While much of education world is locked in circular discussions (mostly centered on charter schools) that is bitterly dividing advocates and opponents into warring camps, two titans of black education and civil rights have quietly started a more productive conversation.

Last month the UNCF, the National Urban League, and Education Post* released “Building Better Narratives in Black Education,” a joint report that considered the views of black parents and leaders about education reform, and proposed “a new path in educational reform.”

The group is hosting small events in select cities to share their findings and generate feedback on how to create a uniquely black movement to improve outcomes for black students.

This is important because too many of the debates about education are frozen by narrow political agendas and meaningless infighting, even among black groups who often speak for black people without taking the additional step of speaking with black people.

The UNCF is America’s largest minority education organization, and the National Urban League is the largest civil rights organization. Both groups support education reform as a strategy for getting black students through college and into high-wage, high-growth careers, but they also believe the national education discourse is “fractured” and to often counter-productive.

“The current narrative in education reform has failed in a few significant ways…it has failed to include the voices of communities of color in a sincere and meaningful way…[it has] overwhelmingly centered on a deficit lens…[and it] has at times been problem-oriented instead of concentrating on initiatives that truly have African American students’ interest at the core,” the report says.

Drawing from a broad set of research studies the report captures themes that are common heard in black communties.

Black parents are tired of the incessant awfulizing of their children, teachers, and schools. For them the deficit-basis by which we seek to improve education rings less true than a solutions-focused agenda highlighting successes with a “what works” orientation.

They also believe language matters. They don’t want to “reform” schools, instead, they want to transform, improve, and strengthen them without a lot of “government bureaucracy.”

For education reform to be effective it must balance honest admissions that most schools are not helping students reach their full potential with lifting up the cases where schools are changing the game for young black lives.

After years of arguing about whether or not black parents care about education (they do), and whether or not schools can make a difference (they can), the Better Narratives research answers both claims.

96% of parents and grandparents agree that education remains the civil rights issue of our time, and it is key for black social mobility.

At the same time, the majority of black people believe public education is off track and that the quality of education our community receives isn’t equal to what other communities get.

To address those issues the report offers four key reforms that research finds black families at all levels support: high standards across states, high-quality assessments, better educational options, and improved teacher quality and accountability.

At its end the report concludes: “The narrative on Black education must be grounded in continuous improvement and focused on tangible solutions. It is time to build this narrative and to deviate, in part, from conversation that are centered only on failure. We cannot wait; the stakes are too dire. Forging the difficult terrain in the education reform movement can be an arduous task, yet it is important to move swiftly in this endeavor.”

It might be time for education world to take a breath and follow the lead of the UNCF and the Urban League.

*Disclaimer: Education Post is my employer

Watch the video of Dr. Michael Lomax from the UNCF and Marc Morial from the National Urban League discussing the issues that provided context for the Better Narratives report.

Also, read the report:

Building A Better Narrative by Citizen Stewart on Scribd

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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