by Jennie Herriot-Hatfield
Guest writer Jennie Herriot-Hatfield is a new-ish mother who works in K-12 education. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two young children. All views expressed here are her own.
Reading time: 5 mintues
To my fellow White parents: We need to rethink how we define a “good” school and, by extension, what our obligation is to our fellow citizens — particularly those who are marginalized in our communities.
This is the second post in a two-part series. In my last post, I made the case that we White parents need to move beyond simplistic, coded labels for schools (“good” versus “bad”), and instead think more deeply about what we want out of our children’s education. At the same time, if we truly believe that some schools are better serving their students than others — and I have no doubt this is true — then what are we doing about it? Because if we’re doing nothing, the implication is we’re okay with other people sending their kids to “bad” schools.
The problem with American schools (or at least one of them)
Before I dive into solutions, I think it’ll be helpful to briefly describe the problem I’m suggesting we address: In American schools, there are tremendous opportunity gaps along racial and economic lines, created by a long list of interrelated factors (e.g., extremely unequal funding for schools, both public dollars and private fundraising through PTAs; low expectations for students with identities and characteristics that are often marginalized in schools; lack of access to engaging, grade-level work that affirms students’ diverse identities; racial and economic segregation; White and/or privileged parents advocating for advantages for their children at the expense of other children; during distance learning, huge disparities in access to devices and wifi). These opportunity gaps in turn create achievement gaps, meaning some racial and economic groups perform better than others on standardized tests, graduate high school at higher rates, complete college at higher rates, and so on. To be crystal clear, achievement gaps are the result of centuries-old opportunity gaps — not some deficiency on the part of marginalized students and families.
Some potential actions we citizens can take
As I wrote in my previous post, I don’t have all the answers, but I have some ideas. Before I offer these ideas, I will say that, after working in K-12 education for 14 years, I’m constantly learning new things about our education system. This list has existed in my head for a long time and is constantly evolving. It will continue to evolve after I post this. But as of today, here are my suggestions:
- Donate to organizations that are providing devices and wifi to students who don’t currently have access. One example: The Oakland Education Fund’s #OaklandUndivided campaign.
- Ask your school and/or district leadership how they are ensuring high-quality distance learning for all students (for example, by encouraging your school to help all students access pods). Ask what they are doing to make sure the most marginalized students are supported too.
Now and in “normal times”
- Read and learn. Subscribe to a new newsletter, like the one from the National Equity Project, to expose yourself to diverse perspectives on education.
- Donate to organizations that are lifting up the voices of marginalized communities who are seeking to improve their children’s schools. One example: The Oakland REACH here in the Bay Area. (Note that this country has a long history of White folks with good intentions imposing their solutions on marginalized communities. Instead, we should acknowledge that people in marginalized communities are best positioned to identify the problems they face, develop corresponding solutions, and lead implementation.)
- Advocate for equitable funding for public schools. Public funding for schools is often influenced by the property values within a school district, meaning that districts with high property values tend to have more money on a per student basis than districts with lower property values. (School funding is incredibly complicated, and funding systems vary across states. If you’re interested in learning more about California’s school funding system, for example, Ed100 has a good explainer.)
- Related to number three, advocate for pooling PTA funds across schools within your district. Start by researching how variable fundraising is across schools in your district (for example, see San Francisco’s disparities on slide 42 of this recent enrollment presentation).
- Advocate for books for kids.
- Look for racial and economic disparities in outcomes (e.g., test scores, graduation rates) within your school and district. You can use this tool from ProPublica, or you can look for data on your state department of education’s website or school’s website. Then, ask your school and district leadership what they are doing to address those disparities.
- Ask your school/district how they are working to increase the diversity of their teacher workforce. Across the country 80% of teachers are White, while roughly 50% of students are people of color. There is a substantial body of research demonstrating the benefits students of all races reap when they have teachers of color.
- Advocate for curriculum that provides “mirrors and windows” for all students (i.e., exposes students to identities, experiences, and motivations that reflect theirs, as well as provides insight into the identities, experiences, and motivations of others). Note that often curriculum provides mirrors for White students, not students of color.
- Advocate for policies that promote racial and economic integration (e.g., change attendance boundaries within your district, or perhaps more radically, the abolition of school districts as we know them, given the incredible inequities between neighboring districts).*
Two super important notes about integration: (1) Don’t assume people from marginalized communities want to integrate. For example, a cautionary tale: One of the sadder consequences of Brown v. Board of Education was the firing of many Black teachers and the closure of successful Black-led schools as Black students were sent to White schools, but White families refused to send their kids to Black-led schools. (2) If your children attend an integrated school, it’s critical to think about how and when you are advocating for your child at the expense of non-White children. The podcast Nice White Parents is a great resource for fostering this kind of introspection.
In the end, the most important thing is that we do not stand idly by and allow other people’s children to receive an education that we believe is unworthy of our own children. The problems may seem overwhelming and the solutions inadequate, but we have to start somewhere. I urge you to pick one thing from the list above and start working on it today. (I’ve done a few things on this list; I think number 4 will be my next project.) As the writer Matthew Stewart put it in his excellent 2018 piece in The Atlantic: “We should be fighting for opportunities for other people’s children as if the future of our own children depended on it. It probably does.”
Photo Credit: Moren Hsu