Is Growth Mindset the Missing Piece in the Equity Discussion?

Diversity and Equity

Is Growth Mindset the Missing Piece in the Equity Discussion?

By Michael Moody     Aug 27, 2018

Is Growth Mindset the Missing Piece in the Equity Discussion?

How does a school or district begin to tackle the seemingly insurmountable issue of equity? Decades of attempts at closing the persistent (and perhaps even widening) achievement gap, along with the knowledge that this is an immense and deeply historical issue to address, make it feel as if the task may be impossible. Yet we have ample data to suggest that the need is there and is essential to address, because nearly all aspects of a child’s education are impacted by underlying issues related to race.

Despite challenges, many districts are trying to support growth for all students, no matter what their circumstances. We see strategic plans emerging that name equity as a goal. And for some time now we’ve seen school improvement plans focused on “closing the achievement gap.” The upshot is typically an increased focus on data collection or improving existing intervention approaches to accelerate achievement.

I would argue that these actions are important, but alone they’re insufficient. There’s a much more fundamental question we need to ask ourselves: Do we really understand the root causes of inequitable education, and do we really believe in equity?

While many leaders strive to identify how to address the inequity experienced by our students, this work will likely falter if we don’t first acknowledge that the first step is examining the people—not just the policies—behind this complex equation. I believe we’d make more progress by first focusing on ourselves as individuals and then using what we’ve learned to improve entire schools or systems. After all, it’s the individuals in the system who ultimately impact student achievement on a day-to-day basis.

Asking the Big Questions

The first step in this process involves asking educators to unpack the big questions about our own biases. We can start by asking ourselves questions like:

  • What background and experiences do I bring into my classroom that impact how I engage with students and my colleagues?
  • How do my background and beliefs potentially bias my work as an educator?
  • What do I truly believe is possible in terms of student achievement?

Many educators have an image of equity in their minds that only relates to race. While race is, of course, a major factor in these discussions, I approach equity as a much broader construct. For example, consider white students in rural Mississippi and white students in Santa Monica, Calif. While both of these groups of students are the same race, they likely receive very different educational experiences. Socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, family background, disability, religious beliefs—there are so many aspects of who we are as human beings that must be considered to ensure equitable environments and opportunities for all kids.

But when different schools, even those within the same district, face such different issues, how do we begin to tackle these issues head on? First of all, the solutions will need to be tailored to the specific context. And oftentimes that context includes acknowledging deep, sometimes difficult historical events. We have to remember that equity is not just about our current status. We must also acknowledge that generations have fought for the right to freedom, equality and education. The challenge now is to move beyond talking about wanting equitable opportunities for kids, and honoring those who have previously fought so hard for equity by joining their courageous efforts to do something about it.

That work begins with asking salient questions such as:

  • How do we recognize bias?
  • How did we get here?
  • What do we do with this knowledge?
  • How does bias impact our interactions with students?
  • Is my bias impacting outcomes for the students I serve?

The ability to answer these questions honestly is the first step. The belief that will allow educators to enter this self-exploration and these conversations is growth mindset, the idea that existing skills and abilities can be improved through dedication and hard work. Addressing equity with a growth mindset is an opportunity for educators to take off their “teacher hat” and put on their “learner hat.”

Helping Teachers Be Learners Too

To grapple with the issue of equity, educators need guidance and resources that will help them to not only examine their own teaching practices, but to engage in the often-challenging discussions with colleagues and administrators. They need to acknowledge where their own classrooms and schools may be lacking in addressing equity and plan steps to address these needs.

Additionally, teachers and school leaders can examine data such as attendance, discipline and student achievement, looking for trends that might provide insights into whether or not the school is providing equitable opportunities for students and identifying strategies that might help to level the playing field. Another often neglected, but rich source of data lies within our students. We need to be asking them about their experiences in school and how we can improve upon what they experience every day. This open and honest dialogue is a “must” as part of our data that informs what we do about equity.

Often, teachers don’t have these opportunities to engage in such conversations or rigorous professional learning. Schools and districts may provide professional development around the issue of equity and hope that it results in a transformation of their teachers’ practices. But in reality, these “workshops” satisfy issues of compliance but lack the design necessary to actually impact instructional practice in any tangible way.

Only with defined, ongoing structures can teachers develop the growth mindset required for transforming their practices in ways that help to address issues of equity in education. This is, and will be, challenging work. But it is the right work.

Clear Structures to Address Equity

A first step for school leaders who want to be a catalyst for real change is to provide the time and space to have conversations about equity—and acknowledge that it’s a process, not an event. Leaders need to explicitly plan for and facilitate this work. This might be at grade-level, school-level, or district-wide meetings.

Educators need ongoing opportunities to:

  • Talk about equity;
  • Define what equity means and examine it from both a personal and professional perspective;
  • Look at data to unpack issues of equity;
  • Discuss the lack of equity with students to discover how it manifests itself in the student experience; and
  • Brainstorm causes for these issues.

In addition to carving out time and facilitating difficult conversations, leaders must provide structures for teachers to engage in this work. This might include coaching around instructional practice to help teachers address the needs of all learners. It may involve examining the existing support structures and re-evaluating their effectiveness.

Ultimately, school leaders need to examine the way they engage with the issue of equity with every stakeholder. We need to stop talking about it only at the policy level and start engaging everybody in the conversation. Addressing issues of equity is no easy task, but nothing will change until we take the first step toward including teachers in the process as individuals whose perspectives matter and have an impact on the work of educating all students.

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