Joshua Starr, CEO of Phi Delta Kappa International Family of Associations in Arlington, Va., dispelled three myths at an AASA conference session Thursday on “Becoming an Arc Bender: Anti-Racist System Leadership for Today’s System Leader.”
In front of a diverse audience of school administrators, Starr said the first fallacy is that education is the great equalizer. In fact, communities with disadvantaged children possess less resources and opportunities in public schools.
“Vulnerable students are seven times more likely to have inexperienced teachers,” Starr said. He had only to consider his personal experience of teaching highly disadvantaged students in Brooklyn as an inexperienced, unqualified college graduate.
Inequity permeates history, according to Starr, who worked previously as a superintendent in Connecticut and Maryland. Former slaves were forced to focus on industrial education because of laws, literature and policy in the 19th and 20th centuries. People used education as an “intentional device to privilege some and oppress others.… How do we reorganize our systems?”
Khalid Mumin, superintendent of Reading. Pa., School District, said he strives for excellence and equity. He identified six essential elements of change: values, governance, resources, content, talent and culture.
In his diverse district, where students come from more than 40 countries, speak more than 30 languages and are virtually all economically disadvantaged, Mumin is putting Starr’s theories of promoting social justice into practice.
“It is our responsibility to create the environment for our kids to be successful,” Mumin said. Understanding students’ home lives and cultures is just one part of the teacher’s role. He hires culturally competent teachers to address a diverse student body.
“If we don’t advocate for these kids, who will?” he questioned.
The second fallacy that speakers addressed was school purpose. Viewpoints differ. Based on a PDK poll, 45 percent of educators said the central purpose was academic preparation; 26 percent said good citizenship preparation and 25 percent said work preparation.
But Starr presented a new idea of educational purpose in a historical lens. He said education was a sorting mechanism for American society, and he cited phrenology and Taylorism as historical practices that ranked, sorted and tracked kids. “Scientific” justifications promoted inequity.
The third and final fallacy the educators disparaged is that change is linear, according to Starr. Change travels along an arc, bending toward the just and equitable.
Effective leadership causes positive change, Starr said. Superintendents are not commanders of a ship, but of a fleet he said. Superintendents empower teachers to help kids to the best of their abilities.
(Margaret Gaw, a senior at Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, is an intern for Conference Daily Online.)