John Branam, a partner at the California-based The Learning Accelerator, probably won’t be the most popular guy in Silicon Valley in the coming months. That’s because Branam and his team are embarking on a study that is likely to make many tech leaders uncomfortable: To find out how much diversity there is on the boards and staffs of tech, education and technology-focused non-profits.
Branam believes that in order for the tech movement and its blended learning initiatives to transform education in America, it’s necessary to start a conversation about the overwhelming whiteness of its leadership—and how that homogeneity might lead to blind spots in creating digital educational material that appeals to students of color.
The Learning Accelerator is aggressively pushing the education community to adopt blended learning strategies. The group has set a goal of raising $100 million over the next several years to fund an “ecosystem” of organizations that can help districts implement blended learning. The Learning Accelerator is in the process of working with districts in Los Angeles; Reynoldsburg, Ohio; and Greeley, Colorado, to establish pilots that will model the transformation. Branam, a biracial former middle school teacher and Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa, spoke to The Hechinger Report about his hope that blended learning will improve the educational fortunes of children of color across America.
Question: How can blended learning improve the educational outcomes for poor children and children of color?
Answer: I and some of us have a theory about how that will work and we have some evidence to suggest we might possibly be right. But this movement is still at infancy and so no one knows how true it will actually be. I think in some ways this system of education and learning in America was designed to support some folks and to oppress and push out other folks. This system was not designed to support children of color, brown-skinned kids in particular. So I think the promise of blended learning is improvement in the quality of teaching and providing better supports to teachers and at the same time weaving that with technology that is itself not racist. It doesn’t care what the color of your skin is. It doesn’t care how much money your parents make. All it gets excited by is helping you to learn more efficiently and more effectively. So partnering that technology with improved supports and quality of teaching we believe will lead to better outcomes for all children, and very importantly for kids of color and kids in poverty.
Q: You have said that a critical transformation is happening in American education today but while our nation’s schools are increasingly black and brown, the overwhelming majority of individuals leading the revolution are white. Is there any way to quantify that?
A: That is something we are going to attempt to do. We are going to send out a survey to tech organizations asking them to provide us with the data on the racial composition of their boards. Because I work in this space, as I look on the boards and staffs of organizations we work most closely with, it’s very clear we don’t all reflect the racial composition of our kids. I believe, and I think many of us believe, that that’s problematic for a bunch of reasons. And this is not about beating white folk up. That’s not the purpose. Or making people feel badly. It’s about helping folks from all colors and backgrounds to see the value proposition of diverse staffs and providing them with strategies and some kinds of support to nudge them in a better direction. That’s what this is about.
Q: It’s an issue that you would find in many well-meaning movements—environmental, education, etc.—where even if the groups are primarily focused on helping kids of color, the staffing is not going to be reflective of the kids they are trying to help. Why is that a problem?
A: I think there are two ways to answer that. The first is that although the ecosystem in which we live, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the places and experiences we have, although all of those things are interrelated, the sort of hierarchy of needs, I think it is particularly disconcerting when we don’t have a commensurate amount of racial diversity in some spheres within our educational sectors as we do in our classrooms among children. Because how learning is constructed is very intimate, it’s very personal, and it has a tremendous lifelong effect. The second way of answering would be to say how we learn over the next decade is quite likely to change more radically than it has in perhaps any ten-year period in our history, or at least in a very long time. And anytime an ecosystem undergoes that level of change, it’s really important to be thoughtful about not only the effects of that change on all kinds of folk, but be mindful going into the change and architect it in a way that it is optimized for supporting as many different kinds of children as possible. If the folks that are most involved in the revolution are coming from a very similar background, I think we might find that we aren’t as thoughtful about kids from all backgrounds and colors as we otherwise would have been.
We are in the nascent stages of changing how learning happens in America. But to this point, we don’t have good data on how those changes are received by or affect for example black and brown girls in sixth grade versus white girls in sixth grade. And then what is the effect on those same black and brown girls in eighth grade versus white girls in eighth grade? I have a theory that the effects might be different. We need to measure those things. We need to be talking about them. Those tend not to be the kinds of questions that come up among a relatively homogeneous group of folks thinking about blended learning. It just doesn’t necessarily occur to you. So my interest here is really having a conversation about why it’s important to have diverse staffs and boards so that those kinds of conversations occur because they are essential to having a better blended-learning architecture.