Do you believe all students can learn? Of course you do. In this post, we’re focusing on what it takes for all educators to believe they can educate all learners in ways that view students’ cultures as assets.
Not too many years ago, educators would proclaim, I believe all students can learn! The statement became part of nearly every vision and mission statement, slogan in classrooms, banners throughout school buildings, and mantras across classrooms far and near. Of course, the proclamation was intended as a powerful belief statement to guide teacher’s actions in the classroom. One problem – the widely accepted statement developed silent exceptions attached to the end. Sure, all students can learn…except the special ed kids; Oh yeah, all students can learn…except those kids who live in the trailer park…except those kids who don’t speak English … except those whose parents don’t care. The responsibility for learning seemed to be on the students and their families rather the educators.
What if we changed the belief statement to read, We believe all educators can educate all learners? The responsibility then sits with educators. When we use the word educators, we mean teachers, school and district administrators, support personnel including paraprofessionals, custodians, front office staff members, and school board members. Now, what if we expanded our view of educators to include community partners: parents, community members, business owners, and corporate and non-profit sponsors? Educators and community partners who share a belief system that is inclusive of educating all learners, combined with educators who possess a skill set that is grounded in culturally relevant and equitable instructional practices, could and can create a culturally proficient inclusive educational environment.
We believe all educators can educate all learners.
How do we turn this revised belief statement into actions? An abundance of laws already exist to support children and youth with identified disabilities and other learning challenges. Most educators know that in 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act (Public Law 94-142), which guarantees that all students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. The law’s name has changed, most recently, in 2004, to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA). Regardless of the name, the law has provided the foundation for inclusive education and codified advancements in policy and practices that forward inclusive education. Bolstering IDEIA is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESSA maintains the act’s legacy as a civil rights law in at least three ways. First, it ensures that states and districts hold schools accountable for the progress of every student demographic group (e.g., students with disabilities). Second, it dedicates resources and supports so that students with disabilities, English learners, and vulnerable student groups (e.g., children of low-income, homeless, migrant worker families) have equitable access to rigorous curriculum and quality educators. Third, it requires districts to use evidence-based, whole-school interventions in its lowest-performing schools and in schools where groups (e.g., students eligible for special education, English learners) persistently are underserved or need to be served differently. In short, ESSA specifies that we get it right this time. The law clearly outlines an expectation that schools foster and be held accountable for high educational standards, equity of opportunity to learn, and excellence in student performance for every child.
Even with these mandates and compliance checks in place, students eligible for special education still lag behind their counterparts in achievement. Further, many schools remain caught in a situation known as disproportionality; namely, the over- or under-representation of a student population group (e.g., racial and ethnic background, socioeconomic status, national origin, English proficiency, gender, sexual orientation) in a specific population category (Elementary and Middle School Technical Assistance Center, n.d., ¶ 1). Disproportionality in special education involves the inappropriate over-identification, misidentification, or misclassification of certain groups of students (e.g. African-American, English learners) as eligible for special education. This miss-assignment of students is not a new phenomena in American public education. Special education is only one area in which students are sorted and selected more often for the convenience of scheduling educators’ services than for meeting student needs.
Given all of this, why do we continue to have educational gaps in our schools? Is this journey about mandates and compliance or is it about morality and cultural competence? How do we turn the “We believe all educators can educate all students” statement into actions?
We suggest starting with self-examination – actively seeking to learn about and then “own” institutional barriers, individual beliefs, and deeply held societal or personal assumptions that foster and perpetuate education gaps within our local educational systems and schools. Commit to narrow and close educational gaps, and take intentional steps to enable students who require differentiated learning and behavior supports to easily access and progress in the curriculum and fully participate in their educational lives. You can start by learning about the 4 Tools of Cultural Proficiency and the Inclusive Schooling practices and philosophies described in our new Corwin book (Lindsey, Thousand, Jew & Piowlski, 2018) – Culturally Proficient Inclusive Schools: All means ALL! – a book that offers a framework, case story examples, reflective practice and dialogic activities, and an action planning model for forwarding equitable educational opportunities for all students in your current context.
- In what ways do these comments resonate with my context and me?
- What are the moral issues facing preK-12 educators today regarding equity and access?
- What gaps and disproportionality exist in my school and district?
- What’s being done to address these issues and gaps?
- What more can I do? What more can we do?