We're joined by Matt Gonzales, the founder and director of the Integration and Innovation Initiative at the NYU Metro Center to discuss what equity looks like in the midst of this crisis, and how we can leverage community, relationships, and vulnerability to improve our educational system on the other side.
Matt Gonzales is an educational justice advocate and Director of the Integration and Innovation Initiative at the NYU Metro Center. We are incredibly fortunate to have him as a member of the Integrated Schools Advisory Board. We had a chance to sit down with Matt this week and talk to him about the implications of COVID-19, what building equity could look like now and in the future, and why anti-racist integration matters now more than ever.
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This episode was produced, edited, and mixed by Andrew Lefkowits.
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Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I’m Andrew, a White dad from Denver and this is “COVID19: Matt Gonzales on Equity.” I’m not sure about you, but my experience of time in this crisis has been very weird. The days somehow feel endless, and yet three weeks have gone by since we released an episode. As I try to make sense of this new normal, I’m incredibly grateful for the Integrated Schools community - the volunteers who help put this podcast together, who moderate the Facebook page, who plan book clubs, and update the website, and on and on. I’m particularly grateful for our advisory board. You can read about them on our website, IntegratedSchools.org, but I’m thrilled to be joined for the episode by one of them - Matt Gonzales. You may have heard him at the end of a recent episode talking about the value he sees in Integrated Schools, but today we have him for the entire episode to talk about what equity means in the midst of this crisis.
Matt has been a crucial voice for equity in New York City for years, but particularly in this moment, and so I’m grateful he was willing to come on the show and share. In addition to the important work in New York, Matt is also on the steering committee for the National Coalition for School Diversity. Our late founder and my former co-host, Courtney, was also on the steering committee, and tomorrow, May 14th, they are hosting a virtual keynote panel in Courtney’s honor. It will feature a conversation with Dr. Vanessa Siddle Walker, Dr. Elizabeth McCrae (who you might remember from Ep 11 of this podcast), that will be facilitated by Dani McLain. Courtney Martin and I will also be sharing some reflections. I’m really excited and honored to be a part of it and encourage you all to tune in - there’s a link in the show notes. We may also turn it into a podcast episode in the near future but, in the meantime, let's hear the conversation with Matt.
Andrew: Maybe we just start, you can introduce yourself.
Matt Gonzales: Sure. My name is Matt Gonzales. I'm based out of New York City. and I am an educator and advocate and a policy nerd, I guess as I like to describe myself. And I work for the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools and oversee our work, specifically really trying to support schools and districts and cities and whoever really is trying to think about integration in an equitable and racially justice kind of centered way. And so I get to work with a lot of districts in New York City and across the country, and then do a lot of advocacy work as well on the side or within that kind of world.
Andrew: Right. How did you come to care about educational justice? Why is it the focus of your career?
Matt Gonzales: Yeah, yeah. I always tell people that if I had proper math and science education as a young person, I probably would have been, become an astronomer or a scientist because I like, have always been very fascinated by space. But I think, you know, I guess I always say that to acknowledge that, you know, I grew up in Los Angeles and attended public schools there and, from kindergarten through eighth grade, attended segregated public schools. And so my, my experiences as a young person navigating my educational career was, was very rarely ever positive or affirming besides the, like, socialization and, really beautiful community of friends that I created in school, I don't think I was told that I was smart or intelligent until I was a junior in high school. And so I didn't really think about the implications of navigating higher education. Neither of my parents went to college and barely graduated high school. And so I think part of my mission to work for educational justice is really just so that young folks don't have to go through the experiences that I did.
And so that led me to becoming a special education teacher in Los Angeles. I think the barriers that I saw, as a practitioner, as someone who was trying to cultivate a really healing and loving and affirming space for young people, there's a lot of barriers to doing that. And so I think the tension that I experienced there, I think, led me to move my focus towards public policy and ensuring that young people, educators, stakeholders, folks directly impacted, have a voice in shaping the policies that really impact their lives. And so that brought me to New York to go to graduate school at Teachers College at Columbia, and I was supposed to go back home to go teach again and I, that's, that was five years ago and I've been really enjoying, and really embracing the, the amazing, beautiful politics and craziness of New York City and the educational system that we have to work with.
Andrew: Yeah. What happened junior year? How did you… What was the sort of transforming moment for you? Can you point to it?
Matt Gonzales: Honestly, like, I think it was just like a moment where someone kind of was like, Hey, like, where are you going to college? And I was like, Oh, I don't, I don't know about college. And so I think that educator intervening in my trajectory, I think put me on a different path. And so, I went to community college and spent, you know, about four or five years there trying to figure out what my path was going to be and figure out how to navigate being a part-time student while working full-time, as well. And so, yeah, I mean, I think honestly like I didn't feel like I was a good student until I left community college cause I struggled there to, to navigate the system but then when I got into my teaching credential program at Cal State Los Angeles, they basically pulled, pulled all of us in and wrapped support around us and gave us mentorship and a cohort and friendship and all sorts of resources to navigate education. And then I was like, Oh, actually it wasn't that I was a bad student, it was just that there's been so many barriers in front of my ability to learn that I haven't been able to focus. And so, you know, part of my mission now is like, how do I create the infrastructure and support systems, you know, in communities and, and externally through our public policy systems to support young people, to like actually just navigate their education and to have a little agency in their lives.
Andrew: Because if that is there, then what we'll have far more successful kids. Like the barrier to success is not inherent in kids, but is rather in the system putting up barriers.
Matt Gonzales: Right. And I, you know, I always feel like we have this, this narrative, that we have like a meritocratic system. And so that kids, kids achieve based on their merit. And, you know, parents, by virtue of their amazing kids are also great because their kids are great. And I, you know, I actually think all kids are really amazing and talented and brilliant. But I, I know that the way that our education system and the systems that surround that as well are designed to, really, diminish and, and minimize the brilliance of historically marginalized communities, Black and Brown, poor folks, and amplify and elevate historically privileged communities, which are typically White, middle class families.
Andrew: Yeah. You, you found yourself in a number of places now fighting for integration. Why integration as a tool to fight for educational justice and equity?
Matt Gonzales: Yeah, I think it was a combination of me kind of reflecting on being a student and an educator in segregated schools. It was also me reflecting on attending a desegregated high school in Los Angeles. So that was a big, like, really like, crucial experience for me. And just a whole new, new world for me. So it was a lot of self-reflection, but then it was really just looking at some historical, educational kind of practices and, and understanding that the root of many of the inequities that we see in our public education system were built into and woven into the fabric of our public education system. So we were founded on a segregated system. Once we kind of move past an officially segregated system you know, we used a, a number of other ways to segregate students from curriculum and resources and opportunities. And so, you know, as I kind of was finding my way at a graduate school, that's basically, I started writing everything about segregation.
And I think the thing that peaked it was Nikole Hannah-Jones, as, as with many folks, Nikole Hannah-Jones’, This American Life episode, “The Problem We All Live With.” I was walking home from, from school one day and listening to the episode and just like in tears about being an educator and also being a student, listening to that young person, like describe the way she felt that these White parents were talking about her. And so that I think for me, like just sparked so much interest and desire. And luckily, found a, a professional opportunity with an organization, New York Appleseed, which was the only organization in New York City that was really thinking about integration. And I was fortunate and have been fortunate to be in partnership with the amazing young people from IntegrateNYC and, you know, adult advocates from the New York City Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation and, and, and then I've gotten connected to the National Coalition on School Diversity. So I just, you know, I think I was at the right place at the right time and had the right set of skills and interest and desire. And, and now this, you know, I think this is gonna, you know, really be the work that I'm going to spend my life and career really pushing for.
Andrew: Talk about, about the, the power of youth voice. I think IntegrateNYC has been, has been so instrumental in New York and, I think we often, with many issues around school, but particularly when it comes to these big policy issues around things like integration, there's a sense that the kids don't have anything to teach us, that this is above their head or they don't understand it or it's too deep for them. What have you learned from, from the sort of the power of youth voice, particularly with IntegrateNYC?
Matt Gonzales: Yeah, yeah. So, like, the work with Integrate has been, I think the most exciting and just enriching experience that I've had over the last four and a half, five years, you know, getting to be in partnership with them. I think what it really represents, and this is something I really tried to bring into my classroom, so really the, the collaboration with them was really, you know, reinforcing my, my perspective as an educator, was that young people and adults need to be in partnership to create solutions to inequity. And one of my colleagues at NYU always uses this amazing quote, his name's Richard Gray. And he says, “Segregation is a, is a generational problem, which requires intergenerational solutions.”
And I just really think that young people have a really dynamic understanding of the problems and so making sure that those most directly impacted by the problems of segregation, have to be in the driver's seat of solutions. And this is, again, you know, my philosophy, but really coming from Paulo Freire's work, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is really just understanding that those who are experiencing oppression firsthand have to be the architects of their own liberation. And so, I think when I got to New York and started looking at the policy landscape, it was very clear that teachers, you know, have a union and have a political voice. Parents have a variety and not the most amazing and strong structures of parent leadership, but there are existing formal structures of parent voice. Students have, you know, mostly decorative and tokenizing roles to play in public policy. And so for me, it really felt necessary to create external spaces so that we could really model what authentic youth leadership and partnership looks like with adults. And so I think just at a, on a, in a practical level, it's just fun, it's way more fun for me to work with young people than adults. They keep me up to date. But I think in terms of just the dynamic nature of their thinking, you know, I think they have a holistic framework called the five R's of real integration, that certainly is like thinking critically about admissions policy, but thinking comprehensively about what are the various other pieces of integration that need to be considered
Andrew: And so this is the five Rs: race and enrollment, resources, relationships, restorative justice, and representation. These are the five key pieces that IntegrateNYC has laid out as keys to what they call real integration.
Matt Gonzales: Yeah and that level of thinking, I think really, again, it shows that it's not just a performative, you know, work with them. It's not just like we need to smash Black and Brown kids and White kids together and then we're all done. It's really what is the deep work of, of culture building and alignment and just shared understanding that we need to do. And our young folks have articulated all of that.
I think my role for, with them has evolved, but really was at first just helping them translate their ideas into public policy. Like, they're like, we don't like walking through a metal detector. I'm like, okay, well let's connect that to some work around restorative justice and restorative practices. Or they're like, we want to be reflected in the curriculum. Or I'm like, okay, well let's connect that to culturally responsive and sustaining practices. And so now I think, you know, you know, it was initially about connecting the ideas to public policy and now it's really teaching them how to analyze and write their own policy and to be, again, in partnership with them.
Andrew: You were a part of a, a group that drafted the definition of culturally responsive and sustaining education that, that, that New York City public schools now uses, is that right?
Matt Gonzales: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, again, very connected to our framework for integration, too.
Andrew: So I feel like you hear a lot about CRE, about culturally responsive education, and you guys have added, “sustaining” in there. What's the significance of sustaining?
Matt Gonzales: Yeah, I mean, now I would want to point folks to Django Paris, who's the scholar who kind of, has kind of coined the sustaining piece of it. But I think essentially what he's describing is that the work of culturally responsiveness, I think the, the initial framing was that it's like a kind of a thing that you do, and then it’s done. And then you're, you're culturally responsive. And I think his argument, which I've really taken very to heart and tried to apply to many different pieces, is that the work of cultural responsiveness is actually constantly ongoing and iterative. And it's not just about curriculum and teaching practices. It's actually a broader umbrella of infrastructure pieces. It's about hiring practices. It's about representation of faculty and staff. It's about curriculum content. It's about how we, how we just navigate relationships with our colleagues and young people. And so I think the sustaining kind of function of it is really about the extension and the long term mindset work that is required, as opposed to just like, Oh, I got a couple books with Black and Brown kids in them, and we're, we're culturally…
Andrew: I can go back to my normal teaching.
Matt Gonzales: Right, right. And, and I think, yeah, the, the, the mission of this, the really, you know, really goes back to some of the, the initial framers of culturally responsive education. It’s really about doing transformational pedagogy and practices and approaches that have impacts for the way that you believe students are, the way that you practice your teaching, and the policy structure that surrounds all of this.
Andrew: Yeah. And that work is ongoing. It's not something that you ever finish.
Matt Gonzales: Right. I mean, I think there, you know, what we've learned is that there are benchmarks that you can get to. You know, there are waves of how this works. Like, obviously we want to start with making sure folks are looking internally, and having an understanding of how they show up, in terms of you know, educators in particular. Like, you know, there’s a power dynamic in public schools and in all educational spaces and so I think understanding that the majority of our teachers are middle class and White and there tends to be a very huge cultural mismatch in the experiences that our educators have and that our young people have. And even right now, New York City teachers are not from, you know, don’t live in the city. Many of them live outside of, in the the suburbs, and so you have kids that are, you know, experiencing quarantine in public housing projects in New York City and also having to figure out how to do remote learning and then you have educators who are like sitting on porches…
Andrew: In Westchester.
Matt Gonzales: In Westchester. And again, that’s like really cool and it’s nice but the, the disconnect in understanding - There’s such a gap in access and opportunity, even if everyone has an iPad. Like, if you don’t have a quiet room to work in for two hours, like, that’s a whole other world of disparity that is existing. So, yeah, I mean, I think for us it’s really about having a lens over everything that one does to ensure that we’re, we’re, you know, culturally competent.
Andrew: . Yeah. So let's talk about COVID, about the current crisis. Across the country, I think we've seen many of the existing inequities that both our educational system, but also sort of society as a whole has tolerated for many years, have, have in some ways become harder to ignore in the crisis. I think prior to this crisis, there was a thought that if we just put kids all together in a building, that teachers and administrators could solve all of society's ills and now they're not together in the building those same ills that have been there for so long and have been impacting education for so long are just harder to ignore. What have you seen as the, the biggest hurdles or the biggest impacts to equity as we've moved to remote learning?
Matt Gonzales: So, I obviously want to be very, like, sensitive and supportive and loving to our educators, but, you know, in New York City, we took about, we, I think, spent about a week, to transition a million, 1.1 million kids to a, what we're calling remote learning. I don't actually think it's, I think we need to actually, you know, clarify that this is not remote learning. Like this is remote keeping kids busy, I guess. You know, and
Andrew: Remote babysitting.
Matt Gonzales: Yeah. Yeah. And again, this is not to like disrespect or diminish the work our educators are doing ‘cuz I have friends who are in the classroom, who are classroom teachers, who are doing amazing, beautiful, magical things with their young people. But those are the unicorns of the system. And I think, we all had to be very clear that the majority, like the mass majority of educators, were wholly underprepared to transition their, their instructional practices to a remote space. And so I think the issue is that you are, you're having such a wide gap in content and curriculum and access, that that's like, I think, a big piece. The larger piece for us like, we still have kids that don't have wifi or devices, you know, and those kids, you know, not surprisingly, are the most marginalized students in the system. They're the ones with disabilities. They're those who have housing insecurities. They're the poorest students in our, in our city. And so like, just at a, at a base, like technical level, kids don't even, haven't even had access to whatever the like quality, or lack of quality of curriculum and content was, was, was going to happen. And so, you know, that, you know, in terms of just the educational sphere, like that is the most alarming because I think it, it represents a larger concern that we're going to create another so-called gap or opportunity gap for, you know, poor Black and Brown kids that is going to result from this. I worry about like the implications. I mean, we have, you know, I've, I have a young person that I am working with who's lost her father, you know? And, and then other young people that are housing insecure. And then I have other young people who are doing fine and so I think, just the wide disparities in how this is impacting communities…
You know, one of my colleagues does amazing mapping work, and so she was showing me a map the other day that was showing by income who is being impacted and by neighborhood. And so if you are wealthy, in this city, your likelihood of being impacted by COVID-19 is very low. If you live in parts of the Bronx, parts of Queens that are, you know, low income communities of color, those happen to be the most pockets of our essential workers. And so, just the, the, the various layers of impact that this is having outside of public education to like, food access and housing security and other forms of basic needs, those, those filter into how students experience education. And so I worry so much about the educational opportunity gap that's going to exist, but also just the mental health impact that young people are gonna experience or that I think we're all gonna experience, but more so on the young folks.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. And I worry about who is more able to bounce back from that? You know, I think like everybody is being impacted in various ways and obviously the impact is not, is not felt equally like, like you were saying, even just by neighborhood or by wealth. But the ability to then recover from that, you know, by the end of this, most people will probably know somebody who has been affected, either from a health standpoint or job loss or whatever. The ability to bounce back from that is not, is not the same either.
I think about, like COVID did not create the disparities that are existing there. The lack of access to technology is particularly relevant right now, but I mean, it's hard to imagine that that's not relevant outside of this crisis too, right? Like the, the having wifi, having a device. We need them now, but I mean, I think you could argue that we're not preparing our kids for the world that they're going to enter if they don't have those things in a non-crisis time, too.
Matt Gonzales: Yeah, I don't try to frame this as like a new problem. This is really just a reinforcement and a replication of existing gaps and opportunity. We, you know, kids need wifi now. Kids needed wifi before, you know. Kids needed access to some sort of device now. But that was needed before as well. And so I think, you know, like, I think the way you frame this originally was like, this is just really shining a light on the, the, the massive disparities that we've allowed our system to endure. And so these disparities in access and opportunity are, you know, present and have been present across the country. And you know, for me, I think why I tie all of this back to segregation is because it's the foundation of how we've laid out opportunity and access across the country. And so, you know, when you have concentrated privilege and vulnerability through your schooling system and your housing system, then it's much easier for systems to divest from communities of color or to overpolice communities of color, or to, you know, ensure that those communities lack mental health services and other resources.
And so, I think, you know, I was looking at this map my friend put together and was like, Oh my God, this is like the story. And this, this crisis, the impacts we're gonna see, and the patterns we're going to see will be patterned on patterns of segregation. And I think that while, like, kids are not being physically enrolled into schools right now because we're doing remote learning, the implications of segregation are so deep and wide that I think for me it reinforces why the work of integration is so important.
Andrew: Yeah, like you said, this crisis has shown a light on so many of the inequities, but I think there are still many people who aren't being seen in this time. Usually the people who we sort of struggle to reach the most. I think about, certainly special education needs, English language learners. All of these, you know, pockets that even in this time where we are forced to confront some inequities and the inequities that we're forced to confront, feel at times overwhelming, there's still a lot of people, I think, who are, who are falling through the cracks. What do we do? How do we, how do we confront that? How do we do in this moment, sort of in the, the, the acute need to try to address some of those?
Matt Gonzales: That's the question. I mean, I think at least what I try to do is in any of the work that I do on the advocacy side or the policy side, always is done in partnership with not just students, but with folks who are from marginalized communities. I think part of it is being intentional that when you're pushing an agenda and it's so, so called an equity agenda, if you don't have folks who represent immigrant communities at the table, cause we know right now, immigrant communities tend to have students who are multilingual learners and also like tend to just have like disparate access to public resources and education for political reasons, for also socialized reasons of fear. And so, you know, I think for, for us, you know, we, in terms of the way that we try to build coalition here is that we have young people at the table, we have parent leaders at the table, we have folks who represent communities, who are immigrant communities, who are low income communities and who are students with disabilities. And so, you know, I think for us it's really about committing to having like a true representative coalition of partners. And then, and then having to do the, the, the sticky work of working democratically with a lot of different stakeholders. And so it's hard work.
But, I think ultimately the commitment to really representative coalition I think is really critical. And then I, you know, I always kind of bring up my special education lens of universal design. And if you are using universal design, which is really about ensuring that your policy, your approach, your practice can impact those who are kind of within the vulnerability world, but also actually, it's just applicable to everyone. You know, I think I try to bring a universal design lens to everything that I do, so that if we're, if we're creating policy that's going to be, beneficial to immigrant communities, students with disabilities, those who have housing insecurities, then the harm, the potential for harm for everyone I think is, is diminished, heavily.
And so I think it's really about just trying to like, diminish, especially right now, it's trying to diminish, the, the insane amounts of harm that are, that are being caused in our young people.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. I think a lot about, I heard Angela Glover Blackwell speak about the curb cut effect. You know, the idea that some mobility advocates in Berkeley in the sixties, who pushed for curb cuts to allow for wheelchairs to get up. And you know, she talks about all of the people who benefit from that every day, who have no mobility issues, who are not in wheelchairs, who are mothers pushing strollers, who are people carrying groceries, who are all these various things. That if you, if you design to solve a really specific need for a community that is most in need, that you end up benefiting everybody.
And, I think it's like a, it's a great guiding principle, but also I think it's incredibly hard. I mean, it's, it's hard all the time, right? But it's incredibly hard in this moment of isolation. Like, I agree with you so much that there’s, that there's power in building community and that there's, that it's so important to only move forward in community with, particularly with, the most marginalized voices at the table, and yet in this moment that we are being asked to stay apart from each other, building those relationships. We have this need to create new systems and a lack of existing relationships and building those relationships when you're stuck in your house is, is really hard, I think.
Matt Gonzales: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think I'm, I'm speaking from a place where, you know, I've been working on building those partnerships for the last, you know, four or five years. And so I think for us, because we had existing relationships with folks in various communities and, and have continued to show up over the years for issues that, you know, I have to, I've, I used to have to kind of tie along, you know, string to connect it to my integration work, but like, was always able to do that. You know, I think folks there, there's just been a, a community that we've helped build that has moved to Zoom calls and phone calls. And, you know, for, some interesting reason, like this moment has brought some of us much closer than we were. I could have imagined that this would have kind of siloed us in ways, cause we're, you know, physical distancing. And then we're also having to like, compete for priority on particular issues. I think it's ultimately had the opposite effect where we've actually just all come together and now we're building platforms that include all of our educational justice issues together. And, but, but you know, again, that, that really was grounded on existing relationships and trust. But I, I do think that this is a moment where, you know, everyone's kind of going through shared grief, and so it's, it's a space for people to really build some shared understanding community in really unique ways. Like I've been asked more vulnerable questions in the last two months over Zoom than I have, you know, in the last two, three years. And so there's something really unique about like how vulnerable we're willing to be with each other. And I think that vulnerability can open the door to building some trust as well. And so I don't know what the solutions are, but I do think it's really about leaning into the trust and vulnerability opportunities that have been created by this.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, I think it speaks to the, the importance of building community in the best of times. We think a lot about the difference between desegregation and integration and that, you know, integration requires some, sharing of priorities and, and sharing of power and building of community and, and that if you're not doing that work in the good times, then it's really hard to rely on that in the times of challenge and, and the times of when we need it all the time. But we particularly need it in, in challenging times like these.
Matt Gonzales: Right. I really appreciate the differentiation between desegregation integration. I mean, so I told you that I went to a desegregated high school. It was not integrated though. Like there was a separate magnet class that was for all the White kids. That I like got slid into. And I was like, oh, here's all my White friends. So, you know, I think for me, that's why the five Rs is so critical that our young people have articulated, because, you know, we think about admissions and like bringing folks together, but we also think about how resources are distributed. We also think about how curriculum and teaching, you know, facilitates or, or is used to undermine relationship building. We think about discipline policy and how that, you know, impacts Black and Brown students more disproportionately and thinking, you know, there are more humane practices that we can implement. And we also think about who's in front of the young people, you know, what adults and what does representation look like.
And so for me, I think, you know, when I first started the, the advocacy around integration in New York City, I had people who I'm in very close partnership right now who were like, you know, F integration, you know, and these are Black and Brown advocates who I had a lot of respect for, I still have a lot of respect for. But there were people who were like, I don't, I don't want White folks, in, you know, in my neighborhood, like I, that's gentrification to me. And so instead of being like, well, you guys don't know what you're talking about. Let's do this thing. It was really like being open and listening and being humble to know that like my, admissions issue right now is not the thing that was gonna get people activated. But, the framework that we've created has created a lot of on-ramps so that if people are like, well, I don't really know or care about admissions cause it's like a weird wonky thing. But I do care about my kid having a Black teacher. I'm like, well, that's, I'm aligned. I care about that too. That's actually part of our platform and our framework. And so I think, our ability to build the coalitions that we have have been because we've framed our issue in a way that's inclusive and accessible to anyone and obviously we're still pushing admissions changes in New York City and across the country, but, you know, have found a way to make this a more comprehensive and holistic issue. And I think that has built trust, that we're really capitalizing on at this point.
Andrew: Yeah, I've found at least particular pushback to integration if you just throw integration out as if it should be assumed that it is the right answer and that past ways that we have attempted it, which I would argue have just been desegregation, are what we are trying to get back to. And if people are like, look, we tried that, and it didn't actually do a whole lot of good for me or for my parents and it actually, there was a lot of costs that came along with it. You know, if we're talking about that sort of version of desegregation, then it's understandable why people don't want to jump on board. But if you create the space to say, actually what we're talking about is something new, something that has not actually been done successfully in the past that relies on kids being in the same shared space, but also relies on a bunch of other things that we, that we haven’t tried in the past.
Matt Gonzales: Right. I think you hit it right on the head. You know, what's really been present for me is that, there's a opportunity here to have a conversation with folks about something very like tense and, and difficult in a, in a history. And I think if we, you know, those of us who advocate for integration, I think if we lean into that history and acknowledge that thousands of teachers in the South were fired en masse after the Brown decision as a, as a result of, of desegregation efforts.
Andrew: And, and teachers who had, who had like really important, meaningful insight into educating Black and Brown kids that, that we just threw away.
Matt Gonzales: Well, yeah, absolutely. We've never recouped those losses in this country. And I think if we are willing to just have the humility to acknowledge those tensions, but also say that what we're, what we're advocating for is, is actually bigger than diversifying classrooms, it's bigger than equalizing funding, it's bigger than any of these single issues. It's actually all of these issues, and that's really about transforming schools. And so I always tell people, I will stand and advocate to equalize funding in every school but that is not going to solve a racist education system. That is one piece of the racist education system, but we can't fund our way out of racist school practices. You know, we can fix gaps that exist, but if we're not focusing on curriculum and teaching and discipline and admissions, then we're really just playing whack-a-mole racism in education, and I'm just done doing that. I've watched decades of advocacy that was powerful and has been inspiring, but also has been limited in in our, in our scope. And so I think that's why young people are so vibrant in my world is because they are like, we ain’t here for the one off win. We're here to win it all. And I'm just like, I have to like let that ground my work all the time.
Andrew: Yeah. You said on Twitter: When you build the plane as it's flying, people are bound to fall out. How many students have fallen out of the plane during remote learning? Did we give them parachutes to land gently? Are we going back for them or are they just the ones left behind?
Matt Gonzales: Yeah. I mean, it was unfortunate because I don't even like that, that metaphor, but like that was someone from the Department of Education. They said that on a call with us, and it's not good because, you know, I, I'm like talking to young people on a day to day basis, talking to parents on a day to day basis who have fallen out of those planes and are going to be lost. I'm concerned about what our dropout rate is going to look like, you know, next year. You know, I'm concerned about students being able to graduate on time, or being able to promote to the next grade. ‘Cuz if those things don't happen, there's so many implications for life experiences and potential for being incarcerated and job access and health access that I worry so much about. And so, you know, I, I think at, you know, I kind of was being provocative towards the Department of Education on Twitter because I think...
Andrew: Because it’s Twitter.
Matt Gonzales: Well, because that's, that's what you do on Twitter. But I also, I think just wanted to be clear that like what we're doing right now is not sufficient to replace the day to day interactions that educators had with our young people. And like again, I think there are valuable things that can, can and should be happening right now, that are, have very little to do with like algebra and geometry. As a former math teacher, it hurts my heart to say, but like, you know, there's needs that are focused on social emotional health and wellness and mental health and a sense of belonging and community cohesion that I know our educators have the tools and like care to do, but are being kind of guided to prioritize, you know, so-called more academic focus. And I think that, that's just really alarming to me because I think we need to really lead with humanity at this point. And so I think, you know, I, I just obviously dragged that metaphor with the airplane a little bit too much, but I was just like, how far? But like, how far are we going to go saying that this is, this is an adequate educational experience for young people. And if you didn't, you know, you didn't get on the plane. Then like, well. I don’t know, we’ll see you in prison, you know.
Andrew: Yeah, right. Feel it feels like, right. We're building the plane as we fly, as sort of like, you know, so like what more can you expect? Like, yeah, we're going to lose some kids, but so, you know, we're building the plane. Like you can't, you can't ask more than, than that from us.
Matt Gonzales: Right?
Andrew: And that feels like in some ways the mindset of the educational system in the country is like, here's, here it is. You can, you can get on board or not. And if you don't, it's on you. And it's because you're not smart or you're not a good student, or your parents aren't good parents or you know, all these value judgements that, that come along with how we think about people interacting with the educational system. I think if you start with the idea that some kids are good and some kids are bad, you are willing to let some kids fall through the cracks because those are the bad ones and what could you possibly do to reach them.
Matt Gonzales: Mm. Yeah. I mean, I think it just, it really reinforces this idea that some are gonna win and some are gonna lose. And that is an accepted kind of function of our system and, and an accepted mindset. And I know that that's part of the way that we operate as, as a country and as public school systems, but , I refuse to let that be the narrative that we're going to promote. And if we are going to let folks fall through the gaps that we're creating. We're going to acknowledge that and we're going to have to have responsibility for it.
Andrew: Own it in some way.
Matt Gonzales: And so I think, yeah, I think part of, you know, my push to some of the, you know, New York City Department of Education was like, look like, I understand, like you, you guys moved the whole system in a, in a week and a half. And like, I respect the hell out of that. Like, that was powerful.
Andrew: It's massive.
Matt Gonzales: It’s massive. But also. You're just trying to do business as usual, and this is not business as usual. And if we just try to operate as business as usual, then, you know, people are gonna get hurt. And, the like, the long term impacts, I don't even think we can, we can conceptualize at this moment, but I, I worry about them.
Andrew: Yeah, let's talk about Grading for Equity. Maybe we should start with what Grading for Equity is.
Matt Gonzales: Yeah. I need to quote the, the real author of Grading for Equity, which is this scholar named Joe Feldman, who, you know, I'm not an expert on grading policy and really never cared about writing grading policy and don't really believe grades are like a thing that are valuable to me. However, I understand that we like operate in this system. So the idea, I think that just the essential ideas that in a, in a crisis, in a global pandemic, the idea that we can use formal, traditional grading systems, is gonna only replicate and reinforce some of the existing disparities that we were already talking about. And, and it actually, ultimately, it's just like a very inhumane thing to do, particularly when you have kids with parents who are dying or losing jobs. And so I think we just wanted to frame whatever grading policy is going to happen, needs to be done through the universal design lens. And so, you know, the idea for us was that like, first of all, it's not an incentive. It's not a motivator. Like we, the, the kids here hadn't had grades for a month. Remote learning, so-called, was,the engagement was up. So we're like, okay, well, grades weren't the thing. And I think what we wanted to do was really say that like, the instructional focus, would shape what those grades would look like. And we wanted to focus on social emotional learning, cohesion, belonging, some of the mental health aspects of being in community that we're, we're missing out on. And we wanted that to be the focus, which would drive whatever assessment system. But ultimately we’re at a point where like, we didn't think anyone should be failed. Like, so every student should be promoted to the next grade, obviously with some support system to make sure those who need help get help. We wanted all students who are eligible to graduate, to graduate. We wanted elementary schools, which many schools do anyways in elementary, but to eliminate grades entirely and just use narrative reports to communicate where students are, where they need to go. And then for middle and high school, we basically were debating giving everyone A’s. ‘Cuz I thought that was the best idea even though I don't believe in grades I like in, in, in such a formal way. But then kind of got pulled to this, the, the more balanced, I think, idea of making sure that all students have credit, for, for this moment and are able to progress in their educational experiences. Again, acknowledging that, the technical issues alone warrant, like, just not having grades. So this, this document that we wrote was like, obviously responsive to right now, but is something that actually should just exist beyond this pandemic. Because again, the, the functions of grades for us, I think, have lost a lot of their value.
Andrew: Yeah. I was struck in reading it. I mean, I was struck by the number of co-signers on the document. I think it just speaks to the power of building community and sort of like you're talking with the five Rs, like not getting lost in the extremes, but being willing to find the middle ground, cause I don't think you get 80 different organizations and people signing on to something if you are way out on a ledge somewhere. I mean, that shouldn't be so shocking nowadays, but I feel like it is a radical position to not take a radical position. Right? Like that is like not something that is done, at least that you hear about nowadays. ‘Cuz, there's so much signal boosting of the extremes.
But the other thing that struck me about the Grading for Equity document is that it, it is clearly an immediate response to this crisis, but it also really sort of lays out the groundwork for a massive rethinking about what does education look like on the other side of this. And I think that there's so much tragedy coming out of this crisis, you know, from lives lost to economic impact to the increased barriers being put up to our most marginalized communities, to the existing inequities that are being exacerbated by it. But it, it does feel like there is an opportunity in this moment to, to pause, to think about what are the things that we had thought were immovable objects up until now, but now we have discovered we actually can move a little bit? What are the things that when we stop and reassess what is actually necessary, what could we in a perfect world, pull through this moment out the other side with us, that would leave our educational system better off?
Matt Gonzales: Yeah. Yeah. I mean that's, that's the conversations that we're having right now. And I, I, I'm like, I'm happy that the long term visioning came out of that document. ‘Cuz I think the way we were trying to frame it was like, yes, this is right now. But actually this should lay the groundwork for a school system where we are not so heavily focused on high stakes testing. And I think for me, so I’ve never, you know, in my adult career, seen a moment where we are not taking state standardized tests. And it is such a momentous disruption in the business of testing as usual, that, I'm, I'm hopeful documents like this and grading policies and other policies can set the groundwork for states to just actually be like, you know what? We didn't take tests that one year and the system didn't burst into flames and like, teachers were not, you know, murdering children. And actually we're still teaching kids like, so I'm really, I'm really hoping that we can, you know, take this moment to, to take that, you know, to pause a little bit and say like, what is the value of these tests? Like are these tests really improving education? ‘Cuz we've been doing this for about 30 years, and we're still in the same place that we were 30 years ago. And actually, I think we've gotten worse in a lot of ways. And, and I think on the layer of segregation, like test scores play such a proxy in like promoting and reinforcing, segregative patterns. And so for me, you know, I think this is such a big, kind of piece of this pie that I want to like, I really like personally want to just see that we cease, you know, using high stakes testing to penalize young people in schools.
This is not to say that, that we don't assess kids or teachers. Like there's a whole world of assessment that I did as an educator that had nothing to do with reporting to the state. It just, it was how I knew where my kids were and how I communicated that to my parents. Those tools I think are really about professionalizing and honoring the expertise of teachers. But as we, if we force them to conform to this box of like test based accountability, then we're never going to really get to a space of the innovation that I think we really need for our young people.
You know, I was not a good test taker, and I think like, I'm a decently functional human at this point in my life, but I also, you know, I have a lot of young, brilliant, amazing people around me who suck at tests too, but are writing policy for the city or organizing like resources and food banks in their community and like, how do we not value that? Like why don't we place value on the social good that these young people are doing versus their ability to do a performative task.
Andrew: Right. What is the, what does it take to get us to that sort of better looking educational system from a organizing and policy perspective. I mean, I feel like there is no doubt that there is a, an opportunity in this crisis, but opportunities alone don't usually drive positive change, particularly when we find ourselves less in community, when we find the opportunities for White supremacy and racist educational system to run a little more rampant because there's even less accountability for that in these moments. How do we organize ourselves and what is our role, you know, particularly for our audience, as largely White and privileged people, what's our role in trying to make the most out of this tragedy?
Matt Gonzales: Yeah, I mean, I think there's a lot of things folks in the Integrated Schools community can do, but in it, and I think it's, it's a lot, a lot of it is doubling down on the priorities that you already have, already set. And then thinking about how to transition and transform those towards like, digital, you know, interaction. I think on the bigger, like, effort, you know, we have to build multiracial coalitions to do anything powerful. Any, and, and I guess that that probably is a good advice for any advocacy that one could do, is if you don't have critical mass then like your issue probably ain't that important or you framed it in a problematic way. And so I think for me, the, when we got critical mass on this grading policy, I was like, okay, like now I feel more comfortable sharing. This is a thing. So, you know, I think once you, once you get that, I feel like, Courtney always said this. It's like the 3.5%. Like once you get that percentage, then you can start growing and building on that. And I think that's, I feel like that, that just idea that, that it takes a critical mass, not everyone. But we can get, we should fight to get everyone, is really like, gives me so much hope in all the work that I do.
Andrew: This has been great, Matt. I'm really, really grateful for you taking the time, sharing your expertise, and for all the work you're engaged in, in particularly for your continued support of Integrated Schools. I know it was deeply meaningful to Courtney to have your backing and your support, and so we're, we're grateful for your continued support.
Matt Gonzales: Yeah. It's such an honor to get to be in conversation with you and I, I just, I really appreciate everything that Integrated Schools has done and the community it's created. I always tell people, I was very skeptical. I was like, what's this White lady doing trying to organize these White parents. I'm like, what is this? But I think as I watched you all evolve and grow and the lens that was really like prioritized, like I've just been like, well, I was wrong, but this was the right type of wrong to be. And so I'm really happy to get to be a part of the community, too. I really love the community you've created and the conversations that you guys are having.
Andrew: Thank you. Thank you so much for that.
Andrew: Thank you to Matt for taking the time. If you’re not following him on Twitter, he’s @MattTheG, and is always in the middle of the conversation. You know, there’s so much in what Matt had to share, but a few things that really stick out to me are - one - just the power and the importance of building community and building connections in the best of times, so that you can rely on those in hard times. You know, showing up, building trust, being vulnerable, they all contribute to building the types of relationships that we need in all times, but particularly during a crisis.
Secondly, this idea of universal design - that when we make things accessible, when we design our systems to help those with the most needs, we end up benefiting everyone, and again, you know, particularly in a crisis, we should really be thinking about how to serve the most needy then and building up from there.
Finally, I think the Grading with Equity work is a really great place to start to look for ideas about what comes after this crisis subsides. We have an opportunity, and I would argue, an obligation, to be really thoughtful about what school looks like on the other side of this. Finding community, joining in conversation, being willing to find middle ground. These things are all crucial if we want to build something new and better, rather than just replicate the existing inequities of our current system. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.
If you’re listening to this on release day, thank you. Please join us tomorrow for the NCSD Panel. The link is in the show notes along with lots of other great resources that Matt mentioned, including the 5Rs of Real Integration from IntegrateNYC, the Grading for Equity recommendations and more.
Huge thanks to all of our supporters, who have shared this podcast, donated on our website, or joined our Patreon. If you’re in a position to give, I’d encourage you to find a local organization that’s filling acute needs, and also join our Patreon - pateron.com/IntegratedSchools. Support this all volunteer effort, keep this podcast ad-free, and join the conversation on the forums or at our Patreon Podcast Happy Hours that take place once a month over Zoom.
These are strange and scary times, and I take great comfort in the Integrated Schools community. I am truly grateful to be in this with you as I try to know better and do better. See you next time.