Head of the Class – How K-12 Administrators Will Need to Communicate Around Affirmative Action

March 29, 2023

The country waits with bated breath until June 2023 for the United States Supreme Court to rule on the existence of affirmative action. Whatever the decision the High Court makes will likely change our country’s educational landscape, including the experiences of our K-12 learners. Regardless of the multiple stances at play on affirmative action, all K-12 administrators will need to actively communicate about this issue to their educational communities, families and students. Data shows that while most Americans remain in favor of affirmative action programs for racial minorities, when we look at its impact in the educational arena many believe that students applying to universities should not have their ethnic and racial backgrounds considered in the application process. As colleges are actively preparing for the decision, K-12 professionals need to mindfully navigate this divisive topic and prioritize the needs of all students in a polarized climate.

Reimagining How We Incorporate DEI in Classrooms

Conversations surrounding affirmative action will likely increase and become more centered in debate. Those in higher education should proactively prepare messaging for students and ensure safe learning environments across campuses for potential protests. As the United States continues to face dividing responses around affirmative action, to best balance the needs of families and students who are also divided on the issue, those in the K-12 sector should take a more subdued approach in discussing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in classrooms.

The brief produced by the National Education Association reiterates how starkly divided those in the educational sector are around affirmative action, and topics such as race and identity are facing critique for their appearance in lesson plans across the nation. If affirmative action is overturned, conversations around race-related issues and diversity may diminish within classrooms as the cultural attitude shows division around DEI-related topics and programming across industries, including schools. While affirmative action is an important topic on both sides, administrators should begin refining their approach in how these topics are discussed in their school buildings. One common approach to this is through readjusting DEI-based vocabulary and terminology in a broad way. Through this lens, both positions on affirmative action, and greater DEI topics, can be honored and educators can continue discussing how these topics are received by their politically diverse student and family bodies.

Reconsidering How We Counsel Students

The ruling on affirmative action is a shared concern felt by both students in higher education spaces, as well as current high school students. Many high school students have the most on the line as they are awaiting acceptance decisions for universities, colleges and other higher education programs. There is the longstanding argument that colleges seeking more diverse student communities shouldn’t lean solely on the basis of race, but if affirmative action is overturned, students from historically marginalized communities may face difficult scenarios.

In this instance, more focus will be needed from high school counselors who are helping guide students through these complex times. As affirmative action in the higher education space will continue to be contested, high school counselors will also have to shift how they guide and counsel students on their caseloads. Counselors should begin tracking how colleges and universities are shifting from sharing data around race with their admissions counselors and educate their students around these changes. While race will continue to be a sensitive subject in the college admissions process, counselors should not dismiss its importance overall. Indeed, they should continue to push their students in embracing their identities when applying to college, especially in acknowledging their race through personal essays and showcasing to admissions officers how they embrace and navigate their cultural heritages.

Revaluating Selective Enrollment Programs Across K-12 Schools

In reviewing the polarized times our country is experiencing, officials in elementary, middle and high schools should also take a deeper look at how the selective enrollment programs embedded in their schools are messaged to families and students, especially in the wake of discussions around affirmative action’s role in higher education. For middle, magnet and high schools that utilize selective enrollment approaches for their admissions, they too will have to adjust their programming. The case of Eisenberg v. Montgomery County Public Schools established that race cannot be considered for a student to be accepted into a magnet school, but K-12 selective enrollment programs have traditionally been scrutinized for not being racially and economically representative of the communities in which they operate, along with facing criticism for their long-term efficacy in a student’s academic career. As such, these leaders are urged to consistently communicate how the selective enrollment programs that they run promote equitable outcomes and environments for all students and families.

There are a myriad of experiences and positions on the table around affirmative action. We should not forget that these positions impact our youngest K-12 learners, and leaders in this sector must greatly consider how they will begin taking the lead in communicating on this issue with their stakeholders, all while remembering to build balanced learning environments for all students.

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