Difficult Discussions: A new report offers tips to communities on how to talk about the thorny issues of race and education.
"Race is frequently an unspoken barrier to school reform," says Quality Now!, published by the Public Education Network, a school advocacy group in Washington, and Public Agenda, a New York City-based public- policy-research group.
Quality Now! is based on the experiences of eight largely urban communities that organized discussions on race and education with nearly 1,000 people as part of a two-year project.
One lesson learned is that participants should avoid the past and focus on improving education for all, the report says.
"Although these conversations illuminate sometimes long-ignored issues of race," it says, "the purpose of the dialogue is not to talk about racism."
Other tips include reviewing various group strategies to find the best fit for different communities, finding leaders who are "nonpartisan and credible," and trusting that the process can work, even if it is uncomfortable.
Finally, the report advises that communities use data on student achievement and race to help participants focus on one set of issues at a time. "Taken alone, the topics of either education or race can overwhelm most Americans," it says.
Getting such data, however, was not always easy for the local organizations that organized the sessions.
The Hattiesburg (Miss.) Area Education Foundation, for example, was for delayed three months as it waited for racial breakdowns of student-performance data from the state, the report notes.
The meetings in Hattiesburg and elsewhere also yielded concerns from parents about the need for equitable funding, higher expectations for students in urban schools, and more parent involvement.
Parents also felt confused and left out of local discussions on education.
And while participants talked readily about school issues, they tiptoed into the subject of race. "It took time for people to feel comfortable enough with one another and to confront the issue of race in a straightforward manner," the report says.
—Robert C. Johnston
Vol. 20, Issue 14, Page 5Published in Print: December 6, 2000, as Urban Education