What is this mystery of engagement among children and families of color and how do we solve it? This is for America’s education professionals to map out in the year 2021 going forward. How families and children of color finally begin to feel ‘connected’ certainly will not be a result of the same standard design. From its inception, public education envisioned and prioritized a disconnect from children and families of color. This is evident in the instructional content. The history of education is complex in its design, intended to teach the 3 R’s and prepare children for a regimented industrial era. The deeper mission was driven by a sociopolitical objective. The system mandated educators to convince the white world of untruths about our history in alignment with its agenda- to malign, discredit and disrespect blacks and other people of color. Therein lies the root of the disconnect and today’s mystery.
An essential question is this: In the 21st Century, have schools included the entire population? Everyone loves to talk about themselves and have an inherent need to know about themselves, their history and place in the world. Maslow identified one of the most basic human needs as the ‘need to belong’. Why ignore that insight? This conversation needs no data, and no formal research in order to ‘hit home’. Follow the logic here and let’s see whether it makes sense.
The book, Learning to Improve, addresses inequity in education. The first principle—to be problem specific and user-centered—offers a deceptively complex question: “What is the specific problem or problems you are trying to solve?” The critical word here is specific. Educators typically know what outcomes they want, but often do not know exactly what they need to change to achieve them.
Those standard ‘innovations’ implemented by schools in efforts to solve their shallowly identified problems, can be called “solutionitis”. They won’t take time to analyze the root causes of the particular problem by being user-centered. Improvement efforts seek to understand problems through the eyes of the students and the adults who work with them. What are they actually experiencing, and how are they making sense of this working environment?
Attend to the variability of outcomes. The focus must be on the sources creating the variability. This is essential to fighting the disparities in outcomes-achievement and poor engagement. The data we collect is helpful, but algorithms don’t help us eliminate disparities and bias; they magnify them..Data offers little insight as to how to actually solve the problems. We are then driven to See the system that produces the outcomes, which requires full examination of the ‘system’ and its processes.
This system is guided by a specific scope and sequence that frames instruction, shapes engagement and fosters conversations that lead to deep learning and optimal engagement. It is difficult to improve that which is not understood. It is to be understood exactly how this system and subsystems work together to create or magnify the gaps, the disparities and the disconnects. Identify how the conditions shape processes. Bring the entire community into the picture and ensure they are aligned and that one doesn’t nullify the other. Never lose sight of the population served. It is supposed to be about them-all of them!
We cannot improve at scale that which we cannot measure. If there is to be any improvement, it is necessary to embed measures to track whether changes are actually effective. A nchor practice improvement efforts in inquiry. You need to learn fast[inquiry], fail fast[unanticipated consequences] and improve quickly. The problems are not that failures may occur. The real problems arise when failing to learn from them.
Last, accelerate learning improvements through networked communities. Surely, educators and administrators are experts, but so are parents. Parents and caregivers are more knowledgeable than we may believe. Embrace their wisdom. While parents and students may not know what they want, they know what they do not want from schools. We can accomplish so much more collaboratively, together, than even the best of us can do alone.
Since our chosen leaders aren’t leading the charge towards equity in education, needed changes aren’t given appropriate priority with no sense of urgency. Therefore, changes will have to be begin at the grassroots level. If not a priority in our daily lives, if not for us, our children, the moaning and groaning about ‘gaps’ will continue. As solution-focused people, who see ourselves as relatively evolved, ‘woke’ and benevolent, we are expected to break the silence. In fact, we need our children, future leaders, to see that we refuse to allow them to grow up eerily similar to ourselves-with much too much ignorance pertaining to non-white peoples, especially them and ourselves.
Those who are supposed to lead and represent our collective interests, fear relinquishing power and changing the narratives which serve themselves first. Thus they still push back and refuse to advocate for the greater good, and won’t take matters into their own hands. What has to happen, in order for education to serve the entire population equitably, we must abandon the idea of looking to our leaders and elected officials at the federal level. We have to begin at the local level, the city level and then the state level. A trigger moment will eventually manifest itself as a snowball effect will happen. From the ground up, before expecting the federal government to make changes, we must have organized and created coalitions and built momentum through the volume of our voices.
No one wants to address public school systems and what it perpetuates at its core. That is a ongoing disconnect and disregard of black people and other people of color in public education. Feeling powerless to make changes is unwise, for any step taken toward authentic educational equity is a step in the direction of positive change.
Amazingly, educators themselves those who are looked to for knowledge and information, aren’t taking up arms and screaming out in outrage. It is they who should have the loudest voices. They profess their ant-racist views and sincere desire to promote achievement for every child they encounter. It is they who read the same materials, year after year, and by now whose logic, executive higher order thinking skills would most appropriately demand that they abandon racist texts and instruction.
Parents and their children will not be won over, by placing trust in the goodwill of the educators, if they aren’t doing that which neither parents nor their children know how. Parents and children of color need information from schools that affirm and empower them. It is then that they will connect to those schools. They will feel as though they belong when they are shown that they belong. Keep in mind that the message is very clear to the ‘other’ side of your experiences, because they are kept on the fringes, the sidelines of instruction. They are never welcome, heard, or feel important, valued, when nothing changes at the classroom level.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Begin an all inclusive examination of the root of the disconnect, and poor performance of learners, low engagement and minimal parental involvement-parent partnerships. If significant improvement is sought, there are relatively few changes left. To fulfill the promise of education, we have to go back here:
Once educators allow themselves to consciously recognize the root, the pathway can be made less rough. Education was politically constructed,and gaining knowledge should be free from political messaging. One never learns deeply or can fully integrate and interpret .not bipartisan. In the original design of a ‘mainstream’ public education framework, there was an absolutely intentional disconnect. A purposeful reinforcement of the efforts to maintain a ‘social order’ long established, and by any means necessary. Think about it. When slavery was abolished, understanding that they created the wealth of white people, especially in the Southern states, whites were furious. They feared the rise in power that blacks gained shortly thereafter.
Now here comes these blacks, who are free citizens, and white people felt the pressing need to discredit them and keep them ‘in their place’. Blacks could now read and write, and establish schools, starting in churches. After a while they wanted to be able to attend school with white children. When learning in their own spaces, black children were learning about their own histories, the truth. White children were not learning true history. They were taught only that which would sell books and appease the whites who resented and feared the mobility of black people. They engaged in spreading lies, caricatures and creating stereotypes. The very last thing they wanted their children to learn was anything that shone a positive light on blacks.
Whites built systems that were standardized throughout. Textbooks and instructional content and materials only reflected the zeitgeist. Therein lies the root of the engagement problems at schools across the country. Public education, as we know it, was never designed to connect, engage, teach children of color. Nor was it designed to teach about people of color. This population, after a hard fought battle, was merely ‘allowed into’ the ALREADY established spaces. Not with their best interests or comprehensive wellness and development in mind, under-represented across content area, people of color remain absent from the curriculum.
RESULT OF WHITEWASHING
Children aren’t affirmed or supported. Nor are they being honest with. From the first day they enter the U.S. public school system, they are still being oppressed. Thus, their parents are far removed from developing mutually beneficial partnerships. And, as much ‘collective intelligence’ of educators, researchers, and they who call themselves ‘experts’, schools still struggle with disparities and cultivating family engagement. Schools find it difficult to foster achievement and design equitable learning spaces.
Is it lacking the courage, strength of character or motivation to change? Is it ‘group think’ or mindless following? Who actually controls what children learn-the textbook publishers or the education administrators? What do the publishers know[probably much more than the educators], or do they really care? They are in it for the money, the sales. Despite what we know or should know, publishing companies are still reaping monetary rewards from distributing the same old information.
THE LIES TOLD BY OMISSION
My mother used to say, “I despise a liar!” Do parents want their children lied to every day, every year, year after year?
A direct result of a non-existent ‘space’ for people of color in the curriculum, now comes ‘implicit bias’: racist ideologies that have become deeply embedded in the social order. It is racism on both a conscious and a sub-conscious level. With this awareness, it is both a personal and professional responsibility of educators to make conscious ongoing efforts to enhance cultural competence. Instructors must deliberately think outside of the box and ask questions that apparently nobody wants to ask or answer. Think first with students in mind, without resorting to the default. In order to change the world, you must first see the world as it truly is. Otherwise, things won’t change and thus education becomes a part of the problem, not the solution.
The wisest cost-effective way to create equitable and inclusive learning spaces, is to initiate a re-design of the framework. The curriculum needs an upgrade and a top to bottom ‘do-over’. Education and learning in school spaces, whether remote or in-person, needs to be relevant to the populations served. The entire population. It must be ripe with intentionally diverse references, historical contributions, and vividly honest story-telling along the way to promoting achievement and meaningfully-engaged partnerships.
Central in the original framework of the standardized school curriculum designed for public learning spaces, the target audiences were white. To appease the adults, with an underlying racist agenda, white children in America, were to memorize, internalize and regurgitate knowledge that was ‘fake news’. Children have been fed facts and references, that were not only skewed and exaggerated, they also have been proven to defy the evidence and logic, quite frankly. To this day, nothing has changed significantly. We can and must change this.
THE APPROACH TO TEACHING
History, as the framework for all instruction is supposed to be told like a novel, a human interest story. It is to be taught in an objectively told action-reaction, 5 W’s manner in order to reflect a full societal retrospective. Because instructional content is not designed to be fully inclusive, it makes complete sense to intentionally erase a most significant part of history. In fact, it can also explain continued resistance to curriculum and textbook reform. The role of dehumanizing black people, effectively robs them and their children of their rights to education and opportunities in life. If we ask ourselves why, in fact, history is a rote memorization of facts and events, it stands to reason that this subject is not taught in ‘story’ format.
Stories are powerful. Remember when you were a child, and your parents wanted to teach you a ‘lesson’? They almost always told you a story. When you came home from school, and told them that you had been in a fight, what did they ask? What happened, what did you do, who started it, and where were the adults? This information was crucial. This is what they needed to get a full picture-by leaving no unanswered questions. It teaches us to always consider the other side. They don’t let children get away with telling a one-sided story.
It is from history that we learn who we are, from where we come and helps to chart our futures. For people with little or no knowledge or connection to their past, it is difficult to imagine oneself with a future. Therein lies the disconnect. Therein lies the seat of the problems that children and adults, caregivers, have with their schools. Discovering or uncovering your past is essential. Good or bad, it is the source of motivation, determination, and potential. It lights a fire inside of your soul. How can you connect with learning in school, feel excited about learning, when you are scarcely recognized? Only one month a year? Sadly though, educators, specifically, do understand what children need besides food and shelter.
We can’t possibly expect that parents or their children will want to engage when they, too, are not ‘included’. Imagine the day when a child goes home after school and has a light, a beam, in their eyes. They’re not exhausted, but exhilarated. Parents will see that and will eagerly want to speak with the teacher, also because that feeling is contagious. From that point forward, both parents and children will be eager to continue to nurture that connection.
Nothing statistically significant changes surrounding engagement and achievement, until children see themselves as though they matter, that they are worthy of targeted relevant instruction, not adult discussion. Surely black and brown people are discussed, but in what context? Conversations should focus on how you had an ‘aha’ moment and can recognize their incredible strength, genius or self-determination?
REFLECTING ON PRACTICES
How are we teaching children to appreciate themselves and feel appreciated by others? They need clear reasons to respect us, as this is how they are taught- to respect everyone else. But not themselves. We demonstrate to children and their families, with each school day. that we don’t respect them. We aren’t helping them see how special they are, which is neglectful. We know what many endure and what they have to contend with from others. Moreover, we all should know that from, quite ironically, an historical perspective. How have they shaped society? Teaching about them for one month per school year, continues to support the fact that they are viewed as the ‘other’, the exception, a footnote.
Deliberate exclusion from instructional content, prevents educators from nurturing a consistent, ongoing relationship with children who desperately need to feel included, important, and appreciated. They need to be seen. Because no one is mandating instruction or the content and context to connect children with the material, there is no external incentive for teachers to teach ‘outside the box’. It must be intrinsically motivated.
Teachers say that they want to teach ‘black history’, and that they know not where to find pertinent information. When I taught middle school, relevant and engaging instructional materials were surely not placed before me. With a most sincere interest in my students’ achievement, I had to sift through the barrage of white-centered texts, which were plentiful. I went to teacher supply stores, online and brick and mortar, and conducted general searches for information and resources. Searches included very general topics such as, blacks in the Civil War, black inventors, nonfiction writers, African history, children’s authors, etc.
The point is that any search engine will help locate material on every topic imaginable. What it will take in order that teachers and school staff begin to connect with parents and students, and people of color in the world at large is genuine curiosity. This curiosity will be fueled by a desire to help them discover who they are, see what they can do and to encourage them to do even more. All the while, you honestly believe that they ‘can’, in spite of what anyone else believes or tells you.
It will take a sincere desire to be an agent of change in the lives of learners. No longer can educators, with class sizes of 12, be satisfied with one or two children’s satisfactory learning performance. The goal must be all inclusive. Children don’t want or expect ‘special’ treatment. They want to feel special. They want to be encouraged, affirmed and know that they can expect that from you-consistently-as the adult in the room.
Parents can’t teach what they don’t know, or what they weren’t taught when they were in school. Don’t expect that from them. Don’t pass the buck without arming them with necessary tools. Many of the children of color in your classrooms do not have parents with the time or resources to provide much more than their unconditional love and care. This equally important information is what they need from you. Moreover, that is your job. We spend too much instructional time affirming white children, and thereby supporting white supremacy. All others are taught as footnotes, if ever given minimal thought.
THE PATHWAY TO ENGAGEMENT
When we consciously recognize racial, cultural and other differences, we fight the impulse to be judgmental. Difference is not deficient. It awakens us to learn more about others who reflect ‘different’. You connect with parents and children by drowning out any assumptions, starting from a place of openness. Look for others to contradict your previous assumptions. And then, fill that empty space with possibilities.
What you don’t know or understand, it is far better to ask than to assume. As a promoter of life-long learning, it should be your default mode. Before expecting connections, engagement and partnerships, walk a mile in the shoes that others travel in every day. That is empathy; not sympathy. See the strengths within the struggles and the stress and search for solutions in your setting, remembering that those solutions must be transferable into their environments, as well. That is relevance.
Educator training programs should require at least one course per academic semester that examines American history, America’s relationship with race and how it intersects with education. These programs should integrate inclusion into every content area and provide examples of how it looks to future educators. When brought to school settings, educators become more conscious of their own relationship with race and how it impacts classroom teaching.
When public education has a curriculum in place that is relevant, not just real life, but culturally relevant and inclusive, parents and students will feel more connected to their schools and the educators who stand before them.
When populations are connected and fully represented, in their complexities, by the instruction, and they can see themselves and others as interrelated, we are better poised to establish collaborative relationships. When parents’ voices are not only sought but heard and valued, they connect with each other, and build social capital. To feel valued, heard and supported is encouraging to every one of us. What makes your ‘reluctant to engage’ parents any different? They’re not, and realizing this is a great place to start making connections. Start by connecting with their children first! Mystery solved!