Our inability as a nation to engage in difficult conversations about race has left us with a lack of agreement on how to
define equity. Yes, equity is about closing achievement gaps between
White students and students of colorand between
upper- and lower-income students. It is also about improving graduation and college-attendance rates, and about how we allocate resources, including funding, teachers and materials. Fundamentally,
equity means giving each student exactly what they need when they need it. Only then will all students, regardless of their background, have the chance to reach their true potential. But we can’t let equity be just about inputs and outputs. If we consider insights into the student experience that recent scandals at both
traditional district and
charter schools give us, and if we consider research on
mobility from poverty, we can start to acknowledge that true equity is about much more than resources and needs to be tackled with race at the center. True educational equity is about providing
learning environments where
all students feel a sense of belonging and purpose in school. All students should be able to see themselves represented in the content and in the people around them, and should be able to engage in meaningful work that’s relevant to their aspirations, their communities and their humanity.
Students of Color Don’t Get Enough of the ‘Good Stuff’
For decades, research in social psychology has shown us why this matters. Take Claude Steele’s
pioneering research on stereotype threat. First published in 1995, he found that stereotypes— both perceived and real—alone are a contributing factor to long-standing racial and gender gaps in academic performance. Stereotype threat arises from a situation (like telling girls they’re bad at math right before they take a math exam), rather than from an individual's personality traits or characteristics. Repeated experiences of stereotype threat can lead to a vicious circle of diminished confidence, poor performance, and loss of interest in the relevant area of achievement. It is not enough, though, to understand that students of color experience these types of disadvantages as a result of environmental factors or stereotypes. Or that students—like the rest of us—need to develop self-management skills such as impulse control, stress management and goal-setting in order to respond appropriately and productively to different situations in school and life. We must also understand that students of color are
full of assets, too. Our kids are tremendously resilient, our families have a strong sense of community and trust, and want to learn, are able to learn, and deserve to learn. What does this all mean for education and education “reform?” To make substantive progress, we must look beyond academics toward the
social and emotional domains of learning and focus efforts on fixing the learning environment, not fixing the student. We must stop assuming that we can bring reform to communities of color. We need to let students, families, and communities set the vision for education and we need to adopt a “nothing about them, without them” approach. Most importantly, we must look beyond the safe space of income inequality and talk about race and racism in our schools and education systems.