H. Richard Milner speaking at the Mitchell Auditorium
H. Richard Milner IV, PhD, the Helen Faison Endowed Chair of Urban Education and Professor of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, visited Drexel on April 26 to present his views on race and inequality in education and what actions need to be taken to provide quality education to children in all communities.
The School of Education’s Critical Conversations in Urban Education Lecture Series hosted the event, which was titled, “Engaging Multiple Voices: Issues that Divide and Unite in Urban Education.” Alongside Milner’s presentation, the School of Education hosted an exhibit hall showcasing initiatives and research from around Drexel aimed at improving urban communities.
“What I’ve come to understand,” Milner said, “is that if we don’t get this race thing right, we’re going to find ourselves in a holding pattern in education. Because we as adults don’t feel comfortable engaging the tough issues, students are the ones who reap the consequences.”
Milner listed five negative ways that the modern education system is failing its students: race, poverty, counseling, curriculum and how we talk about achievement. With each issue, Milner presented the challenges students face and the repercussions if those challenges are not met. Though the material he presented was very serious, Milner spoke with a casual, humorous tone, often leaving the podium to engage with the assembled teachers, administrators, education stakeholders and students in the audience.
The centerpiece of Milner’s presentation was an extended anecdote from his days conducting research in a middle school. There had been a robbery that took place in a store near the school, where three high school students shot and killed the store clerk. The robbery was on a Thursday. The following week, the middle school students Milner was observing were still talking about the robbery. But none of the teachers were.
“I posed a question,” Milner said. “I said, I noticed the kids were talking, and were really interested in unpacking the robbery that took place, but there was no discussion of it in the classroom. And when I tell you the folks in that room ganged up on me…”
Milner asked the audience what reasons the assembled teachers gave as to why it was completely inappropriate for them to engage about the robbery. Many reasons were called out, but none of them were the one Milner was looking for. One teacher said something that gave Milner a deeper understanding of how our education system is not just failing the students, but also the teachers.
“He said, ‘The robbery won’t be on the test,’” Milner recalled.
"I was reminded of the strain and pressure teachers are under,” Milner said. “That strain and pressure, those accountability measures and the ways in which we think about what really matters, sometimes are completely disconnected to what students really need.
Though his examples were bleak, Milner said he does not think these issues are insurmountable. He named a handful of schools that are tackling these problems with great success. Small efforts, like having a pantry for food-insecure students, can have a much larger impact than people might expect.
“My question for you today, in Philadelphia is, what doors are you opening for others?” Milner said. “Whose hands are you grabbing today to say, ‘I’m going to push through. I’m going to knock down doors for you.’ That’s what this life is about.”
A video of Milner’s complete presentation is here.