Education Reform: We're Having the Wrong Conversation

Until we understand the deeply racialized history of public education in the United States, not even the best policy efforts will fully address the educational achievement gap.
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The start of a new school year. My Facebook friend's posts are filled with nostalgic first-day-of-school photos. The kids stand tall and proud, all shiny and full of hope. Parents share their excitement, sometimes with a tinge of dread. This annual ritual marks our children's inevitable march towards becoming Educated Adults. Or so we hope.

As families buy new backpacks and readjust their daily routines, the education reform debates rage, heavily funded by large charitable foundations of all stripes with specific agendas attached. The current promise of salvation rests heavily on charter schools, vouchers, new teacher accountability systems, and high stakes testing. I am convinced, after spending more than 20 years as a big city public school parent, parent organizer, and school board member, that these reform efforts are driving the wrong conversation. The right conversation includes honest dialogue about the continuing impact of race on school outcomes across our country.

Until we understand the deeply racialized history of public education in the United States, not even the best policy efforts will fully address the educational achievement gap.

No Child Left Behind has made clear who is succeeding and who is failing in our public schools. And, across the country, our schools are disproportionately failing African-American and Latino students. Even in charter schools, and in solidly middle-class communities, these racial disparities persist. There are outstanding schools of all types that have narrowed this gap, but the overall trend continues.

I came up through the ranks of public school advocacy in Boston, the city infamously known for its violent resistance to court-ordered desegregation in the mid-1970s. Nearly four decades later, we are still debating how to increase the engagement of African-American and Latino parents in the schools. And we are still failing the children of these parents at rates significantly higher than white and Asian children. Many white residents argue that the racial disparities in educational achievement are due to indifferent and uncaring parents. I beg to differ with this assessment. If we look at our country's educational history, we can see how generations of racial discrimination have gotten us to where we are today.

In Boston, the African-American community has been petitioning for fair treatment of black students for more than 220 years. The first petition was filed in 1787. Fifty-three years later, abolitionists petitioned the school board for equitable schools for the city's black children -- in 1840, 1844, 1845, and 1846. All of these petitions were denied. And this, in a city and state that never had racial segregation laws on the books. By the time the Boston NAACP filed grievance against the Boston School Committee in 1965, a half dozen generations had been the recipients of unequal, poor quality public education.

When so few of us know this history, it's easy to label the "uninvolved" parents as uncaring. Yet, if the barrier is a persistent racial bias that has barely budged over the centuries, we need to look beyond technical fixes that ignore race.

What does this mean for the hopeful parent, or for the rest of us who might have an uneasy sense that something is wrong with our schools but less connection to them?

It means we need to take a hard look at how racial bias continues to play out in our schools, communities, and daily lives. We can take the first steps by examining our own behavior. Are we making choices in our lives that build meaningful relationships across race? Are we speaking up when we see acts of racial bias? If we are parents of school-age children, are we willing to advocate in ways that support all children, not just our own?

If you're still with me, you might be asking, why should this matter to me if I am not personally impacted by these racial disparities?

When millions of young people continue to be failed by our schools, we are all impacted. We pay the price in costly prisons filled with high school dropouts who are unable to secure living wage jobs. We pay a psychological price when we ignore the racial discomfort that so many of us live with but don't admit. Lastly, demographic projections show that, by 2042, white people in the United States will be the new minority. We need to prepare ourselves and our children to get along, and support each other, in this new racial landscape.

This preparation goes beyond color blindness. It is more than tolerance. It may even fly in the face of current race-neutral judicial trends. Once we understand the effort that went in to denying access to equal opportunity to specific racial groups, we begin to understand that it will not be undone through passive goodwill. The barriers are too deeply embedded at every level -- personal, institutional, and societal. Reexamining attitudes and expanding opportunities go hand in hand.

As a school board member, I saw many policies that looked great on paper. And were totally undermined in practice. Until we come to truly believe that all children are capable of succeeding, no amount of "reform" will get us there.

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