What will it take to dismantle an inherently racist education system that holds our students back? This was the question that New Profit Partner and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) Lead Marco Davis discussed with three other leaders at SXSW EDU 2019 on a panel titled “From Equity to Anti-Racism in Education.” Jeff Livingston of EdSolutions moderated the conversation with Davis, Christopher Emdin of Teacher’s College at Columbia University, and Kate Gerson of UnboundEd.
Over 300 teachers and education leaders from across sectors joined them for this conversation, where they explored the provision gap that exists for students of color—the gap that exists in terms of what adults are providing students of color as a result of both individual biases and inequities in our education system—and how to change the system to eliminate this gap. The issues of racism and bias are systemic and pervasive. For instance, teachers are most likely to say their class is too difficult for black students: in a recent survey, 18% of math teachers and 13% of English teachers stated that their class was too difficult for black students while only 8% of math teachers and 6% of English teachers stated their class was too difficult for white students. This is just one example of how individual biases can impact the way that black students are educated in the classroom, despite an increased focus on equity in schools and districts today. Even educators and school leaders who themselves don’t promote racist ideology are still affected by bias, so it influences all manner of decisions we as a society make about education, leading to negative consequences for students of color.
Here are some key takeaways from the conversation on how we can shift our focus from equity to anti-racism in education:
It is possible to challenge existing models of standards and evaluation, which students of color and low-income students sometimes do not meet, because they may be based on flawed information or a biased frame of what is important. Kate Gerson said: “My biggest concern when we are talking about anti-racism or not talking about racism, is that we tend to get overly concerned with measures that don’t have anything to do with actually stopping the system as it is currently functioning.” We have the opportunity to rethink how we set standards to ensure that we are focusing on the measures that matter in terms of individual students being prepared to move up each level on the path to college and career readiness (rather than metrics such as graduation rates), and ensure that evaluations are used to support students rather than reprimand or hinder them from growth.
Rather than continuing to rely on the same conventional wisdom that is embraced by existing, credentialed, and often not diverse experts—or hoping that these experts will discover and offer new ways of thinking and approaches that will reduce disparities and close provision gaps—we need new experts. Marco Davis spoke to this point: “We are not actually looking and raising up the true innovations. We are not living our own gospel. This idea that young people have different brilliance and insights, right? ACADEMICS have different brilliance and insights but we still return to the same old ones.”
We must focus on diversifying the voices in the rooms making decisions about our education system, the leaders in the field, and teachers in the classroom to ensure that the people shaping our education system reflect the students being served by the education system. Because as Davis pointed out: “Study after study after study confirm that students who see teachers and leadership figures in their schools and in their environments who look like them do better. But we stop there. What does that mean? We have to change some of these teachers.”
Educators must be deliberate in ensuring that students of color understand their value and self-worth. Dr. Emdin said: “When I think about black and brown young folks, how they suffer most by schools is by the loss of agency, the loss of power, and the loss of seeing themselves as brilliant. The role of the educator who is going to enact anti-racist practices must be up front about ensuring that those young folks get to feel affirmed. To keep it practical, affirmation is the precursor to a strong anti-racist pedagogy.”
These are just a few important ways that we can begin to create an anti-racist education system and close both the provision gap and the opportunity gap for students of color. As Marco Davis shared in the conversation: “When we start talking about anti-racism, the concepts and ideas behind anti-racism are about true liberation for everyone. None of us are free until everyone is free.”