When the coronavirus forced Washington school buildings to close in March, the changes to education were swift and complete. Class went online. Parents became de facto teachers. Lesson plans were replaced by a focus on student well-being and safety.

The transformation left many wondering: Why haven’t we made changes overnight — or even over decades — so education is truly equitable for all children?

This story is the first in a series about how to revamp the education system to improve equity in the wake of the pandemic.

Puget Sound education leaders, especially people of color who have long known schools set up Black and brown children for failure, say it’s past time to reimagine how education could better serve their communities. 

But they see a dawning awareness among mostly white leaders that the country’s education system is rife with racism and inequity. The inequities are structural — the training and diversity of teachers, what children are taught and how they are disciplined — and are all rooted in methods that harm Black and Latino students more than their peers and fail to help them succeed.

The pairing of a pandemic that changed the basic structure of school — indeed, no one’s certain whether or how schools will reopen in just a few weeks — with a simultaneous conscience-raising social movement has opened a window where radical change is possible.

“We have this rare moment. Everything is so disrupted, can we really refocus and re-center on students of color?” said Erin Okuno, executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. “It might look really, really different and it’s going to be really uncomfortable. But everything already is uncomfortable.”

But change won’t happen unless more people of color are given power to reshape education. And based on Washington’s response so far, some fear that when school resumes, change will be focused solely on new health and safety requirements, not substantive reforms geared toward education equity.

What would change look like? Here’s what nearly a dozen education experts said they’d like to see:

  • A curriculum that teaches about the contributions and histories of all people, but particularly people of color, which helps all students become more fully invested in learning.
  • Conducting meaningful, ongoing teacher training in anti-racism, starting in college and continuing throughout a teacher’s career, which could help curb disproportionate discipline and stereotypes about academic potential based on a student’s race.
  • Recognizing that education has relied for too long on Band-Aid approaches that don’t stick and fail to result in significant change.
  • Getting more people who have been ill-served by the current system onto school boards, in advisory roles and into the Legislature.

For most of the past decade, the state was involved in a fierce debate over the adequacy of school funding, a saga known as the McCleary case. Its resolution forced lawmakers to pour billions more into the K-12 system, but the bulk of that money targeted inadequate teacher pay, not racial equity.

How we’re covering structural racism and systemic change in education, and how you can get involved

The current system was designed to educate a largely middle- and upper-middle class white population. To change it, those people with power who have not faced oppression because of their race will have to give something up — perhaps sharing the bounty their PTA can raise, or changing a cherished program that tends to serve mostly white students; the current system has arguably forced students of color to “give up” basic aspects of a fair education for decades.

White parents and leaders came out in June to support Black Lives Matter protests, often with their children, carrying hand-lettered placards. But “if people are serious about anti-racism,” said University of Washington College of Education associate professor Ann Ishimaru, “they can’t just make signs.” Ishimaru is co-principal investigator for the Family Leadership Design Collaborative, a national effort to re-center nondominant families in racial equity efforts.

Those seeking change don’t want things to get “back to normal.” They want a new normal.

The speed of logistical changes schools made in response to coronavirus led Heidi Schillinger, founder and principal at Equity Matters, a racial equity consulting firm in Seattle, to “think, ‘Oh, it is possible, and there is the will to do things differently. We can do this.”

But Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition, a member of a Washington work group charged with devising plans to reopen school, said the group missed an opportunity to have big conversations about inequity in education.

“What I’m afraid of is when we come back from this we’re still going to be sending [Black and brown] children to a system and a building that looks at them like, ‘What are they going to need from me?’ as opposed to, ‘How do we cultivate the best out of this child?’ I think that’s such a mind shift and culture shift that needs to be taking place in education.”

An inequitable beginning

To make education truly equitable, many experts say, those who have built it and benefited from it must reckon with its dark history.

To scratch the surface: In the 1850s, states began passing compulsory public education laws over growing concerns about child labor, but also to instill civic values in new waves of immigrant children. A decade later, education was again a tool of assimilation, when boarding schools were set up to forcibly take Indigenous children away from their families and train them in English — and strip them of their language and culture.

For generations of Black people, public education was illegal, and then segregated. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation, integration “happened on the terms of white communities,” Schillinger said. Today, schools are still highly segregated by race and class.

This adds up to nearly two centuries of inequitable practices to undo, said Navas.

“We keep thinking that because of Brown vs. Board of Education, we have fixed education and that it’s no longer harmful for students of color, Natives, immigrants and refugees,” Navas said.

That’s not true, she said.

 So what does such a reckoning look like?

It could mean having a national conversation about systemic racism — much like what’s beginning to happen amid the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black people. In practice, Navas said, it means centering reform around what students of color say they want and need.

No “silver bullets”

Many critics say educators need to stop searching for silver-bullet fixes and magical programs that promise to repair education. The problems go beyond education, to the way society is structured.

That addiction to stopgap measures, coupled with a failure to fully fund education, has stymied real change, said Trish Millines Dziko, a former Microsoft executive who founded the nonprofit Technology Access Foundation (TAF) in the late 1990s. TAF started as an after-school program and morphed into a school model used in a handful of local schools, including Federal Way’s TAF@Saghalie, and is coming to Seattle’s Washington Middle School this year.

Dziko said educators have tried to fix one thing at a time within the system, and “now we have this system that’s full of patches and Band-Aids, and it doesn’t work for everybody. … We like Band-Aids, and we like the easy stuff that makes people look good.”

These approaches tend to target students of color. Programs devoted to lifting up certain student groups — such as a new Seattle Public Schools department for Black boys and teens, which is aimed at empowering them and recently received nearly $2 million in philanthropic support — might be well-intentioned, and in some cases, effective. But they don’t amount to remaking the system.

“They bring in these programs that are targeted toward Black and brown students and the mission is to fix the student while not addressing the structures,” said Tracy Castro-Gill, executive director of Washington Ethnic Studies Now.

There’s a difference between trying to “program your way out” of racial inequity and true racial justice, others say.

Changing the curriculum

Shortly after schools shut down in March, Erin Jones, an educational consultant who ran an unsuccessful campaign for superintendent of public instruction in 2016, held a Zoom class for students who wanted to discuss systemic racism and education. About 20 students of different races showed up.

Jones said that failing to teach about racism and oppression harms white students as much as students of color. For one class, she asked her students to watch a video that unpacked the reasons why Black communities have significantly less wealth than white families.

“The students were so angry they had never heard any of this stuff in our classrooms,” she said. For example, they were incensed to learn about “redlining,” the government-backed policy that caused many African Americans to be denied mortgages to buy property in their own neighborhoods, and perpetuated segregation in the U.S. for decades.

Jones is hopeful that this moment will lead to change. She said, “It’s the first time in my lifetime we’ve had an opportunity to dramatically shift public education.”

In Seattle, some teachers are making conversations about race integral to their lesson plans.

When protests over the killing of George Floyd erupted here and across the country, Shraddha Shirude, a math teacher at Garfield High School, asked her students: If police were defunded, where should that money go? They examined the city’s budget and dreamed up solutions.

Shirude is secretary director of the nonprofit Washington Ethnic Studies Now, leads workshops and runs a blog called Woke Math, where she writes about racial justice and ethnic studies in education. Keeping students interested from afar during the shutdown wasn’t easy, and few were participating. But the police project brought many back into the fold.

“The message is so clear: Kids want us to talk about things that matter,” she said. Schools prioritize punitive policies, she said, like truancy and tardiness. “We don’t need those things if we can actually get kids invested” through lessons that are relevant to their lives.

Scrutinizing the way students are assessed is important, too: Many educators interviewed said tests and grading systems can harm students of color more than white peers. Instead of tests, they suggested, students could demonstrate their skills through projects.

Why anti-racist training is key

Critics say districts and colleges of education rarely have students undergo a “personal journey” to examine their own biases and make changes, said Dziko. It’s especially important to do that work because about 88% of Washington’s teachers are white, whereas nearly half of all public school children are not.

Most equity training takes a form that Niral Shah, a former high school math teacher turned assistant professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education, calls the inoculation model: “Let’s do a three-hour session on implicit bias, and people won’t be biased anymore.” 

But Shah, a professor of the learning sciences and human development, says studies show that awareness of bias isn’t enough to change it. And it is at the heart of disproportionate discipline and stereotypes about academic ability.

Shah has developed a coaching method that helps teachers see racial bias by flipping the training on its head. A coach first observes a teacher in class, watching interactions with students. Spotting bias and fixing it comes next.

“If you don’t believe Black students have value, or immigrant students have value, all the programs in the world can’t change that,” said Jones, the education consultant.

Giving up power

To make broad, systemic change, school districts need to listen to, and empower, people who have lived experience with systemic racism and oppression, says Julia Warth, director of policy and research for the League of Education Voters, a 19-year-old Seattle nonprofit that has worked to make education more equitable. But at least so far, she says, those communities are being left out of the conversation — even now, during this critical window for change.

Jones echoed Warth’s thought. “The most marginalized people are never invited to the table,” she said. “So stuff continues to happen to them, instead of with them.”

Warth also thinks all of the education players — unions, parent associations, districts, advocates, legislators — need to take a hard look at the role they have played. Many have issued high-minded equity statements, yet little changed.

To understand structural racism, look at our schools

Families with more wealth and power work to give their children every advantage, often to the detriment of families who can’t — a concept known as opportunity hoarding. “People are actually beginning to confront these dynamics,” said Ishimaru, who pointed to the example of PTAs in Seattle that have started sharing funds they raised with less-fortunate schools.

The state’s schools chief, Chris Reykdal, said he agrees with many of the changes called for by experts interviewed for this article: He sees a need for more teachers of color and changes to school curriculum, he said. Changes based on safety and equity can happen simultaneously, he added, and said districts are already making such choices when they decide who to prioritize for in-person instruction in the fall. “We clearly have a strange year coming,” he said. “But let’s face it, that’s the first opportunity for big transformation.”

Others say the education system should be judged by the success of those it leaves out. “It isn’t this idea of, ‘I’m going to take from you so I can do better and you’re going to do worse.’ That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about making the system work for everybody,” said Lynn Jennings, senior director of national and state partnerships at The Education Trust.

Both Ishimaru and Shah, the UW professors, see hopeful signs that things could change.

People are awakening to the breadth and harm of systemic racism, and for the first time they’re having tough conversations among friends and family, Shah said. If those conversations can evolve into specific actions, “that’s where things go beyond making signs and going to a protest.”

Your stories and experiences are crucial to our storytelling. As we cover schools reopening and structural racism in the education system, we’d like to hear from you.

You can also answer these questions via email at edlab@seattletimes.com. As we consider planning a virtual live conversation on what going back to school this year will look like, please feel free to also tell us what times work best for you.