Race, Reform and the Firestorm: Reflections on Our Progress a Year Later

May 15, 2017 12:00:00 AM


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, [pullquote]the racial divide in ed reform leadership had finally reached a boiling point[/pullquote] and Blacks, Whites, and everybody in between were making public their private concerns about race and social justice. Yes, there were times when online exchanges got a bit heated like this one and this one, but it was a conversation that needed to be had—in the public square. 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: 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.

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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