Ryan Smith is the Executive Director of The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based policy research and advocacy organization that exposes the opportunity and achievement gaps that separate students of color and low-income students from other youth — and identifies and advocates for strategies that will close those gaps forever. Tipping Point’s Ed Center, Senior Program Officer for Education, talked with Ryan about what’s wrong and what’s working in education.
Ed: How have your own educational experiences shaped your involvement in this field?
Ryan: My mom was the first person in her family to complete college, and as a single mother she feared the life that her Black son would have without an education. She sacrificed a lot to make sure I had a quality education, including moving to Culver City because she had heard the community did an exceptional job educating Black students.
After graduating from Culver City High, I went on to UCLA. In a freshman class of 4,000 students, I was one of 27 Black men accepted purely for academics. It felt like we should have had t-shirts that said: “Black male students: endangered species.” During freshman orientation activities they’d say, “Look to your left, look to your right, one of you probably won’t be here at the end.” Unfortunately, for Black men, only half graduate in four years. I knew from that experience that I would work to increase the pipeline to college and rewarding careers for students of color.
Ed: Tell us about your organization’s data-centric approach. Why is data so important for advocacy?
Ryan: We don’t believe in data just for data’s sake. When used appropriately, data can help drive action and assist educators, students, and parents to set goals, interrogate root causes, and celebrate success.
In our 2015 Black Minds Matter report we used data and the stories of students to demonstrate that we can close equity gaps for California’s Black students. That report culminated in members of the California Legislative Black Caucus calling on the state to do more to improve Black student outcomes in California, along with the California Department of Education creating a million dollar grant program centered on supporting equity. Also moved by Black Minds Matter, roughly 1,000 African American students came to a state board meeting in order to hold the state accountable for the success of students of color. Since then, we’ve seen legislators, educators, parents, and other student and community groups use the report as a local rallying cry and organizing tool.
Ed: Do you think the Black Lives Matter Movement is helping to bring attention to educational gaps?
Ryan: Recently, Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements across the country have called for a variety of educational changes, including rethinking how we fund education in our communities and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde famously remarked “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” I’m grateful that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought together advocates in education, criminal justice, housing, immigration, and human rights so that we can dismantle systems of oppression together. Last year, I wrote a piece for Black Lives Matter’s Black Futures Month speaking to the interconnectedness of the education and criminal justice systems and calling for more intersectional justice work. By affirming that Black students’ minds and education matter, we aim to galvanize students, parents and the broader community to demand investment in educational equity.
Ed: Ed Trust–West just released The Majority Report: Supporting the Success of Latino Students in California. What are the findings?
Ryan: Since 2014, over 50% of K-12 students in California are Latino/a, and we expect that Latino/a folks of any age will continue to be the largest ethnic group in California for decades to come. This means that today the majority of California students face bias, limited access to rigorous coursework, and other barriers that result in lower academic outcomes. Fewer than 1/3 of Latino 3rd graders meet or exceed state English standards, and 1 in 5 Latino students do not graduate high school with their class. Needless to say, these circumstances are not sustainable if California is to remain a prosperous, vibrant community.
The report examines the underlying causes — from lack of resources to lack of representation — that contribute to these outcomes. It elevates individual stories of young people doing their best to succeed in school with the hand they’ve been dealt, and shines a spotlight on programs and policies that are changing the system to better serve Latino/a students.
Ed: Do you see any schools or districts in California leading the way on closing the achievement gap?
Ryan: We see promising examples of schools and districts doing great work to help close opportunity and achievement gaps every day. The Manhood Development Program (MDP), organized by Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African American Male Achievement, enrolls over 400 black students across 16 schools. Through a focus on African and African American history, culture, and excellence, the course prepares students for post-secondary options and nurtures an identity of achievement. Since 2011, suspension rates for MDP students have decreased more than 30%, GPAs are up, and graduation rates have increased 10%. Oakland Unified has seen steady improvement in Black male high school graduation rates overall, but at 58% as of 2016, the district still has a long way to go.
We also see schools and districts doing more to close gaps for English Learners. Nearly 18% of CA students are native Spanish speakers learning English in school. By expanding the scope of bilingual instruction, the Sobrato Early Academic Language program is improving outcomes for English language learners (ELL). The program, used in 87 schools across California, infuses ELL best practices into science and social science content. When students complete the program in 3rd grade, they score similarly or better than similar students on English and Math proficiency tests. We at Ed Trust–West have a series of reports called “Unlocking Learning” that provide examples of how schools and districts are moving the needle for ELLs.
Lastly, Ed Trust–West will publish a repository of California’s “bright spot” schools and districts that are moving the needle for low-income students, students of color, and English Learners this year. Stay tuned.
Ed: At Tipping Point we talk about how important it is to talk explicitly about race and class when discussing equity. Your organization’s work really highlights these relationships.
Ryan: When we’re talking about equity, we must deal explicitly with the fact that both race and class unfortunately still predict inequitable outcomes for individuals with historically marginalized identities. The disparity data we see are an indictment of the systems we’ve created, not the individuals who fall victim to them.
Black and Latino/a households’ average net worth is about 15% that of White households in California, with disparities in home ownership accounting for much of the difference. Discrimination in lending, or “redlining,” explains some of this disparity, as do high and rising costs of housing, which make home ownership increasingly unattainable. California has a history of purposely under-educating its students of color. The net effect is that California’s students of color, on average, attend schools with fewer resources, in communities with limited capacity to invest in their futures. Their graduation rates and early career prospects often reflect this scarcity.
Equity is about making communities whole. Some people see the push for equity as a fight over winners and losers, but I believe by removing the barriers for the more than 8 million students that attend California’s public schools and colleges we will cultivate our state’s talent for the well-being of all Californians.