MILWAUKEE — As the upcoming school year is fast approaching, experts say there shouldn’t be a rush to go back to normal, due to the growing inequities facing students in the education system.
“We do not want to go back to what we had pre-pandemic,” Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, former Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education said. “We need to be thinking that.”
Ladson-Billings was one of many speakers over the course of a full day of conversations hosted by the Wisconsin Public Education Netowork. She spoke about what can be done to Wisconsin’s achievement gap, which is the worst in the nation, to avoid it getting worse.
“I hear people say, when we get back to school or back to normal,” Ladson-Billings said. “Well, normal is the place where the problems were for the kids I’m talking about. Their families don’t need to go back to normal. In normal they were in lower tracks, being suspended and expelled [at higher rates].”
During this conversation, they discussed possible solutions. But it requires everyone to come together.
"We’ve created an artificial divide between them and us,” Ladson-Billings said. “There is no them. There is only us.”
“What COVID has laid bare in a lot of ways is our deep interconnection with other people and the consequences of our actions being deeply connected with other people,” Dr. John Diamond, current Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education said. “We have a strong commitment to individualism, high work ethic, competition, to do what’s best for my kid is best for everybody, or at least what is best for my kid and I don’t care about anyone else.”
Diamond also works with the University of Wisconsin. He says inequities are highlighted due to the pandemic. Wealthier families are able to hire tutors and extra learning opportunities for their kids. While some children at Milwaukee Public School struggle just to connect to the internet.
"There is not that need to change this for my son but need to change to make more equitable schools,” Diamond said. “Make change for what’s good for all kids instead of individual young people.”
The group talks about a hard reset for the school year by having the public school system take a constructive internal look at how this upcoming school year can be the start of a greater tomorrow.
In order to achieve that, Diamond says, everyone needs to be on board.
"Patriotism has turned into, Patriotism is what my political party says is what I want for my family,” Diamond said. “As opposed to, we’re in this together.”
Ladson-Billings used a quote to say this pandemic could be an opportunity to come out better on the other side of the portal.
“We can choose to walk through it,” Ladson-Billings said. “Dragging the carcasses of our prejudices and hatred, or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world and ready to fight for it.”
Pressing a reset button would be a dream scenario, but it’s not realistic to just go in with a fresh slate. Longstanding racial inequities and current social justice movements need to be included in the curriculum. For years, the history books and other subjects were through one lens; that of straight, white men. Diversifying the curriculum can help the next generation of education.
"Sometimes people say, public schools are failing,” Angela Lang, Executive Director of Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) said. “No, they’re not failing. They’re systemically being failed.”
Lang focused on the role education can play in creating a strong democracy. So this current student population can grow up to understand they can make the change they needed when they were young.
"We want to make sure, people understand civic engagement, understand civics,” Lang said. “We don’t teach a lot of that anymore. If they don’t know how a democracy is supposed to function, how to get involved and advocate for themselves, they remove themselves. If we are removing ourselves, it can hardly become a robust democracy.”
A robust democracy, according to Charles Franklin, Director of Marquette Law School Polls, means hearing and understand others. Starting that at a young age could help break down the divisive world we currently live in.
“There’s a strong tendency to generalize that majority view is universal view and not hear enough from dissenting views,” Franklin said. “The minority view may only be 25 to 35 percent. If you have eight people at the table, how many hold dissenting views? Three or maybe just two. But the idea we just assume people hold the majority position. That’s wrong and that’s where building a voice, even if you’re a minority is very helpful.”
Whether a minority view or racial minority, school districts are looking to change the way they teach.
"If we want to speak to equity, we have to be the ones to interrupt those systems of inequities,” Kevin Colburn, a Social Studies teacher in the La Crosse School District said.
Colburn says he’s the first to admit, the curriculum is in need of an overhaul. It’s why he and other teachers in the district are working towards making a more diverse curriculum for everyone.
"We talked about women when talking about the 1920s and then they disappeared until 70s,” Colburn said. “We talked about African Americans in the Civil Rights Era but they disappeared the rest of the time.”
In addition to including some of the often-forgotten parts of history, their school district has adopted a new plan for a more diverse curriculum. Spanish teacher John Havlicek spoke about a new program in their town called #WhoKnew? They make posters that are distributed through their town highlighting a person who doesn't usually come up in history.
“We’re hoping that by highlighting the achievements who are not straight white men, that we can raise awareness that, yeah the stuff you see on tv is maybe just real stereotypical, real prejudicial, what if you knew this? or looked at this?” Havlicek said. “Hopefully we can change some hearts and minds that way. that’s what we’re trying for.”
Bounce Milwaukee actually requested some of the posters to put up in the business. Because of the pandemic, they are not able to be seen now but will as soon as they’re able to open back up.
The Wisconsin Public Education Network is advocating for policy changes in the upcoming election. For more information on how to get involved or learn more about the policies about education, you can visit their website for more information.