For social entrepreneur DeMar Pitman, founder of the education data platform Discriminology, necessity was the mother of invention. “Discriminology began the day when I had a really unfortunate event happen to me,” Pitman said. Before founding the startup in 2017, which uses Department of Education data to show discrimination rates between students of color and their white peers in public schools, he worked as a restorative justice coordinator in Florida.
Pitman's job entailed helping teachers and administrators move schools away from purely punitive forms of discipline, such as suspensions, to ones that holistically assess and take into account students’ personal learning styles and outside factors like their home life. After working in education for nearly a decade, Pitman was acutely aware of the disparity in the severity of punishments given to students of color versus white students, even for the same or similar offenses. However, one particular incident in a fourth grade classroom changed the course of his career.
“I had a situation one day where I had two black fourth grade girls brought to my office by a teacher’s aide,” Pitman recalled. “These were two girls that I had worked with before and they were great girls, great students. ... But they were upset, more than I had ever seen them before.” He says the teacher’s aide told him the girls’ teacher recommended they be suspended for talking in class and disrupting other students. After the teacher’s aide left and the two girls calmed down, Pitman asked them to explain what had happened.
“They told me that their teacher had told them their future children would end up in prison and have attitudes just like them,” Pitman said. “These [were] 9, 10-year-olds, the only black students in the classroom, and the teacher was a middle-aged white woman. So you can imagine how the girls felt.”
After reporting the incident to the principal and vice principal, Pitman said it seemed as though they were supportive of his case that what their teacher had done was wrong. But three weeks later, he says, nothing had been done.
After moving on from the school, he began researching disproportionality in school discipline and school climate — indicators of the health of a school’s environment, how well students are able to learn, and other factors relating to social and emotional wellbeing.
“What I found was, there wasn’t an online platform for data collection around the specific [factors] of equity that are most relevant to communities of color or gives them easy-to-use and accessible tools to take action around that data,” Pitman said. “That’s the spirit behind Discriminology. It’s creating a platform where the data is parent-friendly, [Every Child Succeeds Act]-compliant, and parents can use it to take action.”
Starting from the bottom
Pitman built the Discriminology website from the ground up, supplementing his background in computer science with a series of web development courses he took online.
Currently in beta, the site pulls state and federal data directly from the Department of Education. Users can look up schools and districts across the country and view rates of disciplinary actions taken against students broken down by race and gender. What becomes immediately apparent, even with a cursory search, is the drastic gaps that appear between these groups of students.
Despite the legal end of segregation and the work of the Civil Rights Movement, there is significant evidence to suggest schools remain highly segregated to this day. The historical practice of red-lining, where banks would only offer mortgages to African Americans in constrained and often less desirable neighborhoods, and the modern-day practice of public school funding being tied to local property taxes are considered to be significant drivers of this. In short, minority communities that are less likely to have accumulated wealth or own property are more likely to be sending their children to underfunded and underperforming schools. Meanwhile, communities that are more affluent, where more people own homes and therefore pay more in property taxes, tend to be majority-white and enjoy higher-quality schools — effectively segregating districts, and quality of education, by race and class.
“[The end of legal segregation] didn’t change people's hearts, it didn't change people’s minds," Pitman said. "A lot of that has made its way into our education system and that thinking has taken years and years to get itself deeply embedded into the bedrock of our country.”
William Jackson, founder of a Durham, North Carolina-based parent advocacy organization called Village of Wisdom and now Discriminology’s director of research and development, has experienced this implicit bias directly. As a local science teacher, school administrator, and now a leader of an organization that works to address the achievement gap between black and white students, Jackson found Discriminology to be a critical resource for both himself and the families he worked with.
You have parents working three or four jobs to put food on the table. It’s hard for them to make time on top of that to become activists.
“I have really always wanted a way for parents to be able to assess their experiences ... and what was going on in their schools,” Jackson said. “A lot of times principals or [administrators] will [tell parents] that ‘oh, this is an isolated event’ or ‘your kid is just bad’ or whatever and then you go and you might find out [using Discriminology] that their child is 15 times more likely to be suspended at this school than a white child.”
While Discriminology can’t solve such a systemic problem with data visualization alone, what it aims to do is empower advocates and school administrators to recognize the scope of the problem and take more informed action against it.
“Good principals have admitted that they don’t have a strategy for [equity issues] or they don’t have anyone who’s accountable for that and are looking for ways to measure that better," Jackson said. "When you look at this from a [big-picture] perspective, it gives people who have good intentions the capacity to think about how to better address it.”
According to Pitman, this is especially valuable for families of color, particularly those that are low-income and may not have the resources to tackle these broad challenges on their own. “You have parents working three or four jobs to put food on the table and they’re being bombarded with all this negative information about their kids or statistics about students of color. It’s hard for them to make time on top of that to become activists,” Pitman said.
That said, building a website, combing through thousands of data points and creating easy-to-use resources requires something Pitman, and many entrepreneurs like him, don’t have: money.
The challenges of fundraising while black
Pitman never set out to be a social entrepreneur, but when Discriminology began to grow and he got thousands of comments and feedback posts from focus groups and parents all across the country, he quickly realized that funding was going to be necessary — and a lot of hard work.
“Being a black social entrepreneur, you have to have proof, man,” Pitman said. "What I’ve found is that a lot of white entrepreneurs just need to have a great idea. I’ve had to go above and beyond to show that ‘Hey, I have this great idea and this great concept, but I can also execute.’”
Studies of social entrepreneurs and venture capital industries over the years have repeatedly shown that minorities and women receive less funding than do white male entrepreneurs in the same field. The U.S. Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report found that only 40% of minority entrepreneurs seeking capital received the amount of funding they requested compared to 68% of white entrepreneurs. According to another study of diversity in U.S. startups, only 1% of venture-backed founders are African American in the first place.
Before you fix the achievement gap you have to fix the opportunity gap. We often focus on fixing the students as opposed to fixing the system itself.
Furthermore, Pitman admits that he has also had to work hard to convince some potential funders that disciplinary discrimination in public schools is a problem to begin with.
“There has also been this whole colorblind narrative ... where we shouldn’t have special programs to ensure the rights of black and brown people or that we’re now in this post-racial society,” Pitman said. As a result, even some of the more progressive funders he’s pitched have had trouble grasping the scope of the problem. “It’s hard for folks who don’t identify with what people of color go through [to see the urgency] because that happens outside of their awareness. ... This issue is not abstract for the millions of black and brown students whose lived experience this is."
Currently, Pitman is participating in a Google-affiliated startup accelerator in San Francisco, California, called FastForward. The experience, he said, has been cathartic. A time to unplug from the outside world and focus not only on the next steps for Discriminology, but for himself and who he is as an entrepreneur.
“As a light-skinned black man there are a lot of mental hoops and constructs you have to navigate to be your best self,” Pitman said. “I’m just trying to figure it out. This whole process of Discriminology has been a process of self-discovery.”
Pitman doesn’t believe the issue of discrimination can be solved solely through solutions that focus on individual students, though those are valuable. He hopes that as Discriminology gains more resources it can partner with other organizations and effect broader systemic change across public school administrations, curriculum choices, and cultural awareness, thereby improving school environments and success rates for minority students.
Pitman and Jackson are currently working with academic researchers to develop survey mechanisms and assessments that will enable Discriminology to capture on-the-ground data from students and school administrators. With this, the two hope to add the key classroom environment data they believe the Department of Education is often missing.
“Before you fix the achievement gap you have to fix the opportunity gap. We often focus on fixing the students as opposed to fixing the system itself,” Pitman said. “If you have a bunch of sick fish, for example, you can’t solve the problem by blaming the fish or even by only treating the fish. You have to look at the lake, at the water that they’re in. What’s lurking at the bottom? What’s being poured in from outside? Those are the things you have to fix.”