Monday, November 26, 2007

High Schools for Equity: A Progressive Education Agenda

By Susan Sandler

Do you feel that enough attention is paid to racial justice in schools? Is education policy in touch with communities of color?

With so many inequities and problems in our school system, it is difficult to cut through to the policies that are most strategic to transforming the learning experience for students of color.

Justice Matters and Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Friedlaender of the School Redesign Network at Stanford University have released a new study, and accompanying report card, that get to the heart of this issue. High Schools for Equity: Policy Supports for Student Learning in Communities of Color seeks to answer fundamental questions about how education policy can best bring about racially just schools.

High Schools for Equity starts by looking at five California high schools that are giving low-income students of color the kind of education they deserve. These schools interrupt the status quo by providing learning experiences for students of color that are intellectually rigorous, responsive to their cultures, and relevant to their lives, communities, and specific learning needs. These schools connect learning to students’ interests, passions, and concerns.

For example, June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco offers a course that focuses on the literature surrounding immigration to the United States where students explore questions such as “When do immigrants choose to assimilate? When do they reject conforming to American standards?” Such courses combine college-prep level thinking and skills with content that addresses questions that students and their families confront on a daily basis.

It was important that the study selected schools that took a wide range of factors into account rather than just choosing schools by test scores alone. Test scores are not necessarily connected to the high quality learning experiences that students of color deserve.

After selecting the schools, the study then identifies the policies that are most important to enabling all schools to provide the education that students received in these exemplary schools. Researchers asked what supports were provided by the district and the state that enabled these schools to carry out their work. What aspects of the policy environment were obstacles that the schools had to overcome in order to carry out exemplary practices? What policies are needed to move from a tiny number of isolated schools who are doing good work in spite of the system, to having all schools do such work in part because of the school system?

The resulting findings lay out a policy agenda that can not only move us away from the deep problems in today’s schools, but that also moves us toward a system that is centered on a vision of what learning should be like for students of color and all students. Rather than tackling each isolated problem in our school system in a piecemeal fashion, this policy agenda lays out a coherent set of policies that are most important for getting us to the schools that we ultimately want to have.

Justice Matters has also created a vehicle for bringing the ideas from the High Schools for Equity study into current public discussions on California education policy. Governor Schwarzenegger has named 2008 the “Year of Education.” A clear opportunity for big change has been spotlighted in California education policy, and in response, policy makers, committees, and organizations will be issuing policy agendas. Justice Matters has translated the ideas and lessons from High Schools for Equity into a report card framework for grading these policy agendas.

It is important that policy makers be held accountable for how their actions help or hurt students of color. “>The Racial Justice Report Card does this. It also brings important ideas into the discussion that are often left out. Mainstream education policy is often disconnected from an understanding of what strong learning experiences for students of color really look like.

Last Wednesday, we gave our first grade using the report card. We gave a C- to Superintendent O’Connell’s draft recommendations for closing racial gaps in education. We plan to issue a grade for the forthcoming recommendations of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence, as well as other proposed policy agendas.

The ideas behind the Racial Justice Report Card grew out of what is happening in schools that are doing right by students of color, and they keep policy connected to how it affects on-the-ground learning experiences.

The report card and the study are two steps in our long-term plan to make education policy focus on racial justice and get connected to the on-the-ground learning experiences of students of color, which we believe is at the center of a better education for all students in California.

Susan Sandler is President of Justice Matters, a San Francisco-based organization that works for racially just schools by developing and promoting education policy rooted in community vision. Justice Matters conducts research, develops policy ideas, and carries out public education activities and campaigns for policy change.
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