Friday / June 14

Our Public and Personal Histories: The Journey Toward Educational Equity

educational equity

Novelist James Baldwin once wrote that people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.

Several weeks ago, during the annual AERA conference in Philadelphia, esteemed scholar Charles Payne chaired a symposium entitled 60th since Brown…50th since the Civil Rights Act. As I listened to Payne’s powerful reflections on the past 60 years, I ruminated on the unique period of history that I have lived. At the same time, I was struck by the realization that the person I am today is the result of an intersection of Payne’s “public” history of court cases, legislation, and demographic shifts and my own “personal” history of family, schooling, and subsequent interactions with my environment.

Not only does 2014 mark significant anniversaries of Brown and the Civil Rights Act, but also marks 40 years post Lau v Nichols, another landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case that served to advance the cause of educational equity for future generations of English-learning students in the United States. It’s tempting to believe that each of these milestones facilitated a steady stream of progress toward the goal of equal opportunity for all students, but our recent public history (like my personal history) is far more nuanced. Payne captured the dilemma in his statement that “it is difficult to say with confidence…just why Brown matters as much as was commonly-assumed. School desegregation on a broad scale just does not seem to be feasible public policy.” Although my instinctive reaction to this statement is deep sadness, I recognize the barriers to achieving a complete reversal of a national legacy of oppression, brutality, and injustice – a state of affairs that was hundreds of years in the making. In fact, 2012 Department of Education data reveal that across the country, 43 percent of Latinos, and 28 percent of blacks attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white.

I was born a year after the passage of Brown, although it would be many years before I had any awareness of its meaning or significance. In 1964, a year after the Kennedy assassination, I was a 3rd grade student in our neighborhood, public elementary school in New Haven, Connecticut. Our classroom was exclusively white and we were, for the most part, raised in similar middle-class households with stay-at-home moms. Neither race nor racism was in our lexicons or consciousness. In the fall of 1964, the first yellow school bus pulled up in front of our school, our first African American classmate entered our world, and a great social experiment began.

Over the next decade, the racial demographics of my public school system changed dramatically. The number of schools buses increased, white flight to suburbs and private schools became the norm, and New Haven became a hotbed for political activism. Unlike the majority of my white classmates, I stayed in the public school system where I entered adolescence, as did the American Civil Rights movement. History marched on: Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King in ’68. For three consecutive summers, New Haven, like many cities in U.S., became the scene of race riots in which neighborhoods burned and National Guard troops filled our streets. Corwin author Gary Howard lived in the Hill section of New Haven during these years and described the experience as a “baptism by fire,” the spectacular beginnings of a lifelong journey toward racial literacy.

I suppose I experienced my own baptism by fire during those years, although in the throes of adolescence, I had neither the awareness nor the vocabulary to describe what I was experiencing. I was a good student who, for the most part, benefited from my privileged status in the schools. However, at the same time, I spent most of those years as a fish out of water, in part because of the tremendous divide between students of color and the few white students who remained behind. To further complicate matters, I was growing into the awareness of another variable of my “otherness” – my emerging gay identity. As a result of my marginalized status, I was a loner in high school and sought refuge in a world of books. Much of my adult life has been spent trying to make sense of those years, and my personal commitment to educational equity and social justice is a reflection of that meaning-making process.

The Cultural Proficiency JourneyIn a Corwin book entitled The Cultural Proficiency Journey, authors Franklin and Brenda CampbellJones pondered the question of what shapes the actions of those who have historically benefited in a highly-racialized society to work at dismantling a system that gave them the benefit of privilege. For many of us, the drive to disturb the status quo can be traced back to early encounters with injustice.

By the time I graduated high school, White students were a minority population in the New Haven public school systems, although the demographic of our teaching force remained stable – primarily White females. This pattern has endured across our nation’s urban, public schools some fifty years later. In more recent years, in part because of Federal requirements to disaggregate achievement data by race and ethnicity, the presence of sizable achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers, as well as between ELs and their non-EL peers are undeniable. We have begun to acknowledge a stark reality that really is a very old story: in fact, the problem was never about those children but instead about the schools that failed to serve them. And many brave educators, motivated by the pure desire to “untrap” ourselves from our tangled histories have embarked on their own Cultural Proficiency journeys – a process that begins with self awareness and questioning of our personal beliefs and the norms of our schools.

As Program Director for the Corwin Equity and Diversity line, I am fortunate to have had extraordinary guides on my journey. My friendship and work with the proponents of Cultural Proficiency lead me to examine my own cultural history and apply the lens of CP to my daily interactions in work and life. Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton’s Courageous Conversations about Race taught me the vocabulary and tools that help expose and challenge the presence of systemic racism in our educational institutions. Bonnie Davis, a gifted educator and author of How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You, helped me to better understand the important work that needs to take place at the classroom level – the work of relationship-building, honoring home cultures, setting high expectations, and building inclusive classroom communities that honor individual differences. And I would be remiss in not acknowledging all that I’ve learned from my authors and consultants who have dedicated themselves to ensuring that our nation’s ELs have access to high quality educations.

I invite each of you to reflect on your own public and personal histories and wish you well on your journey. Together, we can do this.


Written by

Dan was born and bred in New Haven, Connecticut and is a product of the New Haven public school system. He has a B.A. from McGill University in Montreal Canada. Dan lived in New York City for more than a decade after college and began his publishing career in 1984 at Random House. This was followed by editorial stints at McGraw-Hill and Thomson/Wadsworth (now Cengage). Prior to Corwin, he served as Education and Social Work Editor for Wadsworth. In 1989, he migrated to San Francisco and never looked back. Aside from reading and writing, Dan’s passions are the arts (especially theater), travel, and social justice.

Latest comments

  • Dan, you describe how the interaction of your public history and personal history shaped you and made you into the person you are today, an individual concerned about social justice and equity. As educators we need to realize that each student we have comes to the classroom with an equally complicated personal and public history that has shaped his personality, his priorities and his approach to school. We need to use that tangled history to guide us in choosing the methods and techniques we use to help each student learn. Those children who come from homes in which the value of education is not stressed are different from those who come from homes in which parents push students hard to achieve. Students who feel uncomfortable in an educational setting need a different kind of instruction than those students who approach their work with ease and confidence. Those who have emotional , educational or behavioral challenges need help in yet another way. It is important to recognize that children are different and that is not bad. I think, however, we do a disservice to our teachers when we don’t make sure they enter the profession with an array of specific techniques, lesson plans and skills to meet the needs of the diverse body of students they will face in the classroom.
    Our experience suggests that utilization of the arts in the general studies classroom is one engaging and efficient way to help all students learn in the ways they learn best, and to honor the value of each individual as he is. We have used music, theater, visual arts and creative writing to teach children math, social studies, science and language arts concepts. We have worked with children who were developmentally delayed, children with physical and emotional challenges, children who hated school and children who had major behavioral problems, not to mention children for whom English was a second language. For example, we asked the Special Needs programs in many elementary schools in Boston to give us their most challenging students for a special learning group using theater techniques to teach standard curricula. They did so. We worked with the cognitive goals the teachers were trying to achieve with these students creating theater games, stories, sound and movement exercises and other arts experiences to help students learn. We found that using the arts as a teaching tool excited and motivated students, in some cases creating first successes and a change from low self-esteem and feelings of failure to a confident interest in learning. When we use the arts to teach core curricular concepts we provide an environment in which students can be themselves and learn in ways that are most likely to assure their success. Certainly that is educational equity.
    Saphira Linden and Linda Grekin

  • In response to Lisa’s comment “Teachers and parents need to be color blind in order to achieve educational equality,” it is important to understand that we do a disservice to children if we perpetuate the myth that “colorblindness” is the key to equity. A completely colorblind teacher wouldn’t have the capacity, for example, to differentiate between someone from Venezuela, Haiti, Guatemala, Spain, China, or anywhere else on this planet.

    Having spent 30 years teaching in an elementary school with a student population from six continents and who spoke 28 different languages in their homes, we know first-hand that colorblindness is not only impossible, it is a useless goal. As the respondent Debbie Zacarian has noted:

    Academic success depends on our willingness to deeply understand and draw from the sociocultural, literacy, academic, and thinking skill assets of our students [as] an important first step toward equity, access and engagement.

    Also thrown into this mix is the vital importance of teachers’ partnerships with students’ families –another impossibility if we mistakenly strive for colorblindness. Unhappily, we tend to equate colorblindness with an absence of racism. They are not even aligned and we should rid ourselves of that notion because it is a fruitless endeavor.

    Further, educational policies that focus on colorblindness as an objective are revealed as counterproductive in tons of recent research, such as the policy brief, called “Seeing Past the ‘Colorblind’ Myth of Education Policy: Addressing Racial and Ethnic Inequality and Supporting Culturally Diverse Schools,” (researched and written by Amy Stuart Wells of Teachers College at Columbia University). From that paper:

    Mounting evidence suggests that so-called ‘colorblind’ accountability and school choice policies, premised on narrow definitions of school quality and absent interventions to support diversity, exacerbate racial and social class segregation and inequality.

    Even a cursory search on this subject uncovers dozens of other weaknesses in the argument for colorblindness as an educational policy, never mind as a proposed goal for the classroom teacher.

    In her book Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit explains how, when students are not from the “culture of power,” they are given directives and instructions that make no sense to them, and opportunities for miscommunication between teachers and students are multiplied. For example, when a white teacher says to a Cape Verdean child “Would you like to sit down?” she isn’t actually asking a question, and the child says to herself “Why doesn’t she just say what she means?”

    The difference between this child’s understanding and that of the white child sitting next to her proves the folly of so-called colorblindness.

  • Full disclosure, Dan is the editor of three of my books and a soon-to-be fourth. I found his personal and public voice to be powerful for many reasons. Many of us live with the hope that the legacy of Brown v BOE and the Civil Rights Movement will lead to better outcomes for the very groups that they were intended. However, data on high school graduates shows us all that underserved populations continue to be among the most underachieving and vulnerable or at-risk of failing school. While we might like to think of equity as racially, culturally, economically, and linguistically neutral, we cannot help but see the stark differences in outcomes. Perhaps the word underserved is an appropriate one as it implies the need for us to move toward strengthening the ways in which we serve the most vulnerable students. Many, including me, suggest that the gap is between students who carry academic language to, in and from school versus those who are learning it while attending school. We should not think of this difference as a deficit or use deficit-based language (such as semi-literate and illiterate). Rather, our willingness to deeply understand and draw from the sociocultural, literacy, academic, and thinking skill assets of our students is an important first step toward equity, access and engagement. It also is the path to do what Dan suggests as: “the work of relationship-building, honoring home cultures, setting high expectations, and building inclusive classroom communities that honor individual differences.”

  • Dan, I am too young to have lived through the turbulent 60’s and intergration. However, I did not become a teacher to teach “white children.” I became a teacher to teach “children.” today’s children are much different than those just 10 years ago but a good teacher will teach any child who walks through the door. I’m not sure educational equality is possible because children arrive at the school house with different skills, experiences and backgrounds. As teachers, our mission is to meet them where they are and teach them what they need to know. It is a daunting task and only the “willing” need apply. I have taught in inner city schools and low income schools my entire career and have loved every minute, and I am a white female upper-middleclass wife and mother of two. Teachers and parents need to be color blind in order to achieve educational equality.

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