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Stanford GSE conference explores educational equity during COVID-19

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Stanford GSE conference explores educational equity during COVID-19

In a week of sessions open to the public, researchers from Stanford and beyond will discuss the education community’s response to the pandemic.

With the current pandemic amplifying racial and economic inequalities in schooling at all levels, Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) is presenting a free research conference on Oct. 19-23 to address the pursuit of equity in education during uncertain times.

It’s the fifth annual conference organized by the GSE’s program in Race, Inequality and Language in Education (RILE), a doctoral program launched in 2012 to focus on issues of educational inequality. RILE is consistently one of the school’s most popular and competitive programs, drawing 30 to 40 times as many applications as the program can admit.

The virtual conference, which is open to the public, features scholars from Stanford and beyond exploring policy needs, best practices and paths toward education reform after the pandemic.

Featured speakers include Linda Darling-Hammond, GSE professor emerita and president of the California Board of Education, and Gloria Ladson-Billings, PhD ’84, president of the National Academy of Education. GSE professors Subini Annamma, Michael Hines, Teresa LaFromboise, Ramón Martínez, Francis A. Pearman and Jonathan Rosa will also present their research along with scholars from universities around the world.

Arnetha Ball, PhD ’91, has chaired the RILE program since its inception. She is the Charles E. Ducommun Endowed Professor (Emerita) at the GSE and a leading scholar on preparing teachers to teach in culturally and linguistically complex settings. We spoke with her about what’s in store for the conference attendees and how race, inequality and language are inextricably connected in their effect on learning.

The theme of the conference is “Pursuing Equity in Uncertain Times.” What are some of the issues you plan to explore?

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Arnetha Ball, GSE professor emerita and chair of the RILE program

We’re starting the week with Linda Darling-Hammond, looking at how education policy will need to change to serve students in a post-COVID-19 system. Schools and teachers will have learned a lot during the crisis, and we’ll be talking about policy approaches to the new normal.

Another topic we’ll be covering is educational abolition, which is a revolutionary way of looking at the challenges that lie ahead—a way of freeing students and schools from old educational mindsets.

We’re also devoting a day to issues affecting Native communities, which features a panel that includes Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a professor of indigenous education in New Zealand. She’s well known for her work on decolonizing research—we want to address not just the issues but also the methodology, how we do research. She’s a visiting scholar with RILE this year, even if she can’t physically be here with us yet.

We’ll also be talking specifically about COVID-19 and race with a panel including David Williams, a professor of public health and sociology at Harvard. On our final day, with Gloria Ladson-Billings, we’ll look at how the pandemic could serve as a “reset” for education, talking about where education needs to go from here.

What kind of audience is the conference designed for? 

One of the trademarks of the RILE program is that we bring together researchers from many different disciplines—education and linguistics, of course, but also economics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, history. The list goes on. The research is relevant to anyone who is interested in how race, poverty, inequality and language affect educational opportunity.

Because it’s a research conference, we expect to draw an audience primarily of scholars. But since the conference is online and we’re not limited to the space of an auditorium on campus, we also want to encourage others who are interested in these issues to join us.

A big emphasis of the conference is what people can do with the information they’ve heard—how they can apply it to their work, whether that’s in economics, psychology, law or anything else. This is about research that has an impact.

You helped to start the RILE program eight years ago. How did it come about?

I’m an educational linguist, and when I joined the faculty at Stanford 20 years ago, I would get calls from prospective students around the country asking about the best doctoral programs in language and inequality in education. When I was a PhD student at Stanford in the 90s, I got my degree from a program at the GSE called Language, Literacy and Culture. That program was discontinued in 1999, but we still had a lot of faculty focused on these issues. So I would tell students, if you want to work with professors who have that kind of background, you should come here.

Eventually, some of our faculty came together and drew up a proposal to start a new PhD program in race, inequality and language in education, which became RILE. We launched the program in 2012, envisioning three main activities: first, to offer a coordinated curriculum around race, inequality and language in education. Second, to create common working spaces for talking about these issues. And finally, we wanted to convene faculty and students around research in this area. So we organized our first conference in 2016, and it’s grown every year since.

How does the pandemic and remote learning factor into the issues you’ve been exploring all along through RILE? 

Well, we know that those who are suffering from COVID-19 at higher numbers are those who are poor and from historically underserved populations. But when we talk about uncertain times, we’re talking about more than just the pandemic. COVID has flashed a spotlight on longstanding issues of race and inequality, and language is central to all of this.

Language isn’t just about words—it’s our whole system of communication. From a practical standpoint during the pandemic, when you have a machine in front of you, it’s harder. Body language, touching someone on the shoulder, eye contact, silence, all of the cues that people use to understand each other—these are all part of language.

Language, race and inequality are completely intertwined when it comes to determining an individual’s successful engagement with education. You can’t look at one without considering the effect of the others. Researchers who are interested in improving education need to understand that it is an interdisciplinary field where a wide range of forces intersect.

RILE’s 2020 conference, Education During COVID: Pursuing Equity in Uncertain Times, took place Oct. 19-23. Recorded sessions from the event are now available. 

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