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Tyrone Howard: AERA Social Justice in Education Lecture a Call for Engagement Among Academics and Practitioners

By Joanie Harmon

Perspectives on “Seeking Justice in Unjust Schools and Classrooms: Implications for Education Researchers and Practitioners,” outlined new AERA president's vision for greater collaboration among those supporting the most vulnerable students and communities.

UCLA professor of education Tyrone Howard called for more academic engagement to achieve equity and support for the most vulnerable students, with his Social Justice in Education Award Lecture titled, “Seeking Justice in Unjust Schools and Classrooms: Implications for Education Researchers and Practitioners,” which took place on April 14 at AERA’s Annual Meeting in Chicago. In his remarks, the new 2023-2024 AERA president shared his scholarship and that of his esteemed colleagues across the nation, along with on-the-ground perspectives from his experiences as a researcher and educator.

Howard, the recipient of the AERA 2022 Social Justice in Education Award, was introduced by Jamel K. Donnor, professor of education at William & Mary University. Howard’s talk focused on the current environment of high levels of political contentiousness about what should be taught in schools, and threats to inclusive public schooling that reflects all students’ identities. He also offered historical perspectives and a call for more interdisciplinary engagement among academic, practitioners, and philanthropy. Howard's remarks concluded with ways that educational researchers, practitioners, and policymakers can disrupt and dismantle unjust learning opportunities in schools and colleges.

Professor Howard underscored how the pursuit of social justice in education, “… remains ever present for millions of students nationwide.” 

“At a time of unprecedented demographic transformation in the U.S., efforts to eliminate race-based discussions, exclude content on sexual orientation and gender identity… the persistence of colonialism in school curriculum only lifts up the persistence of exclusion of many students,” said Howard. “Our focus and commitment to justice must be anchored in the idea of dismantling systems of oppression, building a diverse coalition of justice fighters, and using our research, theory, and practice to advocate for those doing this work in schools and classrooms.”

Howard cited recent examples of legislature that are intended to hamper the teaching of slavery, Jim Crow policies and the lynching of Black people in the United States, measures that include steep fines for teachers who violate these laws. He stated that steps have been taken in states to ban racial or ethnic-based content, as well as prohibiting professional development for educators that places blame or responsibility on race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. This includes any training that makes participants feel guilty because of acts committed by individuals who are the same or a different race or ethnicity. Howard also discussed the impacts of these measures on the teaching of critical race theory across the nation, and the blind obeisance of states that have adopted anti-CRT policies.

“CRT has been labeled as un-American and according to Education Source, approximately 42 states have discussed or introduced legislation that has banned the teaching of … critical race theory in schools, despite the overwhelming evidence that there is no teaching of critical race theory in schools in 13 states that adopted the legislation.” 

Professor Howard addressed the book bans that continue to spread nationwide, and cited a report by PEN America stating that among the 6,074 books banned from July 2021 to June 2022, 41% addressed LGBTQ themes and characters; 659 of the books had prominent or secondary characters of color; and approximately 21% directly addressed race and racism. 

“The message is clear: any conversation in any textbook that begin to engage in conversations around gender identity, race or ethnicity, or race and racism are under attack,” Howard said. “Yet, what has not been met with outrage in our society are the conditions in which many of the 50 million young people who are in our schools today in this country deal with…  real adverse circumstances that have not brought up the ire of those who ban books.”

Howard underscored the level of effort spent on banning books to the lack of action on the everyday issues that plague marginalized students. He noted that, “… far less attention and effort has been focused on addressing the out-of-school factors that influence a child’s development. 

“Environmental justice is just as important as economic justice," said Howard. "Clean water and clean air are just as vital to our young people as clean schools. The economic conditions that our students face where they live, has to be addressed. We don’t have the option of doing ‘either/or,’ we must do ‘all of the above.’ 

“We must recognize the dearth of affordable housing at a time when we have seen the disparity have great implications for students struggling with housing insecurities. As a responsible society, we must do everything to understand the relationship between mental health and substance abuse… it’s traced back to deep pain, frustration and despair, marginalization and desperation of parents and caregivers.”

Professor Howard underlined the importance of building, “a robust multidisciplinary education solutions-oriented approach,” with connections among education, public policy, medicine, social welfare, and mental health, where academics and practitioners work in tandem to serve vulnerable students and communities. 

“The social worker never talks to the teacher; the doctor never talks to the social worker; the teacher never talks to the parent, and we continue to see children fall through the [cracks],” said Howard. “Academics and advocates often fall painfully short in addressing this kind of partnership that allows sustainable, cross-disciplinary action. Our inability to talk, think, and plan across disciplines only contributes to the persistence of injustice. Creating justice in unjust classrooms requires us moving out of our silos and focusing on ways in which we can work across systems to begin addressing the complexity of problems that young people face in schools.”

Howard said that community agencies can also play, “a role in sustaining the moral conviction to respond to our most vulnerable student populations,” and stated that elected officials, community organizations, social service agencies, and faith-based organizations should work collaboratively to support families with resources and additional funding to aid in their struggles around housing, poverty, and other basic needs. 

“As a society, we continue to make discoveries and innovations in science, continue to amaze our minds,” said Howard. “Driverless cars and trips to Mars are well within our reach, yet we can’t find ways to house, feed, care for, and educate all of our children.”

Professor Howard said that AERA members need to play “a robust role in the pursuit of justice.” He spoke of efforts in the last 100 years to control the teaching of history and social studies, that exclude marginalized groups, and were led by conservative organizations seeking to, “… to create the kind of schools they thought benefitted their children, but not minority children.”

“Today, we see the same thing,” he said. “Every one of these groups was interested in pleading with some special cause in the schools. This raises a set of serious questions that we need to address and wrestle with today in our pursuit of justice. Are we going to allow others to dictate what our children learn? Will we stand by idly to watch others whose interests are not aligned with ours to dictate what our children learn in school?

“Justice will arise when we begin to stand up and speak out against the very kinds of things that deny truth. We must ask the question: who should be involved in deciding what we should teach in our public schools, and what function should the curriculum serve?”

Howard cited the recent report by the National Academy of Education on “Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse,” that delineates the purpose of public education as not only preparing students for future careers but as having “… a duty to prepare young people for their roles as civic agents in our democracy.”

A recent grandfather, Professor Howard recalled what initially inspired his focus on social and racial justice in schools.

“Years ago, I used to think about doing this work as it pertains to the kinds of schools I wanted my kids to be a part of,” he recalled. “But my lens is shifting because all my kids are grown and out of school. Some of the same issues that I was fighting for, for my children – I don’t want my granddaughter to encounter those same factors. It gives me a renewed sense of purpose, a renewed sense of conviction as to why and how this work has to be done, and why justice has to be attained – we have no other options.”

Howard shared his experiences of growing up in Los Angeles, as “someone who comes to this work as a product of public education… working class neighborhoods, growing up as a Black boy with parents who migrated from the segregated South.”

“In many ways, my life has been about justice: those who were seeking justice, those who were looking for opportunities for better justice, the pursuit for better opportunities, the quest for full citizenship, the push for equality,” said Howard. “Justice has got to be an ongoing, everyday way of life: how we live, how we think, how we breathe in every aspect of our lives. Moreover, justice seeks a level of reciprocity, respect, and affirmation of the human condition, where people are treated with the honorable and principal decency that should be afforded to everyone in a democratic society."

Professor Howard noted that the bottom line of working for justice is the commitment, “… to ensure that every student who enters a classroom, regardless of their identity, is seen, heard, and validated in ways that every child deserves to be seen.” He asked the teacher educators and researchers at AERA to examine the goals of the practitioners and scholars informed and shaped by their work. 

“When it comes to justice education, every day, every person dedicated to the wellbeing and uplift of students should ask, ‘Am I being just, not to most students, not to some students… but to all students? Do I have a deep-seated care and conviction and love for their future and their wellbeing? Do my students feel like there is a just and fair learning environment, and if not, what is my role and responsibility to create those conditions? 

“This is the work we have to do. We stand on the shoulders of giants who … made the sacrifices to ensure that we would have these opportunities at this time. They were our freedom fighters. We know what it takes.”

Professor Howard serves as the director of UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children & Families and is the co-faculty director of the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools (CTS), a campus-wide consortium examining academic, mental health, and social emotional experiences and challenges for California’s most vulnerable youth populations. Howard is also the founder and leader of the UCLA Black Male Institute, now housed at CTS.

Since 2019, Howard has worked with colleagues at UCLA CTS and other institutions to conduct and publish new research detailing the educational status of Black students in Los Angeles County and exploring how various educational, health, and social factors, including homelessness and exposure to environmental pollution, impact their academic and developmental outcomes. Additional research has examined the impact of COVID-19 and reopening schools for Black Youth, as well as a recent paper shining a light on the “bright spots,” the schools and organizations creating and cultivating excellence and opportunity for young Black people in Los Angeles County. 

Professor Howard is the author of several books, including, "Why Race and Culture Matters in Schools" (Teachers College Press) and "All Students Must Thrive" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), among others. He is a native of Compton, California, where he also served as a classroom teacher. A member of the National Academy of Education and an AERA Fellow, Howard assumed the role of 2023-2024 president of AERA at the Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Photo courtesy of AERA