Starting in 1964 and stopping full time involvement in 2011, I worked with three types of schools that “educate” most of the K-12 children in the United States – public, private and charter which is a public school of choice. Approximately 1,770,000 students are home schooled. As we approach the end of another academic year, I want to share a concern based on my observations and experience having served in numerous roles – teacher, counselor, coach, department head, division head, headmaster, principal, trustee, board chair, and consultant, as well as parent and grandparent of children who attended those schools.
Teaching is an awesome and noble profession and those who give unselfishly of their time, talent and energy are to be commended for their service. They are the ones who help students discover enormous possibilities for their own lives and what they want to be about as they continue their journey of learning. This is evident in all three types of schools and has more to do with the teacher than any particular type or configuration of school. However, schools as institutions and organizations are not as flexible and nimble as many teachers are.
The three kinds of schools start to depart from one another in how they are governed and often what they emphasize, how they are regarded by others in their communities and how they wish to be known. Misconceptions abound in some quarters although there is a criticism that is well-deserved where there are short-comings and a failure to address issues of equity and inclusion. This is the area where many school leaders, and teachers, have fallen short either because they do not want change or because they do not have the resources or the training. This issue cuts across all socio-economic classes and issues of age, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, geography, and cognitive ability. It may even have to do with unrecognized bias and prejudice that people have lived with for a long time. It is my belief that when this issue is addressed effectively, it will make an important and positive difference for all students and for the future.
George Theoharis, former teacher, principal and now assistant professor of education at Syracuse, wrote a book, The School Leaders Our Children Deserve: Seven Keys to Equity, Social Justice and School Reform. (Teachers College Press, 2009) George draws on the experiences of successful school principals committed to advancing equity, social justice, and school reform to show why social justice leadership is needed and how it can be effective. Although facing tremendous barriers, these principals made important strides toward closing the achievement gap in their schools through the use of humane and equitable practices.Featuring a mix of theory and practical strategies, the book portrays how real school leaders seek, create, and sustain equitable schools, especially for marginalized students. Students who are from more advantaged families and communities need this as much or even more than those from urban and economically depressed areas.
Theoharis identifies seven “keys” that are crucial for social justice leadership: (1) Acquire Broad Reconceptualized Consciousness/Knowledge/Skill Base; (2) Possess Core Leadership Traits; (3) Advance Inclusion, Access, and Opportunity for All; (4) Improve Core Learning Context–Both the Teaching and Curriculum; (5) Create a Climate of Belonging; (6) Raise Student Achievement; and (7) Sustain Oneself Professionally & Personally.
Equity and social justice raise the bar for all teachers and students but it does not come easily or quickly. It also does not come without a hard look at the mission, vision and values of a school, its administration and its teachers, as well as student and their families. Changing the status quo and shifting a school culture requires thoughtful conversations and clarity about why, how and when, and importantly, who will take the lead and be responsible for helping to effect such change.
For a better understanding of what social justice education is about, have a look at this brief article that appeared in January, 2019 in Education Week: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/01/23/what-is-social-justice-education-anyway.html
As with any change that appears to have a political agenda, there are serious disagreements about the underlying purpose of such proposals and programs. Social justice does not come easily or without a price and those who believe that this has value for students, teachers and schools have some hard work ahead. If we say we believe in the Constitution that declares “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and we say in the Pledge of Allegiance “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” then how we practice our profession as teachers and administrators becomes self-evident.