Superintendents Must Know and Do Better

According to preliminary findings from AASA, The School Superintendents Association’s 2020 Decennial Study, only 21% superintendents said they were “very well prepared” for the responsibility of having district/community wide conversations about race and equity, although nearly 90% of school superintendents said those conversations are either extremely or very important.

While the report doesn’t say, one could assume that of those superintendents ready to have that conversation, most, if not all, are people of color. Once could also assume is that a majority of those who did not identify as “very well prepared” were white superintendents.

Not that being a person of color, particularly an African American, is a prerequisite for leading such conversations, or at the very least setting the stage for these conversations to happen, but rarely are people of color in the position as superintendent to actually do that. According to the AASA, 91% of superintendents are white and are usually white men.

That the increase in superintendents of color jumps from 5% in 2000 to 8.6% in 2020 is laughable, but I digress. 

More than anyone else, white superintendents didn’t believe leading this conversation was important, whereas the majority of Black and Latinx superintendents believe it to be extremely important. While neither that nor that only 21% of superintendents are ready for conversations on race is not surprising, it is nonetheless disheartening. It’s disheartening because if 79% of superintendents aren’t well prepared to have a conversation about race and equity, how prepared or willing are members of the district staff and district faculty?

How willing or prepared are superintendents to address (and change) districtwide policies and procedures that manifest and maintain racist outcomes for students of color? If one isn’t well prepared to handle a conversation, they certainly aren’t well prepared (or unwilling) to dismantle racism within school and districtwide policies and procedures.

Maybe these superintendents really want to have conversations and believe they are important (as displayed in the report) but just don’t know how. That’s an indictment of how school leaders are educated considering school enrollment trends have pointed upward on the increase of children of color in schools and the decrease of white children since 1995. 

Also, why is now the time? Why now are such “conversations” suddenly important?

I am frustrated by the reality that it took for a Black man’s very public lynching (courageously and surreptitiously recorded by a child, mind you), of Mr. George Floyd, to happen, when white people were home, because of the havoc-wrecking pandemic, to see it, in order for white people to decide that now is the time for us to have a conversation about race; that now is the time for us to gather to discuss their landing on the Plymouth rock of racism.

Like the Indigenous peoples of the Western world, racism’s been here. It’s part and parcel of the American social and governance structures – and, its history.

Black people were harassed, brutalized and murdered by police long before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Police officers have gotten away with these heinous acts long before Derek Chauvin and Jonathan Mattingly.

These conversations are important to have but they should have already happened. These conversations happened 60 years ago during the Civil Rights Movement, when Black people fought for the right to first class citizenship. We’re past time for a conversation. That Black people continue to be disenfranchised of their right to vote, 50+ years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act is proof that we’re past time for a conversation.

Now is the time to act.

Certainly, superintendents can influence public policymakers to enact antiracist policies in their respective state, as well as nationally. Whether they do or not is another story altogether. But superintendents can certainly change racist policies within their school districts, where they have a major say, if not the final say, on such decisions.

For example, superintendents can decide to change curriculum to be more reflective of the contributions and accomplishments of Black people and other people of color, content wide. They can do so without needing the approval of any policymaker. They can simply do this because it is the right thing to do.

Will there be backlash? Of course.

Throughout the country, white parents have stormed school board meetings voicing their disapproval of injecting lessons on systemic racism in their local districts. In my state of New Jersey were upset at the Governor’s signing of a law requiring schools to promote “economic diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, and belonging in connection with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and religious tolerance” within it’s curriculum.

At one New Jersey school board meeting, a parent incorrectly defined Critical Race Theory as defining people by the color of their skin, “not your behavior, your values or your accomplishments, just your race.”

Sadly, ignorance leads the day.

I get that superintendents don’t want to ignore or dismiss the “concerns” of white parents who’ve just recently had to deal with the reality of a curriculum sounding completely different from many of the false truths they’ve been taught. However, the concerns of Black and Brown families are were ignored or dismissed for far too long.

If leading a conversation on race isn’t something a superintendent feels they can do, they should either create a committee amongst district employees to find a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) professional to speak to the staff and the community or request that the school board find that person. Better yet, superintendents should hire a DEI professional for the district to work with them, content leads and the curriculum department to change create a new curriculum that is (hopefully) reflective of a culturally relevant pedagogical frame.

If now is the time to talk about what’s wrong, then make now the time to fix what’s wrong. Acknowledge that what’s wrong has been wrong for a long time and the time for addressing it is long past due. Acknowledge that all have a lot to learn yet commitment to learning and shifting towards antiracism is the goal.

Again, now is the time to act.


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