School Reform Must Serve Social Justice Goals

Note: This is part of a forum on Education Reform’s Race Debate.

Every generation of education reformers debate whether or not their efforts begin and end at the schoolhouse door. I believe that as educators, we must understand and help address the issues that negatively affect our students well before they ever arrive at school. Education reform must be considered within a larger struggle for social justice.

ednext-oct16-forum-img01Those of us who primarily serve low-income and working class black, Latino, Asian, and Native American students cannot avoid confronting the issues of race and class. They affect a student’s capacity to learn. They determine how much access a student’s family or community has to wealth and power. And they influence whether students have all of the resources they need to get the most out of their learning environments as they strive to become ready for adulthood and a career. I believe that we must confront these complex challenges, as part of a robust response to the educational challenges our neediest students face.

This raises two questions: how, and who? Over the past 20 years of fighting to create great schools for the children who need them most, an ideologically and politically broad and tenuous bipartisan coalition was forged around important issues such as vouchers, scholarships, charter schools, the need to end teacher tenure, the importance of introducing pay for teaching performance, and until recently, the Common Core State Standards. But that fragile unity is now threatened. Some conservatives believe they are being forced to support a broader set of social issues and embrace strategies or tactics they do not agree with as a litmus test to determine whether they are true change agents in education.

Are these political differences fatal to our shared goals for educational improvement? Some of these differences are real and some perceived. Whether education reform should be situated within a larger social justice context is a fair question, and one we should be asking. But in far too many instances we have moved beyond debates over ideas or strategies to name-calling and unfairly impugning various individuals’ motives for being in the coalition, or for their responses to various criticisms or critiques.

The painful reality is coalition politics are always difficult and constantly shifting. Established coalitions break up and new ones are formed. In my work as a community organizer, and my years of work as a “community activist,” I have been in and out of many. I have lost friends over ideological and philosophical differences that emerged during coalition work. It could be that we have reached a point where the coalitions that got us this far are inadequate and cannot be sustained to achieve the next phases of change.

It is my firm belief that children who live in communities where their lives do not matter to the police, politicians, or members of their own community will fall victim to traumatic circumstances that will have a tremendous impact on them for the rest of their lives. Children who are hungry cannot learn; children who are abused and neglected will find it more difficult to concentrate in school. Our work must transcend the schoolhouse. We must fight for the laws, policies, and practices that address these issues as a critical factor in setting the conditions for our children to learn. We must not back away from supporting the importance of mental health services for children, fighting for living wage jobs for the families of our students, speaking out against the wrongful deaths of black people by the hands of the police, and calling for more black empowerment within the education reform movement.

I am taking a stand on these issues even if it means butting heads with some of my valued colleagues, who often agree with me on most education-related matters. It is not only my moral duty; it is a duty that has been passed on to me by all of those who came before me. People have literally sacrificed their lives to create a better life for the young people of today. It is that history that stokes the fire in my heart and soul. Therefore I am required to continue that fight, even when doing so could have a negative impact on important political and personal relationships.

I do not have a litmus test or require people who believe as I do about the necessity of reforming education to support all of my ideas and approaches to addressing these other critical issues. If we truly care about our neediest children, we can and must find ways to stay in the room together. But education reform must be considered as part of a larger struggle for social justice. That larger struggle can draw us together, or it may tear us apart.

Howard L. Fuller is Distinguished Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

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