Public education has a pivotal choice ahead — a choice that is, in fact, not a choice at all.

Halfway through this school year, the negative impacts of the pandemic are persistent and inescapable. This is especially true for our most underserved learners, but no one appears to be immune to the challenges facing our nation’s schools and students. And, if we are all in this together, then we must stop viewing our solutions in siloes and instead see how we can come together to radically reimagine school environments that better serve every student, particularly those that have been systematically oppressed.

For decades, arguably beginning in the ’90s with George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” many schools were incentivized to relentlessly focus on academic achievement.

Saturated with terms like “rigor” and “high expectations,” these schools often emphasize procedure and structure and use oppressive tactics to teach students to succeed in systems that were designed to disenfranchise them. This approach, while often yielding strong academic results, can also create students who don’t feel valued and ultimately disengage from their education.

Then, in the span of only a few years, a global pandemic and a national racial reckoning forced many schools to move away from that model. We now see more and more schools grounded in anti-racist practices and culturally responsive teaching designed to meet the needs of every learner and dismantle systems of oppression.

Culturally relevant teaching is the pathway to academic achievement.

But schools prioritizing anti-racist practices at times have struggled to connect their strategies back to academic achievement, discounting grade-level standards and standardized assessments because they are often not culturally relevant. Students are engaged and valued, but don’t often have the traditional measures of achievement to demonstrate their success.

As we seek a path forward for our schools post-pandemic, we’ve viewed this evolution as a choice between two opposing ideologies. But that is a false choice. In isolation, both approaches fail to give all students everything they need for a successful future. But if we stop seeing them as mutually exclusive, and rather as mutually reinforcing, we can drastically reshape education for every child. 

As Executive Director for Aspire Public Schools in Los Angeles, I’m taking the stance that anti-racist practices and academic achievement must exist in tandem if we are to improve U.S. education. Culturally relevant teaching is the pathway to academic achievement. And rigorous instruction is effective when built on culturally relevant teaching.

To best serve our students, we can both give them the tools of empowerment to succeed within unjust systems and also dismantle those systems over time by creating anti-racist educational environments. As we rebuild our schools in a post-pandemic world, we must do so with this charge as our north star.

In practice, this means examining everything from our staffing structure to our professional development to the programs and resources we bring into our schools. It means having data-driven conversations, grounded in equity, about how we are serving our most marginalized students. It means engaging students and families to holistically understand their needs and the assets that they bring to academic success. And it means designing our schools to serve the most marginalized among us and judging our efficacy based on the academic results we produce and the pathways we open up for our students.

Within the Los Angeles region, we are developing strategic partnerships to integrate Afrocentric curricular resources, developing structures for co-teaching, planning for a pilot of an A-G approved LGBTQIA course, and investing in the development of a Black educator pipeline. Investing in new curricula and diversifying our teaching force is not only culturally relevant. Research shows that creating environments that are richer and more diverse ultimately leads to greater learning and that having more teachers of color yields positive academic, social-emotional, and behavioral student outcomes.

Our school leaders are also being supported in new ways. We’ve hired a superintendent of equitable instruction and a senior director of culturally responsive leadership development.

Our students don’t have the luxury of waiting patiently while we needlessly debate.

Through these positions, school leaders are learning to integrate Universal Design for Learning as an antiracist approach to instructional practices.

For example, school leaders have been trained to implement standards-aligned writing strategies that focus on students’ choices and interests. The intentional act of centering student interest and choice in learning empowers students as expert learners.

Additionally, school leaders have experienced professional development on leveraging tools from the National Equity Project’s Leading for Equity Framework, such as disrupting racist and deficit language, and discussing race and equity through asset-based lenses. By implementing research-based and equity-aligned coaching practices, our school leaders are both more inclusive and more effective. 

We must admit to one another that we can approach learning with empathy and still create academically challenging environments. To deliver on the promise of excellent education for every child, it is time to chart a path that is both rigorous and anti-racist.

Our students don’t have the luxury of waiting patiently while we needlessly debate. There are not two paths forward, there is no choosing one approach over another. It’s up to us, the adults within this system, to realize we must bring these worldviews together and create a new version of American education.

Chris Carr is the Executive Director for the Los Angeles region of Aspire Public Schools.