The last year has laid bare the deep racial inequities in our society and in our institutions, including in education. As a math instructor at Community College of Aurora (CCA), I know firsthand that now is the time to confront the systemic racism that Black, Latinx and Indigenous students face in classrooms every day and make a change.
I have a responsibility to ensure my students — the majority of whom are Black and Latinx — are supported so they can achieve their goals, including earning a college degree.
In classrooms at CCA and across the country, Black, Latinx and Indigenous students experience disparate academic outcomes by almost all measures, including course completion, course-to-course retention, and completion of college-level math required for degrees.
Yet until I looked into my own teaching practices, I never questioned outcomes in my classroom based on race or ethnicity. My assumption was that students who didn’t do well were doing something wrong, when in fact, I was the one in the wrong.
I was taught that being colorblind in the classroom was how racism should be addressed, but actually, my “’I don’t see color” mantra was hurting students of color on their journey to degree attainment.
Our traditional education system is centered on whiteness and implicit biases that prevent instructors from understanding how students of color experience the classroom differently than white students.
But there are tools for instructors, like me, to use in order to change, such as the Equity Scorecard, created by the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California. The model helps instructors shift their approach to teaching, which positively impacts the accomplishments of students of color.
By teaching us to “inquire” into our practices in order to understand why our ways of teaching and interacting with students are so much more successful for white students, we are ultimately driven to disrupt our false and detrimental narratives about students of color in higher education.
In my math department at CCA, we saw significant improvements for Black and Latinx students, which confirmed that these students were always capable, despite the narratives we implicitly held. The rate of completing a college-level math course in one year increased from 39.2% to 65.4% for Black students and from 42.0% to 71.5% for Latinx students.
As the use of the Equity Scorecard was extended from CCA to other community colleges in Colorado, the successes continued.
As I reported last year in a higher-education journal, Community College of Denver math instructor Jason Burke analyzed his grade book and found that while Latinx students had perfect attendance, they did not submit their homework. He soon realized he could better support his students by starting homework during class and allowing them to work through new concepts together.
This small change resulted in his Latinx students’ success rates to skyrocket from 33% to 85%.
Imagine if we could implement this model in every math class, in every community college, it could change the way students of color experience higher education.
Unlike other reforms that focus on “fixing” students of color to fit into a higher education system built to support the success of white students, the Equity Scorecard puts the onus on the instructor to reckon with our own racist narratives that impact how we treat and care for our students.
I made the decision to confront my own biases and identity as an educator, understanding my responsibility not only to teach, but to be an agent of anti-racism. This led me to change my mindset and accept responsibility for previously upholding false narratives about students of color.
As a result, I can better support my students in their efforts towards degree attainment.
James Gray is a math instructor at the Community College of Aurora, where he chaired the math department for 12 years. He spent a sabbatical year at the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, where he joined a team dedicated to uprooting racial inequities within higher education.
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