Equity & Diversity Opinion

8 Questions to Help Leaders Prepare for Confrontation & Empowered Bias

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 03, 2017 4 min read
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There is a continuing conservative direction expressed by the federal administration that feels to us to be exclusive while at the same time public schools struggle to be inclusive. Questioning beliefs is a good thing. Reexamining past practice helps to update, modernize, refine some things and abandon others. However, beginning with accusation and fear is not a productive path. As we’ve shared before, we believe what is happening in the world outside of schools will arrive within its walls, in invisible ways if leaders do not pay particular attention and make preparations in thought, in dialogue, and in planning. As public schools struggle to balance the treatment of students, leveling the playing field, making sure access to quality teaching and high standards exist for all students, we note an action by the federal government that will provoke bias in the public and evoke fear.

The Justice Department has taken on the task of investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies that appear to discriminate against white applicants. In response to that news, Charlie Savage of the NY Times reported:

The Supreme Court has ruled that the educational benefits that flow from having a diverse student body can justify using race as one factor among many in a “holistic” evaluation, while rejecting blunt racial quotas or race-based point systems. But what that permits in actual practice by universities -- public ones as well as private ones that receive federal funding -- is often murky.

Whether this is a national priority or not is not our issue of concern. The ripple through communities of divisiveness and “group identification” is. In issues of college admission it takes the form of empowering white people and marginalizing black people. It is exactly the opposite of what our leadership in K-12 education is seeking which is empowering all. This movement has also recently flashed out against enlisted people who are transgender and their families. They have been smarting from the announcement by the president that their service was no longer welcome. The order, announced in a tweet, was rebuked by the armed forces. Today, it is about non English speaking immigrants. We are awakening to reinvestigate the civil rights won over decades and who we are as a nation.

Things like these affect the public, and the students in our schools, in untold ways. Most frustrating is that reaction to these policy shifts is not seen directly, but in other behaviors. Students may return to school and new behaviors may arise. Expressing the frustration or stress this causes can happen within their households and without conscious knowledge, stress can enter the student’s sphere. And what about law enforcement? The announcement by the president, which was rebuked by police officials, to be less respectful of the accused’s civil rights, was another shot at minority communities.

These are certainly disturbing possibilities but they are such good leadership lessons. What is the rightful place of affirmative action in 2017? Is resistance to transgender members of the military related to bathroom use in schools? Intuition says yes but is there data? As public school leaders, the affect these issues have on learning and student placement and discipline is worthy of study. Hopefully, it won’t be a conclusion in search of data, but an honest pursuit of data to inform a conclusion.

Questions for Leaders

  1. How many high school guidance counselors have reported the rejection of a white student from a college of their choice because of their race?
  2. How many college acceptance committees have failed to choose a white student from a group of equally qualified applicants, accepting the black student instead? Is that wrong?
  3. How many of those black students accepted instead of white students have completed their college education?
  4. Of those who didn’t, was it a matter of scholarship or finance?
  5. How might the discussion of police being rough with suspects be affecting the police and the community?
  6. Now with the federal government aiming at punishing colleges and universities for bias against whites, how will this filter into our schools?
  7. The same is true regarding transgender students and bathrooms and proms and sports. While deciding how to accommodate students, how many schools sought out other school environments to discover the impact of making no separate accommodations? How did it affect the environment and the transgender students and the student body as a whole?
  8. How many leaders worked with their community to dig into the fears and misconceptions that drive their beliefs and decisions?

When mandates come from afar, they are sometimes obvious and clear, and they are frequently resented. But there is an America that has been hidden for a long time that will enter schools stealthily. We must be alert. They will come with vendors and with parents and students and even board members and clergy. Our role is not to become reactive but to be proactive. Readiness matters. How will each community prepare for the effect these statements and actions as they seep in and cause responses that will affect our schools?

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Illustration by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.