Reading widely is a fine way to expand our vocabulary. I still find all kinds of words that I thought I knew and have to look up and realize I had no idea or actually the wrong idea (or better yet, the completely wrong pronunciation like segue (segway? really?!)). Today, I’m thinking hard about equity. Yes, equity. As in, “the quality of being fair and impartial” not “the value of shares issued by a company.”
In education circles we talk and hear a lot about equity – in our districts, schools, and classrooms. There are popular posters distinguishing equity from equality, clarifying that equality means that everyone receives the same treatment, access, materials regardless of specific needs, while equity requires that each person receives treatment, access, materials according to their specific needs. Sounds reasonable, right?
I recently finished reading Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy’s Inequality In The Promised Land in which he describes disparities between Black and white families’ experiences in a suburban school system. One piece of his analysis really made me stop in my tracks, though. He specifically examines the way the achievement gap between Black and white students remained even when they sat in the same classrooms. Even if I can fathom this based on student discipline statistics that demonstrate how Black boys and girls are suspended and disciplined at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers, and knowing that with an overwhelming majority of white teachers, implicit bias presents further hurdles for Black students in the classroom, this still surprised me. Even having a rough understanding of those factors, I was not fully prepared for the case that Lewis-McCoy makes with his observations.
This chapter has demonstrated that racial and economic minorities in RAPS [Rolling Acres Public Schools] experienced school differently. The different assessments and treatments of academic performance (teacher feedback), behavior (student discipline), and culture (perceived family background) cumulatively contributed to the marginalization of the minority students… Mr. Marks, Ms. Reno, and Ms. Jackson thought of themselves as culturally sensitive teachers who created diverse classrooms for quality education. In fact, their classrooms created unequal experiences for black and white students. (p. 136)
The teachers believed they were doing their level best to offer equal opportunities for all of their students to excel. Lewis-McCoy further explains that
RAPS teachers and school staff were attuned to issues of social inequality, but they seldom incorporated their social scientific knowledge when discussing their own classrooms. Instead teachers saw educational inequality as a function of individual student issues or family issues. (p.137)
In our educator hearts I think there’s a real tendency to want to deny that this could/would happen to us. We use our best intentions as flattering headlights that guide our practice with children. We know we need to do better – to truly examine where our blind spots are, determine which forms of bias we may be operating under without consciously realizing it. Yet, we struggle to make necessary changes. Our old habits don’t die hard, they just don’t die.
In an article chronicling similar disparities in academic performance between white and black students in an affluent suburban high school in Evanston, Illinois, we find a typical system-oriented response.
The analysis showed that District 65 provided a much better education to white students than black students, no matter their income…
The board has hired a consultant to assess each school’s practices, is committing to hiring more teachers of color and making lessons more culturally relevant, and is encouraging staff to attend workshops to help expose unconscious racial bias.
It’s a common package of proposed changes that several schools and districts take on to shift the entrenched dynamic. What stands out for me is thinking about how we in our individual classrooms learn to practice equity with a capital E. We’re no longer talking in the abstract about systems and policies, we’re talking about our classrooms and the students we have in front of us, whoever they might be. Shana White has a powerful post on educational equity that is an excellent resource for action steps. How are we working to meet the needs of specific students? To whom are we likely to give the benefit of the doubt in conflict situations? How do we respond to children who challenge our authority? Which children are most likely to be excluded as a behavior consequence?
If I look at my own situation: it’s boys, often very athletic boys, sometimes with attention issues but not always. They are the ones most likely to be caught in some sort of temporary discipline bind. If I’m as committed to equity as I say I am, then I need to consider what I might do differently to interrupt those patterns. Having an instant activity helps. Using a whiteboard agenda to minimize the need for oral instructions during class helps. Pulling an individual aside rather than confronting him in front of the whole class can help. These are not wildly innovative. But for individual students and the atmosphere of the class, they can make a significant difference.
My point is that in my own little instructional world I can practice equity every day (or not). I can study my own habits to find out where my blind spots lie. I can ask my students for honest feedback. I can also look at my personal history to consider which lenses I may be applying when I encounter a little blonde boy who seems to behave as if he already owns the world. How might I be interpreting his behavior in light of my personal history? A consultant who comes into my school and delivers a workshop might ask me to consider such steps. The choice to take the steps, to share my progress (and setbacks) with others will not be a given nor necessarily easy.
A while back I was asked to create a video in response to the provocation:
How would I design a learning environment if I wanted to marginalize certain populations?
As an exercise, responding to the question proved extremely helpful in getting me to think about all the ways we set up barriers to learning whether we intend to or not. The same goes for creating classrooms that are genuinely equitable. I’m convinced it means listening to students more. As we hold up standards as the new cure-all for what ails academic achievement, I believe it also means developing hundreds of ways for students to demonstrate their attainment of a given standard, not just one or two. That’s what we would do if we were truly committed to equity. You know, stretch ourselves to meet the specific needs of all of our learners. May seem like a big expensive ask for a whole school system.
In my classroom, however, I hold the most powerful levers – relationships, professional expertise, resources. I can put them to work for equity daily. And I’ll need practice, help and critical feedback. My students are counting on me.