Thursday Reading List: "Race Debate" Edition

The new issue of the magazine Education Next has a set of nine opinion pieces, all from national leaders in education's "reform" space. All of the pieces in this "Race Debate" series are worth reading, and today's Reading List is dedicated to those articles.

The letters are a continuation of a conversation that has been happening around the country, not just within education, but in all corners of our culture, about the extent to which public and private institutions need to better reflect the communities they purport to serve. To put a fine point on the issue: the United States will be a majority nonwhite country within several years, yet the bulk of power still sits in the hands of institutions built and maintained by white people. This challenge is particularly vexing for educators, as American public schools already serve a majority nonwhite population. They are the canary in the coal mine for a tectonic demographic shift.

The opinion pieces offer a variety of perspectives on how, and whether, race ought to animate education reform discussions. Howard Fuller, as usual, is unequivocal:

It is my firm belief that children who live in communities where their lives do not matter to the police, politicians, or members of their own community will fall victim to traumatic circumstances that will have a tremendous impact on them for the rest of their lives. Children who are hungry cannot learn; children who are abused and neglected will find it more difficult to concentrate in school. Our work must transcend the schoolhouse ... I am taking a stand on these issues even if it means butting heads with some of my valued colleagues, who often agree with me on most education-related matters.

This sounds like unimpeachable logic, but for years, reformers with a more conservative bent have been skittish about embracing issues outside of the schoolhouse. Jason Crye gives voice to that concern:

We should judge reforms by their results for students, rather than trying to label them according to the race or class of their proponents. On the whole, education reform has a proven track record. It has enjoyed broad bipartisan support on the state and federal levels for years. One reason is that these reforms are targeted, structured, and modest. They use incentives and methods that work, and are focused on evidence that children are learning. They don’t try to fix health care and resolve racism and reform the police force simultaneously as a condition for helping schools.

Crye makes a good point about the value of modest goals, but his notion that reform has a "proven track record" is incomplete. The record is decidedly mixed and has at best stalled in the last few years, largely because of the center-right's failure to keep their constituents at the table for big projects like standards and accountability. Stacey Childress acknowledges the imperfection of the track record and sees the current debate as a generational shift:

As these new leaders look around at the big accomplishments, partial wins, and outright losses of the last several years, they are also pushing those of us who have been around for a while to pay more attention to other issues that affect the families who choose our charters and attend the district schools we’re aiming to “fix.” They don’t agree with the N.A.A.C.P.’s call for a charter moratorium, nor are they surprised by it. A number of them have affiliations with Black Lives Matter and with charter schools and Teach For America, which the M4BL policy brief aims to obliterate. While they disagree with M4BL’s education views, they agree with them on other issues such as policing and criminal justice reform. These new leaders are not monolithic; they agree with each other on some strategies and tactics and disagree about others. They surely aren’t right about everything, but neither were earlier generations of reformers.

While Childress wants to pursue the coalition of the future, Robert Pondiscio is skeptical and would rather return to the familiarity of the past:

My paramount concern, almost completely unaddressed in the outsized reaction to my pieceremains that a militant leftward tilt in education reform endangers the longstanding bipartisan political support that has long fueled the movement. Neither do I believe that the only children poorly served by their schools are from families of color. But it makes little sense to bemoan “the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white.” This is, as Teach For America likes to tell its corps members, within your locus of control.

Pondiscio's errs in thinking that large, institutional power dynamics can shift in toto when one or two white people abdicate their positions. He also presumes that the kind of coalition that drove reform for the last twenty years will continue to be effective going forward. Chris Stewart addresses the exact premise that Pondiscio suggests remains unaddressed:

The movement has plateaued, and the community must thoughtfully chart a way forward. While one segment has coalesced around a broad social justice agenda, including education, housing, economics, and criminal justice advocacy, a contrasting group of center-right leaders say the presence of “social justice warriors” will marginalize their voices. They warn that school reform has long benefited from bipartisan collaboration and a values-neutral focus on issues we can all support, such as accountability, data-driven instruction, and parental choice ... Yet, when it came time to renew that law 13 years later, the once strong and pragmatic bipartisan alliance had changed. Pro-accountability Republicans yielded to states’ rights advocates in their party and joined a different Democratic constituency, teachers’ unions, to advocate a retreat. 

Stewart's perspective is blunt, but pragmatic, and it's not the first time he has made this point. The foot soldiers of the political right have abandoned the reform project, and the Republican party has way bigger problems right now than reassembling the coalition to transform public schools.

If that's not convincing enough, consider the fact that education's existential challenges are concentrated in our cities and increasingly impoverished inner-ring suburbs; reworking the political machinery in these places will require the kind of diverse coalition that cannot be assembled without embracing the voices and leadership of people of color. The political right, as of right now, is not a viable place to find those voices; it is my sincere hope that my friends on the right find a way to change that reality.

Finally, beyond political expediency, for some of us, diversity and inclusiveness transcend pragmatism. They exist as values. John Deasy makes that argument:

Our country has had a long and storied history of being a proud “melting pot,” with citizens of many races and ethnicities, and immigrants from many other nationalities joining hands to build a great nation. Together, these many Americans have fought enemies abroad and built the infrastructure and edifices that define our modern landscape at home. Our strong and visible history of common purpose and opportunity for all, so celebrated and protected, is the epitome of diversity in all its forms. If recognizing these ideals and holding ourselves to them is some errant form of identity politics, then count me in.

Count me in, as well. Have a great day!