Beliefs vs. Reality: Thoughts on Achieving Equity in Education

Published jul. 07, 2016

Photo of Arnold Chandler presenting at JFF summit

By Dr. Bryant Best

“Oh…so you work in education, huh?” 

She eyed me warily, her Louisiana accent dripping with disapproval.

“Um, yes…” I said somewhat timidly as I shifted uncomfortably in my seat on the St. Charles Streetcar. “I’m here for a summit on economic mobility—how we can create opportunities for better education and career outcomes for people in places like New Orleans.”

“Oh really? Education? Opportunity? Do you even know what the public school system looks like down here? Do you know what opportunity looks like to our kids here?”

I didn’t know if I was sweating more from her questions or from the blazing New Orleans weather. This was not the welcome I was expecting. It was obvious that this woman, whose name I later found out was Charlotte, did not have a soft spot in her heart for educators. What wasn’t obvious was why.

As it turns out, Charlotte was well educated herself. She and her parents both attended Xavier University, a private, Catholic, Historically Black University (HBCU) in Louisiana. She was finishing a graduate degree in Chemistry so that she could advance in the healthcare field. Her problem was not with education itself, but with issues of quality and access. She believed that the public school system routinely failed low-income students and students of color, an overwhelming majority in the state, to the point where the only opportunity for these folks required a private (read: expensive) education. Furthermore, as a Black woman who desires a family, she felt particularly woeful for Black boys:

“If I had a son [right now], I wouldn’t be able to afford to give him the education he needs. There’s no support out here for Black boys, for anybody. They cut funding for schools… the mental health care programs are gone. It’s really sad.”

Hearing Charlotte’s experiences were sobering. I didn’t know the local politics or the education system well enough to make any counterpoints, so I just listened. I empathized with her. And, in doing so, I learned what to listen for when people offered solutions to systemic problems such as the ones the summit was designed to address. Fortunately, the folks at Jobs for the Future came prepared.

Jobs for the Future (JFF) is a national nonprofit committed to providing educational and economic opportunities for every American by way of innovative career pathways, policies, and resources that lead to more college and career ready individuals,  a highly skilled workforce, and overall economic growth. Their 2016 summit, titled Voices for Opportunity and Economic Mobility, convened more than 650 employers, educators, policymakers and researchers to discuss key issues that arise in this work and real solutions to solve them.

Summit speakers addressed a bevy of heavy, yet engaging topics including the need to revive the American Dream for all through a “pluralistic” opportunity model, the urgency with which we as a nation must change our cultural narratives and beliefs, and the fact that most of us who had the privilege of attending the summit would have to give up something in order for us to achieve true equity in society. Breakout sessions highlighted ways in which the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) can be leveraged to benefit traditionally underserved students, how tax policies can be shifted to better generate wealth among all Americans, and how employers can do their part to promote a more inclusive economy through the use of competency-based hiring. However, in light of my conversation with Charlotte, I was most interested in attending the session on Economic Mobility for Boys and Men of Color.

The session was led by Arnold Chandler, co-founder and principal at Forward Change Consulting, a firm in San Francisco, CA that helps foundations, organizations and agencies improve the lives of people in disadvantaged communities. Over the past eight years, Chandler and one of his colleagues have developed a Life Course Framework that details the “gender-specific cycle of intergenerational disadvantage.” Through this framework, Chandler posits that each stage of the life course is inextricably linked, meaning that an elementary school student who is not taught foundational reading and math skills will experience a progressive, cumulative reality of unpreparedness that bears a strong relationship with academic disengagement in later grades, dropping out of high school, and even being arrested. The last piece is particularly important not just because national survey data shows that Black youth are less likely than their White counterparts to use drugs yet ten times more likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses, but also because individuals with criminal records have trouble securing stable employment and housing, both indicators of financial stability. To complicate matters of economic mobility further, even when Blacks do manage to attain middle-class status, they are often unable to leverage this into purchasing a home in a middle-class neighborhood, settling instead for homes whose property values are similar to those owned by low-income Whites. All of these factors make it especially hard for Black men and boys of color to generate enough wealth to rise out of poverty.

In response to this barrage of institutional barriers, Chandler advocates for a dual-generation intervention approach. A strategy supported by the Aspen Institute, the U.S. Department of Education, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and countless others, dual-generation approaches align and coordinate services for parents and children as a means of overcoming intergenerational poverty and improving educational, economic, health, and other outcomes. As an example, Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood within the Department of Human Services implemented a public, statewide system that not supports early learning for children but simultaneously helps parents become financially literate, sustain full-time employment, and build wealth. Other states interested in the two-generation approach can refer to either the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s blog for policy, research, and strategy resources or the Foundation for Child Development’s Policymakers’ Guide for Getting Started with Two-Generation Strategies.  In addition to promoting dual-generation strategies as a tool for equity, the state of Colorado is currently working with the Innovation Lab Network to better understand which policies best promote the implementation of personalized learning in schools where the majority are from traditionally underserved populations, including low-income students and students of color.

I did not get a chance to reconnect with Charlotte after the summit. If I had, I would have shared with her some of the great work that is happening across the country to mitigate inequity. While it is true that not every public school (or private, for that matter) engages in these endeavors, the tide in education is certainly turning. And as an education professional who just happens to also be a person of color from a low-income background, I am optimistic that we as a nation are getting to the point where we all can start to believe in education again.

Bryant Best works in the Innovation Lab Network for the Council of Chief State School Officers. Find him on Twitter @dr_bryantbest.