When Best Practices Fail Black and Brown Students, We Must Challenge Our...

Voices | Diversity and Equity

When Best Practices Fail Black and Brown Students, We Must Challenge Our Moral Contradictions

By Deitra Colquitt     Mar 17, 2022

When Best Practices Fail Black and Brown Students, We Must Challenge Our Moral Contradictions

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

I was participating in a DEI Cohort sponsored by The Education Equity Center of St. Louis when I first heard the term moral contradictions. One of the presenters, Dr. Ian Buchanan, shared this quote by Howard Fuller:

“As educators of black, brown, and poor children—especially those of us who believe in justice—we must be able to adeptly negotiate moral contradictions.”

As I sat with the quote, I began to wonder: What contradictions did I embody? What was I negotiating?

These questions swirled around my head like leaves blowing in the wind. I spent days pinpointing various times that I contradicted my beliefs. Ultimately, I realized I was complicit in supporting educational mandates that were not beneficial to all students.

As I searched for the “why” behind my contradictions, I thought about research and best practices and found a disconnect between the standards expected of “urban” schools—code for schools that serve predominantly Black and Brown students—and schools that are considered “elite” and exemplar.

To me, it seems that research and best practices have been manipulated to police the education of a particular population of students, thus embodying the adage that systems designed for achievement are failing Black and Brown students.

Best Practices

Sometimes, best practices are seen as the golden standard—that thing that will “save” the urban school from low performance, perpetuating the notion that best can only look and sound one way.

One example of “best” practice is the widespread popularity of SLANT—Sit Up, Listen, Ask Questions, Nod, and Track the Speaker. In urban charter schools, SLANT has been used to manage behaviors. Remnants of this practice slowly trickled into public schools as teachers switched school districts. Conversely, schools began to embrace the work of Dr. Sharrocky Hollie in places where Black and Brown children were the primary learners. Hollie’s work explores how students' culture impacts how they engage in the school environment. In this sense, culture transcends race and includes age, religion, and class, to name a few. While SLANT relies on control and compliance, Hollie values students’ unique cultural constructs: two best practices that offer different results depending on the student population.

This is an unfortunate case when best practices become so ingrained in our teaching practices that as the education system evolves, we have a hard time pivoting and accepting that what was once a “best” practice no longer works, is not one size fits all and maybe was never really the “best.”


The Oxford English Dictionary defines research as the systematic investigation of materials and sources to establish facts and reach new conclusions. Unfortunately, some research has misled educators, resulting in students being labeled, devalued and excluded. To add insult to injury, research that highlights the work of Black scholars has been slow to make it into mainstream education circles.

Literacy provides a great example of research that misrepresents the experiences of Black and Brown children. While discussing literature, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishops once stated:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Although this suggests a radical way of humanizing literacy for students, we are currently fighting to make more diverse texts accessible in school libraries and as a core text when teaching, especially in schools for Black and Brown children.

In 1994, Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings published a book titled “The Dreamkeepers.” In the book, she discusses the best way to teach Black children. Culturally responsive pedagogy has existed for over 20 years, and yet, we are still trying to figure out how to ensure Black and Brown students are successful in urban schools. We are still struggling to actualize research that provides the blueprint to culturally responsive pedagogy—research that could help us dismantle the oppressive systems that undercut the aims of urban schools that serve Black and Brown students.

What Standard? Whose Standard?

We cannot continue to package education in a box and assume it will work for every student. Research and best practice have been used to micromanage what schools teach students of color, policing schools to ensure they consistently fail the most marginalized populations. We cannot in one breath condemn the school-to-prison pipeline and then create systems and structures that funnel to failure.

We owe it to our students to be more diligent and steadfast in examining, critiquing, and even rejecting best practices and research that lead us to negotiate moral contradictions. To do this, we must:

  1. Review the implications and limitations of “the golden standard”
  2. Study how children of color experience schooling in the United States
  3. Recognize the impact of white standards and how they are perpetuated
  4. Honor and implement the knowledge gained from Black scholars

We are responsible for critically examining research and educational standards to assess whether it is an appropriate measure of student performance and achievement in our schools.

While we honor our journey and evolution in education, we must also deal with the repercussions our pendulum-swinging education system has had on the most marginalized students. Most practices have a time and place within our education system, and we must ensure we embrace the practices that cultivate educational excellence and equity.

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