The Rise and Fall of NYC Public Schools’ Commitment to Equity

The Rise and Fall of NYC Public Schools’ Commitment to Equity

Key Points 

  • Equity should never be a fad in public schools.
  • Without a true commitment, equity work can become a shifting political focus, vulnerable to drastic, pendulum-like change every few years. 

Key Terms

  • Book Bans
  • Equity 
  • Micro and Macro-aggressions
  • Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education
  • Implicit Bias 
  • Race Conscious Analysis

 

Introduction

In a political climate that has given rise to dystopian book bans and state legislation censoring discussions of LGBTQ people or issues and the teaching of race and racism, making ‘equity’ a priority for public schools has become more urgent than ever. In the past few years, many of us working in public education have talked about how surreal it is that our field, routinely sidelined in national political conversations, has been thrust into the spotlight for reasons that threaten the basic tenants of our profession. 

In New York City Public Schools, often heralded as a progressive harbinger for the country’s other education systems, tensions and debates around how boldly to make equity a focus have been around since before the civil rights movement. As calls to address the impacts of systemic racism in all areas of society crescendoed in mid-2020, the largest school system in the country set out its boldest efforts ever. For a brief moment in time, the NYC Public Schools, serving over one million students, was more committed than any other large school district in the country. Then everything changed, almost as quickly as it began.

With the hope that an honest accounting of what transpired in New York City Public Schools (from someone who worked at the organization) can help districts increase the urgency around their own ‘equity’ work; the following is a summary of how the most ambitious educational equity efforts in the history of public schools in the United States began, flourished, and then ultimately devolved as priorities changed.

 

Background – The Office of Equity and Access

The Office of Equity and Access was founded in 2013 with the goal of “addressing the access and opportunity gaps which exist among historically underserved students”. At that time, the staff within the office were small in number but determined to expand the breadth and impact of the work. Initially, the office was sequestered far down the organizational chart of the Department of Education, and most of its work was related to expanding access to Advanced Placement classes and improving the use of restorative practices in discipline in small pockets across an enormous system. There was never a grand announcement about the creation of the office. Nor was there significant policy-making or advising power at high levels of the bureaucracy. The office formed as many do, through reconfigurations of support staff to meet the needs of an incoming administration. 

For these early years, internal and external equity advocates were excited at the potential of this office, yet underwhelmed at the size and scope of the work situated there. School support that explicitly focused on race and racism, on providing safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ students, and on analyzing patterns of disparities that existed in schools was still seen as too bold or controversial by decision-makers at the helm. Those of us who were driven by this very work conspired quietly, doing whatever we could to inject an ‘equity lens’ into our programming and professional development we delivered to educators. We gathered like-minded programs that seemed deliberately separated, created ‘pie-in-the-sky’ frameworks that centered cultural responsiveness and anti-racism, and built our network for a future where a focus on our most marginalized students wouldn’t be seen as too contentious. It was around this time that many of us working inside of the central system clamored for greater institutional commitment to disrupting patterns of inequity across our schools.

 

A Turning Point – Implicit Bias Awareness (for All)

During a relatively short period of unprecedented institutional support from 2018-2022, New York City Public schools set out to make ‘equity’ its central priority.  In Summer of 2018, in partnership with the DeBlasio administration, the NYC Council announced a historic initiative: implicit bias awareness workshops would be mandated for 140,000 educators and school staff across the city's 1,800 schools. These would be led by the Office of Equity and Access. Years later, re-reading that sentence still feels intimidating. At first, the Mayor and then Chancellor Richard Carranza (simultaneously heralded and chastised for his honest and direct priority on equity) proposed offering a five-hour workshop to every single staff member of the system in two years. Over time, this was expanded based on the realities of operationalizing such an initiative on such a grand scale. 

While the Office of Equity and Access had grown slightly in the previous years from around ten to thirty staff supporting multiple equity-based programs, a pledge of 23 million dollars over multiple years tripled the number of dedicated support staff and solidified equity and racial justice as real priorities for the public school system for the first time.

After years of co-founding and leading a smaller program for an adjacent division within the central offices, implicit bias awareness team by one of my mentors. Behind the scenes, leadership was negotiating the best way to use the funds to do both large scale mindsets-based work (implicit bias awareness), and leadership-focused policy-based change work. At the end of the day, the office landed on offering a mix of sustainability and capacity building: 1) implicit bias awareness workshops and 2) support for districts to analyze and commit to action on their patterns of disproportionality. The idea was to help school superintendents and administrators parse through disaggregated data to identify patterns of inequity and propose and implement more equitable solutions. 

After hiring a team of twenty to facilitate and support the work, we were off and running.

 

2018-2020: By the Numbers

In 750 unique sessions from December, 2018 to March, 2020, a team of about a dozen facilitators facilitated implicit bias workshops for over 50,000 educators. Out of over 10,000 survey responses received, 94% found the workshops a useful use of their time, while well over 90% responded that the style, tone, and content of the session made them more aware of their biases they hold. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of people left our sessions thinking more critically and wanting to learn more. The feedback aligned with studies conducted before we began: that 90+% NYC  educators felt underprepared for having conversations on issues of equity but wanted more support. 

Our collective reception as facilitators of this work was that the work was challenging, draining, yet fulfilling. Trained by the Perception Institute and led by the brilliance of our leader Paul Forbes, we learned to strike the right balance of engagement, fun, seriousness, and heart. This allowed us, for the majority of sessions, to create psychological on-ramps for otherwise hesitant or contrarian participants. 

The reality of the workshops was daunting. We were thrust into hot auditoriums with staff of four or five distinct schools scattered across the many seats. We know most educators were skeptical of a mandated workshop because we would have been, too. Politically, New York City staff are a reflection of the diverse, yet often segregated neighborhoods where they reside. We knew that for some pockets within school communities, there was already a campaign of misinformation around ‘CRT’ and “wokeness” that skewed people’s perceptions of our goals. 

Keeping the work exciting and thoughtful, and building connection and compassion was the key to having the content resonate. Focusing on the ways our brains are fallible and testing our automatic processes in real time empowered us to shift skeptics to interested parties. Being vulnerable about our own biases as facilitators (and human beings) allowed for others’ to let their own defenses and guards down. While the experiences of my colleagues varied based on our own comfort level with large groups and others’ perceptions of us (as a white and Asian facilitator, I was often given more grace to challenge bias in front of white staff members than my Black co-facilitators), I can say confidently that we were proud of our work in front of school staff, and that we were making a positive difference.

At the same time, our office engaged in a partnership to support superintendents and school leaders to understand the disparities that existed in their data. Over multiple years, out of over 40 superintendents, each with a cohort of 20-40 schools in their purview, approximately two-thirds of their teams worked with the Office to engage in this important critical analysis. A small extension of this important work is still operating today, but public support through any type of mandate to change department-level policy or accountability metric to include equity (the ways in which schools, districts, superintendents, administrators, or educators are evaluated) has never materialized.

 

The Pandemic 

The pandemic upended everything about our worlds. NYC public schools lost 74 employees including 30 educators in the first month. 8,700 students enrolled in the system lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19. Much less importantly, with schools closed indefinitely, our work in supporting schools in-person was also put on hold. In May of 2020, I led an effort along with a few of my colleagues to design a hybrid, asynchronous and live Zoom-based workshop that would act as a stand-in for the one hour in-person version we had been facilitating. In the year that followed, we were able to reach an additional 25,000 staff participants, and received the same type of positive reception.

 

Opposition and Gradual Deprioritization

From the very beginning of the City Council announcement on the funding of implicit bias awareness, we encountered opposition. For every person who clamored for support that acknowledged the historic (and continued) systemic inequities that existed across racial lines, there seemed to be two or three others who were either skeptical or outright opposed to changing anything about the status quo. The NYPost and Chalkbeat ran pieces about the ongoing Implicit Bias Awareness Workshops, and when the workshops were in-person during 2019, they followed up with stories about their reception and efficacy.

Even when we encountered successes, it felt as if our own Department of Education was overly cautious about advertising and marketing our work. No matter how much principals, educators, and other participants would email us with gratitude, or how many superintendents would ask for further support to deepen the work of their schools, fear of press from outwardly antagonistic outlets like the NYPost stifled our ability to gain momentum and translate our mindsets-based work into real, sustainable policy change.

We can’t keep successful equity work under the radar for fear of retribution.

 

A Change in Administration

On March 15 of 2021, after three years of leading the NYC department of education, Chancellor Richard Carranza stepped down from his position. At this time, support for implicit bias awareness initiatives and for other equity-based work across NYC public schools was already dwindling. With students and educators struggling to get by with their basic day-to-day remote learning, working with educators on their biases and with school leaders on their disparity data understandably fell to wayside.

At the same time, our team struggled with the very real burnout from doing this work without systems to debrief and without a strong enough focus on our own mental health. Many of my colleagues incurred harmful, real time micro (or macro)agressions from participants struggling to grasp the content around their own biases. Without a great deal of experience navigating difficult, nuanced conversations in front of hundreds of participants, incidents and harms are prone to happen. Over time, it made sense for those of us more comfortable with leading the sessions virtually to continue doing so, while others opted to focus on other strands of work supporting leadership in various districts.

Finally, strategic disagreements around the vision and direction of the Office of Equity and Access increased into the pandemic, as burnout and loss of staff contributed to feelings of uncertainty. When one of our leaders resigned, the fate of the implicit bias work and equity focus was in major jeopardy. In the year before the next mayor, Eric Adams was elected, numerous supportive high level officials also departed the posts.

Internally, a few of my colleagues and I tried our hardest to keep the implicit bias-based work going. But by the spring of 2022, with a new administration taking power, the word ‘equity’ became unfavored in high level strategic conversations.

By spring of 2023, the entire Office of Equity and Access was down to under thirty staff members (pre-2018), and was officially (and quietly) disbanded. When officials at the New York State Education Department’s Office of Equity Diversity and Inclusion visited in early 2023, they mentioned that they couldn’t even find anything about equity and access on the DOE’s website. For those of us who kept fighting (and continue to fight) the frustration came from the lack of bravery by high level leadership to advocate for the infusion of an equity-lens in the new administration’s priorities.

Between the exodus of high level staffers who ushered in a wave of equity-focused work, to the change of administration in the beginning of 2022, the equity work still happened in pockets throughout the system. Those superintendents who wanted to invest resources in equity work, who acquired even more power under Chancellor Banks, were still able to do so. Regardless, those leaders in the system that were initially hesitant to lean into implicit bias and race-conscious analysis were completely validated if they didn’t address this work at all. The institutional commitment to prioritize this work was no longer an action item.

 

Conclusion

Working within the complexities of a gigantic bureaucracy and helping to lead equity efforts in the largest school district in the country was a mix of daunting, eye-opening, fulfilling, and ultimately frustrating. 

Beyond the worthwhile goals of ‘celebrating diversity’, ‘creating a welcoming school environment’, or ‘analyzing and upending patterns of disparities’, a focus on creating equitable school environments is most importantly about protecting our students from harm. It’s about cultivating a culture of empathy and justice in all of the young people we serve. It’s about a belief that those historically relegated to the margins of society (starting with our public schools) should be educated without censoring the uncomfortable. Equity means taking the adults in charge of decision-making and systems taking on risk for the purpose of creating a learning environment where students are empowered to think critically and then entrusted with the keys to challenge an inequitable status quo. Without this focus, we fail to live up to our values as educators. When equity becomes a fad – when it gets tossed aside in favor of unrelated, incongruent trends, our students suffer. 

Equity should never be a trend in public schools. Nor should it be a shifting political focus, vulnerable to drastic, pendulum-like change every few years. When a commitment to equitable teaching and learning ebbs and flows based on unilateral priority changes of elected executives or administrations, schools and the students they serve suffer. For many proponents of equity, anti-oppression, and culturally responsive and sustaining education, that’s exactly what it has become. 

Jeremy Chan-Kraushar is a Racial Justice Strategist & Coach at RE-Center. He spent fifteen years working for NYC Public Schools as a special education teacher, program director, and equity leader. He has a M.Ed, a MPA, and a JD.