Wednesday / May 29

Seizing Equity’s Teachable Moments 

When I co-wrote Growing into Equity: Professional Learning and Personalization in HighPerforming Schools five years ago, I repeatedly was told that having “equity” in the title of the book would reduce sales. Not now. While the growth in hate crimes and police shootings of unarmed black and brown people could be paralyzing, many people of good will are focusing on equity as a form of resistance to racism and other acts of hatred.  

For educators, this can mean thinking more deeply about students in their classrooms – including immigrants, students of color – and finding ways to affirm who they are and how they learn, cultivate their gifts and tend to their areas of weakness with persistence. It can propel educators to personalize learning. And many researchers and reformers who have been advancing educational equity over many years are at the ready as practitioners want to develop or deepen equity commitments. So when Learning Forward invited Jill Harrison Berg and me to co-edit an equity-themed issue of The Learning Professional, we brainstormed a dream team of prospective contributors and they were generous and quick to say “yes”. The issue includes the ideas of Glenn Singleton, Pedro Noguera, Zaretta Hammond, Nancy Love, and Bill Bigelow and Linda Christensen. These field leaders, writing with or drawing from the work of local educators, seized the opportunity to join together in the name of equity on the written page, the screen. Collectively their articles point out that wherever your professional passions and strengths lie, there are ways to advance equity, and particularly racial equity.  The pieces together consider beliefs, actions, and systems. 

  • Beliefs. Our deepest held truths guide and inform our worldview and how we live out our lives and our professions. So it is essential to revisit our beliefs and values regarding race, class, culture, language, gender and ability, the ones we were overtly and tacitly taught as children and those reinforced and practiced over time.  This includes explicitly and implicitly developed biases that may translate into expectations, and our levels compassion and of respect for students and others.   
  • Actions. We manifest our beliefs and knowledge in the specific acts of teaching, learning and assessing; in shaping and implementing curriculum; and in the ways we engage as educators and colleagues to support student learning. Organizing and using data well can inform what’s needed and what’s changing, and collaboration can support improving practice and developing mutual accountability. 
  • Systems. Sets of practices, ideas, and relationships form systems, so our individual actions can both reinforce existing systems as well as interrupt them. Advancing equity systemically means identifying what systems are in play as they hold some students back and privilege others.  It also means interrupting systems by breaking down the barriers and introducing new behaviors and practices and reshape systems and culture.  Leadership at the top and other levels determine what and how much systems change is possible. 

Which of these three levels is your typical starting place, when you start thinking and learning to build your capacity?   

  • Do you start with the conceptual (beliefs), and need the ideas clear before you get to naming specific moves you want to take? 
  • Do you like to try things out in a practical, tactile way first (actions)? And then from there you build out your thinking about how some practice (e.g., assessment, pedagogy) relates to other practices, and you build your practice and thinking from there? 
  • Do you like to think about the interrelationship of a lot of different practices, people, and dynamics (systems) at the very beginning and map them out, in order to think about your part in it? 

Advancing Equity through Professional Learning 

There’s no wrong way to start. But starting, and building in room for work on beliefs, actions, and systems, is essential if we’re to make lasting improvement that transcends a teachable moment. In most of our communities, there is already some work going on in at least one of the three areas. So the question is, how do you build it out? How can we, in our different communities, take up serious reflection on how to grow our compassion, our practical skills, and our approach to systems strategy to advance equity broadly, and racially equity specifically?   

  • Start where we are. Notice your own place in reflecting and acting as an individual, and consider your next, best move, whether that’s going deeper to consider your belief systems or reaching out to others to build on some good practices to make them more systemwide. 
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The more we get to the core of how we can advance equity, the more it will press us to rethink things, work with people we may not have been drawn to, talk about things that are easier to avoid or that we don’t easily talk about.  We’ll take action that requires a little more risk.   
  • Keep good company. Working on advancing equity is not solitary work. We all need a few, key people who will give us feedback that is honest and respectful, that urges us on, that reveals challenging truths, and that helps us rethink beliefs and practices.   
  • Learn together as community. The literature on professional trust is clear. It is hard to learn or be effective in classrooms or with colleagues if our places of work do not have a sense of common commitment and trust. This does not mean everyone has to be best friends. It does mean that we need to connect with educators with differing backgrounds and expertise, differing levels of seniority and authority, and differing job descriptions.  This is essential if we’re to find ways to challenge and encourage a range of students systemically. 
  • Get outside help. As we go deeper with new concepts and new awareness as communities, it can be imperative to navigate with those who have expertise in identifying and working through systems and practices that embed inequities. They can help communities with new language, concepts, and ways of addressing dynamics in a way that builds community and practice. 
  • Agree to submit to the common good. Advancing equity has to become more important than our comfort, our current ways of doing things, and our formal and informal statuses at work. If we want every student to do well, we have to go out of our way and our routines to find new ways to help them move ahead, address inequitable barriers, and to move our own learning ahead so they can improve. 
  • Keep at it. We know from many efforts and PD “flavors of the month” that an effective reform can’t be just some activities or a phase, it has to become embedded in our work over time. If you’re in a school where there is little support, how might you advance that internally? Who else might rally and help create a groundswell? If you are an outlier without prospects of growing the work internally, you may have to find supportive colleagues beyond outside your immediate community to continue working on changing beliefs, practices, and systems.   

A Note to All the White People in the Room

The need to advance equity broadly and racial equity specifically has not suddenly revealed itself in public education. Our nation was founded on ideal principles of liberty and democracy which applied to some, while excluding the majority of the population. Over time, laws have been reversed to address overt discrimination.  There have been some important changes, and some laws continue to exclude and separate, as do practices and beliefs. People of color live this reality every day as they experience  disparaging comments rooted in ignorance and racism, as well as structural impediments in school, work, and civil society. While life can be hard for each and all of us, we white folks enjoy privileges we don’t have to think twice about, privileges that people of color can’t take for granted. So the surge in racially-motivated crimes becomes a particular equity wake-up call for white folks who may be unaware of the daily nature of racism that people of color experience . Not that we have lived without compassion and even our own equity commitments to date. But these events can catalyze us to consider anew the experiences of and our interactions with students and colleagues. We’re invited to think about our own beliefs, actions, and participation in inequitable systems (even if inadvertently). We are pressed and compelled to reconsider the toll racism takes on individuals, groups, and on all of us together as a democracy. And we can be humble and humbled as we learn more about how the systems that perpetuate racism operate. 

For All of Us 

No Child Left Behind taught us how to collectively identify achievement gaps using summative assessments and other indicators and talk about improving the achievement of different student populations, whether or not we liked the way the policy, its funding, and implementation played out. At the same time, the focus on improving scores strategically allowed us to avoid the systems issues and the beliefs that have caused and sustained achievement gaps. In these times, we each and all of us can increase the currency of the term “equity” as we speak about it and look to enliven its fulfillment in public education.  Equity can become real in speaking up when we see inappropriate behaviors and statements, and in larger, collective acts that affect systems. And as we seek to focus our learning on and about equity, each act of professional learning can be its own intolerance of the status quo, and our collective acts can turn learning into change that impacts groups of students, educators, and the communities where we live. We can become increasingly accountable to one another for doing the work to advance equity, and racial equity.  This can help us all become our best selves. 


Collins, Cory. What is White Privilege, Really? Issue 60, Fall 2018 

Written by

Sonia Caus Gleason has over 25 years of commitment to social justice and high performance within and beyond public education, particularly in communities with underserved populations. Her work includes consulting and coaching that raises student achievement; building community to sustain school and district innovation; developing effective partnerships that leverage reform; and designing and delivering research-based, professional learning experiences. Sonia has coached schools and districts around the country, and has supported cadres of coaches and facilitators in building capacity and navigating change processes.

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