A Provocation on Equity

This morning, I kicked off a district training put on by the National Equity Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to examining and raising the issue of equity in schools. Here are my remarks to Jeffco school and system leaders.

I want to start your day with a provocation.

When we talk about equity, you hear this term almost immediately in the conversation … achievement gap. We might define ‘achievement gap’ as a numerical representation of the unequal playing field we already know exists.

The achievement gap is almost always presented as a test-score based construct – where these kinds of kids score persistently higher than those kinds of kids. If we are honest, we don’t really need a test score to validate that those differences are real – that some of our students have massive advantages over others.

I suppose we start talking about achievement gaps to create a moral compulsion, so that a school organization reorganizes and does something about the difference between these numbers – this is a good thing. I’d further say that an effort to create this moral compulsion (coupled with a set of sanctions) was the driving force behind No Child Left Behind, and the current Every Student Succeeds Act … which is the of vestigial tail version of NCLB, in my professional opinion.

But what if we’ve had this all wrong … and we’ve had it all wrong for nearly two decades now? I mean, for all this attention on the “achievement gap” and these differences between scores – is it really getting any narrower? All the macro-level reforms we’ve thrown at this problem – accountability, school rankings, teacher rankings, the expansion of school choice, no-excuses-test-prep-lock-step curriculum systems … if we are honest, none of it is really working at scale. Our achievement gaps are not shrinking. If after 20 years, the needle isn’t moving … it begs some questions. These reforms are failing by their own measures of success.

I have an assignment for you. Tonight, I want you to go on the internet and download some worksheets on quadratic equations – try for at least 20 of them … on each side of the page, spend some time memorizing the periodic table, and while you’re at it memorize the major dates, battles, and generals associated with the American Civil War.

Let me break it to you ahead of time: these tasks are going to suck. They are mind-numbing and you will find yourself wondering … how is any of this relevant, important, or useful to me? Unless you teach high school math, chemistry, or history and do so using a very traditional approach – it probably isn’t relevant, important, or useful.

In order to get kids to repeat and repeat and repeat these mind numbing tasks, you are going to have to bribe them, threaten them, provide extra tutoring and support for them, medicate them, and minimize other more vibrant, interesting, and engaging parts of their lives so they can focus on mastering those repetitive … and mostly useless and obsolete … tasks.

Kids from affluent backgrounds do well on tests because they have all the supports in place to keep them focused on that work and to dangle a college entrance letter as a carrot for a high SAT score. They will get all the pressure and support necessary to keep their focus.

The kid from the underserved background likely doesn’t have a support system like that. They aren’t thinking about the periodic table – they are thinking about if there will anything to eat at home, if they will even get to see their parents who are likely working late or multiple jobs, or they may be busy taking care of their own siblings all night.

Literally decades of research tells us that between 60-80% of the variance on standardized measures is associated with out-of-school factors. What achievement gap are we really measuring?

When we lived in Iowa, my wife Sarah worked at the lowest performing elementary school in the state. The school served a population of 90% African refugees – children who had seen and experienced horrors and atrocities most adults in this room can’t even imagine.

Abdifatah, a 3rd grader in one of her classes, would fall asleep repeatedly during the school day. Every minute you turned around, he was nodding off. When asked about it, he told her, “Mrs. Glass, it’s these babies. I’m up all night changing their diapers and feeding them. The mamas are all working – it is only me with them.”

8 years old. Imagine trying to get that kid excited about the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

I’m not saying that the measures don’t matter or that Abdifatah didn’t need some help when it came to basic knowledge and a core skill like reading.

But, at 8 years old, Abdifatah demonstrated extraordinary personal responsibility, caring, and selflessness – he had no achievement gap as a human being.

When we look at our kids from disadvantaged backgrounds through the lens of what they can do on a standardized assessment and an achievement gap, we’ve set them up already. These kids have an amazing set of skills that we aren’t measuring.

In Jeffco, we say keep the main thing the main thing – and that is student learning. More precisely, we need – at scale and with urgency – to profoundly change the tasks and experiences our students are having so that they are authentic, engaging, provide them the opportunity to practice complex and important skills, and to really prepare them for the world they will step into. We do this through the deep infusion of project and problem-based tasks which give our kids the chance to practice Generations skills.

People have argued with me about whether or not this kind of learning is “right” for kids from underserved backgrounds. I have heard that “those” kids “need” to focus on the basics, that they aren’t ready for complex thinking or a skills-based education, that they aren’t developmentally prepared to have agency, or to act as an active participant in their own learning. That “those” kids “need” a test-prep education so they can get higher test scores and close our “achievement gap.”

“The soft bigotry of low expectations.” Perhaps no more profound words were ever put forth by President George W. Bush … or at least his speech writer.

When we relegate our underserved students (or any student, really) to a narrow, repetitive, and routines-based education that does little in the way of preparing them for their lives and futures we have lowered our expectations for them. In my book, there is no greater moral failure for us as professional educators.

Your charge as Jeffco educators is clear – transform the student experience by transforming the student task. To the extent that gets and keeps your school off the state shame lists (which are based on these tests), great. We need to do that to keep regulators out of our hair so we can do the important work that needs to be done.

However, let us not lose sight of the main thing – an authentic learning experience that genuinely prepares our community’s young people for their future.

I hope that I have given you some things to think about, and that you are sufficiently provoked – and that you have a great day of learning about how to best support these important young people … and their remarkable greatness.

5 thoughts on “A Provocation on Equity

    1. A Provocation On Equity – Indeed…! Well presented Dr. Glass. I posted some similar comments on LinkedIn the other day ; although your storytelling skills are on a Playing Field of their own… We need to become much more inventive about helping Educators and Students learn to curate Portfolios and other Artifacts & Real World Group Projects that provide more authentic evidence of their many talents ; and that highlight their ingenuity and keen problem-solving abilities… & that consequently ; also help prepare them to participate effectively in our 21st Century, teamwork-oriented workforce.

      As a Team-Teacher my 1st classroom of students contained 40 third & fourth graders. The other two Teachers on the team had large classes, too — although not quite as dramatic. All ten of my fourth graders were Gifted ; and of the eight third graders read at a K level – ( pre-emergent … & some non-emergent )… one third grader’s mother suddenly broke into quiet tears as she attended our 1st Parent-Teacher Conference (solo, w/o Dad). In talking with her that day,… it was as if a 50 lb noose had been lifted off her small shoulders. She shared how the family had just moved to Colorado from Kansas,… and had an unthinkable family tragedy in the weeks before their move. As she continued, I learned that she, her husband, and her quiet and “non-reading” 8 year old son had experienced the heart-wrenching loss of their 10 year old son in a bicycle – automobile accident ; a mere few months prior.

      I know that a miraculous bond began to form between the two of us, .. as I empathized with her in the best ways that a young, new college-grad, newly-wed could,… having loved my parents and siblings deeply ; but having never experienced the depths of the future bonds I would come to know as a young Mother myself.

      I also tried to think of any immediate resources I felt the school and community could provide her, her son, and the father. I remember feeling like every resource I thought of seemed already too stretched to the max in this fast growing young community in South Jeffco. My own classroom had 40 eight to ten year olds, in a new, and already over-packed, year-round elementary school. That spoke volumes already.

      We were able to get the family some immediate supports,.. however meager they probably were. But, what sticks with me to this day is how important those 1st several attempts to establish “relationship,” — with our Students and their Families, are.

      We must learn to look at the world through the eyes of our students ; and be incredibly sharp and inventive about materials we suggest that they use as tools, the differing, deep levels of the tasks we put before them ; and the multi-variate paths that we provide them to communicate their mastery of their competencies,… back to us.

      Oh ; and we’d better ask for their ideas on ways to :

      1. Present the tasks

      2. Present evidence of their mastery of competencies

      because :

      1. Several heads brainstorming ; give better results than just a few ; and ,

      2 Students will be more engaged and take more ownership ; when they’ve given input

      Thank you Dr. Glass ; for your very well articulated thoughts …! !

      ***

      Comment to Pensive Pondering – above = I like your point … and just want to add .. that not only do our current assessments cover only the academics ; but they usually cover only certain components of “the academics.” Hopefully, the painful absence of many of the other components of what constitutes “success & academic breadth” — will provide us ample new ways for us to “innovatively demonstrate” MORE student mastery, & at multi-variate levels.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. About 12 years ago, I was walking through Colorado Mills Mall with my wife, who was a teacher at Arvada High School at that time. It was late and she had been preparing to give a big test “tomorrow”. As we walked through, we came across a teenager “Jenny” and my wife said “Hi Jenny – how are you doing?” Very pleasant kid. Very polite. Nice conversation during which I found out that Jenny was taking the big test tomorrow… but she was mopping the floor in the mall. I asked my wife as we walked away, “Shouldn’t she be studying?” and her answer was, “Yes, but she has to choose to study or to eat.”

    It was at that time I began to understand equity issues, conditions for learning, and related concepts. Since then, I’ve had many great discussions with others using this one example as the lead-in, and most often, they come out with a new sense of what we do – and should do – for students like Jenny.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I realize I am late at responding to the blog post, but of recent this topic has become so vivid in my own life.
    Dr. Glass, in the paragraph where you state that “In Jeffco, we say keep the main thing the main thing – and that is student learning. More precisely, we need – at scale and with urgency – to profoundly change the tasks and experiences our students are having so that they are authentic, engaging, provide them the opportunity to practice complex and important skills, and to really prepare them for the world they will step into”, what is your estimated timeline of “urgency”?
    As my son sits in his 10th grade high school classes as a Nonverbal GT and Dyslexic student, he is failing. Or better said, our schools are failing him. He is asked to do what you describe in this blog as tasks that “suck” EVERY SINGLE DAY!
    Not only are at least two of his teachers not servicing his ALP nor his 504, they are also not making changes to fit the Jeffco Generations vision.

    I wonder why change cannot be made immediately? Why do our students have to wait?
    I hear over and over that change takes time. I somewhat disagree. Change CAN happen immediately. It is the people effected by the change may take time to adjust.

    I want to see our kids in Jeffco making it. I want to see them enjoying learning. I want to see their creativity and critical thinking skills in action. I ask you, how long before everyone in Jeffco (teachers and admin especially) make the vision come to life?

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    1. Hi Kala – thanks for sharing your student’s story, which illustrates well the importance of the change we seek to bring about. We work toward this every day and educators and students across Jeffco realize successes each day as well. However, this is a profound difference we seek to make. I would suggest you visit with your school principal and individual teachers to address your student’s specific concerns – this is not really an appropriate forum to discuss individual student or staff issues. However, I can provide some support in that regard, if you wish it. Email me at Jason.Glass@jeffco.k12.co.us with more info and I will see what we can do.

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