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Building Equity

Cheryl Huffman

By Dominique Smith, Ed.D., 2020 ALC Keynote Speaker

DashBoard, Sept. 30, 2020

Throughout the history of education, there have been buzzwords that bring change, impact and power. Those acts of change can be monumental or can be minimal. But when you hear the word, you will know what you did in that moment. As a school leader, I have had to understand that words, phrases and programs will come and go. I need to be knowledgeable and understand what will truly help transform education.

Throughout my educational journey my word has always been equity. It is a word that has empowered me, made me think differently and demanded me to make change. Throughout the available research there have been many models that express equity within an input framework, but we tend to see less of an output. With that focus and lens, it was mine and my colleagues’ goal to have a framework that had large outputs.

As we did our research1, visited schools and did a deeper dive into our own organization, we realized that our main focus was to create engaged, inspired and successful learners. We dissected this concept and asked ourselves, what would keep students from achieving this feeling/title? As we broke down the everyday life of students, we noticed that they experience inequities in different forms, and through those inequities they were not able to achieve being engaged, inspired or successful. We turned these observations into a framework and built our equity taxonomy.

Equity remains a valued goal within the educational community. Despite several decades’ worth of work on equity, schools have not yet delivered on the promise of ensuring that every student has a fair chance at success. Equity is understanding what every student needs rather than what everyone gets.

The creation of our taxonomy focused around four tiers to help educators, students and families understand what inequities look like within an educational system. We understood that need to focus around physical integration, social-emotional engagement, the opportunity to learn and instructional excellence.

Physical Integration

When it comes to physical integration, this has been the prominent area of concentration in the fight for equity. This concept was the major focus in the civil rights’ movement to make sure that students stopped being segregated within schools based on race. This has continued to be the fight. While we may not see some of the injustices that we saw before and during the civil rights’ movement, we still see types of segregation within schools. Our goal and focus were and are to make sure that any student, no matter race, religion or sexual orientation is welcomed into the classroom, and furthermore, feel welcomed within their classroom and school.

Our fight was and is to have schools live with an inclusive mindset. We believe that student A will always learn from student B and student B will learn from student A. Students feel less than others when they are pushed into special classes, told they don’t get to go to “regular” classes and are pulled every 30 minutes for extra class. We believe that all students should be part of the class and that supports, accommodation and modifications should be streamlined within the classrooms. Those supports then do not seem isolating but rather a support that can help all students become successful. When students are part of a welcoming environment that celebrates their diversity, they will have a higher chance of being successful, which is the definition of an equitable education.

Social-Emotional Engagement

Students come to school with a varying degree of needs. The social-emotional needs can come with some trauma that influences their everyday success. As our research shows, students who experience trauma or come from a background of low supplemental educational services will be removed, suspended and expelled at higher rates. As we focus on the whole child, we understand that if students who have been kicked out of school or told by adults they wouldn’t make it are given a voice, have an adult they can trust and a supportive school system, then they have an increased chance of having success within the school environment.

To create an instant change within schools, we believe that we need to increase our teacher-student relationships and our teacher credibility. John Hattie’s research shows that student-teacher relationships have an effect size of .48 and teacher credibility has an impressive effect size of 1.09.2 Both of these effects’ sizes show us the importance of relationships. So, how do we build relationships?

  1. Know all your students’ names and pronounce them correctly. Particularly within a distance learning format, make sure that every student’s name is said during every Zoom session.
  2. Understand and know your students’ interests and share yours. Simple poems like “Where I’m from” and “I am” create beautiful messages for students and teachers to share.
  3. Make home visits. Understand what your students’ home lives are like. In a distance format, ask families to join Zoom meetings or have students do a “welcome to my home” walkthrough.
  4. 2x10s. Ask students to take two minutes a day for 10 days in row and just have simple conversations to build on your connection.

When students have relationships with others in their classroom and their social-emotional needs are met, they have a higher chance for an equitable education.

Opportunity to Learn

When thinking of equity for our students, the largest disservice is not providing an equitable opportunity to learn. Within the classroom and over the course of a student’s academic experience, this disservice multiplies. Providing equitable opportunities to learn can take place in a variety of forms, including understanding the home life of students and providing support to tackle those challenges; setting high expectations for all students and providing scaffolds for success; and being flexible to change what is no longer working within the classroom. What works for one student doesn’t always work for all students. After all, students cannot learn what they have not been taught.

Instructional Excellence

Students deserve to have teachers in front of them who still hold their passion for teaching, are committed to continuously becoming better teachers and who are competent in their content. It is the responsibility of administrators to make sure that teachers are still receiving the best and correct professional development to help them grow. We should also look at how we place our teachers. Do we put our most experienced teachers with the smallest schedule? Do we make our newest teachers teach the hardest courses? We have seen too often that these approaches do not work. We need to try to keep teachers growing.

Engaged and Inspired Learners

As we change the narrative of what school is for students and continue to lessen the inequities that our students experience, we will start to see our students become engaged and inspired learners. As noted above, they cannot be engaged and inspired if they know that every day, they are segregated from other students. They cannot feel engaged and inspired if they are continuously getting in trouble because they are still navigating their feelings, emotions and social-emotional needs. They cannot feel engaged and inspired if they are not able to take courses they want or deserve along with having the best teachers in front of them. When talking to a student body, we are hoping that no matter the age or grade of the students, they can say “yes” to the following statements:

  • I like who I am.
  • I can smile at the person I see in the mirror.
  • School is helping me plan my future.
  • I am proud of who I am.

Statements like these change the narrative to a student believing that they are an engaged and inspired person. As we help foster engaged and inspired learners, we will see students who know how to properly set goals, have a growth mindset, have a human rights’ mindset and are resilient learners.

The fight for equity may never be over. Instead, it will be something that should push every educator and motivate them in their work. Students have the right to equitable education and it is on each one of us to look at the data and determine how to become better.

Dominique Smith, Ed.D. is an author and Chief of Educational Services and Teacher Support at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego, Calif. He will be a featured presenter at the 2020 Annual Leadership Conference. This article originally was published in the Fall 2020 edition of LeaderBoard.

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1Smith, D., Frey, N., Fisher, D. and Pumpian, I. Building Equity: Policies and Practices to Empower All Learners. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2017.
2Hattie, J. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge, 2009.
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