Backed by a $400,000 grant, three University of Washington professors will spend the next two years studying how the new racial-equity teams in Seattle schools can boost the performance of students of color.

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For at least 70 years, Seattle Public Schools has talked a lot about its chronic gaps in achievement between students of color and their white peers — without doing much to successfully upend the status quo.

But in 2014, the state’s largest school district shifted its hopes of finally closing those widening gaps onto the teams of teachers, parents and principals working to change classroom practices at each school. The racial-equity teams, which Seattle teachers successfully negotiated in their contract with the district, made their debut at 10 schools and have grown to 43 campuses this year.

Now, a trio of University of Washington professors will spend the next two years studying what, if any, impact those teams have had on student success and how they can spread that work across the district.

“We’re not going to get after something as complex and persistent and as deeply rooted as racial equities with some off-the-shelf solution or some top-down mandate,” said Ann Ishimaru, an associate professor with UW’s College of Education.

“This is a really systemic issue that’s operating on multiple levels,” she added, “so we have to think about tapping the expertise of teachers in schools, the expertise of what we can bring as researchers and also the district leaders and their role in the structure and support for teachers trying to shift things on the ground.”

Backed by a $400,000 grant from the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, Ishimaru and her UW colleagues Filiberto Barajas-López and Min Sun already have started drafting case studies of four schools that created racial-equity teams early in the rollout: Denny Middle, Olympic Hills Elementary, Leschi Elementary and Rainier Beach High.

District data on student-test scores, discipline rates and chronic absenteeism at each campus indicate they’re making some progress to better support all students, Sun said.

“The outcomes suggest promising practice, but we know that there are differences in the approach at each school,” she said. “We want to identify those differences and examine closely what they’re doing … and build on the successes at these schools.”

Last year, the professors sent an initial survey to every teacher at 32 schools with a racial-equity team.

Not all teachers responded. But the early results indicated that teachers of color, compared to their white peers, didn’t always agree that working conditions at their school would help promote new efforts on racial equity.

That didn’t surprise the professors, however, and Ishimaru noted other research has documented a similar split in perceptions of white teachers and teachers of color.

The survey also found that, so far, the school teams have mostly spent their time on training for school staff. The least-reported activity among the teams was actually reviewing data related to disparities in student achievement and improving classroom practices.

That raised questions for the professors about how well the teams can move beyond just talking about racial equity and actually put their ideas into action to boost student learning.

“That’s important,” Ishimaru said of the training, “but how do we take that to the next level?”