Inequity in Education is Your (and My) Responsibility

Students in classroom

By Kate Gerson

There is a great injustice happening in our schools, and it’s happening on our watch. What’s happening can be seen in national reports. The reading and math scores of our white students continue to be higher than the scores of our black and Latino students. In fact, the 30+ point gap between these groups’ National NAEP reading scores has been virtually unchanged since 1990. ACT scores show that black, Latino, and native American high school graduates are particularly unprepared for college, with less than half meeting three or more preparedness benchmarks. The popular way of framing these numbers is that they represent an “achievement gap.”

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is not a gap that belongs to the students.  This is a gap that we, the adults, are providing. This is a provision gap. It’s on us.

I started with these numbers because as a former teacher and principal, as well as a longtime advocate for racial equity, I know these statistics are more than numbers—they are actual children. These are the children who will soon be adults living in a complicated political landscape, a constantly evolving global economy, and a world with many intellectual demands.

The truth is, there is a very real connection between academic performance and the ability to read and do math well enough to handle what comes in college and career. That correlation is why recognizing and facing our racialized expectations for students is critical. It’s why milestones in grade level mastery are critical. When we don’t pay attention to these things, we aid a system of compounding inequities. By conflating the current state of our students’ knowledge and skill with what is possible for them this year and next year and by graduation, we perpetuate a status quo in which our black and brown students are falling further and further behind their white and Asian peers every day, even if they started out as high-achieving.

Fortunately, we can begin to change this failing system by changing the way we act in and around school. That process begins when everyone in the education system, from teachers to nonprofits, becomes invested in the work.

The first step is recognizing that while we all have bias, our system of inequity was built and is maintained because our individual biases coalesce. These biases manifest in a variety of ways in our school system. It’s in higher suspension rates for black boys and girls in almost every district. It’s knowing that high-scoring white elementary children are 2 times as likely to be assigned to a gifted and talented program compared to similarly high-scoring black students.  It’s that black and Latino students are enrolled in Advanced Placement courses at disproportionately low rates. It’s the lack of higher-level math and science courses offered in schools with higher percentages of children of color. Despite our best intentions, we are nonetheless the adults creating and perpetuating the gap through the decisions we make each day.

Recognizing these patterns of inequity and bias in schools and in our own practice is the only way to take meaningful action to create change. To identify as people who care about equity without focusing closely on the details of how it should affect teaching and learning in our classrooms is ineffective at best inequitable, hypocritical at worst. Ask yourself, “Who is learning to do what today? Who is actually thinking today? Who is doing the work today? Who is making meaning? Who is becoming more able to interact with complexity independently? Who is doing grade-level work?”

Students of color can be impacted by our decisions even before they reach the third grade. In fact, third grade is a tipping point in literacy—1 in 4 black and Latino students who are not reading proficiently in third grade will not graduate high school on time. This means it is essential that students, even early in their academic journey, are provided the same rigorous learning environments (i.e. grade-level standards; equal opportunity to interact with complex, challenging texts and complex problems) as their white peers.

But in order to get there, we need to be able to divorce ourselves from the pedagogical approaches—like using leveled readers—that remove opportunity instead of increasing it. We’ve got to be prepared to let go of our sacred cows. These persistent, fixed mindsets must go in our journey to creating an equitable school system.

The argument of “we’ve always done it this way” or “it’s really worked for some kids” as justification for teaching practices that do not serve all children has us repeating harmful patterns and reinforcing discriminations. Instead, we have to pay attention to what the persistently conclusive research says works (e.g., high quality math and ELA curriculum results in higher student learning, choosing scaffolding of complex texts over leveled readers is more effective), then use that information to find everyday opportunities to move all students towards equitable ends.

This can’t go on the way it has always been. We are the grown-ups now, and we’re running this place. If real justice is found in the details of teaching and learning, let’s dig in there constantly.

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Kate Gerson is managing partner of programs at UnboundEd, a nonprofit organization that gives educators the support the need to select, implement, and adapt free, high-quality curriculum materials in pursuit of equity for all students.

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