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Likening Superintendents to Thermometers, Marks Seeks to Raise the Heat on Serving the Less Privileged

By Molly Castle Work |

The Rev. Bryant Marks, founder and chief equity officer at the National Training Institute on Race and Equity, advised AASA conference attendees to consider their own implicit biases during his presentation, “Whether In-Person or at Home, Education is Virtual for Many Students,” on Thursday, Feb. 18.

The phrase virtual education commonly references computer-based remote learning outside of a physical classroom. However, Marks contends that in-person education in low-resourced and historically disadvantaged communities has been virtual long before the pandemic took hold. 

If one takes the definition of virtual to mean “very close to being something without actually being it,” Marks said, then students of color often do not have the same educational experience as white students. Their experience is virtual — it may look the same, but the quality and the impact is quite different. 

Marks, professor of psychology at Morehouse College in Atlanta and a social psychologist by training, cited as evidence several studies and infographs that laid out significant achievement and disciplinary gaps, often with Black students faring worse than their peers of other racial backgrounds. Students in low-resourced schools can face a myriad of obstacles, such as less-experienced teachers and a Eurocentric curriculum where they do not feel culturally represented. They also deal with implicit bias. 

“A lot of this stuff, it’s not a kid problem. It’s an adult problem,” he said.

These disparities have only been amplified by COVID-19 because at-home variables are all over the place, he said. For instance, many students don’t have access to a personal computer or internet access whereas those attending private schools are more likely to be educated in person. A McKinsey & Company study found that although most students are falling behind academically during the pandemic, students of color are faring worse. 

“The pace of recovery is going to differ, please hear me,” Marks told his superintendent audience. 

He concluded with a metaphor of superintendents as thermometers versus thermostats. Thermometers, he noted, reflect the current environment while thermostats have the ability to regulate their surroundings. 

In his analogy, thermometers represent superintendents that go with the flow in their school districts, often putting in minimal effort. On the other hand, thermostats raise the level of excellence with their presence. Marks suggested AASA attendees to reflect on their own leadership role in their communities, asking, “What impact do you have when you walk in the room?”

To the thermometers in the audience, he doled out some tough love. 

“I see through you to the thousands and millions of kids that you serve,” he said. “It’s not about you. It’s about who you develop. The next generation of our children are growing up in your hands. If you don’t want to do the work anymore, don’t do the work anymore. The margin is too thin. Let somebody else come in.”

(Molly Castle Work is a graduate student at University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and an intern with AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

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