Topics such as equity, anti-racism, discrimination, marginalization, and privilege were the main focus of four sessions I attended at SXSW EDU 2019. These issues are also central to competency-based education. One audience member asked, “How do we move the needle on issues of equity, agency, and pedagogy?” A panelist answered that allies should amplify the messages of people from marginalized groups who are trying to move that needle. Following that advice, I’m sharing takeaways from these sessions in a series of three blog posts, of which this is the first.
In a session entitled From Equity to Anti-Racism in Education, the presenters were Marco Davis, a partner at New Profit; Christopher Emdin, an associate professor at Teachers College; Kate Gerson, CEO of UnboundEd; and Jeff Livingston, CEO of EdSolutions, as facilitator. Jeff said that racism is “the combination of racial bias and the power to do something about it.” Systemic and structural racism were mentioned repeatedly as embodied in the American educational system, such as these three examples:
- Jeff cited studies that students perform better academically when there are more teachers and school leaders who come from the students’ own demographic groups. Knowing this, he said it’s an example of systemic racism that adults of color are so under-represented in American schools and that the system isn’t working harder to remedy this disparity.
- Kate noted that the term “achievement gap” puts the blame on students, whereas calling it the “provision gap” would suggest that the system is to blame for not providing what students need to succeed. She also said that news of gains such as rising graduation rates nationally often obscures the reality that many students, particularly those from marginalized groups, are graduating without basic skills they need for college and career success.
- Multiple speakers noted that our curriculum, standards, and assessments reflect what the mostly white, male, middle class people who created them consider important. Skills that may be more common in communities of marginalized groups are often excluded from our standards and assessments. (This reminded me of a recent presentation from Jamila Lysicott where she recounted asking white educators at a PD workshop to develop and perform spoken word pieces; unsurprisingly, their skill level was low and they felt awkward and inferior.)
Affirmation, Agency, and Anti-Respectability
Chris said that anti-racist pedagogy requires many students from marginalized groups to receive deep affirmation first and foremost, as a precursor to successful learning. Being told for years that they are “below grade level,” misbehaved, and bad decision-makers has devastated their sense of self-worth. They need to feel that they are smart, important, and valuable. They need to regain their sense of themselves as good decision-makers who have agency.
After one panelist interrupted another, Chris also said that “anti-racism comes with anti-respectability,” because “respectability is part of the racist system.” He noted that interrupting is typically seen as impolite in sessions of conferences like SXSW EDU, but interrupting “is what you do in the hood”—it’s a sign that the speaker is engaged enough with what you’re saying to want to jump in. He was arguing against dominant culture rules of decorum, because “the more free we are to be ourselves, the closer we are to rejecting racism.” This issue came up again in another session, framed as “deconstructing professional norms,” as will be discussed in the next blog post in this series.
A memorable exchange was when Jeff explicitly tried to create controversy, saying the session had been too agreeable up to that point. He shared a story about a public education forum in New York City where a woman asked how she could help her pre-K daughter avoid a life of poverty. When no one else responded, Jeff said he suggested that she try to get her daughter into a charter school and, if unsuccessful, move out of New York City. (Some audience members squirmed at this comment.)
Then, restating his hope to create controversy, Jeff asked Chris if he was a charter school supporter. Without missing a beat, Chris said “I’m pro dope schools and anti wack schools.” He went on to explain that he rejected the pro-charter/anti-charter dichotomy and is in favor of whatever works best for kids. One of the panelists noted that Jeff’s suggestion might have been a good strategy for that mother to help her own daughter, but that the structural solution of course requires improving schools for all students. (If any readers think Chris is encouraging illicit behavior in schools, please check out dope and wack in the Urban Dictionary.)
I’m not sure if Jeff got the controversy he was looking for. The only point of contention I recall was about the composition of the panel—three black men, one who also identified himself as Latino, and one white woman—when Chris said “We ought to have a sister up here, but I won’t say anything.”
The other posts in this series are:
- Elevating the Voices of Public School Advocates of Color
- Deep Poverty, Deeper Learning, and Being an Ally
- Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed
- Designing Outcomes Aimed for Equity
Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks.