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'We Have Grown Complacent About Racially Isolated Schools'

The causes of violence, whether at the hands of police or private individuals, are obviously complex, even more so for interracial violence. It is healthy for institutions to consider their part in perpetuating or stemming the violence. But it is a mistake to believe that any single institution is solely responsible or can solve the problem on its own.


James E. Ryan

That said, it seems clear that, as a nation, we have not done nearly enough to teach our children how to look across lines of race and class and see similarities rather than differences—to see themselves and their friends reflected in the faces of others rather than unknown and perhaps unknowable strangers. It seems equally clear that we will continue to fail in this task if our schools remain as racially separated as they are today. As Justice Thurgood Marshall astutely observed in 1974, "Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever begin to live together."

Schools of education can play a not-so-minor role by doing more to promote integrated schools and prepare students to teach and lead in those schools. Through our research, we can identify obstacles to integration and the most effective ways to remove or avoid those obstacles. Through our teaching, we can intentionally prepare our students to teach and lead in integrated schools, recognizing that it takes work to ensure that diversity is a source of strength rather than division. 

Two concrete examples help illustrate what education schools can do. Last year, we began a communitywide, year-long discussion around the theme of "fulfilling the promise of diversity," which included lectures, a common reading, panel discussions, and workshops designed to help our students begin the work to build more diverse schools and ensure those schools are more successful because of their diversity. We will extend that conversation this year. We will also launch the Integrated Schools Project, which will combine teaching, field research, and partnerships with a network of diverse schools to create relevant metrics, identify best practices, and share those findings with the network and beyond. 

As a country, we have grown complacent about racially isolated schools, just like we were complacent, until very recently, about confederate flags flying over state capitols. Education schools can and should make clear the costs of our complacency—and a way forward. This cannot be a sideline of our work. It is the work.

James E. Ryan is the dean of the faculty and the Charles William Eliot professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Follow him on Twitter @DeanJimRyan.

Editor's Note: Read what each contributor had to say about the responsibility of educators to challenge racial injustice

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