Schools Get Graded on Racial Equity
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Schools can be held accountable for how they treat students of color.
By Carly Stern
Demar Pitman had a fire to put out. Two fourth-grade girls, the only Black students in their classroom, had arrived in his office with a teacher’s aide who informed Pitman that they needed to be suspended for talking in class. After the aide left, the students told him that their teacher, who was White, had said their “future children would end up in prison and have attitudes just like them,” according to Pitman’s account of the incident.
As the school’s behavioral specialist and restorative justice coordinator, he approached the teacher. “She didn’t deny it; she said that it’s her classroom, [so] she can say what she wants,” says Pitman, who reported the incident to administrators and recalls them saying they’d take care of it. Three weeks later, Pitman was out of a job.
He tried to help the students’ parents hold the school accountable but found no avenues. Although the Department of Education’s (ED) Office for Civil Rights requires public and charter schools every other year to report measures like rates of suspension and student referrals to law enforcement, there’s no verification process to ensure accurate reporting. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to make sense of what the raw ED online data actually means, Pitman says.
Far too often, Black and brown children in schools can feel isolated … [and] like their gifts and talents aren’t real.
So five years later, Pitman is on a mission to build the tool they were missing. The 39-year-old Dayton, Ohio, native is the founder of Discriminology, an online platform that compiles “educational equity data” — proxies for incidents of hate and bias — from ED data and other sources. The goal? To create accessible, easy-to-read, school-level “accountability report cards.” The beta tool lets parents search how many days of instruction are lost by Black girls and boys due to suspensions compared to White students, for example, or the number of social-emotional support staff their school employs. Research shows Black students are about three times as likely to be disciplined as White students.
Holding districts accountable and closing the racial achievement gap is the long game, but the first step is proving the problem’s scale. “People want to hear about the evidence,” says Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, noting that raw ED data isn’t adequately disaggregated by race and gender. This is where Discriminology comes in. “Traditional school report card platforms are focused heavily on testing,” Pitman says. “We look at everything else.”
Ironically, a young Pitman wasn’t especially focused on his own studies — despite being raised by a mother and grandmother who were educators. Pitman dreamed of being an Olympic track star — and even though he was something of a wandering spirit, he was also his family’s rock. In 2001, his grandmother died suddenly of bronchitis — Pitman’s mother found her on the bathroom floor — a tragedy that shook him. A sophomore at the University of Cincinnati at the time, he took leave from school and later dropped out before working as a physical therapist assistant in Michigan. But that didn’t stick either. He joined the military and was in the Army Reserves for five years. In Pitman’s own brush with disproportionate discipline, he was discharged after failing a random drug test for cannabis, which he’d started using after his grandmother died.
After the military stint, he finished his bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of South Florida, took a variety of online courses, and worked as a school behavior specialist for more than six years — when he encountered the teacher who demeaned the Black students. Always eager to help people access opportunity, he believes the incident oriented his career path toward a new north.
Pitman left his role as the restorative justice coordinator at the all boys charter school, Visible Men Academy, to focus on Discriminology in 2017. Fellowships and grants from nonprofits like Echoing Green and 4.0 Schools provided a boost — he’s raised more than $500,000 so far — and he launched a beta version in 2018, which has attracted more than 200,000 visitors. The classroom “seemed like the next right place for him to serve,” says Russ Finkelstein, who mentors Pitman through the Roddenberry Fellowship. Pitman observed in both the military and the classroom how the words, decisions and assumptions of authority figures can shape a person’s life.
And he’s eager to spread the word. Pitman speaks rhythmically and with buoyancy while pitching at a demo day for a San Francisco-based social impact accelerator, radiating charisma under a bushy beard. He cracks big smiles as he talks to attendees about justice. His words convey the focus of a missionary, but his casual jean jacket, glasses, and relaxed demeanor also suggest he could’ve just popped out from a hike or a Brooklyn brewery. “It’s as much about the messenger as it is about the message itself,” says Finkelstein.
Pitman knows he’s a few steps down the footpath he’s chasing. To start, Discriminology’s data must continue to distinguish outcomes between Black girls and boys in a nuanced way, says Epstein. President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative elevated the national conversation about safe communities for boys of color, but there wasn’t a parallel effort for girls — even though the racial discipline gap is even wider for girls than boys, notes Epstein. “If you’re not filtering for race and gender, then you don’t have the whole story.”
What’s more, Discriminology’s platform will add more value if it includes stated reasons for disciplinary actions, says Epstein. This is especially true for subjective infractions, like dress code violations or disrespect to authority, which are subject to biases and could signal coded language. Discriminology currently tracks equity data only for Black students, but Pitman aspires to establish parallel metrics for Latinx students, Asian American, and Pacific Islander students and other groups. If successful, a similar approach could perhaps someday be adapted for public universities.
“Far too often, Black and brown children in schools can feel isolated … [and] like their gifts and talents aren’t real,” Pitman says. But it’s those conversations with students that invigorate him. “It keeps me doing what I’m doing.”