October 29, 2015
Confronting Systemic Racism in Our Education System

Two weekends ago, I traveled to Martha’s Vineyard to speak on a panel on education and racial justice. This week, I'm enjoying similar discussions at PolicyLink's Equity Summit. While I am a new grantmaker –  now six months into my role as a program officer at the Raikes Foundation – I have spent much of my career devoted to improving diversity, equity and inclusion in education. My new job has enabled me to gain new perspectives on the ways in which systemic racism and implicit biases are fundamentally woven into and perpetuated by our current education system; the opportunity gap and school-to -prison pipeline are direct results.

In my first blog post, I announced our support for Equal Opportunity Schools and shared more about the work they do to identify and support underrepresented groups in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate (AP/IB) courses. The grant struck a nerve for me, given my experience attending public schools while growing up in Portland, Oregon. While I was initially tracked into lower level classes in elementary schools, my parents were able to advocate on my behalf and I was reassigned to the higher level classes. In high school, I enrolled in all honors classes until my senior year, when I took four AP classes. In addition to the typical first-day scramble to sit near friends, I clearly remember scanning the room and asking myself the question that was deeply familiar: “Am I going to be the only one this year?”

Public education was enlightening in a thousand ways – mostly positive – but because tracking had started in elementary school, my public education had also included the following lesson: the more rigorous the class, the fewer students who looked like me.

Even when I was only 17, I was painfully aware of the fact that few black and brown students made it into AP/IB courses. This puzzled me. Not because I thought that I didn’t belong, but because I knew many other black and brown students who were equally intelligent, curious, hard-working, thoughtful and eager to learn. Why weren’t they getting the same chance? Counselors and other trusted adults in my life had always highlighted the importance of taking AP/IB courses to prepare for and get into elite colleges. Why were my peers of color missing?

Little did I know at the time, the phenomenon of students of color being “missing” in AP/IB courses was an issue nationwide. I was also baffled by the different ways students were disciplined based on race, starting in elementary school. An innocent question about the purpose of a lesson was interpreted as self-advocacy in my white peers, but as insubordination by my black and brown classmates. The tracks were set. Higher income and white students were in rigorous classes and encouraged to think critically and push back on conventional thinking. Lower income and brown and black students were trapped in skills-based, remedial classes and encouraged to sit still and keep quiet.

I’m proud of the portfolio of grantees in the Raikes Foundation education strategy. While we know that learning mindsets and skills help all students learn how to learn, at any age, we also know that, due to systemic racism and implicit biases, certain students are more likely to feel they aren’t intelligent and that they don’t belong in our classrooms. They don’t see themselves reflected in their teachers or curricula, the material they are learning is not connected to their lives and cultures, and they are not shown how what they are learning will help them achieve their goals. Organizations and programs funded by the Raikes Foundation such as School Retool, New Teacher Center, PERTS, and the College Transition Collaborative are invested in bringing learning mindsets and skills to students whom, research shows, most benefit from learning that their intelligence grows with effort, that they belong in our classrooms, and that what they are learning is connected to their lives now and in the future.

The panel discussion at Martha’s Vineyard and conversations this week at the Equity Summit have affirmed my excitement about the potential that learning mindsets and skills have to help address systemic inequity and individual biases. We have a long way to go to ensure that all students, regardless of their skin color, income level, or zip code, have access to the kind of education that will prepare them for success in school and life, but we are confident that learning mindsets and skills will help us make important progress.