Band-Aids and Bandwagons

Written by Sebastian Witherspoon, Equity Alliance MN Executive Director

While the world is grappling with how schools will reopen amidst the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students and families in Minnesota had already been living in crisis within our schools. There is, and has been, a tragic history of the delivery gaps, perpetuated achievement gaps and lack of supports for black and brown students and families. In a state that prides itself as an example of democratic values, a state that once greatly supported a senator that reminded its people that, “We all do better, when we all do better,” Minnesota has somehow missed the bus. Minnesota has yet to level the playing field in developing systems and ensuring equitable outcomes for ALL of our students.

When will the achievement of all students matter? Has the achievement of our black and brown kids ever truly been a priority? Even when Supreme Court decisions and social movements take place, have we seen a shift toward successful outcomes for our students who identify as Black, Indigenous, Lantinx and other People of Color? The tide always subsides, and things find their way back to “normal”.

In 2000 in Minnesota, when “The Choice is Yours” settlement was enacted, did the achievement of our black and brown kids become more of a priority? This settlement provided Minneapolis Public Schools students and families with the option to participate in open enrollment and gave students an opportunity to attend “good suburban schools”. As some districts began to see an influx of African American, Latinx and new-to-country students, those schools began to see a precipitous drop in district-wide academic achievement. As schools started to struggle with how to educate “those kids”, it was recognized that there was a need to focus on equity/race equity work in order to better meet the needs of the students. At that time, it didn’t appear that there was a focus on delivery and systemic gaps but rather a preference for providing a band-aid for the symptoms. 

Without naming organizations that began to infiltrate our school systems in Minnesota, districts began to jump on the bandwagon of trends such as anti-racism, intercultural development, racial awareness, cultural sensitivity, culturally responsive teaching, implicit bias, and now we have come full circle and are back again to anti-racism work! On the surface, all of these approaches were and are well-meaning attempts to address the inequities we see in the school system; however, they fall well short of addressing institutional racism. Each initiative is capable of bringing forward surface-level and narrow discussions, which are necessary. However, most attempts were doomed to fail because of two factors: the inability to identify root causes and lack of a comprehensive plan to strategically address underlying issues. Furthermore, after initial professional development, which often lacked continuous follow-up and support, schools and staff were left unequipped to establish equitable school systems that targeted the actual problems. According to Jim Grathwol, a lobbyist for Minneapolis Public Schools, when talking about “The Choice is Yours” settlement he stated the programs produced mixed results. “Uniformly, we’re underwhelmed by our ability to close the achievement gap in a systematic matter.” Unfortunately, he said, there’s “no silver bullet.”

This is where we continue to see Minnesota becoming more and more of a band-aid and bandwagon educational state. Most educational systems in Minnesota are predominantly lead by white males which, at its core, is not a bad thing; but when these people are leading in districts that are increasingly serving a majority of black and brown students and families, racial and cultural challenges arise. These challenges exist because our leaders have historically not addressed how and why ethnicity, culture, and race play a critical role in the learning outcomes of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other students of color. Historically, our schools have been established around assessment systems that were built within a white, middle class, educated framework. Attempts have been made to narrow the achievement gap by focusing on poverty which is often a more palatable conversation for educators. The issues of race, culture and poverty all need to be examined in order to address the true needs of our students, to get to the root causes of lack of achievement and to provide meaningful, community-informed methods and solutions that improve student outcomes.

Educators in Minnesota continue to address the need for racial equity work in areas like implicit bias, culturally responsive teaching and intercultural development. Again, there is a time and place for these types of initiatives. These programs alone will not bring about educational equity or increase academic achievement for black and brown students. Districts must commit to moving beyond their comfort zone into the engaging work of connecting with folks who have been historically marginalized and adversely impacted by devastating inequities. In order to impact the changes needed, districts must be inclusive by creating a comprehensive plan that addresses the specific and systemic needs of each student, school and its surrounding community. District leaders must also create a system of accountability and evaluation to monitor the plan’s effectiveness. 

The time is now and the time is always right for Minnesota and our entire nation to live up to the groundbreaking precedents set forth in the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education and 1964 Civil Rights Act. While these are both notable examples, in reality, these decisions did not go far enough in dismantling and repairing the ongoing harm caused to millions of black and brown women, men and children. For far too long, our nation, including the Great State of Minnesota, abdicated their responsibility to provide for the welfare of ALL of our nation’s children, particularly black and brown students. Instead, too many stood idly by as millions of our kids languished in the education system and ultimately suffered throughout their lives. 

Decision-makers and educational leaders need to take into account that when engaging in equity work, they do so because currently the system is created in a specific way for certain students and people to be successful. Decision-makers and leaders need to work to reinvent and create a system with ALL of their students in mind. Be specific and be courageous, and when done correctly, don’t be afraid to lose some folks along the way because you will. Being a progressive, anti-racist leader means knowing who has been historically disadvantaged in the American individualistic society and a willingness to take responsibility for Minnesota’s shortcomings.

Ultimately, we are at a precipice in our nation where the inequities of the past are being called out by a critical mass and no one can deny that the viability and strength of a nation is bound to its commitment to provide an equitable education for each and every one of our children. We have come this far and hopefully have learned from our triumphs and our mistakes. As Poet Laureate Maya Angelou shared, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We now know better. So, let’s DO BETTER!

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