Implementing equity in education
North Clackamas School District Superintendent Matthew Utterback minds the gap. That is, the gap between white students and everyone else.
That’s why the 2017 National School Superintendent of the Year takes special pride in the details of his Oregon district’s 18 percent graduation rate increase.
“There’s now no gap between graduation rates for students of color versus white students in our district,” says Utterback. As recently as 2011, the gap between black students and white students in the suburban Oregon school system stood at a whopping 45 percent. It was 33 percent between Hispanics and whites.
What happened? Utterback attributes much of the progress to a professional development program: Coaching for Education Equity, which offered by the nonprofit Oregon Center for Educational Equity.
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Six years ago, he made the training mandatory. Every district leader participates in a five-day retreat with the Oregon Center, and every certificated and classified staff member attends a similar two-day training.
Registration fees; hotels and substitutes; and whatever else is needed to support the training has been worked into the district’s PD budget. It’s worth every penny, Utterback says.
“This [PD] has given us a common experience, a common language and a common perspective that we now share, particularly around issues of race.”
Let’s talk about race
The Oregon Center PD focuses on dialogue—lots of it. The educators join in daily, whole-group discussions and then break into affinity groups to further explore race, gender and other equity issues.
In one session, for example, they analyze old newspaper articles and advertisements, and then use the documents to talk about the history of race in the state.
In other sessions, they share details about how race influenced their upbringing, or they role-play to simulate real student/teacher exchanges.
Utterback became a believer after he went through the program more than a decade ago as a high school principal. He had nothing short of a racial awakening, he says.
“I was put in a very diverse environment, talking to people about the impact race has had on them, what it means to me to be white, and the impact race has on students,” he says.
“For me, this started my own journey of unpacking my privilege and power of being a white male.”
Presented with issues that he hadn’t previously considered, Utterback admits he was riddled with guilt about a day and a half into his training. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, have I been contributing to inequity and racism unknowingly?’”
The point of the PD, though, isn’t to leave educators feeling guilt-ridden.
Utterback calls the PD “a gift” because it helped him to deal with his feelings and then to move beyond them and create a more inclusive learning environment for thousands of Oregon school children.
Adjusting the lens
Utterback and many other educators say equity involves creating an environment where all kids belong and have the opportunity to thrive.
Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (Corwin 2015), says developing equity improves the learning capacity of diverse people who have been historically marginalized. It centers on the cognitive aspects of teaching and learning.
So how does getting educators to talk about race support the moods, feelings, attitudes and brains of diverse students? How does this give children a sense of belonging?
Here’s the upshot: dialogue, introspection and role-playing get educators thinking and talking openly about race, gender, sexual orientation, poverty and other equity issues. This lays the groundwork for educators to fearlessly address these issues in the classroom.
It’s the first and crucial step toward creating a learning environment wherein equity is front and center, says Kim Fiecke, who spent 15 years as director of the Oregon Center.
“You need to know who you are in the skin you’re in before you can consciously relate to others in the skin they’re in,” says Fiecke, an independent school consultant who specializes in equity issues.
Fiecke and Utterback appreciate the “lens changer” analogy: Once educators fully understand the racial lens they’ve been looking through, they can start to adjust it—perhaps more fully understanding the view from a marginalized student’s perspective.
Ultimately, when educators adjust to a more enlightened view, they can tackle other equity-related school issues such as curriculum, discipline, attendance and diverse hiring practices.
Culture in the classroom
The introspective route isn’t the only way to travel with equity PD.
Professional development that focuses on project-based learning has also emerged as a popular method to further cultural competence.
“Plenty of folks are using Title I and II funds to help their teachers learn how to design and to facilitate quality project-based learning,” says Bob Lenz, executive director of the Buck Institute for Education, a nonprofit that guides schools on project-based learning.
“They are definitely seeing this as something that meets the need for equity professional development.”
As it relates to equity, project-based learning works on a couple of levels, Lenz says. Hands-on projects can be more inclusive of students who have different learning styles than what’s typical for the classroom.
When the project is culturally responsive—that is, when educators design projects that encourage students to incorporate their culture, history, family and environment—the entire community can learn from and, perhaps, further respect one another.
This type of PD moved the needle for Angie Alston, a teacher who grew up in Idaho and now teaches in Brevig Mission, a tiny village on the Seward Peninsula in northwest Alaska’s Bering Strait School District. Alston’s students are 100 percent Inupiat Eskimo.
Educators who come from the Lower 48 are often flummoxed, says Alston. “Teachers come into the district thinking it’s going to be the same as where they came from, but it’s most definitely not.”
In the Inupiat culture, respect is hard earned and has little to do with academics. Superior dog sledding, hunting, fishing or dancing skills earn credibility. Respect for new teachers is never automatic.
Teachers in Bering Strait take PD through a University of Alaska Fairbanks program known as SILKAT (funded by the Sustaining Indigenous and Local Knowledge, Arts and Teaching grant).
SILKAT guides transplanted teachers in learning from the indigenous people and bringing that knowledge into the classroom, says Amy Vinlove, an assistant professor of education at the university.
“We believe that if educators can connect academic content with local context and the lives of the people—making the connection between the known and unknown—they’ll be more likely to have success.”
As part of their district’s PD, Alston and nonnative colleagues took a deep dive into Bering Strait culture, art and wildlife. From their research, which included meeting with and learning from villagers, they developed K12 art units.
Because the teachers were spread out through remote villages, they collaborated over video chat and a classroom video capture and sharing program.
The PD required a lot of evening and weekend work, but there was an extra incentive: teachers were able to earn graduate school credit. Alston eventually earned a master’s degree, funded by SILKAT.
That wasn’t the only payoff. The work culminated in a schoolwide art show wherein community buy-in was palpable. “The whole village showed up. Everyone was beaming,” says Alston.
‘Continuous and ongoing’
When it comes to equity, different schools will need different PD, says Marriam Ewaida, the K12 research director at consulting firm Hanover Research. She’s even noticed that schools are requesting personalized professional learning.
“Some districts believe their teachers need differentiated professional development in equity, so they go for one-on-one instructional coaching or online modules.”
A detailed needs assessment for your district should come first. She says education equity is best seen as a framework that can be embedded into everything a school does.
Utterback agrees. Though he believes that the Oregon Center program has been transformational for his staff, he says equity is a complicated issue that cannot be solved by any one program.
“Equity isn’t a ‘check the box’ thing,” he says. “It’s continuous and ongoing.”
Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer in Southern California.