This education conference was different--from who took the stage, to mix of conference goers, to the themes that dominated the day. At the heart of that difference was a clear-eyed recognition that race, poverty, and justice are imperative issues for everyone daring to step into the education arena.
The NewSchools Venture Fund 16th annual invitation-only confab, held here on April 30, brought together close to 1,000 educators, entrepreneurs and policy makers from across the US.
Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equity Justice Initiative, began the day with a challenge: “It’s important to discuss the narratives [of inequity], but I want to change the narrative. I want to change the way we talk about race. We’ve never really talked about the legacy of slavery. We need to talk,” he said. (Sadly, his talk won't be available; however, here's an 2012 TED talk he gave on this subject.) His message carried through the rest of the day to a closing panel where Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools pointed out: “Leadership of color in the education reform movement is important for the success of our children in this movement. Period. The end.”
This was a big departure from past NewSchools conferences. Last year's headliner speakers included New York Times columnist Tom Friedman talking about global competitiveness; billionaire venture capitalist John Doerr interviewing (former) billionaire, Mark Pincus. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was interviewed by (billionaire) Laurene Powell Jobs. Just about all those people have become well-known on the edtech circuit.
But this year's NewSchools Summit was different. On stage, there were three times as many presenters of color as last year; most of the presenters work directly in education. Equally notable: the attendees included twice as many people of color than in 2013.
“I knew this conversation was going on out there and I wanted to make a space for it to happen," says Deborah Mintz, Chief Achievement Officer at NewSchools Venture Fund. "There are a lot of people in our portfolio who share this commitment to these issues. But in public edtech gatherings, [equity] has not been a front burner issue,” she adds.
This year, at this conference, it was.
Stevenson kicked off the morning with two key directives in an inspiring speech on race and justice. He focused on hope and discomfort: “Inequity and injustice only live in hopelessness. Your hope is an essential part of how we change communities and lives.” He challenged his listeners: “Human beings are built to seek comfort. We have to choose to do something uncomfortable.”
Panels followed featured leaders from communities such as churches, a group that has not always been engaged in education reform in the past. Rev. Kendrick Curry and Rev. Dr. David A. Hampton led a morning panel on building relationships. They spoke about bridging a largely white-led movement focused on communities made up of mostly poor people of color by staying as closely connected to the community as possible.
Later topics included “But How Do We Know What’s Working?”, “Creativity as a Lever for Social Justice” and “Re-imagining Urban School Districts,” where Cami Anderson, Superintendent of Newark Public Schools stressed the critical importance of building bridges between charter and public school communities to provide a “bullet train for every kid being in an excellent school.”
Attendee Chloe Fagan Tucker, an MBA Fellow at Kapor Capital left the morning session reflective: “There are questions running through my head about how this translates into products or portfolios to invest in? For instance, can we have portfolios of start ups that engage multi economic income levels?”
Tom Pryor, head of communities and partnerships at Khan Academy, said he was refreshed by the different tone of the day’s events. “I like to think of today’s conversations as the difference between education for technology’s sake and technology for education’s sake. This year feels like the latter. Finally,” he says.
For teachers who are immersed every day in questions of community and equity, getting a grip on technology was still very important. “Today I’m so impressed with how much technology is out there that we don’t have available in our public schools. How do we know about it? How do we learn about it? This is still very much a problem,” shared Liz Murphy a fourth grade teacher from Sacramento’s Elk Grove Unified School District, who told EdSurge she skipped school to join the Summit.
At the end of the day, US Deputy Secretary of Education, Jim Shelton led a panel entitled: "Diversifying EdReform Leadership." It pointed out the critical work of finding ways to support people of color as leaders in education reform.
Dr. Howard Fuller, Distinguished Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University opened the conversation with evangelical gusto: “To those of you in the room who’ve got real power, there must be a willingness on your part to invest real resources in organizations that are not just led by people of color but that are controlled by people of color.”
From there, Shelton. “I’m really worried this is just going to be another talk," Shelton said. "The conversation I want us to have today is a real one.”
He got his wish.
Henderson noted that "Until we get to a point where leaders of color can say what they want to say, do what they want to do and lead the way they want to lead in a way that reflects our community, the work [of closing the achievement gap] won’t persist.” Panel member Elisa Villanueva Beard, Co-CEO of Teach for America reinforced why diversity is so important in leadership: “We don’t make good decisions without diverse leadership.”
Shelton pressed the panel: “What’s the real deal about access to capital, who doesn’t get it and why not?” They responded with clarity: people of color face more difficulty raising funds than their white counterparts.
“I watch [funders] give money to failing white leaders over and over," Henderson said, "but they will not do that for black leaders, many who are producing [great] results. We have this skewed belief that we will get funding if we just produce results.”
By the end, panelists had pinpointed some of the hurdles on the hard road ahead for entrepreneurs and school leaders. Villanueva Beard said: “I think we are getting real with the conversation and that can also feel threatening to what it means to have access to power and money.”
Shelton's closing remarks opened another door. “We are so far from where we need to be that this can only be the beginning,” he declared.
“We just felt that the time was ripe to push the field on this now. We definitely took a risk in doing this, and we hope that others will join us in continuing this journey,” says Gloria Lee, NewSchools COO.
And where all agree: Actions ultimately speak louder than the words from a dozen panels.