Why Schools Need to Change
Why Schools Need to Change

Today’s learners face an uncertain present and a rapidly changing future that will demand far different skills and knowledge than were needed in the 20th century. We also know far more today about enabling deep, powerful learning than we did when public schools were designed in the early 20th century. Our collective future depends on how well young people prepare for the challenges and opportunities of 21st-century life.

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We need anti-racism in schools because relying on good intentions has not worked. Good intentions are not enough.

Since George Floyd’s murder last year and the ensuing protests, our nation has accelerated once again its reckoning with racial justice. Schools justifiably have been in the thick of this focus as we attempt to come to terms with the inequities in outcomes that our schools continue to produce.

Simultaneously, there has been a backlash against racial equity work in schools. Adding fuel to this backlash, Thomas B. Fordham Institute senior fellow, Robert Pondiscio, recently wrote a blog post entitled “I believe ‘antiracism’ is misguided. Can I still teach Black children?” Through the course of his piece, Pondiscio lays out his argument as to how he believes the anti-racism movement in schools undermines high expectations and standards for academics and behavior for students. However, he both misrepresents how anti-racism is playing out in schools like mine and suggests a complacency with the status quo of inequitable outcomes for students.

We need anti-racism in schools because relying on educators with good intentions has not worked. Over the 20 plus years I have been in education, I truly believe that the vast majority of educators have good intentions and believe that they are holding students to high expectations. However, we continue to see significantly higher levels of achievement from our White students and higher levels of discipline for our Black and Brown students. From this data, we can come to two competing conclusions: either there is something wrong with our Black and Brown students; or there is something wrong with our systems. The schools that buck the trend and see exceptional outcomes for students from traditionally marginalized groups act as proof points that the deficits aren’t in our students. Instead, blaming our students is a convenient way to evade improvement and is at the root of racism in schools. We are left with the conclusion that the heart of the issue is in our own policies and practices which are an outgrowth of our beliefs and biases. To remedy this, good intentions are not enough.

In his piece Pondiscio lays out a series of questions and challenges and says we should “grapple with these issues candidly and unflinchingly.” I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment but not his conclusions. We should honestly and bravely talk about and work through the challenges of creating equitable outcomes for all of our students. In an effort to engage in that dialogue, I would like to posit responses to several of the points that Pondiscio lays out.

Defining Racism and Anti-Racism

Pondiscio begins his argument with the question: “Is aspiring to ‘colorblindness’ disqualifying?” In his words, this question is rooted in “a definition of racism that is manifested in behavior, not an immutable characteristic of my race over which I have no control.” Unfortunately, we won’t get far in any discourse if we don’t agree on the basic definitions.

At my school, we utilize Ibram X. Kendi’s definition of racism as “a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas.” This definition is not rooted in the immutable characteristic of my race as a White man. In contrast it is rooted in policies that lead to inequitable outcomes for our students. Kendi has written extensively in How to Be an Anti-Racist and elsewhere about how racism is not an immutable characteristic of someone’s identity. Instead, racism is a set of policies and practices that are justified on a warped idea that the White race is superior and therefore all other races are inferior in a myriad of ways. Suggesting that the whole of the anti-racist movement defines racism as an immutable characteristic of White people is inaccurate and harmful.

Similarly, anti-racism is not simply about changing individual beliefs and behaviors. While changing the way we think about people as groups defined by their racial identity and how we behave in relation to those beliefs is essential, anti-racism as defined by Kendi is about supporting policies that lead to equitable outcomes and professing ideas that all races are equal and don’t need developing.

Which leads to Pondescio’s conception of “color blindness,” a concept to which in the past I too aspired. However, the concept of color blindness is at best naive and at worst harmful in allowing hidden biases to go unchecked. To suggest that we do not see someone’s race and consciously and unconsciously take that into account in our interactions runs contrary to everything we have learned about hidden biases and human nature. As two examples, the work of Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald in Blindspot and Claude Steele in Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do had shown that even when we try to avoid conscious racist views, we unconsciously rely on racist categorizations of people which much of our culture reinforces. No aspiration to color blindness will alleviate this.

The Need for Anti-Racist Curriculum

Pondiscio goes on to write, “Any pedagogy or curriculum that ascribes traits, motives, or mindsets to one particular race—oppressors versus oppressed; perfectionism, urgency, and individualism as ‘hallmarks of white supremacy culture,’ etc.—cannot call itself ‘antiracist.’” I agree with this sentiment. We should never vilify an individual student for a component of their identity over which they have no control like their race. However, his assertion that anti-racist curriculum condones or demands inflicting this kind of emotional distress on White children is an over extension of what others have written and said on this topic. In addition, his argument provides an excuse to not address challenging content around our racial history, and thus white wash the curriculum.

Pondiscio acknowledges that the hallmark of a quality education is to expose our students to ideas that challenge them and that they might find upsetting. In addition, he argues that students shouldn’t be made to feel less than because of who they are or what they look like. To both of these points we agree. To be anti-racist, we should both celebrate the full identities of all of our students, and we should also talk about race and racism candidly. This includes learning a definition of racism that isn’t situated in individual identity, but that impacts us all and to which we all have a tendency to fall prey.

Later he argues that “...efforts to ‘decolonize’ curriculum, ‘disrupt texts,’ or other efforts to de-emphasize ‘Whiteness’ in curriculum seems less likely to liberate Black and Brown students than to hold them further back.” There are two points that Pondiscio makes here. First, he argues that literacy curriculum should address a large body of background knowledge. Second, Pondiscio argues that it is detrimental when anti-racists call out things like “close reasoning, the written word, and objectivity” as “White practices” and therefore racist when imposed on Black people. Let me address each separately.

First, I agree that for students to become effectively literate in our society they do need a large body of background knowledge. However, why should we assume that the majority of that background knowledge be situated in Eurocentric perspectives? Pondiscio argues that currently language proficiency for our students “requires familiarity with a substantial (if perhaps declining) amount of Western thought, literature, history, science, and art.” This point seems open to debate about how much emphasis one perspective gets versus another. However the efforts to “decolonize” curriculum, “disrupt texts,” or de-emphasize “Whiteness” are efforts to correct for an overemphasis on Eurocentric viewpoints, not the complete elimination of those perspectives.

Related to the points on reasoning and the value of the written word, I agree that these are valuable skills and it is not racist to hold all students to high expectations in learning to read and interpret texts. As a best selling author, I don’t think that Ibram X. Kendi would disagree with this point. Pondiscio is misguided in attributing the whole of the anti-racist movement in schools to what I would argue is an effort to paint anti-racism as anti-intellectualism. Instead, the anti-racist movement does challenge us to evaluate all sources of our knowledge, and to hold other forms of communication beyond just the written word with equitable value. Assuming that reading must be devalued in the process seems absurd.

High Expectations and Standards

Which brings me to Pondiscio’s points on the achievement gap. In general, he suggests that people promoting anti-racism all believe that it is racist to even refer to the achievement gap. He rightfully cites Kendi’s distrust of standardized tests and the underlying discussion around the gap that they highlight as evidence.

However, anti-racism as a movement is by no means unified on this front. From my perspective, standardized tests are an imperfect measure of achievement. They are too often used inefficiently and ineffectively as tools primarily for accountability and not for learning. And yet, they are still the best common tool that we have for identifying systemic inequity within our systems. Pondiscio seems to agree. Ultimately these tests indict the system and not the students. Then he writes “The NAACP, the National Urban League, La Raza, and nine other civil right groups have denounced anti-testing efforts to ‘hide the achievement gap,’ noting that test data ‘are critical for understanding whether and where there is equal opportunity,’” all in support of his case. However, I think it is a stretch to suggest that the NAACP, the National Urban League, La Raza and the other nine civil rights groups are not anti-racist. Because Kendi disagrees on this point is not evidence enough to suggest that anti-racism is to blame.

More to the point, Pondiscio goes on to suggest that an anti-racist stance is contrary to holding students to high expectations for behavior and academic performance. To even suggest this suggests a widely divergent view of what anti-racism looks like in schools day to day. At Two Rivers, we aspire to be anti-racist which means that we aspire to not only hold all students to high expectations for behavior and academics, but also that we align our policies and practices so that all students achieve those expectations. This is what it means to be anti-racist.

Fixing Institutions Means Dismantling Systemic Racism

Pondiscio writes “fixing institutions” is as important as “changing racial attitudes.” I completely agree. In fact, fixing institutions as well as changing racial attitudes is what it means to be an anti-racist. We can't change institutions without addressing both the explicit racial attitudes and implicit racial bias that continue to create policies and behaviors that define our institutions and lead to inequitable outcomes for students.

Getting to what I believe is the heart of his argument and his discomfort with anti-racism, Pondiscio concludes by writing, “I cannot be made comfortable with the idea that teachers should conceive of ourselves primarily as social engineers whose responsibility is to dismantle ‘systemic racism’ in the name of ‘equity.’” However, if systemic racism is the root cause of inequity within our schools, then not working to dismantle it equates to being comfortable with allowing systemic racism to inflict additional harm on our students. If teachers are unwilling to do this work and sacrifice some comfort, there will be no change and we will continue to produce the same inequitable results that we have since the inception of public schools. This is why we need anti-racism in our schools.

Photo at top courtesy of Two Rivers Public Charter School

Jeff Heyck-Williams

Director of the Two Rivers Learning Institute

Jeff Heyck-Williams is the director of the Two Rivers Learning Institute and a founder of Two Rivers Public Charter School. He has led work around creating school-wide cultures of mathematics, developing assessments of critical thinking and problem-solving, and supporting project-based learning.