“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men… and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy…Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963
In an open message to well-intentioned but critical allies, Dr. King wrote the stirring and prophetic Letter from Birmingham Jail, imploring proponents of civil rights to not wait and let change happen in due course. Rather, it was his responsibility as a leader to impart urgency, spark conversation and encourage action.
Reading his message many years ago ignited a flame in me, and it serves as a constant source of inspiration for the work that we do at iNACOL. We are on a mission to drive the transformation of education systems and accelerate the advancement of breakthrough policies and practices to ensure high-quality learning for all. As a leader, with a platform that others in our field look to for support, we see it as our responsibility to be explicit about our commitment to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). And it is a fitting time to reflect on our journey to do this work externally for the field of personalized, competency-based education, to effect systems change in education writ large, and, to internally reckon this priority with our staff.
In the Beginning
The very founding of iNACOL was grounded in a determination to expand access to high-quality learning environments for all students, especially those who traditionally have had the least opportunity because of race, ethnicity, class, geography, language proficiency and ability status. The first board chair I worked as CEO under, was Francisco Hernandez, who in 2003 was vice chancellor for student affairs at University of California Santa Cruz and a well-known advocate for AP access for all and for leveling the playing field for school districts that had underdeveloped college- and career-preparatory curricula. It was that spirit and the dialogue in education circles at the time that drew me to iNACOL and served as the guiding philosophy for our earliest work.
There were massive gaps in student achievement and there was a dearth in access to highly qualified teachers and rigorous courses in far too many communities around the country. We knew this lack of access had far-reaching implications, as school systems were graduating generations of students who were unprepared for the changing world that awaited them. Our work then was to call that out and create new knowledge about scaling access and innovating ways to ensure black, brown, poor, rural and disabled students — along with all learners in America’s education systems — had a fair chance to succeed in the next phase of their lives.
The Changing Conversation
As iNACOL grew and became a convener of education leaders, policymakers, parents, teachers and students, our conversations about DEI naturally deepened. At the same time, our overarching strategy as an organization was shifting toward personalized, competency-based education. We questioned the structures that ranked and sorted students, that reduced a student’s thirteen years in K-12 education to a single number with a GPA, that exacerbates gaps over time rather than organizing the system resources around student needs. We wondered whether new innovations were replicating the problems we unearthed and we gained a re-energized focus on building a system that would work for all students. On creating a nonprofit to focus on adaptive leadership aimed at building bridges for dedicated practitioners working on redesigning learning to ensure mastery for all students. Equity, opportunity for all and a call for a just society became a driving force. We were having a lot of conversations with leaders across the field about disrupting inequities and asking big-picture questions about the nature of our education system. That meant our work led us down paths where we had to ask tough questions about the purpose of education, our moral responsibilities for ushering young people along their journey toward adulthood, the structure and financing of education systems and the pervasive culture that is embedded in our schools and in our thinking about schooling. We had to face the unvarnished truth that not only was our one-size-fits-all approach to learning not adequately preparing students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to self-actualize and have agency in our changing economy, but our conversations, our convenings and our coworkers did not reflect (backgrounds, perspectives, diversity) those closest to the issues we were trying to resolve. I now think back on it. We were really working hard; dedicated. We had the best intentions. We were, albeit unintentionally, reproducing the inequities we sought to dismantle.
For example, a trusted mentor and staunch equity advocate, Raymond Rose (now president of Rose & Smith Associates) challenged me after our first Symposium in 2005 about the fact that all of the leadership and the attendees at our event where overwhelmingly white. I looked around and it was inescapable – the overwhelming whiteness of the event. He and I both have extensive relationships with leaders of color in the field — and we depended greatly on their counsel — but our external work didn’t reflect them. While this was happening, iNACOL was also growing as a team. We jokingly referred to ourselves as a bunch of individuals in a field of unlikely innovators, leading-edge professionals (often ahead of the curve) bringing together a new community of the willing change agents who all wanted to do better by our nation’s youth and their learning. As we grew from two to five to 15, Ray’s challenge had become etched in our institutional memory. We knew not only did we need diverse leaders represented at our convenings, but our staff producing new knowledge needed to represent the wide swath of backgrounds, perspectives and approaches to learning as well.
A New Initiative
Two years ago, iNACOL was selected to participate in the inaugural cohort of Promise54. This meant our staff, and a newly created team dedicated to DEI, could engage with our counterparts at other education nonprofits. We were brought together because of our shared commitment to achieving maximum impact in education, and we pledged that part of that work was ensuring our teams and work reflect the communities we serve. We committed to a culture of inclusiveness and promised to examine our internal structures with an equity lens. In addition to joint sessions where we learned with and from one another, being a member of Promise54 also meant access to personalized coaching. We began working with Tracey Benson, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, who pushed us out of our comfort zone and gave us new language as we adapted to new thinking about equity in education and how we, as an organization, must approach it. We’ve read books, conducted enlightening activities at staff retreats, examined our data and results, and more importantly we’ve gazed deeply within and are ready to do more and do better.
We aren’t there yet, if “there” is a destination at which we’ve achieved real equity in education and leaders, policies and practices don’t even subtly reproduce inequity, and our staff perfectly represents our nation’s changing demographics. However we have progressed, and we’re proud of that. The importance of DEI work in education can’t be overstated. Our work to date prompts important questions for the field at large and we humbly challenge our partners in the field, to answer:
- What are our values?
- For whom are we speaking when we talk about improving quality and rigor and excellence in learning? Is it everyone?
- What do we mean when we talk about having a just and prosperous nation? Is it for all?
- And if it’s for all, how can we tell?
We are by no means experts in DEI, but our current work suggests a number of lessons our friends and partners can use to begin broaching these questions.
- Get Clear on the Purpose of Education. Start with community aspirations for students, and interrogate the dependence on time, credits, testing to get there. What does it really take to fulfill the community’s needs?
- Make Safe Spaces for Courageous Conversations. DEI is a sensitive topic, and racial equity especially has been a third-rail conversation. But we as individuals, and as organizations, must get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. For all of us working to change our nation’s education systems, we must have safe spaces for those conversations to happen. We must allow our colleagues to ask questions and learn. We must be able to disagree respectfully. We must avoid the superficial and go deep about what is needed to create and sustain change.
- Look at Who’s at the Table. We challenge organizations in the field to examine who is on their calls, at their convenings and trainings, especially invite-only meetings, who advises them and sits on their boards. Like us, you might be deeply engaged with those who have lived experiences with inequitable education, but are they being recognized and listened to?
- Embrace Discomfort with Top-Down Approaches and Equip Your Team. Organizational leaders understand the weight they have in pushing new initiatives through and in changing culture, but when it comes to approaching DEI internally, they should expect some anxiety with DEI being a top-down mandate. Early on, team members may react positively to a new DEI initiative because social convention teaches all of us to do so. But you won’t see real investment of time and energy by team members until they are equipped with all of the above: they know the intention of the work, they know they can ask questions and make mistakes and they see real effort by leadership to embrace diversity.
Your journey to DEI may be entirely different from ours but now is the time to do what is right by our nation’s youth. We are here to help and learn together. As always, your feedback and questions and requests are welcomed.
- iNACOL – Equity by Design in the Educator Workforce
- iNACOL – Leadership in Student-Centered, Equitable Learning Environments
- iNACOL – Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed
- iNACOL – Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education
- CompetencyWorks – Step by Step Our Field Builds Its Capacity for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
- CompetencyWorks – An Equity Framework for Competency-Based Education
- National Equity Project – Why Equity?
- Opportunity Institute, Dignity in Schools, NAACP Legal Defense Fund – Engage for Education Equity: A Toolkit for School Communities on ESSA
- Promise54 – Unrealized Impact
- The Center for Educational Equity
- 2018 iNACOL Symposium – Remarks of Nicholas Donohue, iNACOL Board Chair and President and CEO Nellie Mae Education Foundation
- 2017 iNACOL Symposium – Remarks of Caroline Hill, former Chief of School Creation, CityBridge – Learning by Design: Breakthrough Models for Empowering Youth and Innovations for Educational Excellence
- Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – We’re Building a Table Large Enough for Everyone to Have a Seat — and a Voice
- Grantmakers for Education – The Equity Journey: NewSchools Venture Fund and Lumina Foundation Pursue Diversity on the Road to Equity
- Nellie Mae Education Foundation – Personal Reflections on a Foundation’s Equity Journey