The New Reconstruction:
Transforming Education for the 21st Century
I was recently honored to be invited as a speaker for the African American Heritage House (AAHH) 2020 Speaker Series. The members of AAHH invite scholars and notable public figures from around the country to discuss the lived experiences of African Americans over the last 400 years. It is an organization, informed by the African American experience, committed to strengthening Chautauqua by encouraging and welcoming diversity, fostering honest conversations, and adding new voices to the programmatic mix collected and presented by www.AAHeritageHouse.org. Chautauqua Institution is an almost 150-year-old cultural and educational institution. Located in southwestern New York, it is one of the world’s preeminent destinations for lifelong learners (if you are reading this then you too probably qualify as a Chautauquan learn-for-lifer). The nine-week summer season will attract more than 100,000 individuals for immersion into the extensive program offerings.
Because of pandemic restrictions, my presentation was held virtually this month when AAHH joined the Chautauqua Institution to explore how to rebuild the education system in the United States. I was delighted to add to the legacy of lively debate with my own push-the-envelope views in a presentation entitled “The New Reconstruction: Transforming Education for the 21st Century.”
Below is the speech with the gorgeous and compelling piece in the background by local artist, Gilbert Young, who allowed me to tape it in his (unairconditioned) studio which was worth sweating for!
Watch the taped presentation to see why I loved being with his art pieces while talking about the structural, and still challenging, underpinnings of systemic racism, what that means for education and why a new reconstruction could strengthen public education and our democracy. Oh, and stay for the live Q&A (that was fun!) for the full experience here!
The New Reconstruction:
Transforming Education for the 21st Century
Frederick Douglass, who himself spoke to this body in Chautauqua more than a century ago, once wrote: “No republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them.”
He outlined what was supposed to be the guiding intent of Reconstruction, in what remains a relevant essay he wrote for the December 1866 issue of Atlantic Monthly.
Taking that lead from Mr. Douglass, I want to make the case for a new Reconstruction, anchored in the transformation of public education.
I am Meria Carstarphen, a career urban schools superintendent. I have served three capital city school districts, most recently Atlanta Public Schools, collectively responsible for the educations of approximately a quarter of a million children. It is a great privilege to be speaking – albeit virtually – before the distinguished members of the African American Heritage House from a forum used for a century by thought leaders and provocateurs such as Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Mary McLeod Bethune, all with namesake schools in Atlanta!
As a daughter of the Deep South, born and raised in Selma, Alabama, this is quite an honor to be part of such an historic institution, and to follow in the footsteps of such men and women, who literally blazed trails for me and millions of others.
Your history of open dialogue, civil discourse, and spirited conversation stretches back 150 years … to the Era of Reconstruction itself! And because this institution has been a consistent, collaborative force in the national discussion for decades, I can think of no better venue to call for a new era of Reconstruction.
But first, let’s revisit our nation’s first attempt. There were three major initiatives guiding Reconstruction: RESTORATION of the Union, TRANSFORMATION of Southern society, and ENACTMENT of progressive legislation to establish and enshrine the rights of formerly enslaved people.
Restore. Transform. Enact. That was, and remains, the roadmap for Reconstruction.
Before I explain how that same roadmap can continue to guide us toward a better future, I want to make clear why now is the moment to be revisiting this movement. We often have to accept incremental change and modest reforms because there are simply too many moving pieces, too much momentum, around our longstanding systems and institutions. We couldn’t just hit pause on our society, fix everything that’s broken, and then hit play again. At least that’s what we’ve said to ourselves. Until now.
In a way that has no parallel in history, we have hit pause on our society. We not only have the opportunity, we are being forced to fundamentally rethink the ways we operate, the ways we engage with each other, the ways we support each other.
What gives me hope is that as we face this moment of reckoning, we are also facing constant reminders of our interconnectedness, of the ways we exist in community. That may seem like an odd thing to say as we all sit in our increasingly separate geographic and political spaces, but this pandemic is forcing us to recognize our connections to the person…getting off the elevator as we get on, or the person we pass in the grocery store, or sit next to on a plane. We’re being forced to recognize the ways our individual actions can affect vulnerable community members in invisible ways, and the power we have to confront challenges when everyone commits to changing our behavior and doing something together.
To translate this reckoning into a Reconstruction – one that truly rebuilds and redefines our society – requires revisiting the same roadmap that guided Frederick Douglass and others in trying to restore, transform, and enact a better Union.
So herein lies the task before us:
We must RESTORE the original intent of our public schools—grounded in inclusion, equity, and community.
We must TRANSFORM our institutions, specifically public education. We must move our focus from reforming to transforming, because our institutions are not broken—they are operating exactly as designed. The simple fact is they were not designed for Black, brown, poor, language-learning, special-education, or any other marginalized students. These are the students I have spent my career serving in public education, and I have come to the conclusion that the hands of everyone working in this space are tied as long as our institutions are wired to reinforce existing hierarchies. This moment demands full-scale transformation.
And finally, we must ENACT — enact a culture change, one that reshapes how each of us as individuals navigates these transformed systems and institutions. At the core of the failures of Reconstruction was that it never moved beyond its structural reforms into the hearts and minds of the people who were crafting and navigating those structures.
For all the good that came out of Reconstruction—like the abolition of slavery and the first public schools in the South—it ultimately was a travesty of democracy and further entrenched white supremacy in new forms. Confederate officers and former slave owners regained power, Jim Crow laws and Black Codes emerged to repress previously enslaved people, and white dominance flourished.
So the question becomes: Why use the same roadmap to Reconstruction from 150 years ago?
After all, here we are, a century and a half later, still talking about structural racism and unequal opportunities – protesting in the streets, pulling down of statues, demanding structural and systemic change. So as we consider a new era of Reconstruction, what will make this time different, and how do we get it right?
What I believe is the key to success this time is recognizing that process is just as important as vision. This roadmap—of restoring, transforming, and enacting—has the right vision, but what was missing last time was a process that was inclusive, a process that gave those who had been marginalized and enslaved real agency in shaping the society they now shared.
The people who had the power, the control, and the voice in driving Reconstruction were the very same people who had the power, the control, and the voice before Reconstruction, so it’s only natural that that exclusive process reproduced exclusive power structures.
As we face this new opportunity for Reconstruction, we must rethink the process we use for building a better world—the voices we elevate, the people we invite to have a seat at the table.
And this, I submit to you, is where public education comes in.
To be clear, public education is not the silver bullet many people believe it is; fixing our education systems will not erase every other challenge facing our society. But what it will do is bring more people to the table of Reconstruction in addressing those challenges. What it will do is democratize the power and control, elevate more voices and communities to a place of having agency in shaping our shared society.
And what better time to rethink our approach to public education than now?
Our education model had stayed pretty much the same for more than 100 years, and then COVID-19 erupted. This crisis forced educators across the country, in a matter of days, to shelve a century-old model of in-house, teacher-led, face-to-face instruction in favor of teleschooling. And in doing so, further spotlighted the fissures and cracks in the structure of our public school system and democracy.
In the past, when trying to address these challenges and their symptoms, many school districts would correct flaws with bubble gum and Band Aids. These are stopgaps, not solutions.
We must consider tearing it down to its foundations, erect new frameworks, rewire the system, lay new plumbing. We need a full transformation. And if we can get public education right, we can get the rest of Reconstruction right from there.
First, we must RESTORE the foundation of education. That begins with restoring its purpose and vision. The “father of American public education,” Horace Mann – similarly to Douglass, a leading figure of the 19th century – championed guiding principles for public education under the premise that our country cannot maintain both ignorance and freedom. He promoted the idea of a system of public education that is truly public, controlled and maintained by the people, available to all children, regardless of race, gender, class, or anything else. He envisioned an institution, a space in our society that would build and strengthen community, and in turn serve as the foundation of our country’s social fabric.
We’ve lost sight of that expansive vision, of that purpose. In this age of high-stakes accountability, of focusing on test scores above all else, of battles about school choice eroding the connection between schools and community. and in our individualistic culture that blames students and families for their circumstances and struggles, we’ve drifted away from what public education can be, what it was meant to be.
Schools at their core should support students in identifying what happiness and success means to them—not to us, but to them—understanding the opportunities and pathways in our society to achieve that, and then offering holistic support in pursuing those fully. That means that our mission is not limited to academic subjects, but also includes supporting students and families in bridging social gaps, overcoming poverty, finding support and navigating challenges in community.
Atlanta illustrates the opportunity we have before us. Research shows that Atlanta is the most unequal city in the country—in the wealthiest nation on Earth—when it comes to income disparity. According to the most recent census data, the median household income within our school district is about $167,000 for white students and $24,000 for black students. Closely associated with this income gap is the academic achievement gap where white students are nearly 4.5 grade levels ahead of their black peers within Atlanta Public Schools.
It is clear we have lost sight of the vision, purpose, and opportunity of education when Stanford University tells us that a child born in poverty in Atlanta has only a 4.5% chance to rise to the top quarter of earners. About 75 percent of our children live in poverty! In other words, if you are born in poverty in Atlanta, you die in poverty in Atlanta.
When I first came to Atlanta as superintendent, the district was reeling from the largest cheating scandal in the history of public education. We had to focus on rebuilding the system from scratch and get basic academics in order. And while I can point to impressive incremental gains over time (of which we are all very proud) – more proficiency, higher graduation rates, more stable and high-quality leaders and educators – it’s simply not enough for our children who need it the most. Our national conversation has mostly centered on achieving outcomes on test scores. Now is the time to be asking, in this moment of pause and reset, what our purpose really is, and restoring the original vision of public education and finally ensuring that all students have access to it.
So, how do we take the next step in the new reconstruction to TRANSFORM public education? Restoring our vision of what public education can be will in turn require transforming not just schools and school districts but all of the surrounding government agencies, nonprofits, and community organizations to build an integrated network of supports, for both students and their caregivers. A coalition of social services centered around and supporting public schools. This is what it takes to build community, support students and families holistically, and offer equal opportunity to all.
We can no longer accept an education system that exists in a silo, with its mission and scope limited to 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. We can see that it has not been working in its current construction and never will for all students.
We can’t expect students to be able to focus on learning if they don’t have food or are worried about where they’re going to live next week or sleep that night. We know the human brain isn’t open to learning if it’s struggling through trauma, if it’s in survival mode. We need to address unstable housing, food deserts, lack of transportation, and so many other issues before we can expect students and families to have the social and emotional bandwidth to meaningfully lean into education.
But public schools can’t address these issues alone, especially in their state of chronic underfunding.
As we expand and restore our vision and mission for education, we have to bring others to the table in working to fully liberate students and families from these other concerns, empowering them to focus on their pursuit of happiness.
For too long, we’ve allowed ourselves to fall victim to the myth that if we could just strengthen our public schools, if we could just get students the academic skills they need, graduation rates and wages would increase, and poverty would decline. Admittedly, I did too. For years, I thought that simply investing more time and money in schools would be enough, but having now worked in three large urban school districts, I’ve come to realize there are cycles of poverty, of violence, of illiteracy, of organizational and political dysfunction that run so much deeper, are calcified at the foundations of our web of institutions, and will require an integrated approach to break.
And you don’t just have to take my word for it. Research shows that income inequality outside of schools is as much a barrier for learning as a quality teacher in the classroom. We now know that 20% of children’s experiences are influenced by their schooling, and 60% is influenced by their family circumstances. The struggles working-class people face in this country exacerbate learning gaps for children. In fact, Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but wage growth is stagnant. This does not mean that we should stop working to improve our schools—that work must absolutely continue—but it does mean that the education system cannot fully compensate for the ways the economic system is failing Americans, especially minorities.
The country actually does have many high achieving school districts, and they are supported by a thriving community and secure middle class. Says author of “Better Schools Won’t Fix America”: “Great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow.” But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.
So we have a restored vision for public education and a transformed set of institutions, both within and around education—but how do we make it sustainable? How do we avoid this Reconstruction suffering the same backslide as the last one? This is where enacting a culture change becomes critical.
And in my view, the culture we need to embrace and move toward is one of collectivism. This country celebrates your successes and judges your failures as though they are yours and yours alone. They are not. We exist in a kaleidoscope of interactions, of connections, of joys and struggles, all as a part of the communities we’re in. And we need to embrace that! This has two key implications: First, no individual is solely responsible for their circumstances, failures, or victories. And second, we are collectively responsible for supporting and lifting each other up.
That really is at the core of the culture change we need to internalize and enact in the hearts and minds of this country in order to make this new Reconstruction sustainable. The divisions that have gotten us here are social constructions, inventions—which have now been integrated into law and policy and social dynamics, but still just social constructions, stories, at their core. And just as they were once constructed by people, we can now deconstruct them.
But how do we do that? I think it starts with changing the way we talk about this work, which then alters how we think about the work, and leads to change in how we do the work. That’s how you get hearts and minds. That’s how you get real and lasting change.
Public Education in the New Reconstruction
So that’s the road map to reconstruct public education. With a reconstruction of public education, we empower the reconstruction of everything else: we democratize the process, empower communities, bring more people to the table of Reconstruction.
But there’s one more thing I need to mention, that I’d be remiss if I didn’t note, given our current context.
Remember the Frederick Douglass quote about “equal rights and equal means to maintain them.” Even more elemental than a right to an education are the rights that we come to expect today as inherent rights and freedoms in our society – the right to vote, the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom from slavery, equal protection under law, freedom of speech.
After spending more than three months in addressing a digital divide amid the COVID-19 pandemic in my school district, I am convinced that we should expect another freedom … the right to connectivity.
It could not be more clear that connectivity, high speed access to the Internet, is no longer a luxury but needs to be a public utility as essential as electricity, gas, or water. And, in crisis, it should never shut off. It must always remain accessible to ALL!
Without it, our people – especially poor people all over our country – aren’t getting information or pathways to learning or working anywhere close to the levels they need to be!
In Atlanta – again, the most income disparate city in America – we have tens of thousands of families who cannot afford to get online at home.
If we want the free society proposed by Frederick Douglass and Horace Mann, if we want people to have equal means to maintain their rights and freedoms, we must look upon access to WiFi today as we did with Voting Rights in the 1860s and 1960s and the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. It has become a general principle of the developed world that every person has the right to the freedoms that give them access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Reconstructing our schools and reconstructing our nation requires technology and access to information; it has become a new civil right.
For now, so many of our American brethren feel overwhelmingly disenfranchised and disempowered. Consider Gilbert Young – the Atlanta artist who painted the work “Liberty” behind me. As part of his collection called “Masterworks: As I See It,” Mr. Young drew inspiration from master artists, RECONSTRUCTING works by “shoving in” – his words – people of color to explain – again, his words – “a whole bushel full of political opinion.”
His work “Liberty” is modeled after Michelangelo’s Pieta. Instead of The Holy Mary holding her Son, he’s used Lady Liberty holding a black man to represent all who have been denied freedom. For Mr. Young, this speaks to the loss of our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness he has witnessed in this country over the 80 years of his life.
I truly believe we can still change Young’s image. Although it hasn’t yet become the great equalizer it was once envisioned to become, public education, I believe, is the cornerstone of our democracy. At its best, with a restored and broadened vision, a transformation of the institutions in and around it, and a culture change enacted to ground us in collectivism and community, lives and communities can be transformed.
We are amid the greatest opportunity in a generation to make radical change. We have the opportunity for a new Reconstruction, one led and informed by a diverse set of voices, one that empowers the disempowered, and truly offers everyone “equal rights and equal means to maintain them.” One that finishes the work that Frederick Douglass started, standing before this very group. We, all of us, can do something to end systemic racism and seize the opportunity to reconstruct our schools, cities, our states, and our nation for the safety and wellbeing of our democracy.