5 Takeaways from Innovation For Equity’s Talk on Black Learners and COVID-19

In the photo above, meet the panelists from left to right: Dr. Tyrone Howard, Dr. Dena Simmons, Dr. Christopher Emdin, Dr. Lisa Herring, Dr. Michael Conner, Dr. Patricia Garcia, and Sancha Gray


On Wednesday, July 15, Innovation For Equity (IFE) hosted a virtual panel discussion entitled “Black Learners and COVID-19: Research Meets Practice.” The online event featured a group of superintendents and researchers responding to questions from moderator Josh Powe, Co-Founder and CEO of LinkIt!

The occasion marked IFE’s third year of hosting events as part of a larger summit. In both a nod to equity and an adaptation to social distancing concerns, this year’s three-event summit was moved online and opened to the public, with more than 500 people tuning in to hear the conversation. Topics included the effects of the ongoing pandemic on Black learners and some of the ways the Black Lives Matter protests may shape Black learning going forward. Here are five of the key questions and concepts that were discussed.

1: Should Schools Be Defunded?

Early in the conversation, Josh Powe posed this question to the researchers: “Should schools that don’t commit to using this moment to drive innovation and change be defunded [in the same way that there are calls for police departments to be defunded]?"

Dena Simmons, Assistant Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, noted that when we talk about defunding the police, it's important to first understand their history. Police departments, she said, were originally designed to patrol, police, and surveil enslaved Black people and the indigenous. This point suggested that perhaps police departments and schools have some parallels historically: What were schools in this country originally designed to do—and who were they designed to serve and support?

Then Powe narrowed the question, asking, “Should schools be defunded for failing Black learners?” Chris Emdin, Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, spoke to the parallels between schools and police suggested by Simmons. “When we talk about defunding, it’s about doing an interrogation and excavation of systems to identify in what ways they silence bodies or are created in ways that incarcerate the minds and spirits of Black and Brown bodies," he said. "And if they do those things, they should not be supported."

Tyrone Howard, Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, UCLA, also voiced his belief that schools that fail Black learners should be defunded. He noted that the defunding should occur in part because Black people continue to pay property, sales, and other taxes to fund schools that aren't adequately serving them.

"Our spaces and places have not changed to reflect what the future looks like—what the present even looks like."

Sancha Gray

2: If Given Millions to Invest, What Would You Do?

At one point, the researchers talked about how they would invest $10 million if they were each given that amount. Howard said he would focus on investing in teachers and retraining an entire army of educators. By contrast, he referenced the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case that legally began the desegregation of public schools, noting that at that time, "We tried to take a social problem and fix it with legislation.”

The superintendents had a hypothetical $100 million to invest, and while there was a consensus overall on key areas of focus, each divvied up their money a bit differently. Lisa Herring, Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools in Georgia, opted to invest in social-emotional issues and the students who left the school system, with a focus on the importance of making anytime, anywhere learning a reality. Emphasizing the importance of taking a holistic approach that engages parents, Sancha Gray, Superintendent of Asbury Park Schools in New Jersey, talked about investing in early learning and the post-secondary pipeline. Noting the connection between early learning and the achievement gap, Michael Conner, Superintendent of Middletown Public Schools in Connecticut, said, "What I think is a misconception or misnomer in the education ecosystem is that the achievement gap is the root cause. But the achievement gap is only a symptom of the root cause, which is the preparation gap [caused by an inadequate investment in early learning]."

3: How Has the Pandemic Influenced Education?

When asked about how the pandemic has affected their work and districts, the superintendents agreed that the crisis has spotlighted the inequities that already existed inside the public school system. Conner also spoke about the need to look more closely at pedagogy structures that tend to be monolithic, with an eye towards shifting to more personalized, differentiated instruction. Gray spoke of inequities that extend well beyond the education space, including food insecurity. She noted the frustration people have expressed at being asked to shelter in place, saying that the ability to do so is in itself a privilege not afforded to everyone—particularly those who find themselves on the front lines.

Powe also asked about delivering learning in a remote environment—and whether the superintendents believe it’s a temporary triage situation or a paradigm shift. He questioned whether traditional brick-and-mortar schools will become obsolete in ten years. The superintendents agreed resoundingly that physical schools will not become obsolete, in part because of the social nature of learning. Gray added, “What will need to fundamentally change is how we do school, how we think about school, [because] our spaces and places have not changed to reflect what the future looks like—what the present even looks like."

4: What to Focus on While Effecting Change

While common themes emerged during the discussion, panelists made some distinct points about what those seeking to effect positive change for Black learners should keep in mind as they move forward.

Implementation
Dena Simmons said, "We have to think about where race and culture plays into anything that we implement, [because] if the person who’s implementing it is racist, then the implementation of it could be racist. So whatever we do, we have to apply an antiracist, abolitionist, anti-bias approach [to] put humanity back into our schools—and do it ASAP.”

Collaboration between Researchers and Practitioners
In order for practitioners to be able to make meaningful changes based on research, "[that] research needs to be rooted and grounded in the needs of the school district and in the tradition of the school district," said Patricia Garcia, superintendent of Geneva City Schools in New York.

Good Pedagogy
“Academic performance is in itself a colonized discourse," noted Emdin, because "practitioners have been seduced by the imaginations of white scholars who have their own perceptions of what [good pedagogy] means"—but "we can reimagine genius to be vernacular.”

Remote Learning
Gray made the point that when putting in place and maintaining a remote learning model, educators need to ask, “How do we communicate effectively with our families?”

Reshaping Black Learning with Technology
One opportunity presented by the pandemic is “thinking about alternative ways of learning, including technology," Tyrone Howard said. "I think what is critical in this moment is that we allow technology to be the conduit that helps to enhance our communication models.”

5: Is It a Sprint or a Marathon?

Early in the discussion, Emdin talked about the importance of keeping in mind that it takes time and a deliberate approach to create meaningful change. “Using speed to emancipate," he noted, "is the difference between fast food and soul food: sustenance.” To drive home that point as the discussion wrapped up, he quoted rapper Nipsey Hussle, saying, “The marathon continues.”

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Listen to the full recording of the panel discussion; find out about the other events in the Innovation For Equity three-event summer summit; and learn more about Innovation For Equity.

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