“I think everything's at stake really, because I do think that the battle over what is taught in schools and what that looks like is very much tied to our vision and values for the country and what we represent as a democracy, which has been under assault.”
Professor Sonya Douglass is leading the Black Education Research Center (BERC) in a project to create a first-of-its-kind, Pre-K through 12 interdisciplinary Black Studies curriculum for New York City public schools, the largest district in the U.S. She walks us through BERC’s research and findings about the impacts of COVID-19 and racism on Black students and families (2:14), why including Black Studies in our education is important and relevant, as well as a long time coming (5:07). We explore what’s at stake, for our students and our democracy, in the midst of current attacks on teachers and public education (8:11).
Professor Douglass takes us inside the ground-breaking work that this curriculum project is taking on (11:48), and how they are thinking ahead to reach other communities across the country (14:15). She shares how she’s doing in the midst of both these efforts and this political environment (16:20) and the vision that pulls her forward. Dr. Douglass frames Black Studies as the study of the world (19:35) and how this inclusive approach can serve as a corrective to existing schooling, which highlights the perspective of white Europeans to the exclusion of others.
There tends to be more talk about what people don’t want in schools instead of what they do, but here Professor Douglass walks us through the six tenants of this emancipatory vision of education (20:46), and addresses what actions we can take to support and advance this future (23:03).
This series is created, hosted and produced by Joe Riina-Ferrie and Jen Lee, with audio production and original music by Billy Collins. "How's School?" is a production of The Digital Futures Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University.
The views expressed in this episode are solely those of the speaker to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, staff or Trustees either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.
Dr. Sonya Douglass is Professor and Director of the Black Education Research Center (BERC) at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her work focuses on education leadership, policy, politics, and practice. She has published more than 20 articles in journals like Educational Administration Quarterly, Education Policy, and Teachers College Record, edited three books on educational equity and leadership, and authored two award-winning books: Learning in a Burning House: Educational Inequality, Ideology, and (Dis)Integration and The Politics of Education Policy in an Era of Inequality: Toward Democratic Possibilities for Schooling with Janelle T. Scott and Gary L. Anderson.
In 2017, Dr. Douglass founded the Black Education Research Center to convene scholars devoted to conducting, translating, and disseminating research that leads to improved educational opportunities, experiences, and outcomes for Black children and youth.
Sonya Douglass: I think everything's at stake really. I mean, because I do think that the battle over what is taught in schools and what that looks like is very much tied to our vision and values for the country and what we represent as a democracy, which has been under assault.
Joe Riina-Ferrie: Sometimes on How's School we don't actually talk about schools, but this week that's where we're going. We're your hosts, Joe Riina-Ferrie.
Jen Lee: And Jen Lee. Hey everyone.
Joe: This week we want to get into how the attempt to teach students the real history of the United States has come under attack, catching teachers and school administrators in the pathway of harassment, firings, and threats to their personal safety. The phrase, "Critical Race Theory," is being weaponized to restrict any teaching of history that acknowledges the ongoing impacts of slavery and racism in the United States.
Jen: Today's guest, Professor Sonya Douglass, is leading the Black Education Research Collective in a project to create a Pre-K through 12 Black Studies curriculum for New York City public schools. Thank you so much for talking with us today.
Sonya Douglass: Thank you for having me.
Joe: Before we get to this point in the story, we know this isn't a new issue. So would you tell us about the research that you've been doing with BERC, which is the Black Education Research Collective about the twin pandemics of COVID and racism and how Black families have been impacted to set some of the context for where we are now?
Sonya Douglass: Sure. I'd be happy to. One of the big projects that BERC was able to take up after COVID was to, well, we decided that we really wanted to center the perspectives and experiences of Black community members, especially students, parents, and just people in the community to get a sense of how they felt the pandemic, as well as the rising examples of racial violence, we think about the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all that was happening just two years ago, and how that was impacting teaching and learning in schools.
And so we engaged in a mixed method study where we had a survey that we distributed widely across the country to students and parents and community members and educators, as well as conducting focus groups in six metropolitan areas throughout the country to get a feel again of how the pandemic and just the discourses around and actual activity around race and racism was impacting folks. And we learned quite a bit. I think what was stunning was just the similarities in terms of experience across contexts. So, we were talking to individuals in places like Washington DC and New York City, Detroit, Boston, Las Vegas, and Atlanta, Georgia. We found some striking similarities in terms of what people were experiencing. For example, having a lot of family members who are frontline workers, having multi-generational households, so people were really scared about having to work and also bring the virus back home potentially to grandparents and elders in the home, as well as young children. And a set of recommendations that were pretty clear in that there was a demand for Black studies curriculum or Black history curriculum, and really finding ways to make sure that teachers and leaders knew how to support, educate, affirm Black students, particularly at a time like this, where students were so vulnerable to both the threats to their health as a result of COVID as well as just the really heated and scary discourses dealing with race and anti-Blackness.
Joe: I just wanted to sort of acknowledge that the work that you're doing with BERC began before the sort of current iteration of this political backlash. And I mean, we can get farther into some of the more, deeper history of this, but thanks for giving us that starting point.
Sonya Douglass: You're welcome.
Jen: Yeah, and I think one thing is that we think about when we're looking at this issue is that where we started from already was a harmful way to teach young people history. And now we find ourselves moving really rapidly in the wrong direction as political activists use the name of critical race theory to create controversy around any mention of race, diversity or inclusion in school settings. Has that impacted your work?
Sonya Douglass: It certainly has. As Joe mentioned, this work with BERC has pre-dated the triple pandemics, maybe quadruple pandemics at this point. And it was because we recognize that the problem of educational inequality, particularly around issues of race, has just been a part of the education system and experience in this country. I think what we see now as part of the reckoning that many have anticipated and these moments that we go through, right, in terms of political and public life, where we are faced with crises and difficult decisions and have to kind of confront them and decide who we are as a nation and what we represent. And I think that's the moment that we're in now and that BERC's work, but because it pre-dates it, for me has just underscored the significance of what we've been doing, that it really is important. It's valid. That the tools that we use have in many ways predicted this moment, as we have seen larger policy shifts happening over the last three decades in terms of really rolling back protections for public schools and public educators, of focusing on high stakes testing and accountability, on stripping the arts and athletics and music and other elements that we believe are really important parts of the educational experience and really reducing them to testing and a focus on narrow measures of academic achievement.
So I think this, while tragic and really painful to go through is a necessary growth for us as a country, to really one, reveal that there are a lot of individuals who have strong feelings about what should be taught in schools and what those feelings are and what those values are so that we can have, I think, more of a transparent and open discussion about what we want to see in our schools and what we believe should be taught in schools.
So while again, it's, I think a challenging moment for me, it's encouraging in that our work is necessary, it's relevant, and it can actually help to serve as an approach and a set of tools that will help us to begin to build the type of education system that we know all children deserve.
Jen: One thing I'm thinking about is just the way that this conflict over the curriculum is escalating, and one story in particular that's coming to mind just happened a couple days before this taping, where it was reported that Tulsa public schools’ district had their accreditation status downgraded as a result of talking about race and diversity and inclusion in school. And so I guess we'd love to hear you also talk about what do you think is at stake either locally or nationally for families, for students, for educators, as we see this conflict kind of swell.
Sonya Douglass: I think everything's at stake really. I mean, because I do think that the battle over what is taught in schools and what that looks like is very much tied to our vision and values for the country and what we represent as a democracy, which has been under assault. I mean, I know that terrorism sounds like a strong word, but when you think about the tactics that policy makers and legislators are enacting to limit free speech to in this instance of Tulsa, downgrade the standing of a school district based on the fact that it's teaching certain topics, things that certain people may not want to be taught or feel uncomfortable with, it's a scary time that we're in.
It also, I think, is why I really emphasize the role of policy and leadership in education, because while there's so many wonderful things that we've learned around the science of learning, how children learn, how best to teach, how to improve our pedagogical strategies and approaches, without the right leaders and policy makers in place to develop policy that really govern how we do what we do in schools, we can end up in situations like this where there's a chilling effect in terms of what teachers can and can't teach, people are literally not only afraid of losing their jobs, but their lives at the hands of violence and threats, and that it just really emphasizes the need for educators and those who support public education to mobilize, to really stand on the values that we hold dear, and to find ways to influence policy and make sure that we are electing individuals who represent our values as part of the policy making process. So, elections matter and they're important. That's why there's so much, I don't even know what to call it, there's so much activity around electioneering, right? Because certain folks know how important voting is, and they know how important schools are, and they're using kind of the full power of that knowledge to their benefit. And I think this is where, again, those who support public education and democracy really need to step up and find ways to elect the individuals that will best represent us and advocate for the policies that we know are important to education.
Joe: Yeah, I think that’s, I mean, I really appreciate that point about, we've learned a lot of great stuff about pedagogical approaches, but if the political context won't even support the use of what we know are the best approaches, not even necessarily just for learning, but also for acknowledging and not actively harming the students in our schools, if it's mandated that we can't even use approaches like that, then we're not going to be able to put in best practices. Teachers, they don't even have the ground to stand on to begin with that. So I really appreciate that point.
So I think, I mean, this all is really in the news right now, but as you said before, with BERC, you were already working on developing this Black Studies curriculum. Can you tell us about the project that you're currently working on in New York City and what gave rise to it?
Sonya Douglass: Sure. Well, BERC is really excited to be a part of a group of organizations that are working to develop the first ever pk-12 interdisciplinary Black Studies curriculum for the largest district in the country. It's really an undertaking that's never been done before. And we didn't know that until we started doing our own landscape analysis to get a sense of what type of curriculums were out there already in districts. And I think what's most exciting about it is that while the award is to develop a curriculum and a professional learning plan, it requires every stakeholder you can imagine to make something like this work, and it really embodies what I think educational transformation looks like.
And so while we talk a lot about equity and justice and reforming and transforming schools, taking up a specific project like this really makes, it requires that all that work happens. And I think that's been really exciting as well as in some ways overwhelming, because what we're asking folks to do is to incorporate Black studies, which is an area of research that a lot of people aren't familiar with or have not been taught, and we are working to incorporate that into again, a very large urban system. And so we recognize that that's going to take a lot of time, but we're just grateful for the political will, especially given a lot of the controversy and debates that are happening around teaching race. And so just having, I think political leaders and education leaders who are saying, you know what, this is a long time coming, this is long overdue, and we are going to put the resources together and bring the organizations together to make that happen in the face of this, I think is really courageous and exciting.
The number of educators who were also excited about doing this again, given the threats to their profession and what we know are difficult decisions that they have to make in the classroom is also really inspiring and that they want to do this work. They know it's necessary and they just want to know what tools and knowledge they need to make it happen. I know that when I travel to talk about the curriculum, other communities are like, that's nice, but you're in New York City. What does that mean in the rural community that I'm in Florida or in Texas, or, potentially Tulsa, Oklahoma? And so part of what we're doing is in addition to developing this very specific curriculum for New York City, is thinking about a larger scope and sequence of curriculum that could be used in places all across the country by educators who are interested in using it. So it feels like transformative work. And so I think it's not only going to be exciting to deliver this final version of a curriculum that will be implemented at schools, but to think about the structural and institutional changes that we're making to make this happen is pretty exciting as someone who really studies systems level change. And so that's part of what we are also documenting as part of this process, how do systems who may be confronted with competing perspectives among their school communities, right, really find ways to center what is most important, which are the children and teaching and learning, and then find ways to come together, to work together, to cooperate, to create a system again, that everyone sees themselves in and that everyone can value from.
Joe: I mean, it's such exciting work and I appreciate you sort of taking it. The context of New York City, I'm sure you get asked a lot that question about that's great for you all up in New York City, which I'm sure there's lots of, it's not so easy even in New York City, right? It's not just smooth sailing just because New York itself is extremely diverse politically and in every other way imaginable, so. Can you talk about how it's been going so far? How is this sort of monumental effort that you're undertaking in this political environment, how's it been? How are you doing?
Sonya Douglass: How am I doing? It's funny. That was the first, that was one of the questions for the COVID study. How are you doing? I'm doing good. I mean, you get caught up in the day to day, right? The meetings, the timelines, the deliverables, the things that need to get done, the decisions that need to be made. But when we get a chance to step back sometimes as a team and just kind of reflect on what we're actually involved in and how pivotal it can be for education and just the really wonderful and amazing feedback we get from educators across the country and family members who are saying, wow, you guys are really, we didn't think this was really possible, but you're doing it, so that's very rewarding.
And it's really, again, exactly why I founded BERC. I didn't know exactly what it would look like at the time, but I knew that there was a need to really bring together people who were researchers who were passionate about Black education, of connecting the scholarship of our elders, right, and those who've kind of been toiling in the margins and bringing that work more into the mainstream to help inform education research more broadly. And I feel like things have coalesced nicely in this moment to where, there is a hunger and desire for better understanding of Black education, of understanding issues of race and racism and how they show up in schools and what we can do about it again, with the focus on anti-racism and anti-racist practices, with great attention on Gloria Ladson-Billings' work on culturally relevant education. I mean, to see again, academic scholarship produced 20 years ago now making its way into policy frameworks is quite an accomplishment. And it's an example of the type of work that I want to do in just pulling the pieces together.
I'm familiar with the research that's out there that doesn't typically get used. I'm familiar with a lot of the challenges in the policy and leadership space. And I'm also just kind of aware of all of the amazing people that are willing and dedicated to transform our educational systems into places where there's joy and there's curiosity, there's innovation. People are happy to go, they want to be there, they don't want to leave. And so that's really, I think the thing that drives us is that vision of going into a school and hearing the sounds and the energy and the laughter and curiosity, that really is a hallmark of what I think education should be. I know it's what we really strive for at Teachers College too, in terms of thinking about progressive education and democratic education. And so just bringing together the scholarship that has informed a Black perspective or an epistemology of education, which I think is the way to address and advance equity and justice. So that was a long winded answer.
Joe: No, that's great. That's great. I mean, there's so much bound up in what you're doing and also in the sort of context that you're doing it in, of course. But I wanted to just ask you about, if you could just share for our audience, a little bit more about what you ended with there about this sort of Black Studies approach to education and why you see that as such a great approach for this moment?
Sonya Douglass: Well, we've been really describing the curriculum and framing Black studies as a study of the world, which I think is a powerful and inclusive way to look at it. There's been talk about racism and white supremacy in particular. I don't know that we unpack it very much, but I think Black studies serves as that corrective to kind of assuming or imagining that one particular group in this case, the white dominant culture is superior to other races or cultures.
And so by positioning Black studies as this more inclusive and comprehensive way of viewing the world and all of the cultures that are inherent from it, we all are descendants of Africa technically, is a way to help ground knowledge in, again, in a perspective that is typically kind of cut out or just not included in K-12 curriculum in the US.
So we're very clear about values and vision at BERC. We know, as a leadership scholar too, we know that that’s, it's important that people understand the vision so that they know how they fit into it and what works they can take up to advance it. And so we have an emancipatory vision of education that's rooted in six tenets. The first being that education is a civil and human right. And so we all have a right and, it sounds obvious, but, given where things are now, it can be taken for granted.
Joe: I wish it were. I wish we could take it for granted.
Sonya Douglass: That we wouldn't have to state that assumption. But that's the first. The second is that education is a social, cultural and political process. So again, naming it and knowing that it's not neutral as this current moment shows that people have very clear agendas. And when we are advocating for content in curriculum, teacher qualifications, right licensure, all of those things, it's in a policy arena. It is to be debated and discussed. And so just again, acknowledging that education is very much a social, cultural and political process is important.
The third is that education is a calling and a valued profession. Again, we have teacher proofed education in many ways and found ways to not allow teachers to bring the fullness of who they are into the classroom with the focus on high stakes accountability and testing. So we want to say that no, teachers really are the decisive element. And so we have to invest and support and compensate them in ways that show our value for the work that they do.
We also believe that education is a collective responsibility. And so it's not just for teachers and leaders to be assessed on their performance and increasing test scores, but the role that all stakeholders in the community play that includes the university, business and industry, philanthropy increasingly as well. And then the other is that education is the practice of freedom, and that ultimately when we focus on outcomes, it's not simply again, test scores or college readiness, those things are important, but ultimately that individuals are free to think in the ways that they need to, to be imaginative, to be curious, to be critical consumers of media, to be informed citizens in the democratic process, and just to have the freedom to learn and the freedom to lead.
Joe: That's such a wonderful, positive vision for education. What can people do when they're facing this moment to try to move more toward the sort of positive version of education that you are describing as we face some of these really dire stories about what's going on in schools?
Sonya Douglass: I think the first thing is to educate ourselves on, again, the political process. A lot of this to me is, it's classic partisan politics, but it's happening in school sites. So I think just being clear, making that distinction is important, which is hard because I think the two are conflated, but this is a lot, has to do with electioneering and getting ready for midterm elections, right? And ginning up a base of support for a particular party. It's still very dangerous. I don't say that to diminish the impact that it will have, but recognizing that it requires a political fight in terms of one way to confront it. And then in addition to that, I think most of us are somewhere in the middle around just wanting schools to be safe places where children are learning, again, people are thriving, teachers are happy with their working conditions.
So I think it's getting really involved in the democratic process, recognizing that we have a lot of power and agency and that, I always recommend you take that anger and outrage, which I feel a lot of around this, but channel it into community building, right community capacity building, organizing. And that can accomplish quite a bit when it comes down to advocating at your school board meetings, contacting your legislators. And again, having people run for office and supporting people who support the platform that we put forth. I'm afraid that we don't do that enough. It's harder sometimes to articulate what we want in schools, as opposed to what we don't. And so that takes the messaging and persuasion to get people on board. And that's what moves your policy makers. So we've just got to get in there and fight and know what we're fighting for and have a strategy for doing that.
Joe: I'm grateful to be able to spend time with you and sort of have that, the modeling that you're doing of creating the conditions as you say, where we actually can let teachers and students engage in the stuff that they already know that they need to do. So thank you for doing the hard work of helping make that space.
Sonya Douglass: You're welcome. It's been really great to work with both of you too. I'm excited about the work we'll be doing next year.
Joe: Us too.
Jen: For sure. And I think one word that you mentioned earlier that I thought, this is what I'm really always present to when I'm thinking about the curriculum project, is joy. And I feel like this idea of finding someone who's doing some good work, finding a way to support that good work really is an access point to be able to hold on to joy and a sense of purpose instead of just reading headlines and feeling dismayed or disempowered. So I appreciate it a lot too.
Sonya Douglass: Thank you for having me. This was really fun. I enjoy talking with both of you as well.
Joe: Thanks for listening. You can find a link to the Black Education Research Collective’s website as well as a transcript of our conversation at the episode page linked in the show notes.
Follow How’s School wherever you podcast, and leave a rating and review to support the show. In next week’s episode on gun violence prevention, we’re joined by Sonali Rajan, whose research looks at how gun violence impacts all students, beyond those who experience school shootings first-hand:
Sonali Rajan: The goal is to really change and shape in a very positive way the environments in which children live, and go to school, and learn and play. So I feel like that is where the change will happen.
Jen: How’s School is created, hosted and produced by myself, Jen Lee and Joe Riina-Ferrie with audio production and original music by Billy Collins. How’s School is a production of the Digital Futures Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. You can follow the Digital Futures Institute on Instagram or Twitter @tcdigitalfuture.