Building Our Own Table: Samantha A. Murray, M.S.Ed.

Meet the founder of the Education Strategy Parent Newsletter

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Hello friends,

I’m happy to introduce you to Samantha A. Murray, M.S.Ed, who’s doing important work to help parents successfully navigate inequitable education systems.

Samantha, tell me briefly about your background prior to founding the Education Strategy Parent Newsletter

My parents grew up poor—my mother in Baltimore, MD and my father in Charleston, SC. They were born in the 1950s, attended public schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, and were the first in their families to graduate from high school in the 1970s.

My parents knew the what and the why, but they didn’t always know “how” they would make sure the education trajectory for me and my siblings would look differently than theirs did. Because of where we lived in Baltimore, my mother was adamant about one thing: public school would not be an option for us.

After my K-8 Catholic school experience, my education trajectory shifted dramatically when I entered high school in 1993 as the first Black recipient of the Wagley Scholarship, a four-year, full tuition, merit-based scholarship, to attend one of the more prestigious independent schools in the Baltimore area. That experience jolted me—my perspective, understanding, and curiosity about how education, race, and wealth were connected. I didn’t have the language or context back then to make sense of what I saw and experienced. Equity was not part of my vocabulary. Unfair was the most unsatisfying word. I knew I was no more or less deserving of that kind of elite education. It felt fundamentally wrong to me.

I studied education and public policy in college, determined to get answers. That’s when I learned that the U.S. education system was not designed for someone with my heritage to succeed. I became obsessed in college and in graduate school with figuring out how to change that.

Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with hundreds of public, charter, parochial, and independent schools across the U.S. and around the globe and served as a trusted strategist for executive education leaders. I’ve delivered keynotes and presentations at major education conferences and events across the United States, Sydney and London.

I’ve persisted for more than two decades, including founding SAM Catalysts in 2021. As a boutique education strategy and advisory consultancy, my initial vision was to continue partnering with schools and organizations to drive systemic change. It wasn’t until I heard a parent describe how he didn’t have a plan or strategy and was hoping he and his wife made the right decision that I realized I had something far more urgent and impactful to do by working with parents.

Give me the elevator pitch for the Education Strategy Parent Newsletter

I help parents figure out what’s worth thinking about so that they can have high-quality, critical conversations about their child’s education and feel more sure about their decisions.

And in more detail?

I write and think deeply about inequitable systems in historical context. Specifically, I focus on education, primarily our K-12 system.

We’re all operating within these systems that affect how we pursue our most important life-improving goals, so I want parents to be able to develop a strategic playbook for their child’s education as early as possible. But it gets tricky when you don’t have a sufficient, or the most helpful, systems understanding and wide angle view.

Knowing what’s worth thinking about and making decisions you feel sure about becomes incredibly difficult.

My aim with the Education Strategy Parent Newsletter is to give parents the tools to help them figure out the best possible path for their child’s education and to be empowered to navigate the system to help them realize the aspirations and goals they have for their child—both now and for the future.

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What inequity were you trying to address, and why is this important?

Growing up, I saw and experienced first hand how a zero-sum paradigm played out in education and thought I could “fix” it. It didn’t take long for me to learn that the education system isn’t broken—the playing field isn’t level.

I’ve written about seven “un-ignorable” reasons why parents need to have a strategy that speak to the economic and education inequity families of color face today that are rooted in racism:

#1 Caste & Capitalism

(Dis)honorable mention: slavery and racism

Caste is a system of advantage and disadvantage based on an artificial hierarchy of human value. This hierarchy has fixed boundaries that are enforced by rules and norms designed to keep people in their assigned place.

America was founded as a caste society, with race as the arbiter and a system of slavery fueling its economic engine. Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. That context helps to explain why today we live in a racialized, capitalist society characterized by extreme wealth and income inequality that systematically ensures winners and losers.

Education plays a MAJOR role in maintaining this zero-sum paradigm.

#2 Systems Are Not Neutral

Every system has a role and serves a purpose

Our system of education in America has always served the interest of those in power. Long before the nation’s founding, education (e.g., colonial colleges and academies) helped answer the question: Who should rule in the new republic? Because the dominant caste rejected hereditary aristocracy, it needed to legitimize a different version of hereditary power to protect its interests and solidify the American hierarchy.

This has been achieved through exclusion, forced assimilation, and universal public education. Despite centuries of movements and reform, our current system of education continues to reinforce and perpetuate the zero-sum paradigm that capitalism and caste require.

#3 Education is Compulsory

A formal mechanism of social control and assimilation

Efforts to establish universal public education were meant to educate the masses and were central to the survival of the early republic. As immigrants began to arrive in the early 1800s, it was a way to “impose systemic solutions on chaotic urban conditions.” For example, Massachusetts passed the first compulsory attendance law in 1852 to civilize poor immigrant children and teach obedience.

The U.S. government used education to deal with the “Indian problem” by forcibly removing children from their homes and sending them to boarding schools. This was part of a larger effort begun in 1864 to “kill the Indian to save the man.” By 1926, nearly 83% of Indian school-aged children were attending boarding schools—an untold number of children never returned.

#4: The Playing Field is Not Level

(Dis)honorable mention: housing segregation

Residential segregation today is the product of centuries of government action and industry tactics to preserve America’s racial hierarchy. Blockbusting, redlining, restrictive covenants, slum clearance, and urban renewal give us a clear view of racial exclusivity and exclusion. Yet, segregation is normalized as coincidence or personal preference—shifting burden and blame to the individual.

We can trace outcomes today (e.g., racial wealth divide, health disparities, education inequality) to manufactured housing segregation that began in the early 1900s. And we know zip code is correlated with life expectancy and impacts social mobility and economic opportunity.

Capitalism is the game.

#5 Meritocracy is a Red Herring

A false promise that fuels inequality and reinforces privilege

By definition, meritocracy is a system that promotes equality and upward mobility. It’s the idea that individuals earn and deserve what they have, based on effort and ability, regardless of race, class, privilege, or zip code. That sounds egalitarian and virtuous, but it’s as harmful as it is seductive.

Our society already rewards wealth and privilege while doubling down on systems of oppression. This keeps the social and economic hierarchy intact while meritocracy has effectively become the competitive justification for inequality across the board—even widening the gap between the middle class and the elite. What began as a quest in the 1950s to diversify the elite has simply reinvented hereditary power, again.

#6: America Wants to be Great

Again. (Dis)honorable mention: school segregation

When Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional in 1954, districts faced court-ordered desegregation, which often required busing. Segregation didn’t end. It evolved. Parents enrolled their children in private schools or moved to all-white suburbs. White affluent communities even created their own districts by shifting attendance boundaries.

Fast forward to 1983 when Ronald Reagan declared: “The educational foundations of our society are currently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people. That ushered in the school choice movement, which has effectively become a race-neutral way to oppose integration. Today, schools are just as segregated, sometimes more, than they were in the mid-1950s.

#7: What is Past is Prologue

Where do we go from here?

Isabel Wilkerson writes: “When you are caught in a caste system, you will likely do what it takes to survive in it.” For most of us, that looks like making sure our children get an education that gives them their best chance. To do that, you must know how the system works and be clear about what you want education to deliver, knowing that the system isn’t designed to give you what you want.

It won’t be easy. Our education system today is fragmented, deeply flawed, complex, and always shifting & changing. There are also more schooling options today than ever before. This creates overwhelm, raises a ton of questions, and generates enormous uncertainty. You’ll need more than hope, a good idea, or a plan to guide your efforts. You need a strategy.

Strategy helps you navigate systems.

I want parents to have a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of how the education system actually works. By educating, building capacity, and showing parents how to create a strategy for their child’s education, I’m declaring that these systems don’t hold all the power and that we can “level the playing field from the other side.”

What has the response been?

The response to my pivot to focus on parents has been overwhelmingly positive and validating. I’ve been facilitating group conversations, workshops, panel discussions, and individual sessions for the past 18 months.

I regularly hear from parents who tell me that they’re carrying a heavy weight and that thinking about their child’s education literally keeps them up at night, that they wished our paths crossed sooner and that they want to continue learning and thinking more deeply about how to accomplish the goals they have for their child’s education.

What’s next?

Two exciting things are happening this year!

I am writing a parent guidebook and launching a companion digital resource.

One of the biggest realizations parents share with me is that they don’t know what they don’t know. The guidebook and dashboard will help close that gap by enabling parents to work through my core framework and processes at their own pace. Parents will come to know what’s worth thinking about and how to do the slower, deeper thinking they need to do.

I will share all of the details and updates with my newsletter community as I finalize the timeline.

In relation to racism, what is your vision for the future?

President Obama once invited me to sit down for a one-on-one conversation about education before introducing him to an audience of 10,000 at a conference in 2019. I shared my vision with him: To live in a world where every school is a high quality school able to serve all students equally well.

Strategy helps us navigate and ultimately transform systems. It will take time and won’t be easy, but I believe that education can be a win-win and that collectively, parents can help “level the playing field from the other side.”

Samantha makes some excellent points. Please connect with her on her website and LinkedIn and subscribe to her newsletter to learn more.

Thanks for reading,

Sharon

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© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2024. All Rights Reserved.

I am an anti-racism educator and activist, Co-Founder of Mission Equality, the author of “I’m Tired of Racism”, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast.

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