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To tackle the achievement gap, you have to tackle bias

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A mural depicts students above a staircase.
A mural inside of Wellstone International High School depicts the brand-new refugee and immigrant students it serves in Minneapolis on Aug. 29, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

In a library basement where refugees study for citizenship tests and other adult students work toward earning a GED, Houda Abdo talks about her daughter. She’s now in high school, but in the third grade she began telling Abdo about the differences she observed in the way white students and students of color were treated in her Minneapolis school. 

"When she complains about something, kids bother her or something happens, the teacher is always, ‘Oh, it's OK. It happened. It's OK.’ But when it comes to white kids who are complaining about kids of color, she takes serious that issue. She maybe sends him to the principal's office or time out or calls the parents,” Abdo said. “So, she can feel the difference. At 9 years old, she already have a pain in her heart that she took from her own country.” 

Abdo, who is East African, began to cry as she recounted how her American-born daughter would sometimes ask, "Can you take me to your country?" 

“Kids are supposed to be kids — enjoy life, go to school, have fun, get an education — but they have their loyalty questioned everyday. ‘Were you born here?’” asked Mustafa Diriye, an organizer with the nonprofit Family Advocates. He helped Abdo bring her concerns to school leadership. 

“When kids have that going on, how can they be successful academically?” he said. 

Muhammad Khalifa, the Beck Chair of Ideas in Education at the University of Minnesota and author of "Culturally Responsive School Leadership," said research supports the idea that such experiences can hurt student achievement and may be one driver of the achievement gap

Essentially, a poor school climate can drive absenteeism, and chronic absenteeism is a strong indicator of dropping out, he said. 

“Students who are feeling that there is a hostile environment, or feel that the climate doesn’t value their presence, disengage and make ways into spaces where they do feel more valued, and that may be outside of school,” Khalifa told MPR News host Tom Crann. “We no longer call them dropouts, we call them push-outs.”

To hear more of the conversation, including what educators can do to improve school climate and why society should strive toward “humanization” rather than equity, click play on the audio player above.