Teacher Reflection: Educational equity is more than jargon
Michelle Ryan is chairwoman of the social studies department at Randolph High School and the Milken Educator Award winner for Massachusetts for 2015-16. She's also a member of ESE's Teacher Advisory Cabinet and an education preparation program reviewer. A colleague once described her as someone who is able to tackle difficult conversations in a professional, engaging way, and here she describes why discussions and action around educational equity are critical:
Meaningful conversations about educational equity may be uncomfortable, challenging, and demanding. Even defining the concept can be difficult: Is it inclusive instructional practices, cultural competency, improving student access to quality educators and resources, increasing opportunities for all students, or eliminating institutional biases that create inequitable practices?
We will never ensure educational equity becomes more than educational jargon without addressing each of these components, but when confronted with the reality of inequity, we, as teachers, may feel our professional and personal identity is fundamentally threatened. However, while we are overcome by personal defenses and debates, students are stuck in the achievement gaps. We must be willing to examine past practices and aspects of our systems that create inequity.
Inequity can be as small as calling on certain students more than others and as large as discriminating based on personal beliefs about race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and academic achievement. One issue that came up in my experience was how to facilitate engaging and meaningful conversations about the underlying causes of inequity in a way that inspires educators to action and unity rather than to polarization. When mishandled, equity discussions leave teachers feeling vulnerable, judged, divided, and even isolated.
Five years ago, I attended one of the most uncomfortable professional development sessions I could ever imagine attending. The focus was on how faculty might examine cultural competency as a means to improve educational equity. The result was three hours of heated, distracted, and defensive exchanges between teachers about perceived accusations of racism, discrimination, and low expectations for certain children. Feeling tension among my peers, confused about next steps, and discouraged by some of the commentary throughout the session, I understood that any constructive conversation I would ever facilitate around equity must occur within a context of safety and support. From that experience, I now characterize a well-structured conversation about equity to include clear messages and expectations, protocols, critical analysis, concrete implications for practice, reflective conversation, and collaboration among colleagues.
If you're looking for a way to start conversations about equity among your colleagues, the School Reform Initiative's website offers an introductory activity, National School Reform Faculty offers additional equity protocols and activities, and the National SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) Project in Wellesley offers a professional development framework for educational equity.
Educational equity is more than a conversation, an intervention, or the latest educational buzzword. It is a belief, a mindset, a mode of operation, a conviction, a commitment, a practice, and an underlying purpose that should not go out of style with the next new program, initiative, or research theory. If educational equity is an authentic part of our fundamental belief system, then it should be revealed through our core values, established by what we do next, and evidenced by the success of every child passing through our care.
Note: At ESE, our equity work is focused on students' equitable access to excellent educators, an area of work that includes educator preparation, recruitment and mentoring, as well as distributed leadership and inclusive practices.