Equity Is Excellence
by Roger Bridges
Nationally, our approach to education has largely followed a path of simplistic (although well-intentioned) strategies designed to “level the playing field” in an effort to give historically disenfranchised students what they need. And inevitably the same questions have arisen about the achievement gap between this cohort of students and their white counterparts. “Why aren’t they achieving like the rest of the students? They attend school from 8AM–3PM just like everyone else. What’s wrong with them?”
As 21st century educators, we now know that our societal and institutional preoccupation with diversity as seen through the narrow lens of race and equality is short-sided, and while a step forward on the road to redemption, is ultimately flawed and ineffective. From an educational standpoint, making sure that every student has access to a pencil does not necessarily mean that we are ensuring success for all of our students. Current research and best practice standards tell us that the true key to academic excellence for ALL students regardless of race, intellectual/physical ability, gender, etc., lies in the pursuit of equity. The pursuit of equity is the essential key to unlocking the power and potential of each child as a learner.
How did we arrive at this new approach and pedagogy to establishing optimal learning? How is it that the conversation has shifted to a broader discussion that goes well beyond a narrow definition and view of diversity? When achievement gaps either remained the same or grew worse, educational researchers and related clinicians began to ask different questions! They began to widen the scope of their inquiry. This new approach led them to equity.
What Is Equity?
In his book Guiding Teams To Excellence With Equity, author John Krownapple explores “the why” behind the need for excellence through equity. He defines equity as fairness, the specific support that a student needs in order to access high-quality education, as opposed to the same support everyone else receives. Equity is grounded in discovering and knowing each child’s strengths, triggers, and weaknesses based on their personal life conditions and experiences. Those experiences are rooted in their cultural backgrounds, family makeup, gender, and other facets of their identity. And that’s just scratching the surface of where our work begins as educators!
At Echo Horizon we strongly believe that once you know better (i.e. what research and educational best practice standards point us towards in terms of achievement), you must do better!
Below are a few examples of what we have learned from researchers, educators, and clinicians about student success in the classroom and beyond.
What We Know
1. There is a correlation between equity and inclusion and student wellness.
Students who identify as non-binary experience three times the level of depression and suicidality. The GPA for this cohort is a full point lower and their rates of absence from school are much higher than those of their peers. Similarly, health outcomes for people of color are negatively affected by their life experiences and the inevitable “microaggressions” to which they are subject. Black men who experience discrimination have shorter lifespans than their white counterparts. Asian men in the United States report reduced sleep, and as a result, increased health risks.
STEREOTYPE THREAT and GENDER
Women in the United States make up about three percent of all mathematicians nationwide; in stark contrast, the percentage of female mathematicians is fifty-one percent!
Stereotype threat is a type of highly-charged amygdala hijack. It happens when students become anxious about their inadequacy as a learner because they believe their failure on an assignment or test will confirm the negative stereotype associated with race, socioeconomic status, gender, or language background (i.e., girls aren’t good at math; Spanish speakers can’t develop academic language). This type of anxiety attack can also be a form of internalized oppression, whereby the student internalizes the negative social messages about racial groups, begins to believe them, and loses confidence. In the classroom, anxiety interferes with academic performance by releasing the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn reduces the amount of working memory available to the student to perform complex cognitive work. It also inhibits the growth of the student’s intellectual capacity.
The concept of stereotype threat clearly illuminates the stark reality of the achievement gap between U.S. women and Polish women. What factors cause such a stark difference between these two cohort groups? How could U.S. educators effectively confront and neutralize the obvious harmful effects of stereotype threat to girls and young women? What steps are Echo Horizon teachers and staff taking to ensure that ALL of our students are achieving at the highest level possible?
2. Diversity benefits everyone!
Students (of all ethnicities) who have the most experience with racial diversity in their classrooms and informal interactions demonstrate:
- Increased scores on a test used to measure complex thinking.
- More motivation to achieve.
- Greater intellectual self-confidence and engagement.
- A greater understanding that group differences are compatible with societal unity.
- A higher level of motivation to understand the perspectives of other people.
- Higher levels of citizenship.
- A greater likelihood after graduation that they will have friends, neighbors, and coworkers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
3. Teacher expectations, race, and connection
The number one predictor of academic achievement is teacher expectations. This impact is more profound for African American (and LatinX students).
The work of Burchinal, Peisner-Feinberg, Pianta, and Howes is a case in point. They examined factors that predict the development of academic skills for children from preschool through second grade, and they found that a close relationship with the teacher is uniquely and positively related to language skills (and reading scores) among black children.
In a survey of more than 1,600 black and white middle school respondents from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, students were asked, "Whom do you most want to please with your class work?"
- 32% of white students learn for the teacher.
- 72% of students learn to please the teacher.
How does Echo Horizon School pursue EXCELLENCE through EQUITY? (...and what do we do with all of this information?)
1. We follow the advice of experts and seek to meet best practice standards.
- John Krownapple (Guiding Teams to Excellence Through Equity) posits that educators (must) advocate for and ensure that every student receives the benefits of the following assets: 1) High Expectations, 2) Inclusion, 3) Cultural Competence, and 4) Equity.
- High expectations: Access to a high-quality education, based on (1) a belief that every student will meet and exceed rigorous standards, and (2) a fundamental assumption that every educator will educate students to the highest of standards
- Inclusion: (1) A strong sense of belonging and (2) the educational benefits of a diverse environment and curriculum
- Cultural competence: The desire and ability to interact effectively with individuals across cultures and dimensions of difference
- Equity: Fairness/giving students what they need to achieve
2. We bring in experts in the field (education, psychology, equity/multiculturalism) to support our teachers and staff so that they can give students what they need to succeed academically and grow socially and emotionally.
- Dr. Donald E. Grant, Ph.D. - Professor and Equity/Diversity Practitioner. Dr. Grant has facilitated several teacher/staff workshops on gender, anti-bias, and inclusion. Recognizing that the work of equity and inclusion is a priority that should connect to the entire school community, Dr. Grant has also facilitated a parent education evening on similar topics.
- Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. - Author, Therapist, and Lecturer. In the 2017–18 school year, Echo Horizon co-hosted a parent event with Turning Point School featuring Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. Dr. Bryson shared her insights on the social-emotional development of young people and how the adults and caregivers in their lives can be key allies in helping children regulate their emotions at school and at home.
- Monique Marshall - Elementary School Teacher and Multicultural Practitioner. Monique Marshall’s mantra is “Never Too Young.” She believes firmly that young people are curious by nature. They notice everything! It is imperative that the adults in their lives be prepared for the natural questions that will arise from their curiosity. Part of this preparation involves learning to create healthy environments where questions are not only addressed but encouraged.
3. Through in-house training and professional development opportunities, we prepare our teachers and staff for success in the classroom and other school spaces.
We provide our faculty and staff with many opportunities to reflect upon their own biases and experience. We give them ample opportunities to strategize and practice identifying and neutralizing those things which may cause unintended emotional distress and/or harm to their students and impede academic growth and achievement. We provide a robust budget for professional development and promote/advertise opportunities for outside professional development and growth. Our faculty and staff regularly attend The People of Color Conference and have attended conferences such as Equity as Excellence (San Francisco), Diversity in Gender and Sexuality (Los Angeles), and Design Thinking for Systems Learners (Los Angeles).
4. We work to the best of our ability to create the most inclusive school environment possible.
We provide our entire school community with the opportunity to engage in inclusive community gatherings. Echo Horizon School parents and guardians participate in Community Conversations, which give them opportunities to practice inclusion and to learn about the equitable and inclusive exercises that their children experience in the classroom. Inclusive practice and common language help them identify and neutralize the risks and potential effects of stereotype threat mentioned earlier.
5. We design, develop, and review curriculum based on the principles of equity and inclusion.
Echo Horizon teachers are encouraged to be proactive in their lesson-planning with equity principles in mind. They are further encouraged to be intentional about identifying literature that represents various voices (race, gender, religion, etc.) and world views.
6. We hire the best and brightest educators we can find with a particular eye towards hiring a diverse staff that reflects the various identities of our student body.
a. Research shows that in terms of student achievement outcomes, it is imperative that students see themselves reflected in their faculty and staff.
b. Of our 15 new faculty/staff hires for the 2019–20 school year:
- 8 identify as people of color (53%)
- 2 identify as men (13%)
- 1 identifies as DHH (deaf or hard of hearing)
- 1 has a PhD
- 1 comes from another country (England)
- Leadership Team
1. 4 of 7 identify as people of color (57%), 1 identifies as a male (14%)
vii. Program Leads - (Marketing/Communications, Sports/Wellness, Arts, MakerSpace, Technology, Development, Spanish Language, Athletics)
1. 4 of 8 identify as POC (50%)
2. 3 identify as male (37.5%)
c. Part of “meeting students where they are” and meeting their needs is having a competent counseling staff. During the 2018–2019 school year, Echo Horizon hired its second counselor, Jalpa Patel, LCSW.
d. Recognizing that identifying and supporting students with a learning difference is a key priority, Echo Horizon has solicited the services of Dr. Jacqueline Olivier, a local education therapist, and education specialist.
7. Through the example of our Echo Center program, we model for our students and entire school community the importance of empathy, diversity, and inclusion.
Our DHH specialists and Echo Center Director serve as advocates for all our students, as well as students who are part of the Echo Center.