The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the profound inequities in education, especially for Black and brown students. The upheaval of the past year presents not only an opportunity, but also an imperative to improve teaching and learning. Rather than just reverting to the status quo, now is the time for school and system leaders to work with educators to create classrooms that foster trust and belonging, where all students can thrive.
To address what students need this school year, and to be sure that every learner feels recognized, heard, and understood, teachers need a richer set of materials to work with. They need lessons and activities that welcome students’ histories and knowledge, particularly for students whose voices and experiences have been marginalized in school and society. When students see themselves reflected in the material they’re learning, they’re more engaged in learning.
Sadly, most curricula were not designed to invite the identities, full histories of this nation and its people, and perspectives of Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities. In a review of highly rated curricula, Education Trust found that 66% of authors of English language arts curricula were White. Such disparities skew students’ perspectives of the content they encounter as it offers little variety in points of view.
One approach that school and system leaders should consider is looking to is open educational resources (OER). OER are educational materials, from lesson plans to entire curricula, that are free for educators to use, customize, and share. Because they are not limited by traditional copyright restrictions, OER invite teachers and students to tap into their expertise and lived experiences to shape learning in ways that are meaningful to them. A high school science unit from OpenSciEd, for instance, addresses the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color and the policies and practices that lead to those impacts. The teacher materials for the unit include guidance about further considerations for engaging students in difficult conversations about racism and adaptations to consider with respect to language. OER also can help educators provide individualized curricula and learning experiences, which research shows can accelerate student learning. Accelerating learning this school year is especially important for students of color, low-income students and multilingual learners, many of whom have been underserved during the pandemic.
In addition, leaders need to provide professional learning experiences that help teachers understand how to center learning around Black, brown, and multilingual students. For example, A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction addresses areas from dismantling racism in mathematics instruction by encouraging educators to reflect on their own biases, to strengthening connections to agency, belonging, and identity through mathematics learning. Ideally, teachers have opportunities to work together on these new practices to improve conceptual understanding, add pedagogical strategies to their instructional toolbox, and improve student access to high-quality grade-level materials.
As school and system leaders look to support their teachers in providing culturally responsive and sustaining learning this year, they should first acknowledge — and, importantly, value — the range of identities that exist in their schools. They also can find opportunities to offer more flexible curricula like OER that leverage the expertise and creativity of teachers and students, while ensuring that there are structures in place to support teachers’ understanding of how to use OER to enhance instruction in a way that maintains rigor and supports a rich course of study. Finally, administrators should create the time and space for teachers and families to interrogate instructional practices and truly reflect on how they can build learning environments where all students thrive and can experience joy in learning.