The notion of “boundaries” is central to learning theory. Boundaries mark the point where knowledge begins or ends. When we cross boundaries, we are able to explore new territory.
As school leaders, we have a major stake in ensuring that every child is well educated regardless of their color, economic circumstances, religion, or ethnicity. Sadly, many of America’s “subordinated populations” have not been treated as well as they deserve.
According to the late Ernie Boyer, “It is the gap between the “haves and have nots” that creates the rift in American culture, and this division crosses racial and ethnic lines” (Goldberg, 2001).
Educational injustices can be subtle and difficult to pinpoint. They can also take on many forms. Limited early-learning opportunities, unequal allocation of resources, tracking, and a lack of access to high-quality teachers are just a few examples.
To ensure that poverty, race, ethnicity, or immigration status do not determine student achievement, we must use common language to call things out. Consider using universal definitions when discussing real or perceived inequities with staff:
- Prejudice: Prejudgment on insufficient grounds.
- Stereotyping: Attributing characteristics to a particular group based on an oversimplified formula, image, or opinion.
- Discrimination: The practice of treating people differently based on categories such as race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or age.
- Racism: A set of beliefs that race accounts for differences in ability or character.
- Scapegoating: Assigning blame or failure to one group instead of where it belongs.
Challenge Conventional Boundaries
Our actions can have a huge impact in overcoming inequities in a school environment. Consider five practices to challenge conventional boundaries.
- Confront poverty, violence, and racism head-on. If injustice or inequities aren’t confronted, underserved students will continue to be underserved. Anti-discrimination practices must be a schoolwide priority. Everyone in the educational community has an obligation to eradicate prejudicial treatment.
- Invite the community in. Sponsor events like an immigration film festival, young Latino or African American men’s group, or diversity day. Work with the mayor and other city officials to speak out against intolerance. Opportunities within schools link resources and can mitigate the problem of schools pandering to the dominant culture. It is also a way to bring community leaders together before an incident occurs.
- Foster youth engagement. Encourage students to get involved in youth issues. For example, drafting letters to legislators to show how increased college tuition will limit lower-income students’ access to college or lobbying Washington to ensure undocumented students can apply for financial aid. Students need to learn they can make a difference through their actions and activism.
- Assume that poor and minority students want to go to college. Begin talking about attending college in the early grades. Explain college entrance requirements, SAT preparation, financial aid packages, scholarships, and how standardized testing affects success. Remedy academic deficiencies by making sure minority students are placed in higher-level classes throughout their education, including elementary gifted programs, junior-high honors programs, and Advanced Placement classes in high school. Parents and students must see that college is within their grasp.
- Assign your best teachers to your neediest students. We know how critical teachers are to student learning. We also know that teacher labor markets are generally local. Schools that serve primarily poor, minority and low-achieving students need our best teachers. Distributional inequities in teaching assignments have to be tackled head on. Don’t allow contracts, seniority or pressure from your staff to keep you from doing the right thing when it comes to student and/or teacher placements.
Achinstein, B., et al. (2013). These doors are open. Leadership Magazine, 42(5), 30-34.
Darling-Hammond, L., & Sykes, G. (2003). Wanted: A national teacher supply policy for education: The right way to meet the “highly qualified teacher” challenge. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(33), 1-55.
Goldberg, M. (2001). Lessons from exceptional school leaders. Arlington, VA: ASCD.
This article originally appeared in an issue of our monthly publication NorthStar for Principals