America's K-12 education system often overlooks sufficiently preparing children of color, specifically Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students for the workforce, leading to disparities in education and work. Specifically, multiple studies show that these disparities have negative long-term impacts on the lives of students, particularly in terms of their career prospects and economic security. For instance, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people are underrepresented in high-wage jobs but overrepresented in low-wage work and among the unemployed. Let's examine the root of these issues, starting with education in the classroom.
Lack of Representation in Curriculum
Applying a race equity lens could entail analyzing your district’s curriculum for racial representation, ensuring educators honor students' native languages, or investigating advanced course enrollment rates by race. In addition, school leaders should bring awareness of Honors and AP-level courses to students of color, as Minority students are far less likely to take AP classes or even attend high schools that offer a college-prep curriculum.
It is often underestimated how critical it is for children to relate and see themselves reflected in the materials they read. By 2025, students of color are expected to account for a majority of high school graduates, yet school booklists and the content students are exposed to have not changed to reflect the diversity we see in our classrooms today. Book publisher Lee and Low reported that in the past 24 years, only 13 percent of children's literature included multicultural content, and only 7 percent of authors were people of color.
Researchers have found that students engage more deeply and achieve at higher levels when their curriculum connects to their identities and experiences. Results demonstrate that culturally responsive education decreases dropout rates for both students of color as well as White students. Findings also point toward noteworthy declines in discipline problems such as a decrease in-school suspensions and inclines in grade point averages, student participation, positive self-image, critical thinking skills, and graduation rates.
Racial Inequalities in the Workplace Today
A recent study conducted and released by Georgetown University refuted the popular notion that Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other minority groups can improve their socioeconomic standing just by going to college and obtaining a bachelor's degree.
According to the study, in recent years, Black and Latino Americans increased their likelihood of obtaining and maintaining a respectable job. However, their white peers still disproportionately hold better positions overall. The study found that in 2017, the median wage of a decent job for White workers with a bachelor's degree was $75,000 compared to $65,000 for Black and Latinx workers. Statistics have proven that college-educated whites have benefited the most from the increased demand for college-educated workers.
Anthony Carnevale, a research professor at Georgetown and director of the university's Center on Education and the Workforce, also a co-author of the study summarized and concluded the applications of these data when he said, "We are a culture that keeps secrets from ourselves." This seems especially true relevant to issues of equality and education.
Why Partnerships Matter
Combined efforts between leaders in K-12, higher education, and leaders of educational companies can help Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Indigenous, and Asian American students gain the skills and knowledge they need to properly prepare for college or the workforce. These leaders should coordinate to design equitable and inclusive college and career readiness programs by defining what race-conscious workforce development looks like and how their programs will address racial educational and economic inequality. For example, K-12 partnerships would allow students to access more work-based learning experiences such as internships and apprenticeships, which increase both graduation and employment rates.
Lack of funding in K-12 college and career preparation is also an issue. Studies show that students with increased career exposure were more likely to earn credits in work-based learning and demonstrated stronger student engagement through hands-on technical, academic, and workforce-related coursework implemented in their curriculum.
Overcoming Language Barriers and Parental Involvement
Career guidance programs are crucial for young people to make informed decisions about their educational pathways. Ensuring they have access to career support is essential, but parents and guardians need support too. What if the parent or guardian does not speak English? Districts need to be adequately equipped and prepared with practical solutions. Although many students quickly attain proficiency in English, there's often a language barrier when communicating with parents. Here are some tips for building relationships with parents, and navigating inevitable language barriers:
- Listen and Learn: Avoid stereotypes at all costs. Don't make assumptions, as Hispanic, Arabs, Black, Asian and European student ethnic groups come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. People from the same ethnic group, and often those from the same cultural background, will eat different foods, speak other languages, and sometimes celebrate different holidays. Do not mention dialects or religious backgrounds.
- Leverage Technology: Professional translators are not always readily available at schools, but Google Translate (although not perfect) is a good resource, mainly when contacting a non-English speaking parent about their child's progress. An email written in the parent's native language can go a long way in cultivating positive communication.
- Use Standard English: During parent/teacher conferences use standard English; stay away from idioms and other figures of speech that may not translate well.
- Practice Kindness: Remember, smiles and positive body language are understood by all. Care, compassion, and empathy delivered with a friendly demeanor will express much more than words.
- Stay Connected: Reaching out to parents is not a once-a-year thing. All parents want their children to learn. Developing a relationship with the student’s parents can help parents feel as though they are a vital part of this valued process.
Strong communication between schools and parents leads to more transparent communication between parents and children. In addition, students are more likely to be engaged at school and have a successful occupational future when they have support and open lines of communication with their parents.
Supporting Self-Identity Formation in Students
An essential aspect of social development in children is identity formation. More than just their sense of self, students also learn about and understand their place in society, fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance within their community. Children and young adults naturally tend to engage better with people and content that relates to their backgrounds and culture.
This feeling of inclusivity, acceptance, and belonging starts on day one. The simplest, and most common example would be having a school leader properly pronounce a student’s full name. If there’s any uncertainty, go ahead and ask the student to help you pronounce it correctly. It makes all the difference in the world, even if they act nonchalant about it, because deep down, as they are in the early stages of learning who they are, it matters. Imagine the powerful impact it has on a student when a school leader such as a superintendent, principal, school counselor, and or teacher takes the time to learn something as simple as how to pronounce their name. It's not just the name; this act of care represents embracing diversity and ensuring the child is proud of their ethnicity and identity. School leaders, counselors, and teachers can extend this simple act of caring to establishing connections with students by learning more about them. Acknowledging not only the student's name but also who the student is (e.g., their hobbies, activities) creates a powerful relational environment wherein students feel that they matter — that their presence in the school is additive and essential.
Although we have come a long way in learning to embrace multiculturalism and diversity in education, there is still room for growth.
- racism and equality
- social emotional learning
- workforce development