Are you really committed to educational equity? Have you, your team, your department, or your district talked about educational equity with each other or with your community? I mean really talked about it.
Well, if the majority of your equity conversations haven’t included race and racism, then the subsequent actions taken to mitigate change have been efforts in futility. If the results of your discussions aren’t moving the needle in ensuring just outcomes for each student, you’re not having the right conversations. If you, your colleagues, and your supervisors have not been intentional about raising marginalized voices, then you are in an environment where the characteristics of white supremacy culture reign supreme. If you are really committed to educational equity, it’s time to change course, get real, and be prepared to get really uncomfortable.
It’s not going to be easy, but it is a moral imperative, because the students of 2020-2021 are returning, and they are taking the lead in challenging the imbalance of power and privilege. Let’s follow.
A Modern Problem With a Long History
Unlike the civil rights protests of the 1960s, and the subsequent protests after the Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile verdicts, just to name a few, the recent stream of massive George Floyd protests have taken place in all fifty states. Large and small cities, affluent suburbs, and poor rural areas alike have captivated the attention of the entire world with a loud, clear, and unmistakable message: Black Lives Matter.
Today’s protesters are multicultural and multigenerational, and when you look at the images you will see that many of them are white and are also students in grades k-12. In the midst of a pandemic, our youth have put their lives, and those of their loved ones, in harm’s way in order to bring change. They want justice and they want it now.
The world was outraged as they witnessed the brutal murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was strangled to death in a period of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, because of the color of his skin and a twenty-dollar counterfeit bill. The protests, ignited by this heinous act of racism and barbarism, by a white Minneapolis police officer, forced a long overdue public conversation about systemic racism in the U.S. Morbid public celebrations of murder are no longer tolerated. Unlike our past, there is an outcry for justice.
Connecting Equity to Education
In the late 1990s, when I first started my career as a school improvement coach, “equity” in education was the word—the latest in edu-speak. Equity was the subject of many local and national motivational speeches. Statements such as, “We are committed to equity and excellence in our schools,” “We believe in equity for all,” and, “Equity is at the heart of what we do,” were everywhere. Clearly these statements were proof that equity in education never really existed.
On the surface, these proclamations were fantastic. Yet, when probed, many educators—even school leaders—couldn’t provide a shared definition or clear understanding, let alone any meaningful details on how to make it actionable. By action, I am not talking about improved standardized test scores. Equity has been trivialized by this standard of measurement, which resulted in a full-fledged assault on teaching and learning in schools, particularly our most challenged and most segregated. There was no equity.
Since schools can function as incubators for race-based bias, educators must put into practice anti-racist and anti-bias curriculum practices. We have racial achievement gaps because our educational institutions are systemically racist. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students’ imaginations, creativity, and intellectual curiosity were stomped on regularly with the barrage of mundane practice tests, devoid of the academic rigor and personalization they deserved. For some reason, true teaching and learning was no longer consequential in predominantly BIPOC schools. Equity became synonymous with closing racial achievement gaps on standardized tests—nothing more. In the absence of real teaching and learning, the inequities intensified.
There is no escape. It doesn’t matter if the school is located in an all-white tony suburb or an impoverished rural community. Failure to confront race and racism in these predominantly white schools will only reinforce racial stereotypes and bigotry. Predominately white schools that continue to operate under the misguided belief in color blindness, race neutrality, and the denial of the existence of racism will simultaneously hinder their students’ ability to successfully live within a community in an increasingly multicultural world. It’s a world where a person of color could become their colleague, their teacher, their boss—or best of all, their neighbor or ultimately their friend.
Why Aren’t We Willing to Change?
Fast forward to 2020. More than two decades have passed since I started my career as a school improvement coach. What’s changed? Today, most of the students attending our nation’s public schools are children of color. What hasn’t changed is that the vast majority of them are being taught by white teachers. This is due, in part, to employment discrimination, as seen in the displacement, hostile working environments, and termination of Black teachers and principals after the 1954 court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education. This resulted in more inequities in our schools as it denied (and continues to deny) Black children role models who shared a cultural connection, empathy, high expectations, and a sincere vested interest in their futures.
Instead, most BIPOC students are now forced to navigate a cruel and complex PreK–12 schooling experience where many of their white teachers, for fear of their own personal discomfort, are unaware of their implicit biases and refuse to acknowledge their white privilege. As a result, such teachers turn an automatic blind eye to the racism in plain sight: their classrooms. They don’t or perhaps won’t have the courage to take on the discomfort of acknowledging that race, racism, and educational equity are undeniably and intrinsically linked. Until this happens, inequities will persist.
When Our Actions Don’t Reflect Our Words
I have worked in dozens of schools over the years, and without exception every one of them has stated their “commitment to equity.” While more educators have evolved to the point where they are now able to provide an acceptable one-or two-word definition of equity (like “justice” and “fairness”), most still cannot explain (beyond improved scores on standardized tests) what it looks and sounds like in their classrooms, their hallways, their district’s hiring practices, and yes, the front and central offices.
At the Great Schools Partnership, we define educational equity as: ensuring just outcomes for each student, raising marginalized voices, and challenging the imbalance of power and privilege.
Fact: Education plays a major role in perpetuating the injustices and inequalities that have plagued our classrooms, schools, communities, and country for far too long: constant disparities in funding; racist teachers and administrators; no or low expectations for BIPOC children; zero tolerance policies that apply only to BIPOC students (especially males); failure to hire, support, and retain BIPOC educators; the lack of a culturally-inclusive curriculum; and a revisionist history that intentionally leaves out the rich and accurate history of BIPOC people.
Instead, schools with great intentionality fail to teach that the wealth and prosperity of the U.S. was built on the free labor of enslaved Africans, and stolen Indigenous land. These were the seeds of hate. Laws and actions such as the Indian Removal Act, Jim Crow, Japanese-American Interment, Operation Wetback, police brutality, redlining, and more became the harvest. We are now reaping what was sown.
Fact: As a direct result of such unjust laws, policies, and practices, BIPOC students are more likely to have higher absenteeism and lower graduation rates; they are also more likely to live in poverty, achieve lower test scores on standardized tests, become a statistic in the school-to-prison pipeline, or possibly an infamous hashtag: #GeorgeFloyd, #BreannaTaylor, #AhmaudArbery, #TrayvonMartin, #SandraBland, and #PhilandoCastile. Unfortunately, there are too many to name. #Icantbreathe.
Ready or Not, Change Is Coming
This will no longer be accepted as normal, because #WeAreDoneDying. We cannot pick up where we left off and subject another generation of students to the same policies and practices that threaten to rob them of the “equitable and excellent” education that schools have falsely promised for so long. Our students will not tolerate it. Nor should we.
Our nation is in the midst of a revolution and many of our youth are leading the charge. The youth we knew pre-revolution—before the deadly diseases of racism and Covid-19 collided—no longer exist.
Covid-19 took away their freedom, their routines, their security, their education, their celebrations of milestones, and their loved ones. Covid-19 is to blame for the pandemic and the hardships that followed, but it can’t be blamed for the inequities it revealed. Students lost so much, but, like always, BIPOC students lost far more. They always do.
Since schools have played a leading role in promoting systemic racism, they now have an obligation to address it. It’s time to acknowledge that achieving educational equity without confronting race and racism is impossible. The GSP definition of educational equity consists of 20 actionable words. But we can’t just say these words; we have to act on them.
If the following indicators of educational equity are non-existent in your school or district, then educational equity is, too.
Indicators of Educational Equity
When students return, all efforts should focus on ensuring just outcomes for each student. Here’s what that looks like:
- All educators speak to students with warmth and caring, ensuring that comments and cues that students receive are free of bias, whether students are in the classroom, in the front office, on the bus, in the gym, in the library, or anywhere else.
- All educators use common standards and common rubrics or scoring criteria to ensure that all students are asked to engage in complex, rigorous work.
- All educators ensure that students feel a sense of belonging and ownership in class, giving students opportunities to connect their work to their own goals, interests, dreams, and lives.
When students return, educators have an obligation to raise marginalized voices. Here’s what that looks like:
- A diversity of issues and perspectives are emphasized across all content areas and are embedded in the curriculum and learning materials. Students explore and question their own beliefs about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability.
- Humanities, history, and social studies courses go beyond flags, fun, food, and festivals to explore the global interconnectedness and interdependence of societies, cultures, and economies.
- Learning opportunities are designed to foster a greater understanding of diverse cultures, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The curriculum includes explorations (in many classes, subject areas, and grade levels) of the ways in which systemic racism affects the lives of Americans.
When students return, the entire school community must work together to challenge the imbalance of power and privilege. Here’s what that looks like:
- Members of the school community recognize and interrupt implicit and explicit prejudicial and harmful language or actions such as microaggressions or bullying of individuals and groups.
- There is a commitment among educators, regardless of their role in the building, to explore and discuss their own identities and the ways their identities have been impacted by privilege and bias. The school provides time and resources for educators to have conversations about implicit bias, identity, and privilege during planned professional development. Educators are able to discuss these subjects with students.
- Staff work to repair relationships and rebuild trust if they find that students have been impacted by bias.
- The district has worked collaboratively with the school and broader community in developing and implementing an equity statement and policy, as well as systems of accountability.
Following the Lead of Our Youth
Educators can no longer talk about, promote, or achieve educational equity without talking about race and racism. Any attempt to continue business as usual in our schools is a deliberate and flagrant attempt to repeat and propagate the abysmal failures that have plagued education for far too long. Instead, let’s have the integrity and courage to follow the lead of our youth and work with them to promote real educational equity by dismantling white supremacy in education. There is no other way.
Need ideas on how to start this most urgent work? Here are two ways to get started: