Are Some Schools Playing Down Race When Considering ‘Equity’?

Diversity and Equity

Are Some Schools Playing Down Race When Considering ‘Equity’?

By Daniel Mollenkamp     May 24, 2023

Are Some Schools Playing Down Race When Considering ‘Equity’?

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 changed American culture, in part by invigorating interest in diversity, equity and inclusion.

For some schools, this meant making a commitment to diversity in their mission statements, as well as creating plans intended to increase equity. For example: The Santa Cruz County Office for Education spells out a number of “equity initiatives” used by schools in that part of California, including professional development for educators, improved strategies for grading student work and a support group for ethnically diverse educators.

But research has found that while schools mostly use similar language in their mission statements broadly, equity is a major exception. Comparatively few schools highlight equity or inclusion even when discussing diversity, according to Pew Research Center. And schools in conservative communities are also less likely to mention race, Pew reports. Meanwhile, some politicians like Florida Governor Ron Desantis are waging “anti-woke” battles, reportedly even pushing some teachers in states led by conservative leaders out of the profession.

And yet, politics has only increased the focus of educators on equity, according to a recent report from the education consulting firm NWEA. The report, “Equity: Definitions and Perspectives of U.S. Educators,” sought to figure out whether there was consensus among educators and administrators about what equity is.

The 61 teachers, administrators and district leaders interviewed did seem to share an understanding of equity, the report found: roughly defined as giving all students the resources and support they need to learn.

Personal, and Political

But a general consensus about equity’s definition doesn’t mean harmony over how to generate equity, nor does it mean comfort with the term itself.

One finding of the report is that schools’ focus on equity is centering on the needs of the individual student rather than on broad systemic inequities. And politics may be partly responsible: The term equity tends to cause emotional reactions, with district administrators having “mixed feelings” about it, according to the report. And teachers, the report says, want more guidance and resources to help actually put equity initiatives into practice.

Further, communicating about initiatives meant to increase equity can also be tough in some communities, though that may largely have to do with the word itself being a political lightning rod. “If we use the term ‘equity’ people are suspicious. … If we talk about ‘providing opportunities to all kids,’ no one has a problem with that,” Denis, a principal from New York, told the researchers.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that some aspects traditionally included in “equity” frameworks are becoming less common in some districts.

The Santa Cruz statement, mentioned above, makes a point to include race. But that’s in California. Schools in other places — like, say, Mountain Brook in Alabama — have to contend with anxious parents when discussing diversity plans. And, the NWEA report does find that many district leaders are refocusing language in their equity initiatives to all students rather than by subgroups like race.

When asked if a consequence of this could be that race will become under-emphasized in places that follow this approach, the research scientist who led the study, Greg King, argued in an interview with EdSurge that a focus on quality teaching will engage the whole student, presumably including their racial identity.

“It’s important for students to be able to bring their whole selves into the classroom, and to have their whole selves a part of that teaching and learning experience and see them reflected back right into that space that they belong,” King says, adding, “Access to high-quality teaching and learning automatically creates the environment where kids are seeing themselves and their histories in the teaching materials.”

All in the Family

Another finding from the NWEA report is that family support emerged as a new aspect of what it means to consider equity in education.

The pandemic brought education back into the home, King says. It also kicked education out of its autopilot mode, he adds. That’s meant literally, as many equity questions come down to education access in the home — like whether students have reliable broadband or device access — but also figuratively, impacted by squishier concepts like how members of your family feel about school.

In fact, NWEA researchers argue that part of the family — or community — dynamic that is crucial is “academic identity.”

When people talk about equity, they often consider socioeconomic background and racial and ethnic identities, says Fenesha Hubbard, who leads NWEA’s design and development of equity professional learning experiences. But teachers often fail to consider how their own academic experiences filter down and impact their students. For example, teachers who struggled in math growing up might accidentally pass math anxiety on to children in their classes.

Ultimately, the feelings of the whole community toward learning will influence students, Hubbard suggests, adding that teachers should develop healthy academic identities in themselves, reaching for a better understanding of how their experiences shape their attitudes and teaching practices.

Still, for the NWEA researchers, the takeaway from their report is that educators do share a broad definition of equity. It's one they say is synonymous with good teaching practices, which take into account a student's individual needs and contexts.

“When we're talking about equity, we're talking about access to high-quality teaching, and learning. It's really just as simple as that,” Hubbard says.

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