How Do Schools Promote Equality Among Students?

What does equity mean in terms of the classroom? Should all students be treated exactly the same? What about children with different needs, and schools with different resource levels? Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew professor of education, discusses the idea that schools are regarded as the “equalizers of opportunity,” although forces sometimes prevent schools from providing children with equitable outcomes. Here’s an edited transcript of the video.

In the context of education, the term equity has come to mean the need to focus more directly, not simply on equal opportunity – that is, making sure kids have access to schools, and the opportunity theoretically to learn – but really focusing on outcomes and results.

The analogy I often make is most parents practice equity with their kids, that is, we don’t treat all kids the same, because they have different needs.

And when schools are really focused on equity, they’re trying to meet the different needs of kids, and do so in ways with a focus on outcomes.

Schools are set up to be the equalizer opportunity.

That was the mandate early on, that we’d use education to promote merit, to promote talent. And so theoretically, you want to make sure that all kids, regardless of background, got similar educational opportunities, but that’s not what we do.

Obviously, if you go to school in the South Bronx, you get a very different education than if you go to school in Scarsdale.

But what’s more, even within schools, we exacerbate inequity, because in many schools, there’s a deliberate practice of assigning the best teachers to teach the highest-achieving kids and the least-effective and least-experienced teacher to teach the high-needs kids.

This never works, but schools consistently do it, largely because it serves their political purposes – both appeasing the parents of the high-achieving kids and appeasing teachers with seniority.

Parents play a critical role in influencing what schools do, and sometimes they can exacerbate the inequities. And that’s because the affluent parents, who are highly educated and have lots of time on their hands, can put pressure on the schools to get what they want.

You can never blame a parent for trying to get the best for their kids. However, sometimes, what that means is that some kids are getting more, because their parents are able to put the pressure on, lobby the schools to get resources directed at their kids, whereas other parents either don’t have the time, don’t have the know-how, or aren’t treated in the same way when they engage schools, and therefore their kids don’t get served as well.

The only way to really create equitable schools is to really focus on that as your goal, and making sure that first, you have good leaders who have a vision that combines a commitment to academic excellence to equity.

That’s important, because in this country we tend to see the two as being conflicting goals. We tend to think that the more we do for excellence, the less we’ll be able to do for equity, because in our mind, there’s only a small number of elite kids who are excellent, and we’re going to give more to them. That’s for example, what we’re doing with gifted programs: We give them the best, and then we forget about the rest of the kids.

So we build on inequity. When we combine excellence and equity, what we’re focusing on is:

  • How do we make sure that all kids are exposed to high standards, quality teachers?
  • How do we make sure that even the kids who come in who are further behind, who need more help, get that help?

What we really should be aiming for are kids who are learning ideas, knowledge, and skills that they can apply to their own situation, so they can understand the utility of what they learn, and how it’s relevant to their life circumstances.

I’ll give you one example: a teacher I was working with in Oakland, California. She had to teach environmental science, and she was interested in making connections between the students’ lives and the subject. So she asked me how she should approach it. I said why don’t you spend some time exploring this neighborhood, and you might get some ideas about the most critical environmental issues in this neighborhood.

The neighborhood was West Oakland, a neighborhood that has a lot of heavy industry, a lot of traffic. It’s an area with a lot of toxic sites. As she drove the community, she saw that. She also saw that there were a lot of families in that community that had gardens in the backyard, and she imagined that many of those families were eating fruits and vegetables from those gardens and not aware of the fact that the soil was probably contaminated with lead, lead that was coming into the soil from the atmosphere.

So she designed a whole unit with her students, for her students, on the effects of lead in the environment. It started by showing how lead goes from the industry of the cars into the atmosphere, how it goes from the atmosphere into the soil through the rain. What happens … how it goes from the soil into the plants, and then what happens when you ingest those plants, particularly in small children whose brains are first developing. Lead contamination really can have a very damaging effect on the development of children’s brains.

She then taught her kids how to do soil testing, and they went out into the community to test the soil for lead content. They mapped where the lead contamination was greatest, and they produced these very intricate charts showing what was causing this contamination, that is, its proximity to a freeway, or to a foundry, or some other kind of heavy industry.

After they produced the report, the kids were very concerned, because of what they’d learned. They said to the teacher they felt they had to do more than merely produce the report, they needed to do something with the information.

She agreed, and they contacted the county health commissioner, and approached the county health commissioner about doing something about this problem. After reading the report and hearing them speak very intelligently and passionately about this problem, the county health commissioner agreed to first send out a letter to all the residents in this neighborhood in West Oakland, warning them of the effects of toxics and lead contamination in the soil, but also offering free topsoil for any family that wanted gardens but didn’t have the ability to get clean topsoil.

I often report that as an example that my bet is those kids will know about the effects of lead in the environment forever.

That’s because they were able to see how what they were learning could be used in a way that could really improve their lives in their community.

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