Confronting New and Persistent Equity Challenges

What Districts Need Now to Take Innovative Action

By The BELE Network

The Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) continued its virtual convening, Examining Education Research through the 2020 Lens, with a conversation on “Confronting New and Persistent Equity Challenges: What Districts Need Now to Take Innovative Action.” Nicole Beechum of the University of Chicago and a member of the BELE Network moderated the panel, which featured:

  • Tiffany Brunson, Principal, Field-Stevenson Intermediate School and Forest Park High School
  • Maurice Swinney, Chief Equity Officer, Chicago Public Schools
  • Eric Moore, Senior Accountability Research Officer, Minneapolis Public Schools

Their conversation highlighted many important themes around the greater visibility of equity challenges in schools over the past year and how leaders can best respond. Read on to find key takeaways from the discussion that district leaders can take into account when combating these inequities.

Directing Our Focus

The inequities in our school systems affect everyone, but they are most easily identifiable when we focus on marginalized students. What does redirecting our focus in this way really achieve? Eric asks us to think about what the data tells us. While he was once excited about predicting educational outcomes for students, he realized that he was “just measuring how well students are acquiescing to white spaces.” Because most students solidify their sense of self and racial identity by the third grade, they may choose to disengage from inequitable classroom domains in favor of spaces where they feel honored and can succeed in.

Nicole adds that we need to use data from a humanizing perspective. When a young person says that they don’t feel respected, that is a factual piece of data. It is our responsibility to act on this data and use it to combat inequitable systems that affect all students by directing our focus where it is most needed.

Don’t Interpret. Listen.

We must realize that “doing something” is effective when we take the student seriously, rather than merely interpret what they say. Tiffany often emphasized the importance of not dismissing, interpreting, or tokenizing young voices. Systems don’t change when our interactions with young people boil down to “he’s 12, what does he know?”

She reminds us of what they do know. They know what it’s like to be 12 years old in this school, in this country. They may know what it’s like to come from homes that lack heat in the winter or WiFi during remote learning. Educators must engage with these students and ask questions to get to the heart of what they’re saying. Merely interpreting the student’s voice will only perpetuate the same inequities.

Preparing Our Teachers

Constructively listening to student voices is tough, and it is unfair to expect educators to automatically know how to do it effectively. Eric noted the importance of equity training for adults because if we expect our students to be vulnerable and express themselves emotionally, then we need to prepare our teachers and adults to receive that information.

Maurice is clear that any tools used by educators — such as empathy interviews to encourage students to express themselves — must also create a space of vulnerability for teachers. It should be an active process where teachers ask themselves, for example, “How am I interacting with this Black student in my classroom?”

This way, Eric says that teachers can interrogate themselves in order to engage students socially and emotionally and give them the space they need to succeed. This will certainly be difficult for some educators, but creating that space of vulnerability is a fundamental step towards dismantling inequitable structures in education.

A Way of Being

The good news is that none of this occurs in a vacuum — it occurs within the framework of social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools. All participants agreed that SEL is not a program but rather a way of being. By starting from an SEL framework, Maurice says that his district was able to create programs that fed students and provided WiFi for remote learning during the pandemic because students cannot learn otherwise.

Still, we need these priorities to move faster, which includes, for example, having philanthropic organizations put money into the wellness of people. It includes having researchers document what is working so that educators don’t need to reinvent the wheel when they step into a new role.

Tiffany closed the discussion with a reminder we could all use:

“We can’t complain about the system, because we are the system. If we are to move forward, then we have to collectively commit to changing it at every level.”

The BELE Network is dedicated to reimagining our inequitable school system that has failed too many for too long, and is committed to transforming our classrooms into learning environments that nurture the intellectual, emotional and cultural growth of all students — especially students of color.

Learn more about BELE on our website, and access our resource library to make your learning environments more equitable.

We are committed to creating learning environments that equitably support every student — especially students of color and low-income students. belenetwork.org