A growing number of educators and school leaders are making equity a priority in their schools and with students. They realize that equality, providing the same supports and resources to everyone, regardless of racial, social, economic and other life-defining elements is not enough. Doing so can even perpetuate and grow disparities and inequities. True equity requires a deeper understanding of ourselves and how our beliefs, biases, and behaviors play a role and a commitment to provide supports, resources, and opportunities that will address, diminish, and if possible, erase inequities.
The most common areas of focus related to equity include social-emotional learning, cultural sensitivity and responsiveness, discipline disparities, equity-informed decision making, resource allocation, and similar considerations. These are areas worthy of attention and action. However, if efforts to address inequities end here, educators and leaders risk missing arguably the most important and powerful equity-supporting levers.
Unless the learning experiences of students reflect a commitment to equity, there is little reason to believe that other equity efforts will have a significant and lasting impact on student learning outcomes. Consider the student who comes to school with little academic background knowledge. These students may be from cultures that historically have not featured significant formal learning. They might come from families that may not be in a position to provide these children with rich vocabulary, historical and social context, or an understanding of the expectations of formal education systems. If these students are expected to possess and apply the same academic background knowledge as students from middle-class families with a long tradition of formal learning, who provide ongoing academic opportunities for their children, the result is predictable.
These inequities play out in classrooms where students with limited academic background knowledge may learn a great deal over the course of a unit, only to be judged as average based on common standards and uniform criteria. Meanwhile, a student in the same class who comes with richer academic background knowledge may learn far less, but perform much better against the same standards and criteria. It is difficult to argue that this circumstance is equitable.
The same dynamic often plays out in the assignment of homework. Students without requisite experiences and background knowledge can find themselves having to spend upwards of twice as much time to complete assignments since they must first figure out what they need to learn before they can complete the assigned task. For these students, what was expected to be a routine and easily completed task turns out to be anything but easy or routine. Unfortunately, their failure to complete the assignment or perform at the class standard is likely to be seen as lack of effort or responsibility rather than what it really is. Attending to student background knowledge and readiness to learn is a crucial part of a true commitment to equity.
This issue also plays out on the other end of the expectations continuum. A recent study from TNTP examining myths related to equality of learning opportunities found that in the 180 classrooms they studied, students spent on average more than 500 hours on assignments that were not appropriate for their level of learning or that asked too little effort in light of their current levels of learning. While this situation is disheartening and if addressed could make a significant learning difference for all students, the disparity between students from wealthy and low-income families was breathtaking. The study showed that “Classrooms that served predominantly students from higher income backgrounds spent twice as much time on grade-appropriate assignments and five times as much time with strong instruction, compared to classrooms with predominantly students from low-income backgrounds” (TNTP, 2017).
These instruction-related equity issues are serious and pervasive in too many classrooms. Fortunately, commitment and action to address them are largely within our power. They require careful and persistent attention, but most importantly they require a focus on learning and what will best support student learning, not a default to traditional means and measures of acceptable teaching.
How are you addressing the learning needs of students who come to school with limited academic background to give them the same advantages and opportunities of their better-prepared classmates? How are you ensuring that the instruction students receive is matched with their readiness and is not at a level below their current learning readiness and capacity?
TNTP. (2017) The Opportunity Myth. Retrieved from Opportunitymyth.tntp.org