by Bach Mai Dolly Nguyen and Erin Okuno
Seattle Public Schools (SPS) represents the demographic change that is expected nationwide by 2044, when the United States’ population will become majority students of color.
With 53 percent students of color, SPS is emblematic of changes in K-12 classrooms that many other school districts in Washington State will begin to see. As these demographic shifts have taken place, the state-legislated Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee (EOGOAC) – who provides recommendations on policies and strategies for closing the opportunity gap to the Superintendent of Public Instruction – has been at the forefront of conversations about how data plays a role in capturing the evolving diversity of students in order to achieve the State’s educational racial equity aims.
To the credit of EOGOAC’s recommendations, the leadership of Congressional members, and the persistent advocacy of community members, House Bill (H.B) 1541 – widely known as the Opportunity Gap Bill – passed in 2016. One of the mandates of the bill was a reexamination of the race and ethnicity categories collected by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). OSPI convened a multiracial Race and Ethnicity Student Data (RESD) task force to review how student race and ethnicity data is collected and to provide recommendations to OSPI and school districts on how to categorize student data moving forward.
Why is data – and how schools collect data – so important?
How can support services or interventions be planned when there is no knowledge of who students are? What do they need? When schools know who is sitting in their classrooms, the education system can better serve those students by targeting interventions that help meet their needs.
As an example, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) are often assumed to do well in school. While many AAPIs are considered successful, disaggregated data shows that this is not true for all AAPI students.
Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) program data is often used as a proxy for poverty and an indicator of where targeted support can help students succeed. While only 7 percent of AAPI students in the aggregate are enrolled in the FRL program, disaggregated data reveals a deeper story. Some AAPI ethnic subgroups are disproportionately enrolled, such as Vietnamese students, who make up 11% of the AAPI population, but 15 percent of the FRL enrollment. Likewise, Samoan students make up 3.1 percent of the AAPI student population, but 6.5% of the FRL enrollment. These disproportionate figures are overlooked when examining aggregate AAPI data.
To help address some of the disparities that are overlooked by aggregate data, the RESD task force worked through mandates from H.B. 1541, including:
- Further disaggregation of the Black category to differentiate students of African origin and students native to the United States with African ancestors;
- Further disaggregation of countries of origin for Asian students;
- Further disaggregation of the White category to include sub-ethnic categories for Eastern European nationalities that have significant populations in Washington; and
- For students who report as multiracial, collection of their racial and ethnic combination of categories.
Based on these directives, the RESD Task Force embarked on the journey in determining not only the categories to be recommended, but the best approach for selecting those categories. The questions that the RESD Task Force asked of itself included: how can we best represent overlooked and underserved communities? How can this data play a role in closing opportunity gaps? How will these data inform the distribution of resources to the most marginalized students? How can we engage community organizations in the conversation to determine how they and their constituents are represented by data?
The Task Force created an updated list of race and ethnic groups to better reflect the demographics of Washington. This list will allow educators to disaggregate data and better target supports for students who need it most. For example, OSPI data will be able to disaggregate between African Americans and immigrant-origin Africans, which was cannot be captured without these subcategories.
Gabriel de los Angeles, son of Chief Andy de los Angeles of the Snoqualmie Nation, shared these thoughts on the importance of the work:
The task force represents a huge turn of systemic identity politics. Disaggregation, or breaking down the six federal race categories into their makeups by sovereignty and/or ethnicity, contributes to the importance and power of indigeneity of all peoples. Listening to communities is a huge part of what is driving people apart or bringing them together. To that end, helping put into place systems that help Washington state recognize natives for the people that they are goes a long way to both empowering one of the most underrepresented populations in the nation as well as fully embracing the importance of treaties and Centennial Accord.
Assumptions about how underrepresented populations perform were established by historically powered decisions meant to repress them. They continue as stereotypes today in general mainstream thought. With detailed data of the diverse native populations of hundreds of local and federally recognized tribes, OSPI is conceding to the importance of those identities that were taken from them during the native boarding school era, the effects of which still affect the current and future generations as historical trauma and cultural genocide. Healing from these decades long events, which for some natives ended as recently as a few the 1970s and 80s, will take just as long, if not longer. This is one step in a very long journey that the people of Washington state understand that is overdue.
What happens next?
The recommendations of the RESD Task Force will be implemented in the data collection processes of all schools and districts beginning the fall of 2018. In addition to these changes, the aim of the Task Force is to generate greater conversation about the importance of not only collecting, but also using these data to inform decision-making, policies, and practices. Parents, community members, and students can have a role by updating their race and ethnicity data to more accurately reflect how they self-identify. If updated forms are not available at your school district, lobby to have the forms updated. Administrators and educators should also begin to use this new disaggregated data to make decisions in schools and districts.
Data is used to make key decisions in schools and districts across the state. It is a tool that parents, community members and students have the power to influence by self-identifying so that resources can be best distributed to those students who are most in need of support. This is an important first step toward addressing the racial gaps in educational opportunity in Washington State. Take part in the movement by asking your school how they are using student race data to drive positive changes.
Bach Mai Dolly Nguyen is an Assistant Professor at Lewis and Clark College. She has a PhD in Social Science and Comparative Education from UCLA. Dolly has deep ties to the Puget Sound and S Seattle region.
Erin Okuno is Executive Director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition and lives and works in SE Seattle.