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SAN FRANCISCO – After two major education conferences in a row, I expected aggressive promotion of digital tools and products at last week’s NewSchools Venture Fund Summit, along with requisite promises of their potential to change teaching and learning forever.

After all, I’d heard plenty of that at SXSWedu in Austin, and even more at ASU/GSV – the so-called “Davos of the Desert,’’ conference in Arizona that attracts a well-heeled crowd of investors and increasing numbers of enthusiastic ed-tech start-up ventures.

While plenty of ed-tech was on display at NewSchools Venture Summit, a different tone was set from the start, after Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative delivered a blunt, passionate speech on race, poverty and justice.

NewSchools Venture Fund Summit

Stevenson – a New York University law professor — urged the crowd of more than 900 educators, entrepreneurs and policy makers committed to transforming education in underserved communities to do “uncomfortable things.’’

“I want to change the way we talk about race,’’ Stevenson told a rapt audience, one that conference organizers said included twice as many people of color than in 2013. “We’ve never really talked about the legacy of slavery.”

His was an appropriate theme for the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education – a time for confronting our country’s racist past.

It’s a familiar issue for The Hechinger Report this year as we report on the education crisis in Mississippi, a state beset by its legacy of racism and segregation. It’s also the lens we are using to report on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the campaign launched in 1964 to attempt to register blacks to vote in that state that ended in the murder of three young civil rights activists.

As these anniversaries approach, recent research by Amy Stuart Wells is shining a spotlight on the many schools and communities that remain segregated by race and ethnicity – places where students have fewer resources than schools that are majority white.

Timing could be one reason why last week’s summit began with Stevenson and ended with a fired-up Howard Fuller of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, who exhorted school leaders to fight harder for diversity in the education reform debate.

Without it, the reform movement will lose momentum, said Fuller, former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, a longtime proponent of school vouchers.

The need for more diversity among school leaders was another theme. Elisa Villanueva Beard, co-CEO of Teach for America, noted: “Forty percent of students in public schools are Latino or Black and only fourteen percent of teachers are.”

It was no accident that this year’s summit included far more educators of color than in previous years, but Fuller told them that just being in the room was not enough: they must be leaders in their communities.

James Shelton of the United States Department of Education pointed out that if the education reform movement is the civil rights movement of our time, “the movement needs to expand.”

Stevenson – a New York University law professor — urged the crowd of more than 900 educators, entrepreneurs and policy makers committed to transforming education in underserved communities to do “uncomfortable things.’’

Kaya Henderson, chancellor of Washington D.C. schools, agreed and challenged communities of color to join her in doing difficult work in education.

“The values that are important to our community are not at the forefront,’’ Henderson said, noting that the work of closing achievement gaps won’t continue: “Until we get to a point where leaders of color can say what they want to say, do what they want to do and lead the way they want to lead in a way that reflects our community.”

Villanueva Beard of Teach for America described the challenges black leaders face in largely white work places – and how it impacts children.

“Our children should feel comfortable in our organization,’’ she said.

Discussion of race is critical to closing achievement gaps and improving public education, so I was glad it became a part of the conversation last week.

I was busy listening (and live tweeting) that I didn’t have time for the tech video booth, the circus or any product demonstrations

In the months to come, though, The Hechinger Report will be in classrooms across the U.S. to learn more about how new technologies and blended learning have the potential to change teaching and learning.

Along with race, it’s a hugely important discussion with enormous potential to improve public education. We are glad to be part of the conversation.

If no one bothers to talk about the problems, no one is going to bother trying to fix them.

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