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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Racial Equity and Social Justice Have a Role in School Reform

By Guest Blogger — August 05, 2019 5 min read
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Heather Harding is director of policy and public understanding at the Charles Schusterman Family Foundation. Heather began her career in education with Teach For America, starting as a teacher before working her way up to senior leadership. Heather will talk about her experience as an education reformer and charter school parent, and why she’s found herself evolving into a reform moderate and an accountability hawk.

This year when Rick extended the offer to be a guest blogger, I was both humbled and concerned. Over the years, I’ve welcomed the opportunity to share my thoughts and perspectives with both Rick and his audience. But this year has been a difficult one for our country’s dialogue on race and politics and Rick himself troubled these waters most in a piece he wrote in the National Review. I paused and I reflected upon accepting the offer to guest blog because I knew I couldn’t do it without crafting a response to the notion that “race-based rancor” or “equity implications” require quotations because they are suspect or novel concerns. So here is my response:

In the 27 years that I’ve been in education, I always understood my mission as ending the racism enacted by the public school system. Joining Teach For America in 1992 was largely an exercise in social justice, and many of my fellow corps members would describe it as such in those early days. While some folks have always been more comfortable accessing the language of poverty over race, the interdependent nature of race and class in the United States requires that thinking people acknowledge that helping those most in need, or addressing the so-called achievement gap means working in communities of color. As such, the most recent school reform coalitions of the nineties and early 2000s have by their very nature required some attention to race.

In one of his 60-second videos, Rick lays out what he sees as a litmus test for school reformers that has become untenable because it leans toward political correctness. I want to disagree with the premise that education reform has veered away from the three points he names as the origin agreements: 1-All kids can learn; 2-Schools could do better; and, 3-Accountability and choice will likely play a role in improving the system. In my view, today’s conversations and actions are still based on these premises. Perhaps what has evolved is a comfort level with naming race and using race-specific language to explore bias in the system.

The mantra of “all kids can learn” is, in fact, a way of upending the racism and classism that undergirds the educational system. If we didn’t have racism or classism, we wouldn’t need to declare this at all. The acceptance of a mantra that underscores ALL recognizes that our current system fails to provide for the potential and abilities of some. It reminds me of the work of Jeff Howard‘s Efficacy Institute, who, in lectures, likens the potential of all students to apple seeds that require light, water, and care. Our system has and continues to nurture white middle class students more fervently than black and Latinx poor students and any other gradient that moves you away from a white-centered identity. We can argue this fact, but the empirical case is strong that disparate outcomes by race have persisted. It’s a fool’s argument to imply that bias isn’t inherent to the system. While some might choose to focus on what individuals can do to make progress, coalition work is best aimed at the systemic elements. I’ve always thought that’s what we came to do—find systemic solutions.

The school improvement work of today is intermingled with a focus on accountability in the form of college and career ready standards. Schools must do better, and policy has sought to help them in that pursuit. Making the system better requires a multi-pronged approach, and over the past 30 years, education “reformers” have learned that a technical focus is good but insufficient to create significant shifts. We now know that we need a hearts and minds campaign that recognizes our own participation in a broken system. The activities and areas of focus of today (educator bias, social- emotional learning, content pedagogy, and formative assessments) represent the evolution of what the field has learned. Both supports for content AND support for addressing bias in the system (which, by definition is carried out by the adults in schools) isn’t some ideological fancy. Rather, it is inherent to the original work of the school reform coalition. Rick’s attack on simply acknowledging bias—both intentional and unintentional—seems counter to our goals of improving schools, and doing so by supporting the people in schools. Educators are smart, capable professionals and we have to address their intellectual selves as well as their emotional selves. Ask any teacher why they do the work and they will tell you “to make a difference” with young people. Addressing bias is about seeing students as they are and what they bring. Students don’t show up to school without racial, cultural, and social identities; and neither do educators or policy wonks.

My one concession here is to acknowledge and concede that the debate about choice seems to have overshadowed other issues in a way that has been completely racialized and politicized. That’s a place to dig in if we care about the survival of a school reform big tent. Still, we cannot portend that a focus on race and racial equity equals rancor and has no place in our framing. This is an area where I am more and more taking issue with my fellow reformers by seeking to identify third way values and bridge across ideological divides. It’s not for the faint of heart.

I’m still in full agreement with the three tenets that Rick suggests as school reform agreements. I’m increasingly feeling like an “accountability hawk” in conversations with folks who feel discomfort with assessment systems that allow for consistent comparison. Am I in the tent by myself? I hope not.

Coalition work is complex. It’s a human enterprise that requires trust, compromise, disagreement, and resilience. There’s a familiar trope about how if you’re white and have a black friend, it doesn’t mean you aren’t racist. I was searching for the inverse but found that it doesn’t really work in this instance. My point is that individual analysis doesn’t always work at a systems level. A school reform coalition that is lasting has to be built and fortified on authentic relationships that acknowledge our experiences and commit to building and acting upon shared knowledge. I thought we came to this work because the system was failing too many children consistently and historically. If that’s not about justice, I don’t know what is.

Heather Harding

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.