John Diamond has spent more than a decade examining various aspects of academic disparities in schools and conducting in-depth research into the hot-button issue that’s commonly referred to as the racial achievement gap.
And over the years, one theme in Diamond’s investigations has consistently emerged.
“This is a very complex problem and there aren’t simple answers,” says Diamond, UW-Madison’s Hoefs-Bascom Associate Professor of Education. “The challenges that kids are facing in schools — and that schools are facing trying to provide a better education — relate to the broader racial inequalities that exist in society.”
In an effort to bring in-depth research, new data and some much-needed clarity to a debate that too often is hijacked by bombastic rhetoric, Diamond co-authored a book with Amanda Lewis that’s titled, “Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools.”
What makes this publication unique is how Diamond and Lewis closely look within the school for information and evidence about what’s “racial” about the racial achievement gap.
Diamond first started taking a closer look at this topic in 2003, while working as the research director for the Minority Student Achievement Network, a consortium of multi-racial suburban school districts that work together to understand and eliminate academic disparities. A principal had asked Diamond to look into why so many African American boys in this particular school were struggling. What made this problem so puzzling was the fact that these black students were lagging behind their peers even at a place that, on the surface, appeared to have plenty going for it. The school was well-funded, the teachers were well-trained, and many of its students were high achieving.
“So we started interviewing students to see how they were experiencing school, and from there the project grew into examining the experiences of students from various racial backgrounds who were succeeding at high, moderate and low levels,” says Diamond.
Lewis and Diamond then spent five years closely examining Riverview High School, a pseudonym for this suburban school located in a relatively wealthy community. They dug deep for clues that could help explain why the racial achievement gap stubbornly persisted at Riverview.
Based on five years’ worth of data gathering and interviews with more than 170 people, both in school and around the community, Diamond and Lewis were able to produce an illuminating book that helps explain how the racial achievement gap bedevils American schools.
Much research on this topic to date has centered on the role of poverty, family stability, and other external influences in explaining poor performance at school, especially in inner-city contexts. But Diamond and Lewis, an associate professor in the departments of Sociology and African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, not only closely examined a suburban school, but also studied what factors within the school itself could be causing the racial achievement gap.
In addition, they disputed common explanations of the gap by exploring what race actually means in this situation, and how it matters.
“Race, essentially, is a non-biological social idea that attaches meaning to people’s bodies based on arbitrary characteristics, and those things change how people interact with each other on a day to day basis,” says Diamond, who spent 2004-13 as a faculty member with Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, before coming to UW-Madison and joining the faculty of the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis in August 2013. “It’s those broad structural issues, and how our institutions respond to them, that have led to inequalities.”
In particular, the book explains how race and structural issues at Riverview led to discipline policies for students that were meted out unequally, and how tracking and performance expectations were uneven. Similarly, Diamond and Lewis highlight examples of how middle- and upper-class white families were able to help their children maintain a racial advantage in school.
“The book took a look at routine, day-to-day practices in schools and the difference between how we typically characterize them and how they actually work?” says Diamond. “We all have a basic idea of how discipline or tracking practices work, and how parental involvement should work. And we often think of it as being fair and of people being treated fairly.”
“But in the book, we argue that race fundamentally shapes how those routines are actually performed, and that’s how inequality gets into the system and is reproduced.”
As examples of this, Diamond notes how if a black student or a white student is walking down a hall, it was much more common at Riverview for the black student to be asked for his hall pass. This pattern was noticed consistently across the community by both black and white observers. It also was common for teachers to view white students as academically capable and black students as less capable, even if they shared similar academic characteristics and to communicate this in subtle ways.
“So it’s not this overt racism, per se,” says Diamond. “It’s not always obvious but it’s imbedded in the system. It’s more that the regular functioning of the organization perpetuates inequality. It highlights the idea of racism without racists.”
One of the more surprising aspects of this research, says Diamond, is the fact that people of all colors tend to notice such inequalities.
“White kids and black kids and Latina/o kids, as well as teachers, administrators and parents, see that these issues exist and how they play out on a daily basis,” says Diamond. “In interviews they all tend to see how the white students are expected to do well, and that there are different expectations for black and Latina/o students. The problem is that even though they all seem to see this, they feel like there isn’t a whole lot they can do to change it.”
To change the system, Diamond says it’s paramount that schools and districts be committed to cultivating long-term, institutional reform. To do so, schools will need to convince all stakeholders that such efforts aren’t a zero-sum game in which some will lose out.
“Everyone needs to buy into the common interest of everyone doing well,” says Diamond, who is one of UW-Madison’s faculty leads on the Forward Madison partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District that’s designed to tackle the racial achievement gap within MMSD.
In addition to his current work with the Madison Schools, Diamond also continues to deliver presentations to groups associated with the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), which today is housed within the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW-Madison’s School of Education.
Moving forward, Diamond says he and Lewis will continue to work with Riverview High School to try and build successful race and equity intervention models. The two also are working on a follow-up book that will be “even more practical” in examining potential solutions to the racial achievement gap conundrum.
“There has been a lot of work done by people in Madison and in other communities to raise the level of the conversation around this topic beyond the sort of knee-jerk reactions or assumptions,” say Diamond. “And that’s a good start, but there now needs to be a much deeper conversation that better examines the complexities of these issues. We really need to look at the data and the evidence, and spend a lot of time unpacking and thinking critically about what it all means.”
Diamond adds: “I’m optimistic and think there are lots of people who are very invested in this topic. Folks in communities of color have been interested in this for a long time and fighting for social justice and educational equity for many years. This is very challenging work that requires a lot of self reflection. I’m hoping our book will give educators and policymakers and concerned citizens some important insight into how to address this complex issue.”