Dismantling the Equity Problem One Conversation at a Time

How leaders can create brave spaces to finally close all achievements gaps in their schools

To be an educator today is to work within some uncomfortable polarities. The U.S. graduation rate, according to the U.S. Department of Education, is the highest it has been in our history.

In the 2015-2016 school year, a remarkable 84.1 percent of our students graduated high school. Yet only 71.9 percent of our Native American and Alaska native students, 79.3 percent of Hispanic students, and 76.4 percent of our African-American students graduated high school. We’ve seen our female students reverse historic trends and more than catch up with their male peers; in the 2011-2012 school year, 85 percent of our young women and 78 percent of our young men graduated high school. 

In this mix of positive and troubling news is a truth: Opportunity and outcome gaps continue to plague our students and us as educators. This has never been a problem we should ignore, but it has—even among the most well-meaning educators—been one we sometimes did. Addressing issues of equity is messy, hard, delicate, and sensitive. To do the real work of living and breathing equity in all of our schools feels daunting, perhaps even scary, to many of us.

When people of color became the majority of our students—a milestone reached in 2014—equity became an even more pressing issue that belongs to us all. How can we prosper and thrive as a nation when students of color and English Learners continue to graduate high school at lower rates than their white peers, and when racial achievement gaps continue to plague our education system?

Starting Conversations

For educational leaders, the weight of opportunity and outcome gaps and disparities weigh particularly heavy. How and where do we begin to solve a large, complex problem that has been entrenched in education for as long as we can remember? We start simply by having conversations. As leaders, now is the time to find the courage and strength to guide your teams through the dialogues that will help discover the root cause of all opportunity gaps and equity issues in your school so you can then lead true transformation.

First, it is helpful to start with an overarching objective of the conversation. Ultimately, equity work comes down to unpacking its drivers and then finding ways to target students with disadvantages and maintain a constant spotlight on their needs. The goal of equity work is adopting a mindset of giving more to students who have historically gotten less as we strive toward true equal opportunity and equitable use of resources. The path to that point is through the difficult conversations that help all participants achieve racial literacy and cultural competence.

As a professor and the associate dean for equity and inclusion at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, I have been honored to lead or contribute to countless conversations about equity in education. The experience has allowed me to ascertain the practices that facilitate or thwart the conversations. Borrowing from Glen Singleton’s work on Courageous Conversations, I have distilled guidelines for success to five points:

  • Let data lead the conversation.
  • Be prepared to experience discomfort. 
  • Ask everyone to speak his and her truth. 
  • Conversations must be designed to keep everyone engaged. 
  • Expect and accept non-closure.

Assessing the Data

Collecting and analyzing data will expose where and to what extent disparities and achievement gaps exist in your school. It will show you the issues in need of solutions and frame your approach to finding them. What matters is taking care to look at all possibly pertinent data at large and across demographic groups.

If you are trying to make everyone OK with the discomfort of conversations about race, you will not succeed. As you move through any uncomfortable moments, remind participants that conversations about race may be awkward and clunky, but we are moving through them for our students and their futures.

True racial literacy and cultural competence can only be achieved through the open exchange of real stories and real perspectives. As leaders, we will find that we often need to go first—share a bias we’ve discovered we have and how we are working to correct it. In showing courage, you will inspire others to do the same, trusting that they are safe and valued.

It is human nature to disengage from conversations that make us uncomfortable. Create the necessary circumstances to reduce the ability for participants to disengage. Be open to calibrating the experiences to help people’s hearts and minds remain in the conversation.

If solving equity issues were easy, we would have solved them by now. This will not be a conversation you can tie up in a neat bow. Remind everyone that the goal is to advance the conversation and begin to conceive and test ideas to improve circumstances in your school, not to land on any single notion and be done with it.

When all five of these guidelines are in place, the space for these crucial conversations will be safe. But I like to take that a step farther—they will be brave spaces. A feeling of being in a “safe space” is imperative. Yet I think as a term it undersells what its participants are doing: being brave in a shared space with their partners in—finally—ameliorating inequities, disparities, and disproportionalities and closing gaps. In doing so, we are also beginning to model for our students what respectful, honest, and courageous conversation around race looks like. This will, in time, bleed into instruction—formally and informally—creating a naturally more inclusive, open, and productive learning environment for everyone in it.

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In November, join Dr. Tyrone Howard and hundreds of fellow educators at the ICLE’s 2018 Leadership Academy. This year’s event will focus on creating next generation learning environments through the tenets of equity, evidence, and efficacy. Join us in Atlanta to strengthen your leadership team’s ability to transform learning for students in your district or school.