Confronting Systemic Inequity in Education

That’s the title of a report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). It’s written for foundations but has insights and data that are useful for other equity workers.  (The PDF is free, the fee is for the printed report.)  The report urges foundations to support advocacy and organizing work to address systemic issues as opposed to only serving immediate needs through programs that leave the larger system intact.

The report takes a view of education as a complex system:

 The intersection of forces around a particular issue shapes the zone of mediation for that issue. Such forces may include such far-reaching items as legislation, judicial decisions, demographics, housing and nutritional needs, economic and market forces, social/state political climates, educational influence groups, district history, individual players within districts, their political ambitions and the media.  One such potential force is foundation support.

And uses the framework of “targeted universalism” as a way to focus support to make more substantive systems changes to deeply entrenched inequities.

The report relates a story from 2010 about a student at the elite, admissions-based public magnet school Hunter College High School in NYC named Justin Hudson who “shocked his classmates and many in the audience with a candid graduation speech about educational inequity that hit close to home”:

He opened his remarks by praising the school and explaining how appreciative he was to have made it to that moment. … [Then he said,] “More than anything else, I feel guilty … I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do you.” They had been labeled “gifted,” he told them, based on a test they passed “due to luck and circumstance.” Beneficiaries of advantages, they were disproportionately from middle-class Asian and white neighborhoods known for good schools and the prevalence of tutoring. “If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city,” he said, “then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights. And I refuse to accept that.”

He went on to say that “We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven-year-olds.” What Justin and the systems approach in the NCRP report call into question is the primacy of meritocracy and individualism on which much of our school system is built.

The notion of the “achievement gap” remains in this individualistic mode, encouraging programs that raise the achievement of individual students, rather than addressing the opportunity gaps that underlie achievement. The report also cites the notion of “education debt” offered by Gloria Ladson-Billings

These inequalities have accumulated over the nation’s history and have prompted education expert Gloria Ladson-Billings to advocate for redefining the achievement gap as an education debt owed to communities that endured these hardships: “When we think of what we are combating as an achievement gap, we implicitly place the onus for closing that gap on the students, their families and their individual teachers and schools. But the notion of education debt requires us to think about how all of us, as members of a democratic society, are implicated in creating these achievement disparities.”

This stance is one that recognizes our shared fate, our common humanity, community, and destiny.  Transformative leaders can foster a sense of shared fate to enable people to face complex challenges together.

This entry was posted in Bias, Changing the Discourse, Structural Racism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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