Md. Kirwan Commission must consider race in education recommendations

We salute Maryland’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — known as the “Kirwan Commission” because it’s chaired by William E. “Brit” Kirwan, the chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland — for holding public hearings around the state, giving a preview of the content of its report and inviting community input. Though the topics addressed in the report, the “nine building blocks,” constitute an appropriate list of education policy concerns, we see a disturbing gap in the commission’s work to date.

There is no mention of race in the building blocks — no mention of known racial disparities in educational outcomes; of the negative impact that decades-long, persistent federal, state and local discriminatory policies and modern-day de facto segregation have had on performance outcomes for the U.S. when comparing our educational system to other nations’. The well-documented system of race-based policies intentionally designed to minimize opportunity for a segment of the population apparently was not considered.

We find this to be a problematic omission within the commission’s research, particularly given the fact that our state and country are rapidly reaching a point at which the majority of those enrolled in public schools are students of color.

There are models to show us how to do this. For instance, the Portland Public Schools Racial Educational Equity Policy and Plan provides a rich template for aligning policy and practice with research and data on the effects of systemic racism in education.

A Kirwan Commission report informed by race would:

  • Call for a review and examination of policies, programs and practices to identify those that reinforce systemic racism and deepen disparities in both educational outcomes and discipline. It would, for example, call for an analysis of the disproportionately negative impacts of zero tolerance policies on students of color and recognize that nationally, black boys are twice as likely to be suspended and black girls three to four times as likely to be suspended as their white counterparts. This is fundamental to understanding the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • Describe an overall shift to build a more inclusive school culture and approaches to instruction, workforce composition and training, and empowering families to advocate for their children.
  • Set a high bar for culturally relevant teaching and learning — instruction and curriculum, supports, facilities and educational resources that engage students of color with positive and affirming images and narratives reflective of their experience.
  • Require opportunities for all staff and students to understand racial identity, to ensure the work force is racially diverse, reflective of the student population and racially conscious to recognize and interrupt institutionalized racism to meet the needs of students and families.
  • Re-define what makes a “highly qualified” teacher, with the understanding that implicit and explicit racial biases held by teachers and school leaders can have devastating consequences for black students. A teacher who has been determined to be “highly qualified” yet carries bias with them into a classroom of black students will be detrimental to the success of those students. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State — also named after Mr. Kirwan — has reported extensively on the negative impact of implicit bias in the classroom.

In addition to policy recommendations, the commission must address funding disparities that exacerbate the race-based disparities in academic achievement. We understand that poverty has been and will continue to be a factor in determining education funding in Maryland. Students of color are disproportionately represented in areas of concentrated poverty, but let us be clear: Poverty is not an appropriate proxy for race.

Much of the public conversation about the Kirwan Commission’s forthcoming report has been focused on funding. That’s understandable; nothing happens without the resources. But although the money is absolutely required, it is not sufficient to achieve equity without accountability for addressing it.

We urge the commission to do whatever additional work is needed to provide policy recommendations that are informed by race. We call on the commission to embrace the role that it can and should play in erasing race-based disparities in educational outcomes and the allocation of resources so that race can no longer be a predictor of student achievement and success. Only then can we truly hope for change in outcomes for all students.

Erika Seth Davies ( is chief of staff at the Baltimore Community Foundation. Laura Gamble is the regional president for Greater Maryland at PNC Financial Services Group and chairs the Baltimore Community Foundation Board of Trustees.

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