One year ago, I excused myself from dinner with friends and returned to my hotel room to blog about my awe-inspiring experience at the NewSchools Summit in San Francisco. After two hours of intense writing, I went to sleep.
But I couldn’t stay asleep. I woke up three times in the night, adding details that my subconscious mind insisted I write down.
Back on the plane to Chicago, I crafted this title: How an Elite Education Conference Felt More Like a #BlackLivesMatters Rally.
I asked my African-American friend next to me what she thought about the headline. She chuckled and said, ”The Black Lives Matter people might have a problem with you comparing their rallies to an event sponsored by a bunch of rich White folks.”
It was a curious point, but I kept the title anyway, never imagining that the opposite would be true, that being loosely associated with Black Lives Matter would anger some of the wealthier White, more right-leaning Summit attendees (and their buddies who weren’t even there).
The thing about being naive is that half the time you think you’re in the know. I never saw the subsequent firestorm of Left vs. Right ed reform ideology coming. I honestly assumed that everybody at the Summit—regardless of their skin color or political views—were just as repulsed as I was by the steady stream of police shootings of unarmed Black men and boys. After all, aren’t most of their charter schools and other reforms concentrated in low-income, urban communities of color?
Based on the outcry my post caused, I followed up with another blog, An Open Letter to White Conservative Education Reformers. I sought to bring understanding, but it only fanned the flames.
(Incidentally, I didn’t get one negative reaction from #BlackLivesMatter about my original post.)
The good news is that after last year’s NewSchools Summit, the racial divide in ed reform leadership had finally reached a boiling point and Blacks, Whites, and everybody in between were making public their private concerns about race and social justice.
As a result, the Fordham Institute hosted a panel on the ideologically mixed ed reform agenda called Common Ground in June; Education Next put out a collection of essays it called the Race Debate in October; and in January, the American Enterprise Institute held a 24-person private roundtable discussion called Race, Social Justice and Education Reform that was followed by two public panels before a standing-room only crowd.
In fact, last month, I sat on a panel about culturally responsive teaching at the Yale SOM Educational Leadership Conference, which was replete with sessions about how to address the racial inequity in public education.
Now, a year later, the last smoldering embers of the firestorm have finally died. In one case, we literally kissed (on the check) and made up.
It seems that people are starting to understand that many of the Phase I failings of ed reform (i.e. lack of community engagement, zero-tolerance discipline policies, ignoring the impact of poverty) might have been avoided had there been a more diverse group of leaders, parents, teachers and students at the table early on. They would have provided a diversity of thought and lived experience, and the reforms would have been done “with” the community, not “to” them.
Looking at the ed reform landscape today, I’m hopeful that the Phase II agenda will yield wiser fruit. There are more studies than ever being done on inequity and implicit bias in schools. Following in the footsteps of reform pioneers like Howard Fuller and Geoffrey Canada, leaders of color are starting to rise through the ranks of established reform organizations or launch their own brand of change.
Here is a list, just to name a few:
- John King now runs Education Trust.
- Shavar Jeffries runs Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).
- Elisa Villanueva-Beard runs Teach For America (TFA).
- Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) has come into existence.
- Carmita Semaan runs the Surge Institute.
- Aaron Walker runs Camelback Ventures.
- Jamilah Prince-Stewart runs FaithActs for Education.
- Veronica Crespin Palmer of RISE Colorado.
- Brittany Packnett of TFA, Derrell Bradford of 50CAN, Minneapolis activist Chris Stewart and Los Angeles parent organizer Alma Marquez drive the education equity conversation through blogs and social media.
For me, I blog and founded the faith-based nonprofit Teachers Who Pray, which moves the reform agenda beyond policy, statistics and systems to impact the most basic unit of schooling: the classroom teacher—body, mind and spirit.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education invited me to their D.C. offices to meet senior staff and to pick my brain for an hour and a half. Then Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called me on my cell phone and asked probing questions for an hour.
I don’t have all the answers, but it’s no doubt that diversifying the pool of ideas will yield more thought-out education solutions.
The NewSchools Summit rolls around again May 16-17, and my plane ticket and hotel room are already reserved. I’m a lot wiser today than I was a year ago. As a centrist, I now understand both sides much better.
Though ed reform remains divided, I am still quite hopeful…or maybe just a little naive.