One of the most significant challenges to public education comes not from lack of funding or the relentless expansion of high-stakes testing, but can be found squarely within our schools themselves--the cultural gaps that exist throughout our entire public education system. Those gaps result in huge and harmful disconnects among members of our community that in turn fracture our classrooms and schools, ultimately resulting in tremendously uneven and inequitable educational experiences or our children. There is no doubt that the external threats to public education require continued action, but the work we need to do among ourselves—educators, administrators, students and parents all--is equally important.


Inside the school walls, there is an ideal that we set aside the ladders of caste and privilege that permeate the world of adults. But that ideal is only a superficial wish if we continue to fail to tackle how those imbalances carry over and shape our schools. Persisting as we are means persisting with existing frames of mind—characterizing children as lacking and “underperforming” and not understanding the gulf between our educational structures and practices and who our children are. The price children pay when we place these limiting views on them have been clearly and eloquently described by educators such as To paraphrase educator Lisa Delpit, and Gary Orfield

Our schools reflect the amazing multi-cultural quality of our society and they also reflect the way our society is organized--who gives and gets resources, what is considered right or wrong, “normal” or unacceptable. That power and the benefits certain groups gain or lose are crudely, but not exclusively, mapped to the divisions of race, ethnicity, gender, language and income levels.

Some of these divides are quite easy to spot. Within the public education world, the vast majority of teachers are women, but only about a quarter of superintendents are female. In California for the 2011-2012 school year, 66.8% of teachers, but only 26.1% of students were considered “White.” In the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), 48.2% of teachers and 12.1% of students were categorized as “White.”

These relatively simplistic measures (what is “White”?) are only the brightest demarcations of the divisions between us, often obscuring in that brightness the varying complex cultures that are also a part of each individual’s human experience. Contrary to what some have called for, the challenge schools face is not to blend all of our differences into one dull, lackluster hue and it is not to help students morph into someone different who easily fits in the “mainstream” world of school. The challenge to our schools is to understand how culture influences everyone in and every square inch of our schools, to recognize this diversity, to truly accept in our core the need to understand the many layers of cultures that co-exist within our school communities, to embrace the need to perpetually and gladly learn more about each other so that we can learn and live together.

Such an ambition is both trite and bold. Trite, because it is a goal paid lip service to on an almost daily basis, bold, because if we take it seriously we are making a tremendous commitment both to our children and to each other. In San Francisco, the notion of reducing the “predictive power of demographics” has been in theory a guiding principle of the district’s efforts for the last several years. That sentiment, that a child’s socio-economic status should not be a straight-line path to academic failure or success, is a laudable one, but one that was insufficiently supported and too narrow in its scope to effect the scale of change it was intended to make. Specific problems need to be addressed, such as the disproportionate number of African-American students who are expelled, but those discrete identifiable issues, while critical, are only the most visible challenge. Schools, including schools in San Francisco, need a more thorough, complete strategy to revise what we’re doing. We need the very nature of our individual interactions with each other to change.

One powerful concept that has been used in some school districts elsewhere in the nation is that of “cultural proficiency,” a framework presented by a group of researcher-educators helping public school communities develop into healthier places that effectively embrace and support all of the people within them. Their approach offers a way for individuals within the school community to recognize the power of culture within the school environment and thereby recognize the need for change and then move forward towards realizing that change. The approach has focused mostly on the relationships between and among educators (teachers and administrators) and educators and students and their families, but is also absolutely appropriate for addressing the growing tensions and conflicts within parent communities. This is not a simple or quick approach; it’s not about finding a professional development day here or there, or a slice of the annual School Site Council training session. It requires a commitment with a longer-time horizon and greater investment of resources, but one that has the potential to help us make dramatic improvements in the educational opportunities we provide to all children.

On Tuesday, Governor Brown announced his revised budget that increases funding for schools and held fast to his Local Control Funding Formula. This increased financial security is tremendously important and could give us some room to dive deeply into this type of fundamental refashioning of our school communities.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.