FROM THE ROAD WITH MATT COLEMAN…
Thoughts on Addressing Structural Racism
I often find myself thinking about the role structural racism plays as we aim to ensure all students are ready for college, career, and life. And more importantly, what can we do to combat structural racism with the intent of realizing readiness for all students?
As I consider the concept of structural racism, I think about how our state and federal accountability models are nearly universally linked to literacy skills. While I believe literacy is critical, I wonder what our system’s intentions are by focusing narrowly on literacy (both reading and writing) as the primary means for accountability? Not to mention that in most states this is used to measure the quality of schools. What are the consequences of such policies?
In terms of measuring the effectiveness of schools, how does this approach contain structural racism and work to maintain a racial hierarchy that privileges whiteness and disadvantages students of color? How many English language learners are sitting in classes focused on literacy development at the expense of developing other essential (deeper) learning skills in choice programming (career and technical education, the arts, etc.). I am not suggesting it should be an either/or proposition. It should be a both – literacy and deeper learning – yet existing structural policies promote English language development as the more important skill, thus reducing opportunities for English language learners.
What about our fixation with constructing accountability systems based primarily, if not exclusively, on student performance on large scale assessments? How would school accountability look different if we also included measures of the inputs and processes associated with the desired outcomes such as measures of implementation, of students opportunity to learn, measures of the type of processes (i.e. explicit literacy instruction)?
This month I attended a convening hosted by the Hewlett Foundation that introduced grantees to the great city of Detroit, Michigan. During our time in Detroit, we explored the concept of structural racism while engaging with a school system that has buckled under the weight of specific ideologies, public policies (charter law), and practices (i.e. state level resource allocation on an average ADM) that serve to ensure the persistence of a racial hierarchy in student achievement.
What is Structural Racism?
Structural racism refers to ways in which history, ideology, public policies, institutional policies and practices, and culture interact to maintain a racial hierarchy that allows the privileges associated with whiteness and the disadvantages associated with color to endure and adapt over time. A key assumption or idea associated with this understanding is that all complex societies organize themselves to create and distribute a society’s benefits, burdens, and interests. (Adapted for use from “Toward a Structural Racism Framework” by Andrew Grant-Thomas and John A. Powell in Poverty and Race, 2006, November/December)
Flying back from Detroit, I reflected on my desire and role to ensure all students get what they need. I realized my job is to not to just pay attention, but to call attention to structural racism and the role it plays in maintaining inequity. I don’t believe simply calling attention is enough – we must take action to remedy those policies, practices, and ideologies that are perpetuating a system that maintains a racial hierarchy that systematically advantages white students and disadvantages students of color.
As such, I intend to double our organization’s efforts to push the concept of “measures of responsibility” as a means for holding systems accountable for ensuring readiness for all students and promoting measures built against a more holistic framework of student readiness that includes elements of deeper learning skills – not simply skills associated with literacy and numeracy. I also commit to be more mindful of the structural issues that often house the individual and institutional practices our group tends to focus on and recognize that individual and institutional growth is often trumped by the structural elements that maintain the existing hierarchy that limits on our ability to deliver readiness for all students. I would encourage you to do the same.