Setting new priorities for public education
By | Shakira D. Abney-Wisdom
During 2020, we were faced with the reality of two pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism. Both have more severe impacts on historically and persistently marginalized groups, namely people of color, independent of level of education or socioeconomic status.
We also saw, in unavoidable ways, the stark difference between schooling and education. Schooling speaks to a process through which one navigates the formal stages of learning within a school context. Education, however, assigns value to both formal and informal ways of gaining and developing knowledge. Marginalized students are typically schooled—a mechanism centered on compliance—instead of receiving an education. Education is much more culturally relevant and responsive because it acknowledges the worth of process toward growth and understanding without requiring erasure or assimilation.
The people making decisions about how education should or should not shift are typically those least affected by the implementation process. Far too often, changes in priorities impact our most marginalized and minoritized communities. Performance and outcomes become the cardinal areas of focus over establishing rapport, fostering trust, and building strong community. This consistent shifting of focus for the sake of reaching new heights is strangely reminiscent of the traumatic impact on the lives of Indigenous children forced to attend boarding schools; the Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, made to withstand sustained bacterial infection; or the enslaved women forced to withstand surgical procedure without anesthesia for the sake of progress and innovation. But these instances, and countless others, beg the question: Can we really call something innovation that results in violence or causes profound grief, pain, or even death for so many?
While the atrophy to which we refer in the realm of education is not of the body, it most certainly can cause significant and lasting damage to the spirit. One must reflect on how we value life as well as which lives we deem valuable. This is a belief that transcends words but shows up in our willingness to consistently invest our talents and time. Transformational change, particularly in the realm of education, requires a posture of openness to transparently engage in conversations about intent and injury. It behooves us to own the ways in which we have been complicit. Addressing the next steps without acknowledging the pain—historical, significant—is counterproductive.
Thus, situating our work toward change in the appropriate social and cultural context is important. Only then can we acknowledge the impact of intersecting factors that were, and still are, more convenient to ignore for certain groups. Feigned ignorance was easier to purport before the coronavirus pandemic. The resulting stillness caused by “safer at home” and “stay at home” mandates created the opportunity for us, as a collective, to more soberly see what was really happening. Frankly, equality is the long-term goal; equity, truly giving support based on need and not privilege, is necessary for change to be impactful and last beyond this moment in time.
When you give people choice and establish an expectation that they belong and will be supported, the observed change will be radical. That radical kind of change comes from humility, a readiness to accept when we are wrong, and from courage to forge a different and new path. This kind of meaningful innovation requires intergenerational relationships. We cannot move toward where we hope to go without contextualizing where we have been. Without paying close attention, we will miss that the frustrations we experience in the 21st century are merely echoes of the Noel Resolution of 1968 and Keyes vs. School District No. 1, Denver in 1973. This interconnectedness should be more readily recognized and valued. Once recognized, we must act.
As educators, our goal should be to create spaces where people are able to be their full selves—without the need to erase the richness of their heritage or assimilate to meet oppressive expectations—and truly thrive in a healthy community. Embracing the wholeness of people includes welcoming the engagement and involvement of parents, families, and community members as they are able and as often as possible. “We believe in you” is the message sent to scholars through the visible presence of adults who are not teachers.
We stand at the meeting of two tectonic plates as they shift. Will we, as educators and critically conscious community members, allow ourselves and the next generation of leaders to get caught in the chasm, or will we prepare to create a better tomorrow now?
Shakira D. Abney-Wisdom is the founding principal of Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy and a Doctor of Philosophy Candidate in the Educational Leadership Program at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. Her passion for innovative collaboration is grounded in the belief that we can accomplish more, go further, together.
Shakira D. Abney-Wisdom