Dr. Pedro Noguera is a former classroom teacher who is now a sociologist, researcher and sought-after expert on educational equity. He is the Distinguished Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Faculty Director for the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA. The Holdsworth Center invited Pedro to work with Leaders in our District Leadership Program and share some of his insights and teachings on our blog.
Think about your family.
When one child is sick, do you give that child more attention? When one child is a rule-follower and the other a free spirit, do you parent them the same? For most of us, giving our kids what they need when they need it means we don’t always treat them the same.
That’s true in schools too. Anyone who works in public schools knows that students arrive with different needs. Some have experienced trauma, others are learning English for the first time, and others may be reading below grade level. It follows that our students will need different things in order to thrive and meet their full potential. Addressing the needs of all students is not easy but that is the goal of equity in education: to treat our students the way we would want our own children to be treated.
This is the true meaning of equity – acknowledging students’ differences and giving them what they need to be successful. It also means staying focused on outcomes, both academic and developmental.
We’ll know we are doing equity work right when kids’ backgrounds no longer predict their outcomes.
Equity, not equality
This graphic below tells us much about the state of education today. In our current reality, privileged students not only come into school with an edge that comes from parental resources, they also generally have greater access to advanced coursework, effective teachers, private tutors and other opportunities that lead to stronger outcomes.
If we declare that all students regardless of background should have access to the exact same opportunities, that’s equality. But as shown in the graphic, it can be difficult to access opportunities when you’re so far behind you can’t even see the playing field, or when there is no effort to compensate for the disadvantages that children bring with them to school.
Equity is a commitment to giving every student what he or she needs to peer over the fence so that they can participate fully in the opportunities that education can make possible. The focus of equity work must be to remove the barriers that limit success for all children.
A commitment to equity should not result in lowering standards or choosing to serve one group of students over another (affluent or underprivileged). To do so only prevents kids from being able to achieve excellence. Nor should it be interpreted as a concern that is only relevant to schools serving high numbers of poor children and children of color. There are plenty of equity issues in schools serving affluent children – after all, not all are high achievers – but often, these issues are ignored.
When schools and systems are focused on equity in opportunities and excellence in results for all, all children can benefit.
As I travel across the country working with educators, I find that most wholeheartedly endorse the concept of equity. But many don’t fully grasp how their school system’s practices and their own hidden biases and behaviors may be creating barriers to success for disadvantaged students.
For example, many schools place the most inexperienced teachers and principals in the toughest jobs, and then wonder why no progress is achieved. Other schools place high value on grades but overlook the fact that learning always involves making mistakes, and if we aren’t focused on tangible evidence that students are learning, many students pass through school without the necessary academic foundation that will prepare them for college or careers. Many of our traditional educational practices – tracking, labelling, disciplining through exclusion – do not serve our students well, and result in schools doing little more than perpetuating existing inequities. We’re stuck inside an outdated paradigm, one that limits our ability to use education as a means to break the cycle of poverty by transforming children into self-motivated learners.
For this reason, we must be willing to ask ourselves: “Is the way we have organized our schools helping our students?” If the data suggests not, then we must be willing to critically reflect on our practices and learn from educators who get better results by doing things differently.
We are overdue for a paradigm shift, one that puts a drive for excellence through equity at the center of American education. Some schools and districts have already done this. We can and must learn from them.
It’s up to all of us to push for change – parents, policymakers, community leaders and educators. But educators have a special responsibility. The good news is that we don’t have to wait for permission from the policy makers, or for every parent or teacher to get on board. We can change the way schools operate now.
Creating conditions for teaching and learning in the garden of education
I love to garden, and gardening serves as a good metaphor for how we should think about creating conditions in our schools that foster equity and promote learning for all children. If I want to grow big, beautiful cantaloupes, I know that the key is getting the conditions just right. They need sunlight, fertile soil and the right balance of water. If the cantaloupes don’t grow, I don’t blame the cantaloupes.
Gardeners – like schools – cannot control everything. Weather and pestilence may undermine my melon harvest. Likewise, schools cannot undo a child’s trauma or provide him or her with a stable home life.
But educators do have the power to create the conditions that will make it more likely for that child to feel supported so that she can learn and thrive. By focusing upon conditions they can control, educators are more likely to make a difference.
The first step in this work is a hard look in the mirror. Too often, educators who claim to prioritize equity are unwilling to address the barriers that hamper learning for disadvantaged kids.
For example, they may serve students who lack essential skills to access the curriculum and who are consistently underperforming in relation to their more privileged peers. Unless they are willing to change and improve the conditions by providing adequate support and guidance to teachers, and sufficient remedial support to students in need (there’s nothing wrong with remediating if there is concrete evidence that students are being helped), their students, like the cantaloupes, will not thrive. We must be clear– poverty is not a learning disability, and while we cannot ignore the basic needs of children for food, safety and emotional support, we must recognize that when there are persistent gaps in achievement it is usually a sign that the school is not meeting their needs.
Discipline patterns often reveal where conditions within our schools need to be changed. Many schools find themselves disciplining (often through suspension) the same students repeatedly. Often, these are the kids with the greatest academic, social and emotional needs. The problem is that we generally respond to the behavior, but we don’t address the needs that are driving the behavior. When we approach discipline with a commitment to equity, we attempt to get to the root of the behavior problem, and then devise strategies to address it while simultaneously making sure that students learn from their mistakes (there should always be meaningful consequences for bad behavior), and that we keep kids connected to learning. After all, the hardest students to discipline are the ones who’ve given up and who no longer want to be in school.
Similarly, when we see high attrition among teachers and turnover in leadership, it is often a sign that the culture of a school must be transformed. No one wants to work in a dysfunctional system. Changing school culture is difficult and never quick because it requires the development of a shared vision and commitment to a plan with measurable goals that can be used to hold people accountable for doing things differently.
School culture, like the soil in your garden, is the medium in which teaching and learning occurs. Unless school culture can be changed so that it is student centered, promotes collaboration among professional educators and lifts their morale, it is unlikely that achievement outcomes will improve.
In schools where you hear educators blaming the kids or their parents for poor achievement, or when it is evident that the educators assume that the families they serve don’t value education, you can be sure the district or school will not make progress. Until they accept responsibility for the things they do control – the conditions within their school – nothing will change.
Transforming schools and districts
Once educators have made an honest assessment of how they are serving different groups of students, the next step is asking critical questions: “What are we teaching, how are we teaching it, and how do we know students are actually learning? What resources do we have now that we can use more effectively? What do our students need to be able to do to be successful in the classroom and beyond?”
On the last question, educators often come back with the answer du jour – critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. However, when they engage in honest reflection on the instructional practices being used in their classrooms and carefully examine student academic work, they may realize they are falling short.
Teachers must be provided guidance on how to engage their students so that students can take ownership over their own learning. A first step is learning about who our students are, taking an interest in their lives outside of school, learning about the challenges they face, how they learn and what their hopes and dreams are.
Learning about our students requires work and commitment. Stereotypes and assumptions about children or the communities where they live often get in the way. It requires a willingness to build relationships with students that are rooted in trust so that we can see each individual’s unique learning needs. It also pushes educators to go beyond the typical way we plan for student learning because it compels us to think about how to adapt our goals to their needs.
The good news is that there are models we can learn from. There are other schools and systems that have taken on the challenge of serving all students equitably and have achieved some pretty stunning outcomes, both academic and developmental. When educators get serious about meeting the needs of all students, it raises the level of learning for everyone.
Many of those success stories are included in my 2015 book, Excellence through Equity, co-authored with Alan Blankstein.
Sustainable school transformation must grow from the root of a common vision between leadership and the staff. Everyone must be willing to ask, “Where are we going, and how are we going to get there?” The “how” must be rooted in data – schools have to know what needs to change in order to get different results.
In my workshops with educators, I often utilize the five key ingredients to school improvement, as a way to guide our thinking about where change is needed. These are:
- Developing a coherent approach to delivering instruction. Teachers must be clear on how to deliver high-quality instruction to students. They must collaborate in professional learning communities to plan together, analyze student work and figure out how to intervene effectively when kids are not learning.
- Ongoing development of professional capacity of faculty. In many schools, the skills of the educators are not matched to the needs of students. Educational leaders must ensure that teachers are given the opportunity to build those skills. They must recognize that professional development must be tailored to the needs of individual teachers, and that pressure and scrutiny will not produce the changes needed.
- Strong parent-community-school ties. Parents influence student achievement and if you don’t include them, you’re missing out on a critical piece of improving outcomes. Most teachers get no training on how to build partnerships rooted in trust and respect with parents, especially when they are from different backgrounds with respect to race, language, culture or class. Students do best when learning is reinforced at home. That’s most likely when parents see teachers as partners.
- A student-centered learning environment. The school’s culture must bolster the morale of staff, reinforce core values (honesty, empathy, respect, etc.), and establish norms and rituals that reinforce the mission of teaching and learning.
- Shared leadership to drive change. While having a courageous leader may be the most important ingredient for success, principals can’t do it all by themselves. Leadership without buy-in and a shared vision goes nowhere. It’s not simply about being a cheerleader, or a tough leader who demands change. It is about engaging your staff in a deliberative process where the concerns of staff are heard and they are they are treated as essential to any solution.
At the district level, the most important value for leaders is humility. They should be advocating for equity from the top and modeling the belief that all students can succeed.
They must also recognize that the most important work in the district is not happening in central office; it’s happening in classrooms and in the schools. Instead of issuing mandates and applying scrutiny, they should be out visiting schools, winning trust and engaging in collaborative problem solving with staff.
We want principals to open up and share their struggles and difficulties. The stance of central office administrators should be: “How can we help? How can we solve this problem together?”
When there’s trust, much is possible. Trust must be rooted in a plan and supported by evidence. But school leaders need to know that the folks at central office have their back and are supporting them, not simply judging them.
While many central office leaders agree with this concept in principle, unless there is open communication with school leaders they may not be able to identify their blind spots, or the ways they can improve support for the schools they serve.
At the end of the day, leaders who stay focused on the big picture can see where the district is making progress – and where it’s not – and remove barriers getting in the way of serving students.
If you’d like to dig deeper into equity, I recommend the following resources:
Karin Chenoweth and Kati Haycock
By Karin Chenoweth and Pedro Noguera