Conversations around equity in education are at a fever pitch. Decades of research show that students of color and low-income students are disproportionately taught by less effective or more inexperienced teachers. Civil rights leaders encouraged the Obama administration to require states to develop Equity Plans to ensure that every student had access to effective teaching. The Every Student Succeeds Act continues this commitment. As a result, states are developing systems to understand equity gaps and devise solutions to eliminate them.
It’s a complicated challenge. States are grappling with the data needed to make policies defining “effective teacher,” how to measure equity gaps, and what solutions lead to lasting change. Having accurate data, and faith in the data, will be integral to state leaders as they work to provide an excellent education for every student.
My colleagues and I are supporting states in this important work and will have more to share as the plans are developed and implemented. But first, we wanted to share why this work is important to us personally, and how this “equity agenda” has impacted our lives. Nadja Young, Jennifer Bell, and I will be sharing a series of posts on “What Equity Means to Me.” These broad policy initiatives are important in continuing to improve educational attainment and student learning. What we have to always remember is the individual students we are serving and the impact of our work on their lives.
Sometimes, the very institutions that are supposed to inspire us to fight inequity contribute to the problem. I saw this from the earliest moments of my educational career. In one of my introductory courses I vividly remember the professor showing a chart of the distribution of students by achievement. He mentioned that “poor and minority students” were generally on the low achieving end and “wealthy, white students” were generally high achieving. He went on to confide in us that where we needed to focus was those middle achieving students because that’s where we could “make a difference.” My heart sunk and my anger ignited.
You see, I would have been in that first category of students. I am Native American. I am one of six children whose parents were a stone/brick mason and a stay-at-home mom. While we never went without the basics, we would definitely have been considered economically disadvantaged in today’s terms. The teachers in my school were the only people I knew in my community who had a college education. According to my college professor, my school teachers should have ignored me and not worried about me achieving proficiency, much less being considered advanced, in any academic subject.
Thankfully, my education experience wasn’t the one painted by that college professor. I had teachers who showed me my assessment data and talked to me about my potential. From an early age, I knew college was an option for me because in Tennessee, where I grew up, we had a robust data and assessment system. Tennessee was able to look at not only student achievement, which is closely related to socio-economic factors, but also student growth. My teachers were able to challenge me to reach my potential and provide challenging coursework and extracurricular activities to support my development.
The use of objective, reliable data was imperative to my academic and career success. It provided my teachers with information they needed when I entered the classroom, provided my parents with the background to support my learning, and encouraged me in my academic pursuits.
What equity means to me is that we, as educators and policymakers, meet students where they are with the deep-held belief that all students can learn. And that it is our duty as educators to help them get there.