Supporting Teaching That Disrupts Inequity
In this Education Week Learning Deeply blog, Meg Riordan, EL Education's Director of External Research, shows how structures to support teacher learning can empower students from low-income families to produce powerful learning.
“When the stakes are this high, do we have the luxury of dragging our feet?” - Pema Chodron
Reform movements in public education often proceed in fits and starts--two steps forward building momentum then one step back or stalling altogether. One thing is clear: despite decades of “reform,” all students do not experience the same right to learn and black and brown students’ learning seems to matter less. Recent research spotlights educational and socio-economic barriers facing students of color: Rich, Cox, & Bloch indicate that in poorer neighborhoods, in which black and Hispanic students are more likely to live, “schools...tend to have more difficulty recruiting and keeping...skilled teachers...” Berfield asserts that even in racially diverse districts, schools “provided a much better education to white students than students of color.”
This information is not new. Prior research reveals these trends in education taking root over the past several decades. I hear Pema Chodron’s quote above not as a rhetorical question, but as a call to action: we do not have the luxury of dragging our feet because our most underserved children of color simply cannot afford that luxury.
Teaching and learning is an issue of civil rights. In schools serving students of color and low-income students, learners are too often filling out worksheets: there is high compliance but low engagement, inquiry, critical thinking, or creation of new ideas. Without deeper learning--learning defined as not only mastering skills and content, but also the ability to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, self-direct learning, and believe in oneself--we close doors to millions of our nation’s children, tacitly saying that meaningful learning is meant for some, but not for all.
But what if we did something different in schools to equip teachers to bring deeper instruction to all students and address the equity gap between students of color and white students? With teachers at the fulcrum of students’ experiences, schools and organizations can support educators in developing equitable, engaging instructional practices that promote all students’ deeper learning that is meaningful, rooted in inquiry into real issues, and matters to communities beyond the school. What could it look like if we launch ourselves into the work of tackling inequity in classrooms by building teachers’ deeper instructional skills in order to challenge, engage, and empower all learners--in particular our most underserved students?
Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS) in Queens, NY, an EL Education school (and part of the NYC Outward Bound Schools network) offers a snapshot of deeper instruction that promotes students’ problem-solving, critical-thinking, communication, relevance, and collaboration. Serving over 80 percent students of color with over 60 percent free and reduced lunch, the school’s population of 6th to 12th graders is reflective of learners too often denied deeper learning opportunities. At MELS, however, the 6th graders’ Plant the Seed project illustrates deeper instruction and meaningful learning for all students; this project marked the culmination of an exploration of local food systems and grassroots activism to transform cityscapes.
Sparked by an unused space nearby their school, students researched and identified a need for a community garden. To create the garden, students were challenged academically by applying mathematical calculations to design the garden layout, build birdhouses, landscape arches, and raised beds; they studied the nutrient cycle and microbiology to understand how to sustain the plants and vegetables. As a MELS teacher indicated, the skills and knowledge students develop is more than “looking at it in a video,” but “actually building a garden.”
The process also engaged learners through hands-on, interdisciplinary learning (Math, Science, Humanities, Art) and community activism. Students explained that “growing food here in our own garden makes sure it’s fresh and organic,” and said that the garden helped them to “learn where their food comes from and how to stay healthy.” They were empowered by developing real-world skills and decision-making abilities that transfer beyond the classroom. All students - not just those of privilege--learned to “transform something into something better,” and can now “take [this learning] to others so that they can learn.”
This is deeper learning beyond basic skills; it is a potent example of teachers’ belief that all students are capable of producing high quality, authentic work, especially our often underestimated students of color. As Co-Director Pat Finley stated, “This is the kind of work that the kids deserve to participate in to build lifelong skills and help them understand the way the world works.” He added, “We want to see more schools...looking for ways for students to engage in the world...and realize that they have the power to allow teachers and students to have these kinds of [deeper learning] opportunities.”
What sparked MELS leaders and teachers to take up the mantle of urgency, interrupt the status quo to disrupt inequity, and uphold high expectations for all students? What did it take for them to create deeper learning opportunities for all learners? This kind of complex learning for all students points to MELS’ supports for teachers’ deeper instructional skills and equitable practices and mindsets. Instructional Guide (coach) Abbie Sewall indicates that the following systems are critical for their teachers’ ongoing development of deeper instruction:
1. Coach to Engage and Empower All Teachers: when hired to teach at MELS, all teachers--even experienced educators--receive a coach. Abbie asserts, “The coaching challenges teachers’ mindsets about what kids are capable of and helps them to think about teaching and learning in a way that’s reflective of what our school values.” Coaching also supports teachers in creating lessons and projects that engage, motivate, and support all learners. While some schools may not have the resources for a targeted coaching position, school leaders are also instructional leaders, and can share a clear vision of teaching and learning, prioritize ongoing support through learning walks and feedback, and create a system where teachers’ development of deeper instruction practices to support all students is valued.
2. Create a Culture of Collaboration: MELS’ leaders believe that having a support partner in thinking through planning, instruction, and assessment helps teachers to understand that there’s always room and space to grow. All teachers are paired with a colleague and supported to engage in inquiry and discussions about identifying rich content worthy of case studies and projects, instructional practices, and expectations for students’ learning. The pair plans together, assesses students’ projects together, and “pushes each other’s thinking.” Sewall suggests that this partnering helps to build teachers’ skills about “what quality work looks like” and promotes collegial accountability.
3. Embrace Inquiry and Grapple with Questions of Practice: One time per month, small groups of teachers meet in inquiry groups to dig into questions like, “How are my instructional practices supporting all students--or not?” Sewall asserts that “the groups help to instill a mindset that being an educator means thinking about your own practice, learning from students, and responding to students’ needs.” MELS offers a safe culture where teachers can grapple and grow together; this mindset transfers to classrooms, where all students are challenged to pose questions and grapple with real-world problems, and empowered to reflect on learning and transfer concepts to other situations.
To disrupt the inequity confronting students of color, teachers need structures to support relationships with colleagues, opportunities to learn and reflect on problems of practice, and willingness to share instructional successes and try new ways of teaching. The systems and structures in place at MELS reflect leadership’s commitment to supporting, as Sewall expresses: “all learners in the building--both the students and the teachers.”
The time to stop dragging our feet is right now. The stakes are too high and it is no secret that effective professional learning is coherent, aligned with a school’s values and expectations, and promotes shared knowledge and community. Abbie Sewall and schools like MELS point to a way forward: “When school leaders and teachers create a culture built on collaboration and there are systems in place to support adult learning for [deeper] instruction,” the focus of instruction can be on “meeting all learners’ needs.” When skilled educators build their own deeper instruction, we can disrupt systemic educational inequities experienced by students of color.