Finding the Way to Equity in Education

Our schools don't take the needs of all students into account. New tools can help in crafting policies that engage everyone.

A white female teacher works with black girls with white boys in the distance.
Imagine you were designing a hospital that, rather than simply providing care and medications, would be fully responsible for the lives of its patients. Your contribution would change the lives of your patients, for good or for ill. How would you go about ensuring that your patients will benefit from your treatment?

As all successful hospital administrators know, the relationship between the patient and the hospital is vital. Involving your stakeholders before you design or reinvent your product is essential.

Now imagine you are designing an elementary and secondary education system that does not engage its most important "patients": students. This is the reality faced by students across the country, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. They are required to receive a treatment that does not take their needs -- or their talents -- into account.

But it does not have to be this way. We have come to this "treatment design" through choices made over generations. Some of those choices have been purposefully harmful for young people like me.

As a young man of color born and raised in the Bronx, I have seen these consequences first-hand. When young men and women in communities like mine are left out of the education policy conversation, we lose the opportunity to be a part of the larger society. Some of us lose years of our lives to the criminal-justice system -- or even lose our lives to violence.

This bad medicine has driven my work as the youngest assistant to the chancellor of the New York State Education's Department Board of Regents and as an Advisory Council member for the Obama Foundation's My Brother's Keeper Alliance. Our country needs more students working at a high level to create a shared vision of success.

Just as we have made bad choices in education, we can make good ones. With the recent election of a new wave of state leaders and policymakers, we have a tremendous opportunity to flip the traditional approach to education policy and instead create a system centered around students while bringing a focus on true accountability for all stakeholders.

Every student should have the opportunity for deep and nuanced engagement. Policies with broad ownership among students have an increased chance of long-term success and can help those who craft education policies be more effective. Proactively building relationships and creating policy in partnership with us helps ensure that our education system is designed to address our needs and aspirations.

To help these new leaders take on this challenge, I recently had the opportunity to work with the Aspen Institute's Education and Society Program and with dozens of other organizations across the country to develop resources for policymakers. These include not only issue briefs on topics including school safety and student discipline but also a student-engagement rubric -- a comprehensive guide to help policymakers take stock of current practices and engage and create a vision with students.

The rubric covers five critical areas of prioritization: vision, relationships, communications, transparency and inclusivity. Students can also use this tool to both engage with policymakers and keep them accountable. (The rubric and other resources can be found here

Together, we can create an education landscape that is far more inclusive and where a diverse universe of students remains consistently engaged in monitoring progress toward a state's vision and goals. We can help education leaders understand the ongoing barriers that make it difficult for students to feel heard, barriers that prevent them from fully trusting policymakers to have their best interests in mind.

Together, policymakers and students can design equity-focused education policies that address issues students face at home, in their communities and within their schools -- barriers that are often ignored to the detriment of student achievement and college and career readiness.

As we have seen over the last year, students are not shy about voicing their concerns, identifying solutions and building coalitions. They are more willing to speak up about the inequities and other challenges in our education system, whether it's addressing the threat of school shootings, the battle for the free expression of thought on campus, or the end to racism and classism in our educational institutions. Students are organizing and demanding better.

This is a crossroads moment for education. Will we continue down the path that has failed so many students, some of whom are not with us today? Or will we finally bring the most important stakeholders in education to the table?

A master's in public administration student at Binghamton University