Coming Clean With Equity

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.”

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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.

Reading “Inequality In The Promised Land”

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R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy writes about how Black and White children and families experience school and the attendant opportunities in a Midwest suburban district. The title of his book, Inequality In The Promised Land (2014), describes the unfulfilled dreams of Black families who sought better education outcomes for their children enrolled in a suburban school district and the actions of white families that inadvertently or otherwise frustrate Blacks and other minorities in securing the same level of resources, opportunities and influence. Lewis-McCoy spent 4 years conducting one hundred in depth interviews with families, school officials, and teachers along with studying the local demographic and political history of the district referred to as Rolling Acres Public Schools.

It is an academic book and I am all in my feelings. Lewis-McCoy talks about “concerted cultivation” of children that commonly happens in White middle class families. He describes the ways in which those same families throw their political weight around by being particularly vocal in making demands on school officials to insure the best resources and opportunities for their own children by resisting efforts that specifically seek to address racial disparities in both opportunities and outcomes. As I was reading about policy initiatives aimed at ‘closing the achievement gap’ and hearing white residents espouse how much they value the diversity in the community while also locating the reasons for achievement gap disparities firmly within Black families and not in the systems of school, I felt so weary.

My mother was fighting these battles when we were young. She pursued concerted cultivation with a vengeance and perhaps because my brother and I arrived at a time in her life when she was more at liberty to take advantage of certain opportunities, we were able to engage in all manner of extra curricular activities. My older brother certainly had his share of scouting then school sports that filled his schedule. Our home was filled with books, we were used to traveling all over the city, shopping at suburban malls as if we lived there. We knew lots about life beyond our neighborhood. And now as adults, my brother and I are firmly anchored in the middle class.

With my own children I have had the means to similarly pursue “concerted cultivation.” Supporting their varied interests in everything from electronics to club sports, summer camps and theater pursuits. They have gotten the message: “try everything.” Because they may. They enjoy the benefit of an “abstract approach” to their further education, rather than an “utitlity-focused” approach which would suggest seeking a field of study or training likely to yield the best return on investment.

My parents, who grew up during the depression, came of age during the second World War and became race barrier-crossing homeowners in the late 50’s, seemed to be fixated on the inherent value of education. As kids we understood that college was a non-negotiable. My mother completed her BA and my father finished an associate degree. My older sister who was an adult when I was born was the first child of theirs to finish college. The path was set, we only needed to travel it. And we all did.

I see now how painfully aware they were of the fact that our education was not only about the schools we visited but everything else we did as well. We were involved in our conservative Lutheran church, we participated in boy and girls scouts, respectively. We grew up familiar with museums, libraries, theaters, concerts and events in far-flung corners of our Northern section of the state. My parents understood the value of acquiring these middle class understandings. And to some of their Black friends and family members, these efforts seemed misplaced or unnecessary or simply beyond my parents’ means. My mother mentioned this kind of commentary fairly often and used it to reiterate her fundamental aim of “exposure, exposure, exposure.”

I grew up being exposed and now that’s a large part of what I do online. Expose myself to new knowledge, old knowledge, relevant knowledge, recycled knowledge. I share widely and aim to expose others to what I’ve found and am trying to grasp. As I’m working through Lewis-McCoy’s careful study, I am exposing myself (again) to hard realities about White American forms of racism denial that hold us all captive. I have to wrestle with the capacity of schools as systems to perpetuate deficit thinking steeped in classism and racism. At the same time I have to expose myself to my own complicity in school systems that privilege white middle class values over more inclusive, anti-racist curricula and instruction.

That may be why this read has got me more in my feelings than I anticipated.