Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

What We Can Do to Tackle Educational Inequity

April 4, 2017

Michelle Ryan addresses Randolph HS 1000w

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education held its 2017 Instructional Support Convening. The theme was "Ensuring Every Student Succeeds: Setting Ambitious Expectations." Massachusetts Milken Educator Michelle Ryan (MA '15) shared her thoughts about educational equity in the following keynote address.

A few weeks ago, I was in a session with about eight other accomplished educators from various backgrounds. The facilitator asked us to make a straight line. Standing shoulder to shoulder, my peers and I were equals. I was ready—or at least I thought I was.

"Listen carefully to the statement I will read," said the leader. "For each statement, you will either take a step forward, a step back, or remain in place until the next statement is read."

Since I'd done this activity before, I felt like I would be exempt from any emotional triggering. My colleagues were anxiously waiting for each statement. Me? I felt relaxed. Mentally prepared. I knew where this was going.

"If you are a white male, take one step forward."

"If your parents both finished college, take one step forward."

"If you have been a victim of discrimination based on your gender, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation, take one step back."

"If you went on family vacations as a child, take one step forward."

"If you ever felt passed over for employment based on your race, gender, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation, take one step back."

"If you are a citizen of the United States, take one step forward."

"If you took out loans for your education, take one step back."

"If you have ever attended private school, take one step forward."

And so she continued, statement after statement.

One step forward. One step back. Until, in the end, I found myself in the back of the room—alone. After all my education, accomplishments and successes, how is it that I, a woman of color, still found myself in the back? The statements the leader had read related to things I could not control. But I didn't like where I stood or how I felt, and most importantly, I didn't like the gap between my peers and me.

Randolph HS swarm 1000w

"Inequity and inequality are real"

I knocked myself back into reality and quickly remembered that this was just an activity. I am highly qualified, and all the people in the room were accomplished educators. It was emotional to think that after all these years there was still a gap, but I was relieved to know that there are still factors I can control: skills, education, passion, talent, work ethic. My education prepared me to navigate across the gap and succeed on an equal playing field— whether granted, earned, or struggled for (or maybe I am just one of the "lucky ones").

But as an educator, I saw the point: Inequity and inequality are real. Achievement gaps exist and affect real lives. Privilege exists. And, while we may all start on the same playing field, it definitely does not always remain that way.

I thought about my students and the achievement gaps in my school, throughout education, and within our communities. What hope exists for them? Do they even have a chance? The students in poverty, students of color, those with disabilities, English language learners, and more: What becomes of them when they are standing so far back? I need answers. I need solutions.

After some time in education, I've discovered that one cause of the achievement gap includes this fact: Somewhere along the line, someone made a decision or judgment, created a practice or policy, or lowered expectations. That's what put those students in the back.

As educators, imagine this: You are that facilitator. With each practice, decision, action (or inaction), belief, and policy, you are either allowing students to take steps forward or take steps backward. There is no in-between.

Let's think about the gravity of that responsibility. Are our practices widening or reducing the gap for our students? Have we given the students the skills, education, support and advocacy necessary to succeed on the same playing field as the rest of the world? How many hurdles have we directly or indirectly created for those students in the "back" as they try to "take one step forward, take one step forward"? But just as important is this question: How willing are we to toil in order to remove these barriers, whether we are personally responsible for creating them or not? This is love in action. This is the call of our jobs.

Overwhelmed with emotion Michelle Ryan 1000w

"Every day brought a challenge"

Last year, my modern U.S. history class consisted of 28 students: 75 percent students of color, two ELL students, and six students on IEPs. Over the summer, I began the first step of equitable education for all, planning high-quality curriculum and differentiated strategies with a whole lot of energy, passion and belief in students' ability to succeed. I had penned a well-rounded curriculum plan—or at least I thought I had.

Then the students arrived and took their Common Core aligned pre-assessment, only for me to discover that the group as a whole was further behind in skills than I expected. Every day brought a challenge or adjustment to find a new instructional strategy to help my students reach proficiency and experience academic growth in critical reading, writing and thinking. As a department we developed bi-weekly common assessments to create shared ground to discuss student learning, as well as to gather meaningful data.

Over time I observed growth in various standards. However, it became very clear that anything equivalent to a year's growth (or more) would have to be the result of my gutsy expectations, and even more, strategic planning. I tried a variety of things to support my students' growth:

  • Station learning
  • Guided questions with varying levels of critical thinking
  • Sentence starters
  • Structured group collaboration
  • Visuals
  • Simulations
  • Graphic organizers
  • Multiple versions of primary and secondary sources
  • Embedded vocabulary instruction
  • Modeling
  • Flipping the classroom model
  • UDL strategies
  • Keys to literacy comprehension routines
  • The I-We-You model

...and a lot of inspiring and motivating.

There were many puzzling times as I tried to figure out how I was going to do everything possible to support my students. As the kids would say, "the struggle was real."

I know that closing the gap for all my students was and is an ambitious goal. I might fail, but the new realities of this world demand that I do more than try. I knew that my teaching would either provide equitable access to the curriculum ("taking one step forward") or translate into a series of "take one step back, take one step back, take one step back."

Randolph HS AP psychology class 1000w

"My pen is curriculum"

This journey toward equitable education for all is not easy. I have found, however, that inclusive practice and setting ambitious expectations for our students lie in the power of the pen. Right now, my pen is curriculum. Your pen might be policy, programs, procedures, or the development of resources. We create the factors that either widen or close the achievement gap. We write the conditions in which our students take one step forward or one step back.

Should we ask our students to be critical thinkers, risk takers, and problem solvers if we are not willing to demand the same of ourselves? Equity, closing the gap, penning the right conditions for students to succeed is not easy. In some areas, we are still struggling to find the right answers, strategies, and solutions to create equitable practices that yield equal opportunity for all children. Yet we still have to find the answers.

At the end of the day, we are impacting lives here. Education nurtures life, or at least it's supposed to. We don't build their dreams, but we decide whether we will grant them the instruments necessary to paint whatever dreams and goals they aspire to. Let's give them a brush (or brushes), some different colors of paint, a canvas, and space to create their own masterpiece. Let's give them the tools and skills to take a sustainable step forward.

Selfies at Randolph High School 1000w

"They will remember the success we allowed them to experience"

Educational equity is more than the latest educational buzzword. It is a belief, a mindset, a mode of operation, a conviction, a commitment, a practice. If helping those students in the back is our goal, then it should be revealed through our core values, established by our actions, and evidenced by the success of every child passing through our care. Students may not see or understand every bit of energy, stress, struggle, challenge, or action that goes into creating the conditions in which they can thrive. However, they will remember the childhood they had, all the positive conditions and rich opportunities you created, the gaps between peers that they remember gradually beginning to close. They will remember the success we allowed them to experience because we—the educators—held our pens, labored in love, and accepted the call of our job to write the policies, curriculum, expectations, standards, programs, resources, and initiatives that allow every student, every child, to "take one step forward, take one step forward, take one step forward."

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