Can We Only Aim For Equity?

To call Principal Jay Billy a friend, or even a colleague, would be presumptuous. We have only met twice. We connect mostly via Twitter. What I can write is this: I respect Jay Billy immensely. Through his writing and the pictures he posts, he clearly loves children. And at the end of the day, that’s truly what makes children thrive in and out of classrooms–love.

Jay recently posted a piece on how the current pandemic has shone a very bright light on education and equity, or rather educational inequities. My goal here is not to say Jay is wrong; but rather, to push back a bit to deepen this important conversation.

Jay wrote:

“ . .  school in it’s [sic] current construct does provide daycare for families while they can earn a living and supply their families with a home and put food on the table. School provides our kids with some of their basic social learning and understanding. Students learn how to collaborate, get along, and follow societal structures that will help them out in the real world.”

He added:

One big thing that this pandemic has shown me is that the best chance for all of our kids to receive an equitable and substantive education in all areas is get them to walk through the front door of our school on a daily basis. It’s just a fact!  Our world does not yet provide equitable opportunities for all. We can send home chrome books and hot spots so that our kids can connect. We can feed them so they have the proper nutrition. We can even provide them with opportunities to learn. What we can’t do, in our current remote learning situation, is see the looks on their faces when a concept is mastered.  

So allow me to dive in here.

First, indeed schools provide daycare. Unfortunately, because parents view schools through such a lens, it means two things. One, kids are too often sent to school sick, and therefore can’t learn. And more importantly to me, school ceases to become a place of learning and more a holding location. And that holding location is often extended with aftercare so students see learning as one, daylong drudge.

Secondly, even when walking through the schoolhouse doors into a commitment of equity, equity remains an unattainable endpoint. I learned this lesson during my daughter’s freshman year at Princeton high school. Her class had read Homer’s The Odyssey; for her final project, she decided to build a life-size Athena. As we navigated Athena through the halls, we walked by three of her minority classmates who all expressed how lucky she was to be able to tackle such a project. That’s when I realized, those three young men would be turning in papers; that’s all they could afford to do. That’s one way the equity commitment meets reality. The English teacher provided options; life curtailed them.

And there is another piece of inequity which comes with trying to provide equity. Unless there is thoughtful instructional differentiation for students based on ability, needs, and other factors, someone is always in an inequitable situation. This same daughter grew bored in second grade waiting for her classmates to read aloud. School stalled her growth because she could read on a sixth grade level. While her classmates learned, she was treading academic water.

Thirdly, too often, the basic social learning— aka what I call peer-to-peer antisocial learning, is quite detrimental. Despite the best efforts of teachers, guidance counselors and others, the hurt some kids endure during the school day, from the actions of their peers, also results in trauma. There are just too many hidden moments during the school day where kids can act cruelly to one-another. 

Every parent could tell stories. The point being, schools can only aim to provide equity; reaching universal equity is beyond the control of even the most committed educators.

There is no denying Jay’s claim: Our world does not yet provide equitable opportunities for all. And, for so many reasons, the world will never provide equitable opportunities. As the saying goes: Life isn’t fair; I’d add, it’s not even equitable. 

An equity magic wand doesn’t exist; not even at Hogwarts. And I would argue while educators commit to providing equity, there is also an inherent responsibility for helping kids learn how to manage inequities. What strategies can teachers offer students in order to work around and rise above the reality that life is not going to be fair? In the face of inequity, can you find your own self-worth and embrace it?

Life comes with challenges–many of them inequitable. Remember the book by Rabbi Harold Kushner: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Think about the inequities which exist in your own lives. How do you cope with them

For example, if a couple can’t get pregnant, do they adopt? Do they undergo IVF? Do they decide to live without having children? Or, do they merely live a life of anger and rage? Those are ways people cope with inequitable situations. Coping with inequities is a learned skill set. It’s one reason I so strongly advocate beginning with questions. The process of finding and analyzing answers to questions doesn’t change; the questions just get harder with age. And the process should bring clarity even if it doesn’t bring the desired answer.

Racism is a whole separate equity issue which requires a post of its own. Suffice it to say, as the mom of a young woman who left China as an infant 25-years ago, it’s hard to hear her say she wouldn’t go anywhere alone right now. Racism is not just the colors of black and white.

Finally, there is no doubt teachers have risen to an extraordinary educational challenge during this pandemic. I think the frustration for remote teaching comes from trying to make a virtual classroom out of disparate locations of children. Teaching via computer can not exclusively look like teaching in a classroom. In my experience, teaching via computer means being available after a lesson in much the way professors hold office hours–a lot of one-on-one explanation.

At the moment, flipped classrooms, building skill sets and hands-on learning for students seems in order. I loved the assignment given by one of Jay’s colleagues: Make a bug out of whatever you have at home and show me the results. (And I would guess there were parameters. Insects differ from arachnids, for example). Assign the day before, show and tell the next day. And for the moment, that’s how a teacher will see the look of mastery on a student’s face. Call it the “I did it!” moment.

I am not saying it’s easy; it’s definitely more work as people transition; but I foresee better outcomes. Hopefully during remote learning, teachers can encourage creative thinking, problem solving and self-directed learning. And won’t that be a boon when schools do reopen?

The bottom line? We all face inequities in life; let’s admit they exist; let’s find potential strategies to deal with the consequences of inequality. Let’s teach students how to cope with whatever life throws at them. It’s social-emotional scaffolding. Let’s make the pandemic an extraordinary teachable moment for all of us, but especially for children. Because we all know from living, life is filled with ruts, bumps and potholes; and hopefully more often, moments of open highway.

Paper mache statue of the Goddess Athena.
Paper mache Athena built in 2003.

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