If Young Black Lives Matter, Liberating Learning Matters

by Dr. John H. Jackson, Schott Foundation President & CEO
Nonprofit Quarterly
Nonprofit Quarterly

During this national moment of affirming that Black Lives Matter, we must acknowledge that our methods of ensuring Black children have a fair opportunity to learn have been ineffective. While we are at a critical moment of assessing and addressing the universal harms of systemic racism, we cannot leave out the impact of racism on learning outcomes for Black students. If our desire to liberate US policies and practices from systemic racism is sincere, we must also liberate our systems of learning.

When Black Americans were brought to the United States as slaves, education was discouraged. Black people were forbidden from learning to read or write, and a slave who could do so was subject to severe punishment or death. When Black people were eventually formally permitted to go to school, those schools were separated by race and remained unequal. Even decades after 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that Black and white children were legally allowed to go to school together, the tax bases of wealthier communities and discriminatory policies like redlining meant Black children were still largely relegated to schools that, once again, were separate and unequal.

While most students in the US suffer from a lack of a student-centered learning approaches, Black students have never known a time when education has centered their needs and experiences. Nor have Black students relished extended periods of time when their collective presence in well-resourced or desegregated schools was welcome. It has never been invited without litigation or the threat of litigation. Our nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have come the closest to systemically providing Black students with an education that met them where they were, expanded their learning, and took them further than many dreamed they could go. But that has been limited to those students who survived the patchwork of underfunded and severely constrained local education systems and made it into higher education.

Racially biased policies have made it difficult for most Black students to enter safe learning spaces and achieve their potential. Efforts to constrain opportunities for Blacks in America have been so interconnected with efforts to constrain learning for Blacks in America that it is impossible to create an equitable and just society without addressing them both. Prior to 1865, scores of young Blacks born in the South with the human intellect and capacity to become great scholars had their scholarship constrained by racially biased policies and practices that legally placed their bodies and learning potential in shackles. Today, decades of racially biased policies and practices have so constrained educators and education systems that, for most Black students, their learning potential remains shackled. Said another way, Hiram Revel, who in 1870 was the first African American elected to the US Congress, wasn’t the first Black person intelligent or qualified enough to be elected to Congress; he was just the first that whites allowed to be elected by slightly liberating American policies as a part of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. (That period quickly ended with the introduction of Jim Crow laws.)

The results of these past inequities shape America’s current social structure and economy, as those Black children are now parents and grandparents whose college attainment, homeownership, and income (three of the major factors in the wealth gap) severely lag their white peers from the same generation. The impact of these learning gaps doesn’t just fall on students still in school; it follows most of them through their lives and across other socioeconomic and health aspects. Time doesn’t erase this reality—it only tests it.

Today, decades of racially biased policies and practices continue to limit educators and education for students in general and Black students specifically. The result remains the same: while most Black students have access to free public education, they remain shackled when it comes to achieving their learning potential. As such, it is impossible to address systemic learning gaps without addressing the racially disparate learning constraints within the education system.

As difficult as it is for most of us to digest the existing racial disparities, there are several hard post-COVID premises we must also digest:

  • As a result of the disruption of in-person education in March 2020, COVID-19 has likely expanded learning gaps across the country, which will be more severe for Black and other students of color.
  • The failure of federal and state leaders to neither flatten the COVID curve over the last five months nor allocate resources to localities in a timely fashion to prepare for returning to school (only one percent of the CARES Act went to K-12 education) leads to a climate where schools, educators, families, and students have neither adequate safety nor the tools necessary to ensure the delivery of high quality learning to all students, especially Black students, other students of color, and students with disabilities.
  • State and local education systems’ historically constrained mode of delivering and supporting learning, which has only gradually addressed racial learning gaps, is inadequate to close existing pre-COVID learning gaps (or the expanded post-COVID learning gaps) and unlock the full potential of all children, regardless of their background.

As a personal advocate for public education, acknowledgement of this shortcoming is not about sparking debate on the need for public education. Nor is it meant to critique the effectiveness of public systems. The truth is a free public education system remains the best platform for extending opportunity to all students and improving our country.

The goals here are twofold:  First, to illuminate how our public education system has been so influenced by forces of racism (via federal, state and, local policies) that it has restricted learning for all students in general and for Black and many other students of color specifically. Second, to identify how we can use this moment to Liberate Learning.

To liberate learning, then, is to examine our systems of learning using a race lens and assess how current policies and practices impact the learning outcomes of students of color. While there are many local policies that constrain students’ learning opportunities (including those highlighted in the 20 cities analyzed in the Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index), there are five macro-areas that federal, state, local, and philanthropic partners should focus on to move towards a Liberated Learning agenda:

1. Liberate Learning Time

Liberating Learning Time means creating a free public learning schedule that accommodates each child’s personal learning losses and gains and provides more time to achieve competency and reach their full potential. States must be in a position to resource communities, districts, and educators for extended learning periods. Simply stated, liberating learning time means we give students more time to close learning gaps and to master subjects and less time to lose what they’ve learned.

The traditional 180-day school calendar used by most states no longer works. Many countries have long moved beyond 200 school-day calendars to give students more time. While how you use the day matters as much as how many days you have for learning, current post-COVID gaps make the outdated agrarian US school calendar too limited. As such, to think we can expect high quality results and, even more extreme, standardized outcomes from such unequal living conditions falls into the category of blind belief in magic. Post-COVID learning gaps makes liberating learning time more than just an option, but a moral mandate.

2. Liberate Where Students Learn

This fall, students, educators, and families will have dramatically limited access to their local school buildings. However, students learn before they enter, while they are in, and after they leave school. Yet in most cases, federal, state, and local coordination of student learning primarily only accounts for learning inside the school building.

Liberating Where Students Learn acknowledges both family and community as learning platforms, and that student learning starts at birth, before a child is even introduced to a school building. It means reimagining the role of the public school building as a community hub to connect students and families to the other resources and places where learning can and already does occur. It reimagines the role of an educator as a facilitator of learning supported by community resources and technology, rather than simply a purveyor of content.

Most educators working with Black, brown, Native, and disabled students will likely already connect with this role. However, they are grossly under-supported and undercompensated for the time spent connecting students and families to additional learning spaces. It involves releasing unnecessary school and district limitations on which public school teachers a student can access by prioritizing connecting the student with those educators across the district with the most experience and the best, most culturally competent methods to help students master subjects.

Liberating where students learn is not about making the technology the primary platform for learning—this often leads to innovative ways of creating new learning gaps. Instead, it is about seeing the community as an extension of the school, as a platform for learning, and using technology as a vehicle to navigate the platform. It is about building community infrastructure to include community-wide broadband and equipping students with the technology needed to support internet access as well as datacasting and educators with the training needed to provide high quality remote learning. Simply stated, it is about supporting learning by building a sustainable community-wide learning platform.

3. Liberate How Students Learn

The nature of curricula development throughout history too often did not allow Black and other students of color to see the diverse contributions made by people who look like them in core math, science, English, history, or arts and humanities courses. Moreover, their education lacked the ability to engage their current culture at a level of cultural competence. Curricula and learning time (driven largely by high-stakes standardized tests) have been so constrained that educators often lack the ability and training to walk students down the path of the relevancy of their current context to the subject matter, and vice-versa. As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes in his book, Between the World and Me [pg. 26]:

I remember sitting in my seventh-grade French class [in Baltimore, Maryland] not having any idea why I was there. I did not know any French people, and nothing around me suggested I ever would. France was a rock rotating in another galaxy, around another sun, in another sky that I would never cross. Why precisely, was I sitting in this classroom?

This doesn’t mean to say that Ta-Nehisi Coates should have not been taught French; he ultimately became quite fluent in the language and lived in France for a period. But it does go to show that a more culturally competent curriculum would have made the connection between his hometown of Baltimore and the state of Maryland, which has the eighth-largest group of French speaking people in the US: Haitians, a group of self-liberated Africans in the Caribbean who established the country of Haiti by gaining their liberation after defeating the forces of France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. Haiti secured its sovereignty on January 1, 1804, becoming the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second republic in the Americas, the first country to abolish slavery, and the only state in history established by a successful slave revolt.

A culturally competent and culturally relevant curriculum in most subjects has the ability to use the students’ current reality as a roadmap to understand the relevance of the content and connect it to other subject matter and spaces beyond their community, rather than just starting the students’ learning experience, like Coates, in “another galaxy.”

Liberating How Students Learn starts with reexamining what we have been taught about how to educate students from diverse backgrounds, what information is relevant, and how to best develop their critical thinking and content analysis skills. It requires assessing the unique needs of Black children, children with disabilities, and children from single-parent homes or working-class families. Liberated Learning meets high academic standards by providing a curriculum that is both relevant and rooted in the student’s cultural context. Ultimately, it seeks to center the experiences and needs of students in the learning pedagogy.

4. Liberate How We Support Learning

The primary methods federal, state, and district administrations use to move and coordinate resources to support student learning will neither address the historic racial nor the post-COVID-expanded learning gaps. We have long known that the potent cocktail of property-based funding mixed with segregated housing and schooling creates inherent racially disparate learning outcomes.

Liberating How We Support Learning starts with eliminating post-COVID moves by state leaders to cut education budgets. This must be a period of investments, where the federal government and states lean forward, reconsider corporate tax breaks, and invest more. They must analyze how funds are distributed and coordinated across agencies to support student learning. Moving resources to support families and grassroots organizations facilitating remote learning as well as community centers as “shadow schools” is long overdue.

We also know that using public dollars to fund private education enterprises with very little public accountability disproportionately impacts schools educating poor Black and brown students. To this end, Liberating Learning is not an entrée for states and districts to disband nor weaken public education, because free public education remains the main ladder of opportunity for over 90 percent of America’s children—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Philanthropy and localities should not forget that community organizations and institutions are essential to making sure our democracy and public education system work. Even during the early phases of the pandemic, local community organizers and their organizations sustained families and children when federal resources moved too slowly. It was also the efforts of these often nameless and faceless individuals that created the momentum and fueled this social justice moment. As such, a Liberated Learning agenda and process ensures that students, parents, and people of color-led organizations are well resourced to be a part of the democratic process of developing community-informed policies, community-engaged governance, and community-embraced accountability.

5. Liberate How We Measure Learning

Considering America’s clear and consistent social inequities, standardized tests are not effective measures for connecting student progress with high-stakes decisions such as academic promotion, graduation, or college admissions. These assessments virtually ignore systemic inequities and disparities in test-taking skills.

California has minimized the usage of standardized tests in their K–12 assessments framework and established more holistic measures of progress. In higher education, the University of California system has eliminated the use of standardized tests in college admissions. If this can happen in one of the largest and most diverse states in the nation, it can happen across the nation.

To assist with liberating evidence, recently a group of volunteers and funders launched a website focused on Democratizing Evidence in Education. This website is centered on education—a cornerstone of our democracy, but one that has been troubled by top-down imperatives. In her blogpost announcing the website, Vivian Tseng at the William T. Grant Foundation notes:

While well intentioned, evidence-based policy has alienated some educators who perceived the federal No Child Left Behind Act and state and local teacher effectiveness initiatives, at best, as punishing under-resourced schools and, at worst, as the manipulation of data to meet political aims. The distrust of research is by no means a new phenomenon. Educators have long bemoaned that research was conducted on schools, not with them. Stories abound of drive-by research wherein academics collected data from “inner city” schools but failed to offer meaningful solutions for improving educators’ work. That long-standing history, coupled with 20 years of evidence-based policy, fueled an even greater distrust of data, research, and the policymakers who wielded evidence to drive certain education reforms.

Data for Black Lives has been serving as a bridge between organizers, advocates, and mathematicians to use data to create measurable change in the lives of Black people. Liberating How We Measure Learning means liberating how learning progress is measured, how data is collected, how research design is informed, and ultimately the degree to which social context and the people who are represented within the data are engaged in interpreting the findings, benchmarks, and recommendations for progress.

The boundaries for measuring whether learning is occurring must be liberated. Educators must be trusted and empowered to use more formative assessments and competency-based learning metrics to measure progress. We must also liberate what is considered evidence. Too often, large-scale research that is used to justify learning approaches or structures is created in and for the “ivory towers” of academia, void of community-informed data, methodology, or voices. States must transition from decades of a tunnel-vision approach to one that supports all students achieving deeper learning outcomes.

Making This Moment Matter

This is America’s moment to affirm Black Lives Matter and flatten the curve of post-COVID learning gaps. Both require states and districts to change education as they have known it and liberate their learning systems to unshackle Black students’ learning progress and potential.

Even today, as many seek to move beyond these limiting circumstances, discriminatory school policies and practices such as “zero tolerance,” “no excuses,” standardized testing, and police in schools have meant that Black children, who have always been on edge and expected to achieve the false paradigm of normative outcomes while existing abnormal spaces, remain at a disadvantage. During this national and global moment of affirming Black Lives Matter, as we wrestle with what it means to #defundpolice, we must also reckon with what it means to deconstruct modes and means of arrested learning for Black students. As we contemplate new relationships with police, we must also contemplate how oppressive policies stifle our children’s creativity, lock out their culture and communities as learning platforms, and steal their prospects for high-quality learning experiences. Additionally, failure to equitably invest in students and ensure they have the resources to exist in healthy living and learning climates means that those students who have the family and community resilience, parental income, and educator support to “pick the learning lock” excel, and those who don’t likely move through life with their best learning potential locked away. This limits not only their future, but America’s.

Photo credit: Viktor Dobai

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