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Managing an Identity Crisis: Forum Guide to Implementing New Federal Race and Ethnicity Categories
NFES 2008-802
October 2008

Case Study - 'Don't Want to Ask, Can't Tell': A Tale of Reservation and Resistance in Vermont

Case Study
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Not so very long ago, secretaries at many Vermont schools stood in front of their schools in the morning and watched as their students stepped out of school buses.  They did their best to identify their students' races and ethnicities, but often struggled with the task of race and ethnicity data collection.  Frustrated by this assignment, a number of these secretary data collectors contacted the state's Department of Education and raised concerns about the difficulties of observer identification.  Many of them said they didn't know how to tell what race or ethnicity some children were, and expressed reservations about asking the children or their families for such information on enrollment forms.  The state had little success in quelling these concerns.   The issue of race and ethnicity assignment was often raised at student census training.  The state representatives tried to explain the legality of race and ethnicity collection, but often it wasn't until a school representative stood up and said her school asked for race and ethnicity on the enrollment form that skeptical school representatives were convinced.

Vermont does not provide a standard enrollment form, but rather leaves this responsibility to individual schools. Instead, the state provides its schools with a school register to guide student data collection.  This document includes instructions on how to report student data including race and ethnicity.  With the register in hand, each school creates its own collection form, which is distributed to students and their families.    However, in light of the common reluctance to include race and ethnicity questions on these forms, one administrator concluded that it might have been better for the state to build a standard enrollment form, or at least publish minimum requirements for the districts' forms, rather than providing general guidelines on what had to be reported.

Vermont does not currently collect race and ethnicity data about its teachers, though it has attempted to do so in the past.  This collection was deemed unsuccessful due to the questionable quality of the data reported by schools.  Many schools simply reported 100 percent of their teachers as White – a suspicious rate even in a state with a predominantly White population.  The state's Department of Education doubted the accuracy of these results and has not yet made another attempt to collect such data.  However, Vermont does plan to collect this data for staff in the future guided by the same system it now uses for students.