Blood on the Tracks
Why are there so few Black students in our science classes?
Illustrator: Richie Pope
One day, while table groups read through a lab activity, Maya, my lab assistant, came over to me with papers in her hands.
“Ms. Lindahl, I found these graphs on your desk. What are they?”
“Those are graphs showing who takes science classes here, broken down by race. Ms. Pilgrim, Mr. Medley, and I are going to a conference to talk about it as a problem we are trying to solve. Some students are going to present, too.”
“I’m shocked. I had no idea that our classes were so segregated; I mean, I did, but I just didn’t think about it. It’s crazy.”
Maya, who is South Asian American, was looking at a demographic graph from spring semester 2011, the year I started teaching at Grant High School in Portland, Oregon. In Biology, a class taken by all 9th graders, classes averaged 65 percent white, 15 percent African American, 7 percent multiracial, 7 percent Latina/o, 5 percent Asian, and less than 1 percent Native American and Pacific Islander students, a close match to our overall school demographics. But other classes, especially when comparing African American and white students, were wildly different. Most significantly, Chemistry, which was a prerequisite for upper-level science classes, including Advanced Placement (AP) classes, was 78 percent white and only 7 percent African American. (It was 6 percent Latina/o and 3 percent Asian.) Foundations of Physics and Chemistry, a survey course that was not accepted as a prerequisite for advanced upper-level science classes, was 49 percent white and 37 percent African American. What was going on here? This is the question my science teaching colleagues and I are trying to figure out.
I could have shown Maya data from the entire country as well. For 2009, white high school students earned an average of 2.0 high school science credits; African American students earned an average of 1.6 credits.1
And these patterns continue beyond high school. In 2009, African Americans were 12 percent of the United States population, yet Black students earned only 7 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In that same year, African Americans earned 4 percent of all STEM master’s degrees, and 2 percent of STEM PhDs.2 The problems we observed at Grant were clearly part of a much bigger national story.
Maya was right to be both intrigued and appalled. Yet it was her shock about the racial disparities in our science classes that has stayed with me. How could she, and so much of our school community, be immersed in something so apparent and yet be surprised to see the data? As a white teacher, I knew this was something that I and we needed to work on. This blindness lies at the core of why societal inequities are so persistent and seemingly unchangeable. When we grow up surrounded by a particular cultural landscape, we rarely question its origins or the right for it to exist.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
At the conference I mentioned to Maya, we started our presentation with a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and host of Cosmos, talking about his experience as an African American boy obsessed with becoming an astrophysicist.
Viewers hear an audience member ask deGrasse Tyson why there are so few prominent female scientists. He responds:
I have never been female. But I have been Black my whole life. And so let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective. . . .
I’ve known that I wanted to do astrophysics since I was 9 years old. . . . Any time I expressed this interest teachers would say, “Don’t you want to be an athlete?” I looked to become something that was outside the paradigms of expectation of the people in power.
Now here I am, one of the most visible scientists in the land, and I look behind me and say, “Where are the others who might have been this?” And they’re not there. And I wonder . . . what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not?
DeGrasse Tyson was able, for whatever reason, to persist despite teacher discouragement and societal unease. But how many of my own students would not recover when they faced these same forces? The expectations about who becomes a scientist are so overwhelming and widespread, we shouldn’t be surprised when our own classrooms perpetuate crimes of assumption and exclusion. We need to acknowledge how these pressures have impacted our classrooms. In particular, we need to encourage and support students, like deGrasse Tyson, whose ambitions and interests are at odds with societal comfort and expectation.
When I started working at Grant, I was struck by the enrollment disparities in my upper-level classes. Although my AP Biology classes were 69 percent white students and 9 percent Black students, my Ecology class was 54 percent white students and 38 percent Black students. Ecology, as I knew from my time in research, should be a challenging course, requiring complex experimental design and analysis, along with the ability to draw ideas from all fields of biology. However, I saw a distressing trend: This class was viewed as the easy option for juniors and seniors needing a science credit. I raised concerns about this with other members of the science department. They were well aware of the patterns, but were convinced they were unavoidable. They explained to me that our juniors and seniors expected to have a course menu of “easy” and “hard” options, and parents demanded this as well. “Student choice” was named repeatedly as the driving force behind our course offerings.
But when adolescents are allowed to enroll in classes based entirely on their level of comfort or degree of fear, unsurprising patterns emerge. White students with college-educated parents of higher socio-economic status often “choose” the most demanding classes. Students who vary from this demographic often fear these classes and sign up for lower-track options. We say this is student choice, but it is much more about students repeating the patterns of our broader society. When we cite student choice, we remove adult culpability and responsibility when classes enroll along racial lines. When our classrooms become segregated environments, we send dangerous messages to students about who is welcome and who is capable of succeeding in advanced classes.
I knew there were better options. I told my department that science classes at my previous school were untracked, although this was because we were so small that we couldn’t staff many science classes. Despite this, I had developed an advanced biology class that worked for nearly all my students. I saw huge benefits to all students having similar science experiences as they progressed through high school, especially because I saw students who blossomed after a year or two of struggling in science. Most importantly, I argued, was the moral imperative to keep opportunities open to as many students as possible. Is it really the job of a high school teacher to decide which of our students have a future in science? We began a series of regular discussions about the broader patterns in science course enrollment at Grant.
As these discussions about access and equity progressed, more teachers became open to reforming our course offerings. Two other members of our department and I wrote a successful grant for laptops in our science classrooms that included a commitment to demonstrate increased enrollment of under-represented racial groups in advanced science classes.
With the approval of our principal, we ended AP Biology and replaced it with an Advanced Biology class that earns community college credit. And we eliminated the tracked chemistry classes: Instead of two classes—high-tracked Chemistry and low-tracked Foundations of Physics and Chemistry—now all sophomores take Chemistry. Two years into our efforts, we added college-credit Anatomy and Physiology, a course that we hoped would draw a wide swath of the school interested in careers in medicine.
Some of our efforts have paid off: Upper-level courses like Advanced Biology and Anatomy and Physiology approach overall school enrollment by race. However, enrollment disparities in other advanced classes, including AP Chemistry, Physics, and AP Physics, persist. African American students enrolled in our newly untracked Chemistry class have had higher failure rates than their white peers.
African American Students Speak Up
We realized our reform efforts required more information than enrollment statistics could provide. Several science teachers volunteered to survey African American students about their experiences in science classes. We needed to find out when these students felt supported and encouraged, but also when they felt excluded, hurt, or underestimated.
We started with informal surveys after class. Keri Pilgrim, an African American teacher, reported that Black students told her they felt isolated and that their voices or communication styles were ignored. Kelly Allen, a white teacher, reported that students feared some advanced classes because of the workload and expressed a desire to be in classes with other African American students. These students particularly felt isolated and intimidated in the new, untracked sophomore Chemistry classes.
We decided to invite African American students from each grade level to a lunch to discuss their experiences in more detail. Three of us attended a meeting of the Black Student Union (BSU) and explained our project. Keri talked to the BSU staff and student leaders, and several students promised to attend. The rest of us approached African American students in our classes. We hoped that personal and printed invitations, along with the promise of a catered lunch and our partnership with the BSU, would convince students to take a chance and meet with us. Despite our recruitment efforts, only seven students showed up to our lunch meeting. Although our turnout was a small percentage of invitees, we were glad to see that we had a good balance of male and female students, and representatives from all grade levels.
We asked two BSU student leaders to lead the discussion; we thought this would help the participants feel more comfortable about speaking up. The facilitators started things off by asking why some of the students decided to enroll in advanced science classes like Physics or Advanced Biology.
James answered first, his voice clear and confident: “I’m going to study engineering in college. I need to take advanced classes in high school so I’m ready for college classes, when I’m more on my own.”
Shawn said: “I want to go into the medical field. . . . I think taking Anatomy will help me get into college and do better later on. Plus a friend told me the class wasn’t too hard, and that Ms. Pilgrim would help me.”
Michelle added: “My freshman Biology class was good. . . . My teacher was nice. It was a hands-on class and it was fun. . . . I had a good experience, so I wanted to try more science.”
Then the facilitators asked about negative experiences.
Lia spoke quickly and intensely: “It was all group work in Chemistry and I didn’t like that. I’d say something and then a white student in my group would repeat it but with advanced vocabulary, and everyone praised them. I said the same thing! But everyone ignored me when I said it.”
“Chemistry was bad,” Monique agreed. “The other students in my group, they didn’t include me. I would ask a question and it was like I hadn’t said anything. Then I would ask the teacher and he would tell me to just go ask my team. I didn’t feel like I could get help from anybody. I felt isolated. I was isolated. Then I shut down. And the worst part is I had been excited about this class when it started.”
Shawn nodded. “When you have someone else in the room who looks like you, it’s almost like you have double the confidence. But when you are the only one, it’s really hard.”
Jacqui pointed out a pattern she saw. “In some groups, we like to work together, but sometimes teachers don’t like to put us together because of fear of segregation. It’s like, ‘Hello, we can see that you’re never letting the two Black kids in class sit together.'”
Facilitators moved toward wrapping up the discussion by asking students what needed to change in our science classes.
Some classes were essentially “busy work and packets,” Jacqui said. “It should be more hands on.” She added: “Chemistry needs tutoring, during and after class. That would have helped so much.”
Shawn said: “I would have liked more than just me in there. You know, other Black students to work with. Maybe they could schedule us so we’re in the same class together.”
Deanna told the group: “I need one-on-one time with my teacher. I need to know my teacher.”
During the discussion, students’ faces lit up when they heard their own experiences echoed by one another. The conversation moved quickly, and the fear of talking freely in front of adults quickly fell away. At the end, we thanked the students for their work and time and asked if they would want to come back together before school was over. We hoped to start a science club for African American students the next year and wanted to talk to them about how it might work. They were eager to meet again and wanted to keep the conversation going.
What I realized that day, and continue to realize as our work has moved into this school year, is that my African American students need a place to talk about the frustrations and disappointments they’ve experienced in their classes. They need to see that their feelings of isolation are part of broader patterns of discrimination and stereotyping. As teachers hearing these stories, we must listen, willing to be deeply critical of our own practices. When students trust us with their stories, we must move toward action. Our classes need to welcome all students, and then we need to imagine what it feels like to be in our classes. I began to look at my own classroom with new eyes. What am I doing to make student voices equally shared and appreciated? How do I make group work a positive experience? Do I frame content in ways that give an entry point for all of my students? What can I do to narrow the confidence gap between those students who expect to excel and those who expect to struggle?
Changing Curriculum, Changing Pedagogy
It was an important first step to untrack Chemistry classes; they were the gateway classes that were making it possible or impossible for students to take advanced science classes in 11th and 12th grades. But our conversations with African American students made it clear that having all students take the same Chemistry class wasn’t enough. We needed to change what we were teaching and how we were teaching to make it accessible and supportive for all our students.
Although chemistry-for-all offers some particular challenges (the mathematical work, for example, requires careful design considerations), reforms at other U.S. high schools have shown it can work. We are still struggling to figure out a new course design. I am pushing for a redesign centered on themed units. High schools in California and New York have been experimenting with this model. At these schools, students explore questions about how molecules produce a scent and how fireworks work. Based on labs I’ve done with students, I know that experiments that monitor water, air, and soil quality can be compelling, ground science concepts in students’ experiences, and link to social justice discussions.
Rooting science in student lives also applies to improving our Biology curriculum. I started a recent Advanced Biology class by asking student groups to discuss and record their answers to the question “What have you heard about genetically modified organisms?” I then asked each table to share out something from their conversations. Students who rarely contribute during a more traditional prompt spoke up.
“I’ve heard that GMOs might cause health problems.”
“I’ve heard it has something to do with Monsanto.”
“It could help grow food in places where people are starving.”
Grounding our biotechnology unit in these real-world concerns has fueled increased interest in understanding both unit concepts and lab activities. Bringing controversies and real-life problems into our classrooms is one of the most powerful tools we have when designing inclusive courses (see “Facing Cancer: Social Justice in Biology Class,” summer 2012).
When Keri developed Anatomy and Physiology, she sought out hands-on experiences for a class that is traditionally reliant on rote memorization. She uses the “Anatomy in Clay” curriculum, in which students construct muscles out of clay and apply them to skeletons. She also has students do three-dimensional modeling of proteins to better understand why human hair varies in texture.
As a department, we have looked at our junior- and senior-level classes and asked ourselves: Does this class put students in the role of scientist as often as possible? Is the class structured in ways that promote scientific discussion and risk-taking? Are students with multiple skill sets and backgrounds going to find avenues toward success?
We also have paid close attention to classes with “easy” reputations. How did this label arise and is there validity to it? In some cases, we have chosen to eliminate a class. In others, we have challenged ourselves to deepen the classroom experience for everyone.
This work is complex and time-consuming. Changes in course offerings and elimination of low-track offerings can decrease racial segregation. But ultimately, achieving equity demands extensive experimentation with pedagogical strategies and curriculum.
This spring, our department has begun discussions on how we do group work in our classes. As our students so clearly pointed out, group work has many potential pitfalls. This is an area that we’ve barely begun to explore. But I do realize, much more than I used to, how important it is that group work be guided by a teacher who promotes healthy social dynamics, open communication, and voiced appreciation among students. For example, as each unit ends and teams are about to shift, I have each student tell their group something they appreciated about working with each member of their team. As teachers, we need to take responsibility for the dynamics in groups—modeling what we want to see. I think groups work best when they are structured by the teacher and shifted with regularity, paying special attention to helping students find a balance between comfort with peers and forging new connections.
When I redesigned the AP Biology course and made it college-credit Advanced Biology, I wanted to get the word out. I went to a sophomore forecasting meeting and encouraged students to sign up. I gave them details about some of the high-interest labs we would do and told them I would provide lots of support, especially for students who felt less confident in science.
As a school, we started having a course fair each spring. Teachers set up tables where they talk about their classes, and students have the opportunity to come by and ask questions. As science teachers, we recruit alumni of different classes to help us at the fair, speaking with students about what each class is like and encouraging them to sign up. Some of us make sure students of color are included in this process; we hope this encourages students across races to envision themselves in our classes.
We have also rewritten the course descriptions to sound more enticing and welcoming. We make sure we talk about specific experiences in the class so students can better imagine what an advanced class would be like.
Counselors have played a critical role in enrolling African American students in our advanced science classes. For example, two years ago I spoke with the counselors about how few African American male students we had in Advanced Biology. One counselor followed up to tell me he had spoken to a number of Black male students and encouraged them to sign up; when classes started in the fall, at least three of my new students were enrolled in Advanced Biology because of his work. Counselors can demystify a class and can assure a student that they will find help if they stumble.
The support of counselors is also essential in retaining a diverse range of students once they have enrolled in our advanced classes. More than once, Black students have wanted to drop Keri’s or my advanced class after the first week. This is often triggered by being in class with highly verbal peers who have a lot of experience and confidence about science and scientific language. In most cases, one-on-one meetings with the student and a pep talk with their counselors got them through those first weeks. I have found that counselors can be my greatest allies when trying to convince a student to continue through a crisis of confidence.
Building Student Support Systems
It became clear to us from the interviews with African American students that we needed to directly address their feelings of isolation. To this end, Keri, Ethan Medley, and I created a new program at our school this year called African American Science Achievement (AASA). We meet biweekly and give students a chance to discuss their experiences in science classes.
Many of our student members say that hearing common stories has reduced their feelings of isolation and has helped them recognize patterns of discrimination at our school. One student said she thought her bad relationship with a teacher, which she had never previously experienced, was “somehow my fault” until she heard that teacher’s history of making negative comments toward other Black students. She stopped blaming herself for the bad student-teacher relationship. Her story, along with those of many others, has shown me how critically our students of color need safe places to talk about their experiences with racism. Our schools are painfully flawed, and students often bear the brunt of our failures. We must give their stories space and we must listen. Our students need to see us working to right these wrongs, even when our work is slow and imperfect.
Our work is unfinished. But we all must face, head-on and with humility, the many ways racial inequities persist in our schools. And then we must counter these forces with everything we’ve got. Our students deserve nothing less.
- National Science Foundation. 2012. “Student Coursetaking in Science and Mathematics.” Science and Engineering Indicators 2012. Available at nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/c1/c1s2.htm.
- Washington, Jesse. 2011. “STEM Education and Jobs: Declining Numbers of Blacks Seen in Math, Science.” Huff Post Education. Available at huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/24/stem-education-and-jobs-d_n_1028998.html.