I'm Frustrated by the Way Education Reformers Talk About Race and Social Justice

Jan 27, 2017 12:00:00 AM


On January 25, I had the honor of sitting on one of two panels on “Race, Social Justice and Education Reform,” co-hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and the NewSchools Venture Fund. ( See video here; my panel begins at 1:12:00) This event was an attempt to put out any lingering embers from the firestorm that resulted from my supportive blog post about the NewSchools Summit, and the dozens of highly charged posts that followed in favor or opposition to the Summit’s willingness to address race and social justice in the context of education reform. Prior to Wednesday’s public panel, I engaged in a six-hour private roundtable discussion that brought together 25 education reformers from differing ideologies to learn from each other in hopes of finding common ground. I was one of four participants asked to give a four-minute opening statement to set the tone for honest yet civil discourse. Below is the prompt I was given and the response I read to the group. What have you found most frustrating about the way school reformers talk about issues of race, social justice and ideology?
I heard a story about a boy who lost his contact lens in the grass. He searched for it for more than 30 minutes but couldn’t find it. Frustrated, he called for his mother who immediately came and got down on her hands and knees. After just five minutes, she found it. Astonished, the boy asked her how she was able to find it so fast. She said, “You were looking for a contact lens, I was looking for $150!” Perspective matters. I don’t pretend to have all the answers on how to fix the educational crisis in America, but my experiences as an African-American woman provide a well-rounded perspective that ed reform needs. By way of background:
  • I was born and raised in a family of 10 in poverty on the South Side of Chicago;
  • I was educated in K-12 public schools;
  • I attended elite, private colleges and Ivy League universities;
  • I worked for seven years as a New York City journalist, but quit to become a teacher after 9/11;
  • I’ve spent 14 years teaching and counseling public school students in Chicago;
  • My three children are in a traditional public school, a charter and a private school;
  • I am also an award-winning blogger and the founder of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit with nearly 100 chapters nationwide.
Now wouldn’t you agree that I have a unique and valuable perspective that needs to be heard? As I answer the prompt about my frustrations with education reform, remember: I come in peace. It frustrates me that school reform for inner-city Black and Latino children is and always has been engineered by White, elitist (often paternalistic), upper-middle-class suburbanites who cling to a “theory of change” that intentionally minimizes my voice and the voices of other leaders of color. It frustrates me when my White reform brothers and sisters call ed reform a “movement,” when, by definition, movements are led by the people who are most affected by the problem. Even the charter schools that grew out of this so-called movement have pushed Black and Brown educators out, opting for a Whiter teaching corps than ever before. It frustrates me when my White reform colleagues won’t acknowledge or downplay the effects of systemic racism, poverty and trauma on a child’s ability to learn. These challenges are seen as “not relevant” to the implementation of best-practice solutions used to teach White children. Instead, they simplify and narrow the menu of solutions to choice, accountability and curriculum. Let me be clear: those three values are a vital part of the solution to this complex educational problem, but they are indeed only a part of the solution. Why is validating and honoring students’ cultural heritage a controversial issue among ed reformers? Why aren’t we building schools (including charter schools) that look like the best private schools that propel our poor, Black and Brown students to the best universities in the country? Why are so few African Americans hired on as resident fellows at reform-minded think tanks? Why isn’t the White philanthropic community going out of its way to fund the Black and Brown thought leaders like me with insights on which strategies will resonate with our students, parents and communities? Once we start implementing ideas based on these questions, then maybe—just maybe—we can devise a theory of change worthy to be called an ed reform “movement.” We are all chasing that lost contact lens in the grass. Sometimes it’s labeled the achievement gap, the dropout rate or funding equity. But I argue that our proximity to the socioeconomic consequences of failing to find that lens determines how creatively and intensely we look for it. Failure to find that lens for me doesn’t look like shaking my head at the bleak statistics on an executive summary. For me, [hypothetically] it looks like Mr. Stone’s son next door hustling dime bags from his front porch; Ms. Paxon’s daughter down the street dropping out of school and getting paid in dollar bills at the strip club; my own middle-class daughter coming home from college and complaining that all the guys who want to date her are unemployed with felony records. Failure looks like my family and I packing up the home that we love, in the South Side community that we love, and moving to another state because 762 people were murdered in Chicago last year and 36 more killed in the first 22 days of New Year. For school reformers who look like me, failure to achieve better schools for our kids is not merely theoretical or statistical—it’s about avoiding personal devastation. So I come here in peace. I come forgiving those at this table who have misconstrued who I am and why I do this work. I come asking for forgiveness if I have done the same to you. For it’s not about us, but about finding that elusive damn contact lens. I am in the grass, on my hands and knees, sleeves rolled up, fingers groping the dirt, desperate for the slightest reflection of light…social reforms that can save an entire generation!
I cannot tell you who said what after I read my statement because the conversation was off the record. But I am free to quote myself! Suffice it to say that I got a masters-level crash course on state of education reform. It was intellectually stimulating, but it was somewhat disheartening to realize that this so-called movement is moving in multiple, sometimes conflicting, directions. Education reform is a prism with many different faces, sides and angles that reflects a different color when viewed on a spectrum of poverty and privilege. And like a prism, no matter how you tilt it, the view through to the other side is never fully clear. Though not satisfied that we reached common ground, I believe everybody in the room walked out feeling heard, better understood, and maybe even validated. In today’s polarized, vitriolic political climate, where friends are becoming foes, the forum on “Race, Social Justice and Education Reform” was a profound success.      

Marilyn Rhames

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” She is currently on the design team for Harvard University's Leaders' Institute for Faith and Education (LIFE). Marilyn has 14 years experience teaching in Chicago Public Schools, but before becoming an educator Marilyn worked as a journalist for People and Time magazines and for newspapers including New York Newsday and The Journal News. She currently writes for Education Post and has published pieces in the Huffington Post, Black Enterprise and RealClearEducation. Marilyn was named 2013 Commentator/Blogger of the Year by the Bammy Awards for her Education Week blog, entitled “Charting My Own Course." She was a 2016 Surge Institute Fellow and a Teach Plus teaching policy fellow from 2010-1012. Through her consulting firm Rhames Consulting, Marilyn offers a full range of services from education content editing to providing professional development on community engagement to public speaking on issues of faith, race, writing, and education. Marilyn has served as an education commentator on 90.1 FM Moody Radio Chicago; the presenter of a 2013 TEDx talk entitled “Finding the Courage to Voice the Taboo”; and a 2017 speaker at the Yale University Education Leadership Conference. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a master’s degree in education from National Louis University. Marilyn is a wife and mother of three. In August 2017, she came together with more than 40 other African-American parents, students and teachers to talk about the Black experience in America's public schools. These conversations were released as a video series in Getting Real About Education: A Conversation With Black Parents, Teachers and Students.

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