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Education Reform May Need Reforming Itself, Expert says

School leaders have to be willing to question educational reforms that are doing nothing to end racial inequality in America—even if those reforms are central to their own jobs and careers, according to an expert who studies the plight of black boys and young men.

“Reforming Education Reform: Leadership and Transmitting Inequality in Schools” was the title of the Dec. 7 talk at Fordham by James Earl Davis, PhD, holder of the Bernard C. Watson Endowed Chair in Urban Education at Temple University.

He was delivering the third annual Barbara L. Jackson, EdD, Lecture, named for the late professor and division chair in Fordham’s Graduate School of Education. Davis called her a “national treasure” and exemplar of the kind of questioning spirit that school leaders need.

“I have an enduring fondness and appreciation for [Professor] Jackson and her place in the tradition of race and gender studies that shattered long-held assumptions about what mattered academically and intellectually,” he said.

Jackson’s “career and contributions [are]an important model for all of us,” he said. “Her contributions were at the center of disrupting the status quo of inequalities in school leadership throughout the educational pipeline.”

Black boys, like canaries in a coal mine, “signal what’s most toxic about how we do schooling” and how it’s reformed, he said.

He said there’s scant evidence that they’re helped by “educational reform as it’s currently operationalized,” citing charter schools, magnet schools, vouchers, incentive pay for teachers, and other examples. “We have much to learn about how to produce more equitable educational outcomes, particularly for low-income minoritized students who continue to challenge our best practices and policies.”

“Too many of these students experience academic death and also physical death at the hands of systems more interested in protecting self-interest,” he said.

He emphasized the role of school leadership, which he said can either reduce or perpetuate inequality in elementary and higher education alike.

He also called for more nuanced study of schools’ role in addressing inequality. Studies that show schools playing only a small role in perpetuating racial and class-based disparities tend to rely only on standardized test scores, he said. He pointed to one recent study that spotlights high schools’ varying rates of sending students to college, saying it could give new insight into schools’ impact on inequality.

When an audience member asked how educators steeped in current reform efforts can step outside them and consider other options, Davis invoked Barbara Jackson, who, he said, would call for “deep self-reflection and a willingness to lose the comfortability of your position in your school, and getting the credit for pushing a traditional reform model.”

Reforming reform calls for more research into what traditional reforms are producing inequalities, he said.

“I didn’t want to suggest that all education reform was bad,” he said. “We have growing evidence of a number of whole school reform initiatives—sort of broad system and systemic initiatives—where we’re getting some positive effects. But just to take a reform initiative and to say it’s going to be effective in all settings, in all schools, with all students—that is so naïve and dangerous.”


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