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Addressing Racial Inequity in Curriculum and School Culture

By Jill Anderson on August 29, 2014 10:22 AM

Aalihay El-AminWhen working as a teacher, Ed.D. candidate Aaliyah El-Amin remembers the afternoon she was tutoring a fourth-grade student on math problems. The student stopped, touched her arm, and asked if she ever wished she wasn’t black. The question was a painful one, which El-Amin recognized as the young girl trying to reconcile negative messages she heard about her race in our society.

As a teacher working in a racially homogenous elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia, it was not the first time that El-Amin was reminded how race-based disparities and racial stereotypes affected her students. At the Atlanta public school where she also worked as an instructional specialist, she was surprised by the lack of intentional education about race, even though the student population was 100 percent African American.

“Given the school’s population, it seemed like a missed opportunity to speak directly to the students’ lived experience and to prepare them to confront a racist world,” El-Amin says. “As a school, we should have been doing much more to help them deconstruct some of the racist forces that we knew exist.”

The student stopped, touched her arm, and asked if she ever wished she wasn’t black. The question was a painful one, which El-Amin recognized as the young girl trying to reconcile negative messages she heard about her race in our society.

El-Amin sees school as an important place where students of color should learn not just to navigate the complexities of racism, but also change it. And she believes there is room in education for a whole-school model where this is the focus. This belief is what brought her to HGSE seven years ago. El-Amin admits she came to Harvard with hopes of building a school model steeped in addressing issues of racial inequity in the curriculum and school culture. However, once on campus, El-Amin recognized that in order to get there, she first needed to build a vision, which has become her dissertation.

Recently named the school’s 2014-2015 HGSE Dissertation Fellowship recipient, El-Amin’s research explores an educational framework for African American students that focuses specifically on building the skills and will for social change.

“A lot of schools do provide students with knowledge to navigate society, but children also need to be equally equipped with the skills and capacity to break the status quo,” she says.

“A lot of schools do provide students with knowledge to navigate society, but children also need to be equally equipped with the skills and capacity to break the status quo.”

Her research demonstrates that in order to confront issues of race, a school needs a comprehensive model that addresses race in the curriculum, pedagogy, school culture, and practices. More so, El-Amin uncovered five critical elements that she suggests a school cultivate to ensure young African Americans both thrive in and transform a racist society.

These five core elements include:

• Sound racial identity, or to see one’s racial identity as a strength and asset
• Critical consciousness, or the ability to identify and deconstruct issues of inequity
• Critical academic achievement identity, or the ability to link academic achievement with navigating society and transforming it
• Collective obligation, or a sense of responsibility to a group
• Activism skills, or ability to create and sustain systemic change.

“We’ve known each concept has existed for some time and the value they provide to people of color,” El-Amin says. “But they are all linked together in critical ways and the combination is necessary in a liberatory school model.”

This spring, El-Amin will also teach a doctoral module, “Educating to Transform Society: Leveraging Students’ Tools for Resistance and Resilience,” focusing on many of the topics in her dissertation. She sees teaching the class as a chance to provide additional opportunities for HGSE students to focus on the significance of race and inequities in education and to consider the practice-based approaches that might work towards more just outcomes

As El-Amin wraps up her dissertation work, she admits she has many unanswered questions. In the future, she hopes to continue researching this topic and study best practices, with the ultimate goal of building the dream school that first brought her to the Ed School.