Anti-Racist Educational Leadership and Policy
reviewed by Carolyn M. Shields - February 22, 2021
This is a must-read book for anyone interested in both antiracism and educational policy. In the introductory chapter, the authors carefully lay out the theoretical underpinnings, describing the contributions of both antiracism and also antiblackness to their thinking. They are clear about their rationale for specific choices made, such as the capitalization of Black but not white, or the use of the term color evasive, rather than color-blind to avoid any confounding of racism with disability or deficit. This sets the stage for the critical analysis of six current racialized and market-driven policies and lays the groundwork for future analysis of additional policies that perpetuate a largely inequitable education system.
In the succeeding six chapters, the authors carefully and critically analyze policies related to demographic change, school choice, school closure, standardized testing, school funding, and the discipline-related school-to-prison pipeline. In each chapter, they emphasize the importance of contextualizing policy and understanding its impact on individuals and groups at the local level. They provide examples of related Supreme Court decisions, public policies, current data, and illustrations of both how schools and districts have been affected by these policies and how they have resisted and, in some cases, overcome the negative impacts. Each chapter is followed by a set of thought-provoking questions for reflection, extensive references, and related resources.
The book clearly fulfils, in an exemplary way, one of the explicit purposes of the book: to demystify the influence of the current color-evasive market-driven educational policy context (p. 14). In doing so, they offer a critique of the influence of neoliberalism and marketplace competition, which, even though a policy may have an explicit equity goal, continues to benefit those who are already profiting from the status quo instead of achieving equitable outcomes. For example, they show how the school choice policies introduced after the Brown v. Board of Education decision were used as a means for white families to preserve segregation and to avoid school desegregation (p. 40). In this chapter, they provide an overview of numerous school choice policies, distinguishing among charter schools, open-enrollment plans, and magnet schools, before suggesting ways in which school choice could also center race and racial equity. This kind of thorough analysis is repeated in each chapter in ways relevant to the specific topic.
In some cases, the historical overview provides relevant context for current policy to help the reader understand the pervasive and systemic nature of the issue. The current Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), for example, emerged from the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was, at the time, touted as the nations civil rights laws for education (p. 80). Despite this designation, the authors clearly explain the failure of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), despite its equity-based intentions, and both acknowledge the improvements of its successor ESSA and raise questions about its ability to hold states and districts accountable for centering equity. This is the kind of balanced presentation one finds throughout.
In their critical analysis of policy, the authors argument is reminiscent of the warning of Oakes and Rogers (2006) that technical changes by themselves, even in the hands of committed and skillful professional change agents or backed by court orders, are too weak to interrupt the intergenerational transmission of racial inequality (p. 22). Hence, Diem and Welton posited that reforms such as NCLB treated the achievement gap as a simple technical problem that could be resolved through instructional reforms (p. 83). The data acquired in compliance with NCLB, they argued, often only reinforced educators predetermined deficit beliefs that students of color are the cause of school failure (p. 84).
Deficit thinking, in fact, is inherent in many of the policies they analyze that purport to center equity. This is indicative of the need, identified throughout, to pose tough questions (p. 91) to practitioners to help them uncover their own racial biases; as the authors state, If educators racial biases go unchecked when discussing assessments, the decisions based on this data can do more harm than good (p. 90). Because another explicit purpose of the book is to increase educational leaders racial awareness, I would have liked to see more made of this point, and throughout, more discussion directly pertaining to the need for educational leaders to deconstruct knowledge frameworks that perpetuate inequity (Shields, 2018, p. 20).
In their discussion of school funding policies, Diem and Welton assert that the battle over equitable school funding is ongoing due in part to the narrow policy focus on simply reforming school funding formulas (p. 110). Earlier in the chapter, they posit that in order for school funding to improve outcomes, it must be spent in effective ways to benefit those most in need (p. 108). Despite this important critical analysis of each policy, to accomplish their second purpose, it might have been useful to expand the discussion to more explicitly address how an educational leader might, for example, refocus funding policy to ensure more equitable outcomes for those in the most need.
The final stated purpose of the book, to provide anti-racist tools for navigating the policy process (p. 14), is addressed to some extent in each chapter as the authors provide brief exemplars of how neoliberal agendas and exclusionary practices have been challenged in schools and districts across the country. They recount, for example, how Reagan High School in Austin, Texas, avoided closure due to the collective leadership of community-based individuals and organizers. Here, although they emphasize the importance of community-based leadership, there is no sense of what the asset-based and even anti-racist approach (p. 73) actually looked like. Again, I wanted more, but perhaps that is the mark of an excellent analysis: to instill a curiosity and desire to further explore the topics of the book.
The final chapter of the book offers a protocol for anti-racist policy decision-making in educational leadership (p. 138). Here the authors suggest a process for helping leaders confront the systemic color-evasive and market-driven policies that they have analyzed in previous chapters. Each of the six steps in the process is described and offered with guiding questions and key recommendations, including useful resources, for successful implementation. Here, too, I would have liked examples of this protocol working in practice.
Despite my would have liked, I am conscious that no book can do everything, and I reiterate the importance of this volume as a text for any policy making or policy analysis class that wants to link the topic of policy with equity and antiracism. In 1988, Maxine Greene urged that we teach to the end of arousing consciousness . . . in a society of unfulfilled promises in order to make injustice unendurable (p. xxx). This book is a strong response to her call. Unless educators learn to place race and antiracism front and center in educational policy, implementation, and practice, equitable educational access and outcomes will remain simply another unfulfilled promise.
Greene, M (1988). Introduction. Teaching for social justice. In W. Ayers, J. A, Hunt, & T. Quinn (Eds.), Teaching for social justice (pp. xxviixlvi). Teachers College Press.
Oakes, J., & Rogers, J. (2006). Learning power: Organizing for education and justice. Teachers College Press.
Shields, C. M. (2018). Transformative leadership in education. Routledge.
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