The inequity in our nation’s school system reminds us that the world we inhabit is far from just. As Dr. Tyrone C. Howard, a professor at UCLA who focuses on educational equity as a social justice issue, has pointed out, a classroom in one of our top 100 school districts today will have 10 children who live in poverty, three who live in extreme poverty, one who is homeless, and seven who have experienced trauma. To make matters worse, according to the Education Trust, districts serving the most students of color receive $1,800, or 13%, less funding per student each year than districts with the fewest students of color.
Educational equity is a movement beginning to find its footing, but it must factor more heavily into our national discourse—not as an issue that we need to cope with or endure, but as an issue that demands real tangible change.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to convene a panel of thought leaders in our industry at the ASU GSV Summit to talk about educational equity. My panelists included Alberto Carvalho, Superintendent of Miami-Dade School District; Dr. Lisa Herring, Superintendent of Birmingham City Schools; and Henry Hipps, Deputy Director of K–12 Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Below are thematic excerpts from our panel discussion.
Jack Lynch: How do teachers across the nation cope with the challenges that these kids face outside the classroom?
Dr. Lisa Herring: I think cope is a very appropriate term. It’s a day-to-day reality—you cope by knowing your students and building relationships with them. But you also cope by hoping that you find yourself in a learning environment where you are supported.
We often talk about our awareness around the needs of every child, but we don’t talk enough about what coping mechanisms look like for educators themselves. There’s not enough professional development out there that really addresses that intersection between the student needing support and the adult possibly needing it too. And even in the classroom, as [educators] try to navigate that, have we provided enough resources?
There is also an element of understanding what’s in the heart and mind of the adult who’s helping to support a child. Not just a teacher—it could be school psychologists, a school counselor, a principal, a cafeteria worker. That goes back to relationships, but the systems that are in place to provide appropriate interventions are a part of the coping mechanism as well. I own that we have a responsibility to enhance what we provide to professionally develop and put a system of support around teachers.
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho: My experience as an educator, and even as a father, is that every single academic achievement gap that I’ve come across—collectively in groups of students, specific grade levels, or systemic—is always preceded by opportunity gaps. They are pervasive, generational in nature, and often dictated by zip code at birth. Opportunity gaps are non-mitigated during the first years of life for children, and those are food and security, poverty, violence in the streets, and lack of adequate, quality early childcare programming. Those opportunity gaps—which are often compounded in nature, particularly in urban settings—mature into academic gaps.
Those academic gaps, if not identified clearly enough and addressed within the K-12 continuum, become generational, economic gaps. Opportunity gaps have terrible or terrific impacts on the viability of children. Stuck in the middle are teachers. I actually look at the teachers today as knowledge facilitators. I think they are the freedom fighters of today’s America. They are the ones who will either make or break children.
And I don’t see them, quite frankly, as individuals who are coping with it. Some definitely are, but the words coping with denote to me some degree of victim status. I actually want them to be change agents in the lives of children who are coping with misery, with detachment, with disappointment, with abandonment, with food and security, with homelessness, with poverty, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Easier said than done.
For educators to be change agents, you need to create environments of professional development and nurture teachers side by side with the nurturing environments you’re providing for students. It’s not an either/or proposition. Both are imperative in school systems today. Particularly in areas—whether it’s Miami, Chicago, or New York—where often, kids are born into zip codes where there’s violence in the streets, and the disintegration of family and poverty are really transformational to the lives of children. The teacher is not only a pedagogical expert, is not only an academic expert, but needs to also become a social and emotional support element—a stabilizing force in the lives of children. That social-emotional connection from the teacher’s mind to the child’s heart actually opens the door to learning.
Jack Lynch: There are connections that a teacher of color will naturally have with students of color based on shared experiences. They’re hard to replicate for a white teacher who’s teaching students of color. Could you talk a little bit about underrepresentation, and is there a greater connection or greater opportunity of connection with shared experiences versus none?
Henry Hipps: Yes. I mean, the research definitely bears out the reality that students of color actually get real benefit from having teachers of color in their lives. And we have a significant shortage of teachers of color, particularly male teachers of color. One thing I do want to say, though, is that the questions of teachers of color and their representation are as much about all students as they are about students of color. It is critically important for all students to have a diversity of experiences with those who are in positions of authority and leadership in their lives. But when we talk about identity formation and role models and proximity and near networks, the teachers are critically important figures in the lives of students of color. So, to grow up with the complete absence of those figures of color as I did—it leaves a mark, there’s no question.
Dr. Herring: The levels of expectations may not always be where we want to see them. And so, there’s a greater responsibility for us as a system—and I mean this across the full gamut of public education—to be clear about the expectations we set for anyone who steps into the classroom to be culturally responsive and to also make sure that resources are. Whether you look alike or you do not, there’s a bonus to that experience when there is a cultural identity space there.
Jack Lynch: You’re a five-year-old kid coming into the school system, and four years later, you’re expected to be a fluent reader. How do you deal with that challenge? I’m imagining you have kids who come in who are reading chapter books, and there are other kids who come in who don’t recognize the letters of their name?
Superintendent Carvalho: I’m a true believer that the best way to improve high school graduation rates is by enabling and launching a very aggressive, early-childhood educational program. Start early—trust me. It’s a much more effective and efficient way to lower costs of guaranteeing higher graduation rates and better postsecondary success for students.
The other [way] is all about social and emotional preparation, arts and music, foreign language exploration. These social themes that kids often lack at home are so important, and it’s been working for us [in Miami] for probably close to two decades. But the most important factor that has stimulated and elevated graduation rates has been our insistence on early children education with certified and highly effective teachers who understand the approach to holistic education, who recognize the gaps early on, and are able address them.
For more from this conversation with Jack Lynch, Superintendent Alberto Carvahlo, Dr. Lisa Herring, and Henry Hipps, including discussions around national policies that are beginning to address educational equity, using data to call out inequitable outcomes, and their own personal experiences with inequity, watch the full panel discussion.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.