The word “equity” is found throughout U.S. schools today — in district mission statements, school vision documents, and classroom posters. It is used to signify a value that feels fundamental to our democracy and public education system: Students’ educational outcomes should not be determined by their demographics, including race, ZIP code, primary language, gender, and/or disability. Yet equity can feel elusive in practice.
Education stakeholders who aim to advance equity in practice might approach this work from different fronts. Policymakers and district administrators might focus on providing all students with access to quality educational resources, including high-quality school facilities, teachers, curriculum and instructional materials.
Local agencies and school partners might concern themselves with improving all students’ readiness to learn, for example, by addressing disparities in health care, post-natal services, early childhood education, physical and mental health services, and parent education.
But school-based educators — including both administrators and teachers — have a uniquely indispensable role that only they can play in advancing equity.
This is because, regardless of whether schools have managed to secure quality educational resources or receive students who are ready to learn, it is the job of educators to identify the unique starting place of each student and make instructional decisions that will take students to where they need to be, all while cultivating their individual passions and talents.
Doing this well requires ongoing inquiry of one’s own beliefs, an ever-expanding repertoire of professional practices, and constant collaboration to develop student-centered systems. It requires a strategic approach to professional learning.
There is no more important time to commit to investing in professional learning for equity. On issues of race, where national disparities persist, we have a particular responsibility for sustained dialogue and action. This historic reality converges with this moment in time, in which we are experiencing an uptick in public acts of racism (Anti-Defamation League, 2017; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2018).
Educators have a unique and essential role to play in growing a generation of citizens equipped to think critically; act with truth, kindness, confidence, and tact; and transform the systems that reinforce inequity.
THREE DIMENSIONS OF EQUITY
At its best, professional learning for equity supports educators to attend simultaneously to three dimensions: beliefs, actions, and systems.
The deep-seated beliefs and assumptions we develop are comfortable to us, and we depend on them to keep us psychologically safe. We resist changing them, and yet it is impossible to improve actions in lasting ways without first exploring these underlying beliefs.
Because we are both participants in and producers of inequitable systems in ways we may not even realize, a commitment to advancing equity requires us to keep revisiting our beliefs and continually question how we may be stopping short of the belief that all students can learn, as evidenced in our actions.
Teaching is complex work, requiring teachers to make hundreds of decisions every hour. We manage this complexity by developing routines. Having these routines allows some of our actions to run on autopilot, which is helpful as it frees part of our minds and bodies for decisions that require more of our attention.
On the other hand, relying on routines reinforces patterns of behavior, at the individual and collective level, until we no longer question our actions, even when we should. A commitment to advancing equity means that we bring our actions in line with our belief that all students can learn. When we change our actions, we recognize ways in which our systems, designed for outdated actions, also need to be reconfigured.
Systems are made up of interconnected beliefs, practices, people, organizations, policies, and structures. Our beliefs about what is possible and the actions we choose to take can feel as though they are limited by existing systems, which have longstanding inequities built into them. Ironically, the same beliefs and actions that are constrained by these systems have helped to shape them. It makes sense, then, that while we’re working individually and collectively on our beliefs and actions, we are compelled to take action to transform these systems.
Ideally, educators can develop these three interdependent dimensions with intentionality and in concert. If we expand only what we believe, the existing system will limit what we are able to do and leave us frustrated. If we change only what we do, our beliefs will continue (consciously or not) to reinforce existing systems and limit the effectiveness of our actions. Changing only our systems is equally futile, as what we do in those systems will be shaped by stagnant beliefs and habits, and thus result in no real change. Efforts to expand or change one dimension can only be lasting in the context of congruous changes in the others over time.
STRATEGIC PLANNING FOR PROFESSIONAL LEARNING
Educators concerned with designing professional learning for equity might wonder where and how all three of these dimensions of learning might happen, given the limited time and resources in schools.
In fact, these interdependent dimensions can be developed across multiple professional learning contexts, from independent inquiry to team learning to whole-school professional learning (Gleason & Gerzon, 2013). Thus, while educators may need to establish some new routines, schools can also gain ground by applying or sharpening the equity focus across existing routines. The following examples illustrate how the three dimensions of learning may look in action throughout the school.
Beliefs: To expand thinking about beliefs, educators may independently interview students and their families and check their assumptions against what they’ve learned. Educators may also form their own critical friendships for exploring how personal biases are playing out in and out of the classroom.
Within school teams, educators might share student work to support each other to bolster authentic knowledge of students as well as to norm assumptions about high expectations. Team members might also examine the dynamics of their relationships within the team as a way to push on assumptions about others.
In a schoolwide context, a faculty may invest in deepening its knowledge about concepts of culture, equity, and trust, and reflect together with honesty about how each is experienced in the community.
Actions: There are many lines of inquiry educators can pursue on their own to expand their actions. They can, for example, experiment with new classroom routines to strengthen student confidence and competence and solicit student feedback to ensure they are working. They also can hone their confidence and competence for engaging in difficult conversations with truth and tact so that they can speak up in the face of inequity.
When educators work in teams, they can engage in professional learning that retools individual and collective action. For example, they might rethink and redesign schoolwide curriculum traditions, instructional expectations, or assessment routines. They might support each other in honing practices targeted at identified achievement gaps through collaborative inquiry.
At the same time, faculty can take action in schoolwide professional learning. While the faculty might devise and institute new routines to improve how adults across a school engage with one another as well as with students, families, and partners, it might also create traditions that help them monitor and celebrate progress toward equity goals.
Systems: To focus on systems, educators can work independently to become knowledgeable about relevant policies and structures. Individuals may, for example, study the influence of institutional racism on policies at the school or district level and propose solutions to those in power.
Team professional learning may attend to systems change by critically examining and revising schedules to give students access and supports of those best equipped to do so. Teams of educators, together with family and community members, might also research and propose more equitable grading routines, assessment systems, and student retention policies.
Similarly, at the school level, the role of transportation, student assignment, and resource allocation might become the subject of a study team and a plan of action. All of these systems changes lie beyond what a team or faculty can typically address in its regular meetings. Institutional changes such as these seem intractable, but with protected time for analysis, problem solving, and advocacy, they are possible.
By considering the three dimensions across a range of professional learning contexts, educators can be strategic as they develop their professional learning plans for equity. They can power up existing learning experiences so that equity connections are more explicit and identify what is missing or unfocused so it can be further developed.
STAYING THE COURSE
Whether attending to beliefs, actions, or systems, professional conversations that seek to advance equity can be challenging. We must have a genuine curiosity to listen, eagerness to learn, and willingness to make ourselves vulnerable when we discuss equity and dimensions of diversity such as race, class, disability, and gender.
We can create conditions for success by creating a safe space with norms that establish shared expectations, secure agreement that missteps in understanding and experience will be taken in stride, and affirm that our shared desire to advance equity will ground our interactions in mutual respect.
Obstacles such as local politics, competing priorities or factions, wavering leadership, and leadership transitions can threaten this work. These obstacles may create bumps in the road and stymie our coordinated approach, but we must stay on the path to take action individually and as communities.
We can do so fortified with knowledge about three key dimensions — beliefs, practices, and systems — that need to change and with ideas of what professional learning might look like when designed to advance equity.