In my younger years, I used to believe that everyone had the same chance to succeed in school. That was before I realized that most kids in the honors classes, looked just like me. It was before I parented a child with mental health challenges. It was also before I taught at a school lacking a single patch of green grass for kids to play on. And it was before I met the student, a foster child, who stayed at school until dark, avoiding the return to his group home. And it was before I met working parents, desperate to see their kids go to college. They didn’t know a FAFSA from NAFTA.
Not everyone has the same shot at academic success. Not yet.
Zip codes can still be used to predict levels of achievement in school. Performance levels still vary across ethnicity. And achievement differences can be easily correlated to family socioeconomic levels.
This shouldn’t be.
This shouldn’t be in the land of the free. Not in the land of opportunity. Not in a nation where we value the promise of every child. Dr. Martin Luther King, in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech proclaimed, “If our nation is to be great, we must work tirelessly for the freedom of all God’s children.” If he were here today, I am convinced that Dr. King would define freedom in terms of equity and educational opportunity.
Current disparities may also be explainable by our misunderstanding of equity. Lot’s of educators and citizens may conclude that every student has a fair chance because “everyone gets the same.” But equity is not about everyone getting the same. Equity is about everyone getting what they need. Most often, these are two different things.
Equity is not about everyone getting the same. Equity is about everyone getting what they need.
Dr. Anthony Muhammad, who grew up in the public schools of Flint, Michigan is the author of Overcoming the Achievement Gap Trap. In this stirring text, he concludes that, “The achievement gap exists, in large part, because a society with a philosophical commitment to equality has not made a practical commitment to equality.”
So how do we, as leaders and educators, make practical commitments to equity in our classes, schools, neighborhoods and cities?
Issues of inequity must be addressed, both at the individual and systemic levels. Because education is the gateway to prosperity and maximizing our individual potentials, it’s worth the fight. We all have a responsibility and calling.
Here are a few practical action items, depending on the position you find yourself:
As teachers, be challenged to ensure learning, rather than to present content. This cognitive shift may be the most transformational move you make in your entire career. Another challenge skilled teachers should consider is: Take on a challenging course assignment or commit to a number of years at a difficult-to-staff school in your area. This will make a difference. But no matter where you find yourself teaching students, whatever you do, maintain high expectations. Maintain high expectations for all students, but also creatively think through supports.
Administrators have critical role to play as well. Even if you are tasked with tasks that have school-wide impact, your greatest responsibility is still to know kids well. The National Equity Project calls these Learning Partnerships. If you are serious about equity, strive to know a few children really, really well. Make sure that you analyze data often, celebrating upward trends that you see in subgroups, with pomp and circumstance! Finally, be a squeaky wheel on behalf of your students. Whether your students need assistive technology or patches of grass, speaking up for students puts them closer to a fair shot.
Whatever your role in teaching and learning, you have a role to play in the issue of our time. You can help realize the dream of Dr. King, Dr. Muhammad, and scores of other leaders, teachers and parents in our land.
You can. We must.