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Building Equity in the Classroom: Curriculum Practices that Lift All Students

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    Sarah Norris

By Sarah Boddy Norris, School Designer

Note: accessible infographics of the data referenced in this post are available here.

Teachers using EL Education’s K-8 literacy curriculum learn a couple of things quickly: one, it’s a “thinking teacher’s curriculum,” requiring careful long-term analysis up front and judicious preparation at the daily and weekly level. And two, many of the features that make it such a remarkable resource for increasing student achievement in all dimensions require a highly collaborative classroom in order to have most impact. EL Education coaches are passionate about supporting teachers as they evolve their practice to be ever more supportive of such an environment. We’re delighted to invite you to an upcoming interactive webinar on just this aspect of our curriculum: Management in the Active Classroom, on Tuesday January 9 at 3:30 PM EST.

You are likely an extremely busy teacher or leader, and things may be going basically fine with the curriculum. How then might this collection of practices make an impact in your building? Our answer is grounded in our core belief about our curriculum itself: when used well, it is a powerful lever for educational equity.

Educational inequalities take many forms. They point to racial identity, wealth and income position, location, gender, and ability. They show up in inputs and in outcomes—funding, test scores, and discipline data.

In my North Carolina school district, for example, Black students make up 6.4% of the student body but 13.8% of the in-school suspensions, and 14% of the out-of-school suspensions.
Disparities just like this exist nationwide and are well-known (you can check your district or school’s data at the Office of Civil Rights Data Collection site).

What we do not hear loudly and often enough is that Black and White students are in fact sent to principals’ offices at the same rates, commit serious offenses involving weapons or drugs at the same rates, and self-report similar rates of general misbehavior.

So, what gives rise to this disparity? One major difference is that Black students are more likely to be disciplined for subjective offenses, ie “being disrespectful,” and White students more likely for less interpretable ones, like “cutting class.”

This starts early: half of all preschool suspensions are Black students. Students who are in class do better academically, so this has a doubly pernicious impact: Black students’ disproportionate exclusion from class ends up affecting how well they perform academically.

These numbers are upsetting, and we tend to want distance ourselves from them. They remind us how far we still are from educational equity—how much we still need to do to ensure that outcomes are not predictable based on social factors like racial identity.

They are indicative of bias within and beyond K-12 education, racism that extends back to our beginnings as a country, and so they can also be dispiriting. Educators know we can’t control all that goes into creating and maintaining these disparities, nor the others that taint our education system.

But: we absolutely have power to shape the mini moral worlds of our schools and classrooms, and taking educational equity seriously means thinking hard about how we use that power.  In our view, the wellbeing of a community is inseparable from the equity of that community. If it is only working well for some kids, and if the kids it isn’t working well for are also students from historically marginalized identity groups, then we have thinking to do and changes to make about how we are using our power. No moral educator seeks to reproduce inequalities of any sort. It is happening, though, and it is up to teachers and leaders to dig deep into our philosophy and practices to work against this pattern and towards equity.

Part of what EL Education believes makes classrooms equitable are systems that feed and are fed by the community ethos of a classroom. These systems require a community in order to function, and they in turn contribute to the functioning of that community.

In the EL Education model, we call this “Management in the Active Classroom,” and we know it matters in creating classrooms where all students have an equal opportunity to contribute and to learn. We believe that naming norms with students (rather than only rules for students) and using protocols to ensure all voices are meaningfully included when those norms are developed (and ever after)  are steps towards equity. Reflecting on one’s “teacher presence” and what it communicates to students (including students who’ve had different experiences of school that the teacher may have had) is a step towards equity. Setting up a classroom physically and in terms of routines to give students maximal responsibility—collectively and individually—is a step towards equity.

We’ve learned that one of the major determinants of how teachers and students experience EL Education’s K-8 literacy curriculum is how well these practices are in place. We’ve also learned that it’s never too late to begin integrating them; the rigor and joy you and all your students find in the curriculum can meaningfully increase even in January.

Whether thinking about your classroom this way is new or old hat to you, the return from winter break can be an especially fruitful time to make small but powerful changes in the way your classroom works to support use of the ELA curriculum. If you are searching for the next right step, please join us for “Management in the Active Classroom: Concrete Practices that Maximize Student Learning” on January 9, 2017.  For more information and to register, click here.

National Institute of Health Report

Office of Civil Rights Data Snapshot

“Color of Discipline” Report from Indiana University