Harvard University’s James E. Ryan, J.D., delivered a keynote address at the VCU Commons on Oct. 1. The speech focused on racial and socioeconomic segregation in the nation’s public schools.
This year the VCU School of Education, in partnership with VCU Libraries, hosted the ninth annual John and Mary Sue Oehler Lecture for Educational Leadership. Ryan, the keynote speaker, is the dean of the Harvard Graduate School and the author of the 2010 book “Five Miles Away, a World Apart.”
The book used two Richmond-area high schools to highlight how laws and politics have shaped the educational system since the historic supreme court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
“The basic argument of the book is that for the second half of the 20th century and in the 21st century, the most important dividing line has been the line between urban and suburban school systems,” Ryan said.
“On either side of this line stood on the urban side schools attended by students of color and students who are relatively poor. On the suburban side were schools attended by white students who were primarily middle income. If you look across the system you saw unequal opportunities and unequal outcomes across a host of measures.”
The two schools observed in the book — Thomas Jefferson High School in inner-city Richmond and Douglas S. Freeman High School in Henrico — are five miles apart but have vastly different results in terms of measuring up to academic standards. The students at Jefferson High often receive considerably lower test scores and graduation rates than their counterparts in Henrico.
The schools are also different in terms of demographic. 85 percent of Thomas Jefferson’s students belong to a racial minority, while 67 percent of Freeman students are white.
Ryan commended what he called a new outlook at education in America, which has led to the recognition of the importance of diversity in education.
“We’re seeing an important recognition that so-called non-cognitive factors are important to post high school success,” Ryan said.
“This re-examination of the services of public education is promising to break down divisions based on race, ethnicity and income that characterize too many of our school systems.”
Ryan spoke about how modern policy reforms in the education system, which include school desegregation, school financing, school choice and standardized testing, have aimed to improve school systems while keeping them separate, as opposed to integrating and diversifying them.
“I believe that increasing school diversity is critical to the success of public education in this country,” he said.
“I don’t believe that separate is truly ever going to be equal but just as importantly, I believe diverse schools have benefits for all students.”
The speech was delivered before a near-capacity audience at the VCU Commons Theatre, which features 280 seats. Among those in attendance was Christine Daifotis, an education minor at the University of Richmond.
“The biggest point I got out of the lecture was when he talked about how at the university level when we talk about diversity, it’s seen as a good thing, but at the K-12 level we usually use the word integration,” Daifotis said. “It’s important to remember that diversity doesn’t just benefit minority students, but everyone.”
The John and Mary Sue Oehler Lecture for Educational Leadership is presented by the VCU School of Education through the Oehler Lecture endowment fund.