In 2018, I had the opportunity to meet Minnijean Brown-Tricky, one of the Little Rock Nine. Minnijean and the eight other students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas were encircled by an angry mob who assaulted and hurled insults at them as they walked into their first day of high school; she was only fifteen.
As the mother of two young boys, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how their parents and family members must have felt, left behind to do little more than pray for their safety. That day, Minnijean was not trying to make history–she was simply trying to attend a school she thought would help make her the very best person she could be.
There’s a lesser-known side to the story of the events of 1957 that helped shape my life, my career, and my focus as an educator and policymaker. At the same time that Minnijean and eight other teenagers were walking into their new high school, a private citizen named Mrs. Smith wrote a letter now famously referred to as, “The Charlottesville Letter.” The letter outlines with masterful detail how the superintendent and school board of Charlottesville could use assessment, IQ tests, and the development of a gifted program to “prevent a disturbance of our present [all white] public-school system.” In doing so, the state could limit integration, undermine federal legislation, and circumvent Virginia state legislation to close any school that followed the federal legislation.
Since the era of desegregation, there are those who have conspired to deny equal opportunities to BIPOC students. The inequities within the education system today are not an accident; they are the result of conscious choices and policy decisions designed to foster inequitable opportunities and achievement gaps for students of color.
In Testing America’s Freedom, a new podcast produced by NWEA, I recount the history of policies and laws that have created, perpetuated, and exacerbated these inequities. I also speak with leaders within the field of education to explore solutions to the issues impacting our current system and discuss how we as education leaders can pave the way towards a more equitable future for all students.
I journeyed through the history of the education system through the lens of funding, workforce diversity, and assessment. These policy instruments, which have been systematically used to deny opportunities and divest resources away from students of color, are the same ones that we must wield to transform education in our country.
Invest in educators and caregivers with their boots on the ground. School funding is the foundation for every part of discussion around education. In our quest to transform education investment to address the existing achievement and wealth gaps, my guest Daniel Thatcher from the National Conference of State Legislators advises policy makers who are endeavoring to provide resources to traditionally underserved communities to avoid being paternalistic or prescriptive with these resources. To do this, leaders must engage with the community, and listen to those on the ground who know their everyday needs and those of their students, and allow them to use their resources in ways that will support them.
Build a more diverse staff. The teaching profession has historically been — and still remains — a field dominated by white, middle-class women. While many of these women are committed to equity, research shows that the current, predominantly white teacher population tends to have lower expectations of brown and black students. This can lead to those kids selling themselves short. Students also tend to do better in school when they have a teacher of their race or ethnicity. But creating a more diverse staff goes beyond stating the need and benefits to students; policy makers must begin addressing the necessities of our educators. LaTanya Pattillo, teacher advisor to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, says as educational leaders, we need to look at the systemic barriers and historic challenges of recruiting educators of color, and create better economic and financial opportunities for teachers.
Design assessments for equity. Assessment has been a longstanding feature of how we disinvest in Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities and schools. It is a powerful tool that through its design can either uplift or further marginalize our already underserved youth. With an eye towards removing bias, we must look to designing tests with the intent of measuring equitably relative to the opportunity to learn. Jason Mendenhall, who leads the development of innovative statewide assessments at NWEA, says the lack of equitable learning opportunities often gets reflected as achievement gaps. For example, a recent research pilot suggests that when tested on material based on content, text, and themes that all students have been exposed to, students in underserved populations test better and are able to better and more accurately demonstrate their abilities.
As I’ve reflected on my time with Minnijean and read and researched more about “The Charlottesville Letter,” I’ve realized that rooted deep in the discussion around equity are three basic tenets: the importance of leadership; the power of policy development and implementation at the local, state, and national level; and the fundamental purpose and power of assessment.
Minnijean and Mrs. Smith may differ in their worldviews, but their actions reflect two core sentiments that have stuck with me: a fundamental understanding of the importance and power of education, and a willingness to face obstacles to challenge policies that could threaten one’s current existence and compromise the future.
I will never forget my private discussion with Minnijean. I asked her one final question as the night came to a close: “Would you do it again?” She put her hand on mine, looked me squarely in my eyes, and said, “Yes. I would do it again. I sacrificed so you could be where you are. Do the same for the next generation.”
Today, our children are learning in ways we could never have imagined and the fight to create a more equitable educational system is becoming increasingly complex. Disrupting the broader, entrenched systems of inequity is difficult, and as we endeavor to do this work we must hold true to our goals to create opportunities for all students so they know they are valued, empowered, and able to achieve their maximum potential in this world.
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