Asking the Wrong Questions About Equity in the Classroom
Author | Alvin Crawford, General Manager - Public Consulting Group
Asking the right questions is a skill. It requires insight driven by experience, a strong base of existing knowledge and deep understanding of the problem or discussion. It’s not easy to do. It is, though, a crucial part of the learning process.
That’s why it saddens me that, on the subject of equity in education as recently reported in the New York Times, we’re collectively stuck asking questions we knew the answers to decades ago. As a practitioner, researcher and problem-solver in this area for many years, the pattern is well worn and fruitless – every year or two someone asks “Is the learning process fair?” or “Does teacher diversity matter?” or “Are our schools biased?” And when they do, so many of us rush to the alarm bell with answers.
No, it’s not fair. Yes, it matters. Yes, our schools have bias.
Then, somehow feeling satisfied, we collectively retreat to our starting places and wait another 20 or so months for someone else to ask these same questions anew.
It is a pointless exercise because those are the wrong questions.
On the issues of teacher representation related to race and gender, for example, we always point out the studies that have repeatedly shown that male students can significantly benefit from having male teachers and that most teachers are not. We highlight similar dynamics around race.
But we’ve known these things for some time. And while I concede that the repeat questions come from a good place, asking the questions again implies we don’t know and absolutely stifles progress.
Instead, we need to be asking questions like, “Why is the education process unfair?” and “What does classroom bias look like?” and, most important of all, “Since we know all this, what are we going to do about it?”
We need to get to the place where we can discuss the findings that classroom bias, for example, is both more common and more important that a child’s preference of adult at the front of the classroom. Bias is about adult behavior – often subtle, sometimes even unconscious, occasionally overt. But in all cases in the classroom, adult bias has a profoundly negative impact on our children as early as preschool.
And let’s be clear also that this bias isn’t only about teachers. Looking across all of the research, the largest impediments to closing the education opportunity gap are racism, inequitable school funding, poverty, media perpetuated stereotypes, school system structures and practices, and a lack of compensating capacity of the school system. The data across the country consistently reveal patterns of centuries old racial inequity, manifested in every sector, including banking, criminal justice, healthcare, policing, real estate, hiring, and corporate governance.
Again, we know this. Just as we know that most of these issues either begin in or are fortified by school. Just as we know they are rooted deeply, institutionalized, reinforced and protected.
Let’s ask and answer those questions. Let’s have the debate there instead of where it’s been. Maybe we can finally talk about actions and awareness that go beyond checking the box on numeric, representational diversity.
If we can do that, we can also be clear that addressing these issues is not a hopeless struggle. This boulder can reach the top of the hill if we want it to.
We start by being honest that societal factors have created institutions that don’t necessarily value all students equally and fail to provide a quality education environment with policies and practices at the district, school leadership and classroom level.
We admit that resources count and that addressing historical inequity requires applying the resources required to raise awareness of the impact of race as well as build capacity of staff to effectively treat all students with respect, embed high expectations and teach with cultural and linguistic competence. And that, in order to effectively change outcomes, we’ll need to do a better job at addressing the needs of students so that they are ready to learn and have appropriately prepared staff to help them be successful.
At the district level, that would mean using real data to guide policies and practices, work towards having a curriculum that is rigorous, relatable and of high quality and that we build the capacity of district and school staff to understand how race impacts their practice. That includes holding teachers accountable to standards of excellence for student engagement, academics, and social-emotional support. And, finally, and most importantly, we’d have to ensure that all teachers be culturally and linguistically competent.
Which brings us back to the classroom. Building teacher capacity has to be the cornerstone of any serious effort to deal with diversity in our classrooms. The teacher is the single largest in-school lever of student success by a multiple of three.
We must be mindful that changing hearts, minds and habits of the teaching force isn’t a half day affair and developing our teachers to support cultural and linguistic competence requires intensive, sustained and continuous professional learning. Changing the destiny of our children of color, will require that. Asking the same questions with the same answers, the same as we have for decades, is not, let’s admit, doing anything.