Blog | June 23, 2022

Keeping a Pulse on Student Performance

Mia Kern, Manager of Strategy and Special Projects

My whole life, I’ve felt trapped between two worlds. I was adopted from China as a baby and raised in Ohio by white parents. I have a white-sounding name but look distinctly not white and am consistently reminded of that in my interactions with others. I can’t speak Mandarin with the staff at Chinese restaurants, nor could I tell you how to make authentic Baozi. But I’ve been made fun of for my typical “squinty” Asian eyes. I was a tourist when I visited China, but I’ve constantly been subjected to jokes like “are you sure you can drive, you’re Asian.” 

My racial consciousness was also piqued by teachers who wanted to see me as the model minority student. One middle school class project was to make a family tree. The teacher called me in front of the whole class to discuss my project, even noting how I would have such a “unique” tree. She asked questions about where I was born, what city I was from. I knew the answers but being put on the spot made me completely freeze up. A moment of self-identity exploration turned into embarrassment. Moments like this made me distinctly aware of being different, other, from my classmates.

I attended college at Ohio State University, where I served as a Resident Advisor (RA) for three years. In my senior year, the 14-person staff had 5 people, including myself, of Asian descent. Growing up, I had been involved with a community of other young people who were also adopted from China. But Ohio State was the first time I was surrounded by people who looked like me and shared similar experiences, yet were gathered to do more than exclusively celebrate our ethnicities. We got to express our full identities, including our Asian heritage. Nobody should have to wait nineteen years to experience that. At the same time, I also found myself creating distance from the large East Asian international student population and the stereotypes associated with them. I’m ashamed of this now, because it was never that I wasn’t proud of being Asian, but rather that I wanted that feeling of blending in that came with being white.

Serving as an RA allowed me to more deeply explore issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Early on, I attended a forum on redlining, a topic I didn’t know anything about up to that point. Being confronted by the reality of redlining as a nineteen-year-old college student was disturbing and embarrassing. How was I just now hearing about something that fundamentally shaped the experiences of Black and Brown communities across our country, including right here in the Midwest? What else don’t I know? And how many others never learn about the United States’ history of systemic racism and never will? I may have faced racial discrimination in schools growing up, but I was still fortunate enough to have a seat at the schools I attended. Redlining deliberately excluded thousands of Black and Brown students from setting foot in classrooms that they had every right to be in.

School choice is a valuable lever in providing equity for so many families who have been denied equal opportunity and access.

Mia Kern

Scarier yet is that curriculum can’t have changed all that much since I was in school. Too many schools don’t dive into deep systemic inequities. In fact, there’s an active push to reduce what little is taught about racism and discrimination. I also see a lot of crossover between the way redlining was conducted and the way many states, including Indiana, grade the quality of schools on an A-F system. Middle- and upper-class folks, more often than not who are white, have exercised economic and social mobility to move to higher-performing school districts or simply pay for exclusive private schools. The story of our country has so often gone like this: rich white families flock to A-rated schools, with better funding and resources, and families of color get stuck with the leftovers. That’s helped solidify my view that school choice is a valuable lever in providing equity for so many families who have been denied equal opportunity and access.

Since leaving college, I’ve encountered an alarming lack of quality DEI programming, even within the education field. In my first workplaces, equity work always felt like an afterthought or a box to check. In one role, I helped implement a culturally-responsive practices program to train school leadership who would then train their teachers. But the program was designed almost entirely by white folks with very little diverse input. Their hearts might have been in the right place but they weren’t the right people to lead that work and weren’t able to interrogate themselves to see what they were missing. In other roles, things looked even bleaker in relation to DEI work.

Working at The Mind Trust has allowed me to reflect on how other equity initiatives so often fall short. How we conduct our work here truly feels equity-centered. We don’t always get things right, but we are always improving and looking to do better. We prioritize staff diversity. We work hard to make sure the right stakeholders are at the table when making decisions. We listen to feedback from students, families, and school staff. People here are genuinely pursuing antiracism and understanding where they need to learn and grow. The organization in turn facilitates constant learning and growth.

I especially love my role on our Strategy and Special Projects team because it is all about using robust student data to inform our organization-wide programming. All of our programmatic efforts are and should continue to be grounded in student data. If we don’t know how Indianapolis students are performing, how can we serve them or know what the biggest needs are?

Everyone involved in education change needs to have a pulse on how students are doing. Scratch that, everyone in the city should know where systems are failing our students. Data is the touchpoint to see if what we are doing is actually helping students. If student performance isn’t improving, we need to take notice and alter our practices. If it is improving, maybe that calls for doubling down on what we’ve been doing to accelerate progress. Students’ lives and futures are at stake here. We don’t have the luxury to do this work without consistently examining student outcomes.

Data is the touchpoint to see if what we are doing is actually helping students.

Mia Kern

Another aspect I appreciate about what my team does is our work beyond what happens in classrooms. Of course, one major part of education is school-based. Kids in classes, receiving instruction. Another part, one I think too often gets overlooked, is the time and effort it takes to establish conditions that facilitate the functioning of schools and allow them the autonomy, resources, and support necessary to serve students. Great teachers and leaders can only do so much in a system that meets them with red tape at every turn.

A good example here is our recent work concerning school transportation. It remains a big barrier in the school choice landscape. Having quality school options does no good if a family can’t physically access those schools. The initiatives we are leading related to school transportation are all about safeguarding equity while reducing cost and management burdens for schools.

Look at what [autonomous schools] are doing now with less. Imagine what they could do with full funding equity.

Mia Kern

Another policy area that I’m incredibly passionate about is school funding. Right now, Innovation Network Schools and charter schools receive less funding than traditional public schools, often thousands of dollars less per student. Think about how quickly that adds up year after year. However, in Indianapolis, autonomous schools are largely performing on par or better than traditional public schools despite fewer resources. Look at what they are doing now with less. Imagine what they could do with full funding equity.