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Our rhetorical touchstones say a lot about what we regard as important history. At my last job we joked that you could measure the intensity of an author’s commitment to education reform by how early in an article that person referenced A Nation at Risk. In fact, if you do a Google search for the phrase “years since a nation at risk,” almost all of the top hits use that exact phrase within the first paragraph. A Nation at Risk was birthed by the Reagan administration, although somewhat to the chagrin of Dutch himself, and was as much economic doctrine as education policy. Like Russia’s Sputnik gambit lit a fire under a generation’s worth of engineering programs, so did A Nation at Risk lean on measures of international competitiveness to spark urgency for America’s schools. If you want to pinpoint the origin story of contemporary education reform, the publication of A Nation at Risk is a safe choice.

It’s no surprise, then, that many of the centrist characteristics of reform orthodoxy – deregulation, competition, talent, accountability, etc. – can be found in that document (while it notably eschews some of Reagan’s harder right views, like prayer in school and vouchers). Centrist democrats, first in the Clinton administration and again under Obama, embraced many of the report’s core tenets while putting a leftward spin on some of the ideas, supplementing competition with additional funds and providing infrastructural supports to accompany market-based accountability, for example. Three decades later, the education reform coalition is made up of the technocratic reformers, mostly of the center-right and center-left, who worked in and out of government to right the wrongs outlined in A Nation at Risk.

That coalition of technocrats also happens to be overwhelmingly white, particularly at the leadership level.

I won’t be the first to say this, but I certainly don’t hear enough of this from my fellow white technocrats: there is no greater risk to the viability of reform than continuing to perpetuate this underrepresentation people of color in leadership. The risk is heightened further when folks start to identify as a “movement.”

Men and women of color led the civil rights movement and are leading the current movement for racial justice, which includes Black Lives Matter. Gay men and women led the fight for marriage equality. Women led the movement for women’s suffrage and equal rights, and women are still leading efforts for gender equality. When set in the context of these other movements, it seems crazy that a movement to improve the educational outcomes for children of color would be led by white technocrats, but that’s what education reform looks like right now.

Some reformers want to make this problem more complex than it needs to be, but there are some easy fixes.

First and foremost, have more people of color in leadership positions. I hear organizations gripe that it’s hard to find qualified leaders of color, but professional networks are self-reinforcing. In other words, your organization’s current whiteness is a liability to it becoming less white over time. If you have an open position and every person you interview for that position is white, you need to try harder and look elsewhere. This is true at every level, from corporate boards to entry-level jobs.

Second, if you are white and committed to improving life opportunities for children of color, we need your talent.

I hear white folks who get discouraged by talk of representation and diversity, and while I don’t agree with them, it’s often because they think diversification means there’s no role for them in reform. There is a role for white people in a movement with people of color in leadership, but the price of admission to that world is being an ally in a fight that is centered on the lives of children and communities of color. As white people, we cannot have this both ways. We either agree that this is a movement for the betterment of people of color and get behind their leadership, or we admit once and for all that we’re a technocratic interest group and drop the pretense of movement rhetoric, politics, and urgency.

If some white folks in the current iteration of education reform decide that being in a group of technocrats is more to their taste, more power to them. We need great technocrats, thinkers, wonks, and bureaucrats of all colors, genders, and backgrounds. It’s refreshing when someone says that they really don’t care that much about “the kids,” if that’s their truth. That said, when it comes to making high stakes decisions about the lives of children and communities of color, we need people of color not just “at the table,” but calling the shots. This idea is uncomfortable to some folks for a whole host of reasons, including the discomfort that comes from talking about leadership in such starkly racial terms. But we talk about children and their communities in explicit – and coded – racial language all the time.

Why beat around the bush when it comes to leadership and, perhaps more importantly, power?

Yes it’s been thirty years since A Nation at Risk, but it’s been sixty since Brown v. Board. Going back twice as far might mean going twice as deep. And that’s a good thing.

Justin Cohen

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