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OPINION: If you really want more equitable schools, you must first ask some questions

For nearly a decade, I have made a living navigating an incredibly convoluted ecosystem called educational leadership. Like many fields, it has its own unique structure, governance and jargon.

Education leadership requires a proficient understanding of students, schools and systems if one seeks to obtain longevity and success. I’ve had both, but neither has provided immunity from the frustration of observing how the education system continues to fail so many of our students.

We have gotten so good at failing nonwhite and nonaffluent children that we know exactly what to do in order to continue this trend. Even when concerns are raised, the use of the word “equity” has allowed us to feel good even though it seldom leads to necessary change within our organizations.

Educational equity is inaccurately depicted. A quick online search of educational equity returns a picture of different-sized boxes for kids of different heights to step on to help them see a baseball game. Such an image leads to an oversimplification of the barriers certain students face in schools, many of them a result of how their schools function.

Instead, educational equity should be described as creating policies, systems and practices in schools that positively impact the experiences, outcomes and access to resources of students from previously excluded groups — and eliminating those that negatively impact these students.

We have gotten so good at failing nonwhite and nonaffluent children that we know exactly what to do in order to continue this trend.

This means that if you are reading books about equity, listening to podcasts or marching with others to protest racism, injustice or other inequities, although you may be on your journey, those efforts alone will not achieve educational equity.

Neither will hiring a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) specialist. Too often, DEI specialists are set up to fail because they ultimately report to someone who has not done their own anti-racism and diversity work.

Or they work for an organization that protects white supremacy by denying any attempt to address long-lasting systemic issues related to inequities.

That is why we must challenge and push back on committees, surveys, audits and other non-action-oriented tasks that were never intended to create sustainable change.

These time-hoarding, emotionally draining maneuvers typically lack the necessary accountability structure to render any desirable impact. They leave students in “left field” while we remain comforted by our good intentions.

Related: Access does not equal equity

Educational equity means taking action. It means unapologetically creating and/or eliminating racist policies, systems and practices.

Until we reframe our thinking and begin viewing educational equity as action, we will continue to miss the mark. Think about what former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston used to do on the football field.

His role on the team included blocking those who served as barriers to Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith. Daryl flourished in this role. This is the kind of image we should be using to illustrate what we need to do for previously excluded students.

Here are the questions we should be asking:

Are we blocking and removing discipline policies that disproportionately impact students of color, students who receive special education services and students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals?

Are we removing barriers so these same students can proceed into advanced and gifted courses?

Are we using one-sided, single-story, Eurocentric curricula that do not prepare students for a global and diverse society?

Are we embedding diversity in lessons, materials, books and author selections?

Are we hiding behind the word “fit” when an interview candidate does not look, sound, or think like the majority of the interview panel and we need an excuse not to hire them?

Are we allowing our bias and insecurities to make us perceive a candidate as threatening?

If your organization does not change systems as part of their equity efforts, your equity efforts may be “trash equity,” which is defined as superficial efforts built on deficit models.

(In this context, deficit models are built on the belief that student failures are the result of student deficiencies as opposed to organizational deficiencies. Educational institutions too often enamored with “fixing” students and not the aspects of their own policies, systems and practices that contribute to outcome disparities.)

Nonquantifiable, nonsystemic trash equity practices typically lack accountability and thus do not impact the overall experiences, outcomes and access to resources for students from previously excluded groups.

I intentionally use the term “previously excluded,” as opposed to the more commonly used “underrepresented,” because it frames lack of representation as being the result of deliberate actions and inactions within a system.

The kids-on-boxes in the aforementioned equity image, like many vivid images in education, lacks context to properly display what needs to be done. As educators, parents, policymakers and community members, we must use our influence and actions to achieve educational equity.

The ones with their views obscured may be us, not our students.

Howard Fields is an assistant superintendent of human resources and adjunct professor in Missouri. He is also the author of “How to Achieve Educational Equity.”

This story about educational equity was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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