Creating viable solutions to today’s educational challenges starts with having courageous conversations. That’s the philosophy behind Talks for Good, part of Walden’s larger Mobilize for Good initiative that was launched in conjunction with the university’s 50th anniversary.
“With Talks for Good, we planned to gather local educators and subject matter experts in one room and have a live discussion around critical topics affecting communities all around the country,” says Walden’s president, Dr. Ward Ulmer. “We wanted to provide an opportunity to share experiences, insights, and ideas in a safe environment.”
But once the COVID-19 pandemic made social distancing the “new normal,” in-person panels were no longer feasible. The Talks for Good team had to pivot from local, live events to a 100% virtual platform.
Not only did the pandemic affect the format of Talks for Good, it also directly impacted the topics discussed.
“The coronavirus pandemic shined a light on something many people in our communities already saw,” says Keith Michel, who helped oversee the project. One of these realizations was that many children were without computers and internet access at home, which left them at a disadvantage as classrooms shifted to distance learning. “Teachers are expected to teach a diverse classroom and empower all students to learn to their full potential,” Michel says. “But it’s not happening. We wanted to explore what some of those obstacles are.”
Ulmer puts it more succinctly: “COVID-19 exposed a crisis in our schools.”
Recognizing an opportunity to raise awareness of the urgent challenges educators were facing, the Talks for Good team decided to hold a series of four virtual talks on educational equity and access as viewed through the lens of the coronavirus crisis. The first session of the virtual Talks for Good, “A Historical Perspective on Equity in Education,” was held in May 2020.
“A Historical Perspective on Equity in Education” was streamed live, webinar-style, to a national audience of Walden students, alumni, faculty, and staff. It took a deep dive into systemic racism and how it set the stage for disparities that plague underserved communities, leaving many schoolchildren without the resources they need to thrive. The broader history of inequity in education was explored, including the impact of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that banned racial segregation in public schools.
Panelists for this talk included Dr. Joy DeGruy, a researcher, educator, social worker, and expert on race relations and historical trauma, and Dr. Daryl Williams, senior education equity specialist at Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium (MAEC).
“It’s not rational to begin a discussion about where we need to go until we understand how we arrived at where we are,” said DeGruy during the panel discussion. “What are the systems and structures that have maintained the current system of inequity that’s producing gaps in so many parts of our community?”
Williams said that creating change will require breaking destructive cycles. “Leaders have to be able to recognize that perhaps their school still practices bias or other types of discrimination,” he explained. “We need to help people move beyond a model that has not worked for a lot of children.”
With COVID-19 disrupting schools and classrooms across the U.S., educators have been tasked with ensuring all students continue to be able to learn. The second of the Talks for Good, “Preparing K–12 Educators for the Upcoming Academic Year,” looked at how K–12 teachers could be as effective as possible as their classrooms migrated to online and/or hybrid models of instruction. This event brought together two practicing educators with an esteemed panel of experts from Walden’s Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership, who shared their insights, best practices, and strategies for online learning.
Walden alumna Tennith Scott ’19, MS in Education, a third grade elementary school teacher in Reddick, Florida, expressed some of the top challenges she and her fellow educators regularly face while trying to teach online. These ranged from language barriers to the schedules of working parents. Dr. Sharon Porter ’12, Education Specialist (EdS), an elementary school principal in the Washington, D.C., area, shared her own challenges from an administrator’s perspective—such as social and emotional issues and student access to distance learning.
“Communication and collaboration with all stakeholders has never been more important during times like these,”said Dr. Kisha Walker, academic coordinator for Walden’s Master of Arts in Teaching program.
“Getting to know your students and parents is essential.” Walker stressed that educators should be able to exhibit flexibility as well as creativity in supporting learners. This includes giving students and parents alternate options for engaging with teachers to help eliminate barriers like nontraditional work schedules and lack of internet access.
Dr. Suzanne Wesson, academic coordinator for Walden’s Riley College of Education and Leadership, said that educators need to lean on one another for support. “If there’s one thing you take away with you from here, I hope it’s that there are resources and people available to help and support you,” she said. “Reaching out to help and for help can get us all through this.”
In the 2018 working paper “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers,” researchers from Johns Hopkins University and American University reported that Black students who’d had just one Black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to enroll in college. When Black students had two Black teachers during that same time frame, the percentage jumped to 32%.
Although student outcomes have been directly linked to who is teaching, many student populations aren’t reflected in the teaching staff or in the curriculum being taught. These racial and ethnic inequities—brought to the forefront by the pandemic and recent racial justice movements—were the topic of the third Talks for Good, “Advancing a Racially and Ethnically Diverse K–12 Education and Teacher Workforce.”
“Our young people were seeing their city and their home represented in sometimes very disparaging ways in local and national media,” said Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools and one of the panelists for this discussion. “How do we situate them within the strengths of their community? Within the history of wealth and generosity in their community? We wanted our young people to be able to see themselves in what they were studying.”
Santelises went on to explain how the lack of movement in her district’s social studies curriculum revealed an opportunity to challenge the status quo. Working alongside their social studies teachers, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Baltimore City students in grades six through 12 helped build an innovative curriculum called BMore Me. Integrated with their social studies program, BMore Me ties students’ learning to the history and realities of their local community as well as to their own ethnic and cultural identities.
The latest of the Talks for Good, centered on how the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the adoption of online learning at colleges and universities throughout the U.S. “Online Learning in Higher Education” featured a distinguished panel of university presidents, including Dr. Ward Ulmer (Walden University), Dr. M. Christopher Brown II (Kentucky State University), and Dr. Irma Becerra (Marymount University).
There was a general consensus among the panelists that the current crisis has thrust higher education into the spotlight, yielding opportunities for a fundamental shift in how education is delivered. Brown shared his institution’s multi-pronged approach to online learning, which he called “the ABCs of digital transformation.” This includes access, ensuring students have the technology to access the information available online; bandwidth, confirming students also have the bandwidth needed to manage online classroom platforms and technologies; and consistency, making sure course content can be accessed by all students no matter their day-to-day life circumstances.
Becerra emphasized the importance of using the challenges brought by COVID-19 as a learning opportunity to become better prepared for the future. She explained that expanding online learning options in higher education can help institutions become more resilient during a pandemic or other circumstances that demand remote delivery of instruction.
The Talks for Good initiative is resonating with audiences. “The feedback has been very positive,” says Michel. “People who have attended say they feel inspired and empowered to go back to their own communities, have similar discussions, and start implementing real changes.”
Ulmer explains, “It’s been fulfilling to know we are doing what we can to help educators and communities navigate the challenges of the pandemic—and staying true to our purpose of access to education and education for good.”