Our state has a long, rich history — Santa Fe was declared the capital in 1610 (roughly the same time Jamestown was established in 1607) — but people have inhabited this region as far back as 9200 B.C. It should come as no surprise then, that this long history sometimes brings controversy. That was especially clear last week with the removal of the Juan de Oñate statues.
Similar tensions abound in education; it’s time to talk about them. An understanding of our history and the current moment should prompt discussions about that past and the future of education for our state.
Ever since the book A Nation at Risk in 1983, America has pursued standards-based education and a focus on academic skills and knowledge. This has included standardized assessments and accountability. These changes were helpful in improving graduation rates and reducing the number of students performing below basic levels. It was a good start. And while this raised the bar for what every student deserves, it also effectively standardized education.
We have aligned our entire education system toward societal norms and values (for everything from how we use discipline to how we use time), content and curricula, instructional approaches, and measures in ways that are more likely to oppress young people’s self-expression and identity and further defeat the American ideal of a pluralistic society.
Just as European settlers colonized indigenous communities, just as our history books teach us about where America and our state began, we have colonized education. As a result, too many students of color and English-language learners say school is not for them: They don’t feel safe in school or feel like they belong, and they aren’t asked to do challenging or interesting work.
We have an opportunity to decolonize our education system and refocus it on ensuring that all students experience belonging as scholars in the intellectual community of school.
u First, empower students and families to inform every major decision post-COVID-19. Education leaders need to ask families and young people what they want from schools and need to give them the power and authority to make that true. This would be a significant shift from common approaches to working with families, which frequently include devaluing their expertise and perspective, asking them for feedback that is not taken, and getting their sign-off on decisions that have already been made.
u Second, fund and provide training on culturally and linguistically responsive education, instruction that centers students — their voices, questions, experiences, their full humanity — in the effort to create meaningful learning opportunities. CLRE is a process that involves considering race and culture (of adults and students) and reimagining instructional practices and materials. This is not something that can be picked up off a shelf and delivered to schools. This is a complex process that requires deep professional development.
u Third, embrace a whole-child approach. Anchored in long-standing research and new science on how the human brain processes information, this approach considers how the environment influences our ability to learn, how trauma, mental and physical health, and nutrition influence healthy development. Whole-child approaches to education also cannot be race-neutral, considering how mindsets about people of color influence approaches to serving and interacting with them.
We’re not just reckoning with the pandemic, but with generations of colonization and oppression. One thing is clear, the current approach to education is not working.