September 26, 2018

3 Steps for a Better Education Conversation

By Kay Comeaux

As an experienced educator, an advocate, a parent, a grandparent, and a former public school student myself, I have seen our education system from just about every possible angle. I’ve taught in multiple states, worked in a variety of school settings, and sent my own child to a range of schools. Although I’ve witnessed and experienced some success stories, the fact is that, overall, our education system is failing too many children.

Part of the reason that our education system isn’t changing is that we keep having the same conversations, dominated by the same people, who generally want things to stay the way they are. It’s time to change who we listen to when it comes to education. It’s time to center conversations on the voices of those who believe more in historically underserved children than in the system that continues to let them down.

The data on Minnesota’s academic achievement and opportunity gaps prove what families of children of color, students receiving special education services, students from low-income households, and English Language Learners have known for generations: Our education system wasn’t built for our children. Instead, the system pushes our children out, passes them along even if they’re not proficient or even literate, and then leaves us—their families and communities—to pick up the pieces. It’s criminal.

We know this, and yet nothing is changing, at least not fast enough. I believe this is because the conversations most people are having about education are all wrong. They tend to focus on technical fixes, and not the transformative changes that our children need. The loudest voices tend to belong to people who did just fine themselves in school, and whose kids are getting what they need, so they assume that the problem is “those” kids, not the system itself.

As long as the loudest voices in the room want our education system to stay essentially just the way that it is—maybe with more funding, more high-paid administrators that draft fancy charts, or more teachers who, unable to relate to their students’ assets and challenges, cause them more harm—then that system will stay essentially the same. As long as the loudest voices in the room haven’t personally experienced the racism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, etc. baked into the very structure of our schools, then we’ll never see real change for historically underserved children.

So, let’s start changing whose voices are loudest.

STEP 1: PAY ATTENTION

When you read a news story, or see a comment thread on Facebook, ask yourself, “Whose perspectives are included? Whose are not?” When you do this, you might find that an article includes quotes from systems advocates, but completely overlooks the voices of students and families. Or that conversations in your feed might include a lot of speculation and assumptions about certain communities, but lack perspectives from those communities.

STEP 2: SAY SOMETHING

When you see this happening—that a conversation feels one-sided or is missing the perspective of those most impacted by systemic injustice—point it out. You speaking up might nudge that particular conversation in a better direction, or at least encourage people to be more aware and inclusive the next time around.

STEP 3: LIFT UP IMPACTED VOICES

Finally, for those of us who rarely see our voices reflected in public conversations, it can be daunting for us to speak up. When we do speak up, have our backs. Even if you don’t agree with us, by lifting up your voices, you can help bring more nuance and more urgency to the education conversation. That, I believe, will lead to more, better, and quicker change for our children.

If we’re going to dismantle and rebuild our education system so that it works for all children, we need to center the conversation on those for whom it’s not working now.

We all have a role in making that happen.

EdAllies seeks to elevate diverse voices and foster a candid dialogue about education. While we provide our blog as a platform for EdVoices and other guest contributors, the views and opinions they express are solely their own.