Not for Everyone But for Each One: Understanding Equity

Equity is defined as fairness or justice in the way people are treated. It is a term that is used often within public education and conversations about how different populations are treated within our systems. Open enrollment in electives or offering technology to all students are both examples where thinking “opening to all” and “offering to all” is equity. Frequently it has applied to the number and proportion of girls and minorities in upper levels of math and science, and sometimes to athletic programs and resources or even in music programs. There are subtleties in the word and its interpretation. Equity regarding access to technology, for example, does not mean allowing all students access to it; it means preparing all students to take advantage of the access so that they can be successful.

True equity, in our minds, is making it possible for each child to be prepared to take advantage of those opportunities. It means that when the preparation is unequal, there are intervening steps taken that will level the playing field and result in true equal access. When hoping for more students to take science or math classes, technology or engineering classes, art or music classes, the work of equity begins in the early grades. How can we expect students who have not met with success in any of these areas be willing or able to step into advanced classes? Students learn very quickly whether they are “good” in a subject or not and whether they like a subject area often relates to the ability to be successful and acknowledged by adults as having a skill or ability worthy of attention. So as goals are set for higher enrollment in more challenging high school courses, or higher graduation rates, or more students graduating with honors, a systems view comes into play.

How do we meet these goals with our sub-populations of students living in poverty, English language learners, those with special needs, the disengaged, and those whose parents are not engaged in the educational process with their children as well as our self motivated, well rounded, energized, connected learners? How do we address gaps and deficits as early as in kindergarten, not to remediate but to identify and unleash the capacities of every five year old? How do we find the paths that will work, not for everyone but for each one? This learning work is a lifelong journey; don’t we aspire for the young ones to begin their journeys with confidence and success? How do we guarantee that each teacher who meets these students along the way picks up the ball and carries it, helping each student move along a continuum that results in an ever-narrowing gap and an expansion of possibilities for true equity that reaches beyond access to success? Have we created systems where teachers have the freedom to be creative, test their ingenuity about children, be responsible for finding every child’s interest and motivation and be resourceful?

Systems require:

  • The same expectations are held for students of color, of differing genders, of new immigrants and of the disabled as of the white, middle class.
  • Good readers and/or writers are not treated with greater value than those who are not.
  • Strong math and science students are encouraged as are there less accelerated peers.
  • Equity is not limited to artificial access but to a student’s ability to take advantage of the access.
  • Adults regularly check their own mindsets about children and opportunities.

These five strategies require skilled capacity for data, for honest reflection, for a willingness to think outside the box, and for actions and approaches that are risky and new.

Clearly, establishing and sustaining this environment is a responsibility of the leaders. In school environments where adults accept the invitation and responsibility to question beliefs and actions and take steps to change them, the leaders must be authentic role models and trustworthy themselves.

…leaders ask others to follow, to openly trust, to become co-creators, and to launch off from the comfortable into the journey. Without heart, hopes to create schools that offer children the best of 21st century learning will be dashed (Myers & Berkowicz p. 63).

Perhaps it is the idea of a bell curve that allows the acceptance that some will be weak, some will succeed and some will excel. But, then it is that same belief that robs educators of the reinforcing energy that comes from changing the trajectory for their students by

  • bringing a student who cannot master mathematics to become an engineer,
  • or one who claims not to be able to express him or herself in writing to be a poet,
  • or one who reads well but comprehends poorly to become a master language arts teacher
  • or the shy artist who does not believe she or he is really good to become a great artist

Experiences in schools not only change the life landscape for students, but also fuel educators. Equity calls for no one to be left behind. Marion Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote a poem “I Care and Am Willing to Serve” decades ago. She called to all of us and especially to those who have chosen to teach and lead learning and serve young learners. It ends this way “to build a nation and world where no child is left behind and everyone feels welcome.” Yes, it became a political and legislative initiative but she wrote it as a moral imperative.

Leaders have to hold the standard, communicate the vision, create and maintain the culture in which hard questions are asked, beliefs are challenged, and actions offer evidence of equity as a value. It is better to say, “I don’t know how” and embark on a learning journey to find the “how” than it is to allow some not to make it. Giving all students the chance to succeed is an enormous responsibility that begins early and remains with us throughout students’ school careers. Unless we embrace that responsibility we truly cannot claim there is equity for every child in our schools.

Resources:

Edelman, M.S. I Care and Am Willing To Serve © from Hold My Hand: Prayers for Building a Movement to Leave No Child Behind®

Myers, A. & Berkowicz, J. (2015) The STEM Shift: A guide for school leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin

Written by

Jill Berkowicz, Ed.D. has spent her 30-year career in education focusing on issues of equity and best practices in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and technology, as they affect the development of all learners in the K-12 system. In her leadership roles as a principal and director of curriculum, instruction, and technology, equal access to quality teaching was the foundation of her work. Presently, Jill is an adjunct professor at SUNY New Paltz in the Educational Leadership program. She provides ongoing professional development for teachers and principals. Her work is dedicated to developing schools’ capacity to improve the teaching and learning environment through technology, high-stakes portfolios, and rigorous learning experiences. She serves on the board of New York ASCD and as the Educational Consultant for their digital newsletter. Jill brings energy, passion for innovation and collaboration to all her work. Jill is co-author, with Ann Myers, of Leadership 360, a blog published by Education Week. Jill lives in the Hudson Valley of New York with her partner Bob Santoro.

Ann Myers, Ed.D, is Professor Emerita at Sage Colleges where she was Founding Director of the Sage Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership and of the Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung Center of the Promotion of Mental Health and School Safety. Prior to her career in higher education, she was District Superintendent at Questar III BOCES, a regional educational organization in Upstate New York. She is a national facilitator affiliated with the Center for Courage and Renewal. She leads Circle of Trust® retreats, leadership development programs and strategic planning for school districts and nonprofit organizations. Ann was a consultant for the Metro Nashville Public Schools on the trust building project. She is the founding chair of New York State Association for Women in Administration and remains on the board for that organization. To all of this work, Ann brings a unique mix of intelligence, wisdom, and intuition. She brought us to understand the nature of an edge walker, called to innovation and exploration and to reflection and growth for herself and others. Ann is co-author with Jill Berkowicz, of Leadership 360, a blog published by Education Week. Ann lives between the Adirondacks in New York State and the gulf coast of Florida with her husband Ed Hallenbeck and her golden retriever.

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