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Published June 1, 2021


Cultural affirmation, not punishment may reduce harm to Black girls in schools, researchers assert

To improve the experiences of Black children in schools, particularly Black girls, a pair of researchers, who met and collaborated at GSE, suggest a new framework to help school leaders rethink anti-Black policies and practices, and help Black children recognize and celebrate their cultural identity.

Through “motherwork” — a term for culturally responsive school leadership practiced by Black women educational leaders to protect and celebrate the cultural practices of students — the researchers propose both policies that repair relationships rather than punish and curricula that reflect the experiences of Black youth.

This spring, “Centering ‘Grace’: Challenging Anti-Blackness in Schooling Through Motherwork,” published in the Journal of School Leadership, by Gwendolyn Baxley, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy, and Terri N. Watson, a distinguished visiting scholar at UB’s Center for Diversity Innovation who has been working with GSE this past year.

Motherwork in schools could have a powerful impact on the educational experiences of Black girls, they wrote. Young Black women are disciplined in schools at a higher rate than all other girls and most boys, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Punitive regulations, steeped in cultural biases, are applied subjectively and can lead to suspension, expulsion or arrest, said Watson, who is also an associate professor of educational leadership at The City College of New York.

In one example, cited in the article, an 11-year-old Black girl was suspended for having braids, a hairstyle forbidden by her school’s dress code policy.

“While the realities of Black boys are examined and challenged in and out of the schoolhouse, the experiences of Black girls, until recently, have received little, if any, attention,” said Watson. “Black girls are overrepresented in school discipline data and in the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Watson and Baxley explored the challenges Black girls face in schools, as well as the actions Black women take to protect them as mothers, activists and school leaders.

“To be clear, we are not suggesting that Black women are the presumed caretakers of Black children within schools,” said Baxley. “We are, however, honoring the work that Black women have done within schools on behalf of Black children, with a focus on Black girls.”

Teachable moments from the past

The article analyzes motherwork as practiced in the Oakland Community School that the Black Panther Party founded and operated in the 1960s-70s.

Black women played a central role in managing the school and designing its curriculum. It served students three meals each day, rejected standardized testing, nurtured curiosity and critical thinking, and celebrated Black life. The school avoided the criminalization of Black children and did not have security guards or detention spaces.

“While the racial identity of white children is affirmed and granted automatic access to various institutions and resources, Black children are tasked with assimilating and leaving behind their identity in order to gain access to similar resources,” said Watson. “Motherwork for Black educational leaders involves negotiating two competing approaches: Educating children to lose their identity and assimilate as a form of survival, or equipping children with the tools to challenge systems of oppression, which simultaneously puts them at heightened risk in schools where they are expected to be subordinate.”

Breaking away from the mainstream

While most research is aimed at improving the experiences of Black students with a focus on racial bias, few studies consider the impact of care and affirming identity.

School discipline policies should give students a chance to explain themselves when mistakes are made, said Watson. Institutions should also apply restorative justice practices that can repair relationships rather than punish children.

Curricula should also explore the historic and modern experiences of Black youth and facilitate complicated conversations about their lives, said Baxley. Schools must teach about the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, and make connections with civil rights movements of the past, she said.

“Mainstream curriculum rarely reflects the identities of Black children, nor does it authentically expose the true histories and lived experiences of Black people in the U.S. and across the African diaspora,” said Baxley.

“Educational leaders must affirm Black children and see them not only for who they are, but for who they can and will be,” she said. “They must consciously and intentionally speak of life and love and act with empathy and care if Black children, particularly Black girls, are to thrive in and outside of the schoolhouse.”

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