Note: This is part of a forum on Education Reform’s Race Debate.
Now more than ever, conversations about race, privilege, and inequity are happening on a national stage and within education reform organizations. It’s abundantly clear that the discussion is uncomfortable, which is probably why we’ve hit an inflection point.
Some in the education reform movement feel that these diversity conversations are distracting from the core of our work, while others say that diversity must be a primary focus. Both sides have valid points.
I have dedicated my life to education because I believe that it is the most important factor in eradicating poverty and leveling the playing field in our nation. We know that kids from all backgrounds have the potential to achieve at the same high levels—and the fact that they aren’t doing that right now doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with them, it means that there is something wrong with the education we are providing. Because we know that when low-income children of color have access to high expectations, effective teachers, and quality schools, they can perform equally as well as their wealthy, white peers. In order to ensure that that happens, we must remain vigilant and focused on achieving measurable academic progress for our kids.
I also firmly believe that unless and until the people who are most negatively affected by the poor state of education are the ones leading the charge to radically change the system, we won’t achieve lasting change. We must immediately confront the issues about who is driving the reform movement, and why. That includes recruiting new leaders to share the stage, engaging communities to set local reform agendas, and thoughtfully supporting efforts to address the out-of-school factors that most clearly hamper student success.
It won’t be easy. But if the education reform movement (in reality or perception) continues to be driven by privileged, white overachievers who are not attuned to or understanding of the broader context in which we do our work, we won’t achieve our goals. Similarly, if the work becomes less focused on academic excellence and results because we broaden our efforts too wide, we also won’t ensure an excellent education for every child. The question is, how do we strike the right balance?
It’s clear that we must acknowledge the many factors outside of schools that have a real impact on student learning. So many issues overlap with educating our children—their mental health, nutrition, housing, policing, and poverty—that it becomes increasingly difficult to approach the work of changing education discreetly. A stronger reform movement will engage with the challenges that most directly connect to learning.
Take nutrition. We all know that providing meals to our children in a reliable and healthy way is an important role for schools to play. In my time as chancellor at D.C. Public Schools, we worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on community eligibility programs so that all students could have access to free breakfast and lunch programs. We also piloted a supper program so that some students could have all three of their meals taken care of at school.
These were incredibly necessary and worthwhile efforts, and I saw the positive effects they had on our students. But they didn’t address the fundamental challenge of ensuring that all students were taught a rigorous, challenging curriculum from a highly effective teacher.
And there’s the rub. We have to maintain our results-oriented, relentless focus on student achievement. Yet we must also address out-of-school issues, and we have to undertake meaningful efforts to ensure that people of color are both leading and supporting education reform.
If we turn away from our core mission, we’ll lose the ground we’ve gained together over the past 20 years of supporting and empowering parents in making sound educational choices and pursuing the highest-quality teachers for our students. But if we fail to address a fuller breadth of challenges and the lack of engagement of the communities that the movement is most concerned with, we will not progress further than where we find ourselves now.
Some of the smartest and most talented individuals in our nation are working on school reform. I have no doubt that, together, we can find a way to navigate through these challenges, come out stronger, and achieve the lasting equity we seek.
Michelle Rhee is a former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, a board member of the 50CAN Action Fund, and founder and former chief executive of StudentsFirst and TNTP.