Reflections of  lights shining on  water . Photo courtesy Magnus Manske and wikicommons

From Denial to Creation

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Mica Pollock


Meeting the Opportunity Goals of Title VI Today

It’s been 50 years since Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed denying opportunities “because of race,” color and national origin in US schools. Title VI reads:

No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Reflections of the coloured lights shining on the Water Mirror in Bordeaux. Photo courtesy Magnus Manske and wikicommons

Reflections of  lights shining on Water. Photo courtesy Magnus Manske and wikicommons

Title VI prompted brief active desegregation, then allowed the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to investigate opportunities within and between schools.

I worked at OCR circa 2000 investigating complaints of discrimination in education, as I chronicled afterwards in Because of Race: How Americans Debate Harm and Opportunity in Our Schools.

In applying Title VI to real school life, the hardest word to handle was “denial.” “Denial” meant opportunities taken away and refused—on purpose, and “because of” the victim’s race. As is typical in US race debates, this legal logic (proving intention to harm, on the ground of race) prompted endless rebuttals refuting any child’s school experience as constituting discrimination. We fought over proving opportunity denial all day long—internally with colleagues and externally with district employees and the parents who brought complaints.

Yet OCR’s annual report, and much other research in education, shows that many opportunities to learn and thrive are absent from US schools. Schools are hyper segregated once again by both race and class, with the average Black and Latino student unable to access advanced opportunities to learn concentrated in others’ schools. Schools serving black and Latino students just have fewer opportunities to learn than schools serving white students and now, Asian-American students, who disproportionately find well-resourced schools: opportunities like physics or advanced math classes, AP classes, robotics clubs, or teachers with substantial subject area training and pedagogical skill.

Fifty years after Title VI, opportunities to learn can be absent, shallow or ineffective. And as I chronicled in Because of Race, many relational experiences inside schools are damaging to children and families of color. Many scholars show how in segregated and desegregated schools, kids of color are over-suspended as early as preschool; for many, school days involve millions of moments of feeling overlooked, misunderstood and undervalued. While many students have an amazing teacher to point to, many report experiences with educators or counselors who rarely communicated belief in their potential to succeed.

OCR is one holdout keeping analysis of these real issues on the US agenda, while many dither on about a “post-racial” world. But the effort to prove denial rarely inspires stakeholders to serve children better. Most often, people insisting to OCR that they were good people just flared up in fury and then retreated to corners to grumble.

Fifteen years later, I’ve started to think: if Americans fight endlessly over proving opportunity denial, could they more actively approve opportunity creation? Could we redirect the energy used for fighting over existing opportunity, toward making more opportunities to go around?

For example, I’m now actively involved in creating new learning opportunities for young people, via the university where I work. In a striking example of interest convergence without rebuttal, faculty, staff, students, local philanthropists and industry are happily leveraging their work in partnership with local educators to propel more high-need students toward STEM skills, degrees and careers (science, technology, engineering and math). Our STEM Initiative links professors hungry for grants to do their own work; funders requiring outreach plans; campus leadership hoping to demonstrate connection to a “majority minority” community; promotion policies requiring diversity effort; a national and local focus on the STEM pipeline as an employment and economic priority; and energized students and teachers hungry to fuel their own development.

Realizing the vision of Title VI today may require inspiring stakeholders to create more opportunities for public schools’ students, rather than only fighting over how to distribute already existing limited opportunities.

I’m particularly fascinated by the big tent logic of the STEM pipeline: in our work, it fuels a sense that young people in public schools, who are more nonwhite than ever, deserve high-class opportunities to learn because they are our nation’s future professionals. Arguing that STEM education is a crucial focus because too few of the demographically dominant children of the future will be prepared to innovate solutions to shared problems is a new logic, and it’s one that’s becoming a useful lever for producing more opportunities to learn. In our CREATE STEM Success Initiative (CSSI), a logic of opportunity creation frames children as a future workforce and as the future students and peers of university stakeholders. Launched in July 2013, the CSSI supports key CREATE staff with longstanding local relationships to spend each day linking UC San Diego faculty, staff, programs and students to the K-12 education community, to support local high-need students and their teachers in key STEM skill areas. In non-stop partnership efforts with campus and community colleagues since July, new opportunities for thousands of historically underrepresented students and their teachers have already been created, leveraging grants professors have to write or spend, courses students need to take, donations philanthropists want to offer, the time of deeply committed coordinators, and good will.

Basic demographics in California link economic stability more than ever to the success of students of color. Latino students, for example, are now 52% of the state’s K12 public school population. Only 1 in 10 Latino students receives a college degree, even while 1 in 2 California youth under eighteen are Latino; only 3 in 10 Latino high school graduates complete the courses necessary for eligibility to the UC system. And equity talk in San Diego is moving beyond graduation alone. Today’s new K12 standards call for deep learning rather than shallow breadth; for core practices that cut across grade levels, deepening as students age; for active doing of the disciplines, for communicating understanding, and for thinking across disciplines. University faculty and industry alike applaud these standards, as they also want today’s students to argue, reason, critique and analyze, verbally and in writing; to collect data, experiment, and measure; and to read and think more deeply and collaboratively. The logic can move any community beyond opportunity denial to deep opportunity provision: training a STEM workforce in California actually may require spreading STEM education enrichment opportunities and helping more educators teach students to comprehend STEM subjects deeply. I think more Californians are seeing that when K12 schools don’t offer necessary learning opportunities to support the state’s most demographically numerous students to think, the state’s economic fate is at risk.

Nationally and in our region, STEM pipeline energy seeks to produce graduates with STEM degrees, but also to produce the skills students need to get to and through college and to function innovatively in a STEM-heavy society. The logic of STEM effort is deeply economic. STEM effort hums with themes of opportunity creation because it is fundamentally about creating more opportunities for economic wealth. For some companies, hiring internationally is too expensive; companies also care about local children because of a sense that local innovation helps create local jobs. STEM skill-based jobs, broadly defined, are said to comprise the majority of positions that pay enough to keep families out of poverty. And while many of the jobs to come are still service jobs, a growing need for local, innovative workers forces an attention to those workers’ deep preparation. By extension, absent or inadequate STEM learning experiences cause pipeline leaks, making us worry with unprecedented urgency about STEM opportunities to learn for those underserved in K12.

I think the dynamics of interest convergence are crucial in involving a university in all this: STEM professors cannot do their work without grants, and many public agencies now require that grants have outreach plans for actual impact in K12 education, with impact on diverse populations literally getting additional points. Students really do want service on their CVs, even as they also want to give back. UC asks its own professors to demonstrate contributions to diversity on the campus in order to get promoted. A local population of San Diegans asks persistently for university contribution. Campus leadership really does want to demonstrate and forge actual community connections and make meaningful contributions. And in an era of fiscal crisis, hungry educators have learned to seek available opportunities voraciously—all amid a national and local focus on the STEM pipeline as a particularly urgent issue of employment and economics.

As I noted in Because of Race, action in the Title VI arena at OCR circa 2000 was about not pushing too hard for doing more for kids of color, because it was seemingly so tough to prove that students were denied the basics because of race. But in an era that combines new standards with STEM pipeline energy, we may see truly exciting interest convergence around making more deep learning opportunities for low-income students of color. Every locality’s economic health requires an educated next generation, so it’s not an either-or but a both-and: to survive, any community must make and spread more local opportunities to learn. We have a long way to go in such opportunity production, but I’m struck by the turn of spirit when the activity is about making more opportunities rather than only fighting over the opportunity scraps available. Beyond pure shame or altruism dynamics, and beyond effort only to redistribute scarce opportunities, interest convergence can get new opportunities produced. Realizing the full vision of the Civil Rights Act today may require inspiring stakeholders of all kinds to create more opportunities because children of color are quite literally our future.

Mica Pollock is a professor of education studies and the director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) at UC San Diego.

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