators must end high-stakes uses of tests to evaluate schools and districts. Standardized test scores should be one minor factor in evaluating school status and progress. We should reject the Department of Education’s policy of pressuring states to use test scores to evaluate teachers and principals. Tests should be only a minor factor in staff evaluations. States and districts must then follow suit.

2) Increase BIPOC teachers in all schools.

Why? Hiring BIPOC teachers is one of the most important factors in student learning for all students. BIPOC teachers increase academic achievement, high school graduation rates, attendance, and enrollment in higher education according to numerous studies.

How? Provide more state and private scholarships specifically for pre-service BIPOC teachers. The state offers the T.H. Bell Scholarship, but it needs more funding. Examine hiring policies for biases and diversify committees.

3) Eliminate all police officers in schools.

Why? BIPOC students are disciplined more harshly than white students. Schools with school resource officers (SROs) have a higher rate of suspensions, expulsions and arrests that push children into the criminal justice system, especially in schools with majority BIPOC students.

How? Replace SROs with restorative justice practices as Utah state Rep. Sandra Hollins recommends. Restorative justice empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own and in small groups. This strengthens school communities, prevents bullying, and reduces student conflicts. Early adoption has shown drastic reductions in suspension rates, and students report feeling more welcome, safe, and calm.

4) Require all students to take at least one course of representative history and literature.

Why? For too long, we have taught U.S. history and language arts devoid of a true depiction of contributions of BIPOC. Most have focused on erasing the truth of racial oppression and uplifting whiteness — ignoring voices of BIPOC people. Many curriculums superficially talk about slavery and civil rights (notably, a textbook by McGraw-Hill called enslaved Africans “immigrants” and “workers”) and teaching practices risk traumatizing BIPOC students.

How? Infuse books by BIPOC throughout the curriculum. Allow teachers to teach from books that reflect the unique student body in their schools rather than teach from mandated scripted curriculums. Pass a Utah law, similar to California’s, that requires all students take an ethnic studies course created by qualified BIPOC educators.

5) Increase linguistic and cultural appreciation in all schools.

Why? This encourages adaptation of the curriculum in response to demographic and social change. Teachers need to consciously work on viewing all students from an asset-based lens. They study history from black, indigenous and Latinx voices and acknowledge systemic racism.

How? Administrators should respect and reward teachers who engage in critical dialog, home visits to foster understanding and appreciation of student knowledge and culture, critical literacy, inquiry based teaching and integrative practices rather than punishing them for straying from mandated curriculum. They should encourage engagement in any professional development that emphases equity for BIPOC students.

As we enact these and other anti-racist efforts our students and our communities will be elevated and more equitable.

Ash Rowan

Marilee Coles-Ritchie, Ph.D., is a professor of teacher education at Westminster College, Salt Lake City.