Public education, like most institutions hundreds of years old, was built for a different time and a different America. And, like so many of its elder peers, it was built by and to serve white, mostly male Americans and is slow to evolve. This white, Western European-ness is woven into the foundation of public education and permeates every facet, including curriculum, discipline, hiring, evaluation and even associated activities like sports. It is well past time to look critically at public education and reinvent it to benefit all students and lift them all to be the best versions of themselves.
This process starts very simply: admitting that the problem even exists. The Anchorage School Board has proposed two very simple policy documents that acknowledge problems with equity and systemic racism in our district and commits to work to address these issues. That is all these policies do. They are not any particular curriculum or program or professional development. They bring no mandates or specific changes. And they are unequivocally not indoctrination, replacement, Marxism, the 1619 Project, critical race theory, or any of the other far-right scare tactics and white supremacist dog-whistles one hears on certain media outlets and social media — and that have been, sadly, parroted at recent school board meetings. An acknowledgement of work to be done on a personal and systemic level is just that, nothing more. As a community, we can’t let this life-changing, and lifesaving, work be derailed simply because it makes some community members are uncomfortable to even acknowledge the problem exists. This discomfort is nothing compared to the systemic barriers our staff and students of color experience in our buildings every single day.
The idea that by pledging to work to remove systemic barriers and lift all students, ASD is somehow creating division, is preposterous. Creating a system where all students thrive is uniting, not dividing — not just for our district, but for our whole community. Imagine what it feels like as a student to hear adults say — publicly, mind you — that your achievement and freedom create division. That somehow lifting up all students is harmful to white students. This is based on the incorrect assumption that achievement and learning are finite resources and for our students of color to do better, those already achieving have to do worse. The idea that white kids will get less of an education with an acknowledgement that students of color have been getting just that for hundreds of years is itself an indictment of the public education system, and the fact members of our community even think this shows just how much this work needs to be done.
Together, we need to face the abundantly clear fact that public education remains a very white space, even though our students and community are increasingly diverse. We are a system that innately values Western knowledge over all others, starting with thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge gained on the very land on which we teach. So much of the curriculum taught in schools is centered on a mainly white experience and based on the Western idea of rigor, achievement, proficiency and “the classics.” Discipline policies are written and carried out in a way that over-suspend and expel students of color. Many schools still have elementary students “celebrating” the first Thanksgiving by perpetuating a myth and having white students dress up like Wampanoag. History books continue to perpetuate falsehoods like The Lost Cause. We have students do required and graded Christian-based holiday activities and schedule standardized tests on Ramadan. We have police in our schools while our students of color are continuously traumatized by media streams of people who look like them killed by police. The list goes on and on. The changes that need to be made so all our students can find success in life must come from within. As a system, this starts with the equity and anti-racism policies currently under discussion, and while it is personal work, it must be done on a systemic level to have lasting impact.
As a white male, I am a product of a system built for me to succeed. I blindly went through this system, never questioning what it was doing to those around me. Now, as an educator and, more importantly, a parent, I support these district policies to look critically at and reinvent this system so not only can my children succeed, but they can see all students succeed and grow into adults who work to continuously improve their communities.
The current system has educated too many to believe that there will always be some left behind and that success is a limited resource, when in reality, we should strive for a system that elevates all and that starts by taking a hard look at ourselves. These policies will begin our journey toward a stronger public education system in Anchorage and give every student a more robust and rigorous education for success in life.
Ben Walker is the 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year and the parent of two elementary-aged children.
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