A Provocation on Equity

Posted on June 12, 2018, by Jason Glass

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 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 tell 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 really prepare them for the world they will step into. We do this through the deep infusion of the 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 speechwriter.

When we relegate our underserved students (or any student, really) to a narrow, repetitive, and routine-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.