Educators take a powerful step toward building equitable learning environments when they move away from well-intentioned seminars on multiculturalism and instead craft strategies around the framework of equity literacy.
That’s the view of Dr. Tina Marshall-Bradley, an educator of 35 years who, for the bulk of her career, has focused her research on equity in education, quality services for students underserved by the education system, and comparative education.
“I think many times when people think about equity, we come into it looking at different groups of people. And then it’s like, ‘You have to understand this group of people.’ We’ve found in education that that is not only more complex but many times it exacerbates problems as opposed to addressing them,” says Dr. Marshall-Bradley, who also is an academic coordinator in the Master of Science in Education (MSEd) degree program in The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University.
“The term ‘equity literacy’ has made more sense. It’s an approach to diversity or multiculturalism that relies more on teachers’ understanding of equity and inequity, and justice and injustice, than on their understanding of, for instance, various cultures or learning groups,” she says.
“When we’re talking about this idea of equity literacy, there’s also a framework for educational equity that asks that we critically analyze things like educational injustice. There are historicized approaches to education and looking across cultural kinds of activities, paying explicit attention to our philosophy of education and the way we deliver our practices. And then there’s this whole idea of ongoing inquiry into sociopolitical values around education. These issues are not simplistic. They’re very complex. And I believe the more that we have educators grapple with these ideas in safe environments, in learning communities—and don’t shy away from issues because they are not simple—the better that we’re going to be.”
A necessary step toward doing this important work is an embrace of numbers. “Educators must practice becoming critical consumers of data,” Dr. Marshall-Bradley says. “You might say, what does this have to do with educational equity? … Many times, if you approach things based on perception versus actuality, you usually get things wrong.”
She shares this example: “We were working with a group of retired principals, looking at data on the number of students who were suspended or expelled. When we were talking about elementary schools, they said, ‘No, we shouldn’t include elementary schools because policy is that elementary students are not suspended or expelled.’ We weren’t going to look at the elementary schools until we found out that students weren’t being suspended or expelled—the schools were calling the police on them. And there were over 300 elementary school students in one year in that district that police had removed from the school. … When we actually presented them with the data, then we expanded our thinking in terms of what is it that we can and should do.”
As another illustration of perception vs. reality, she cites the work of a colleague in South Carolina whose research several years ago showed the number of English language learners had grown by 300%. “Now, most people, when they think of South Carolina, think of race; there’s black and white, and that’s it. You would not think of a significant population of English language learners. … That has all kinds of implications for what schools are doing to meet the needs of this population,” she says.
“There is one particular school district in the southwest which I have always thought offered a wonderful equity example,” Dr. Marshall-Bradley says. Instead of congratulating themselves on the 95% of students who were meeting desired outcomes, the district dedicated itself to finding out what was impeding the other 5%.
“Most of the time we report information in a district as to how we’re doing as a whole district. And we would not expect that 100% of the students would necessarily be doing well,” she says. “But if it’s 95%, is it your child who should be in the 5% that’s not doing well? Now, if we looked at it, if the 5% was across gender, race, socioeconomic status … then OK, we just need to keep doing what we’re doing, but do it for more people. But they found that the 5% was localized to students of color and students in poverty. And that’s a good way of using data to make decisions to be equitable about what we’re doing for individuals.”
Dr. Marshall-Bradley says teachers should model this data-based approach in the classroom. Using those numbers as an example, she explains: “I do a lesson and I assess it, and once again, 95% of the students have mastered that concept. … But if I look at the 5% who have not, are they all my special needs students? And if so, then when I reflect back on that lesson, what did I do or not do to address the needs of that population of students? Now if Teacher B does the same thing and they look at their students, and of the 5% of students who didn’t master the concept, one is special needs, one may be African American… So, it’s across the board. There’s not a group that Teacher B is not addressing the needs of.”
“This is what we call differentiated instruction. … You would actually go to each one of those students and say to them, ‘This is what we were trying to do. Help me understand how you approached it.’ Those kinds of things. This goes back to metacognition, where we actually teach young people to be in control of their own learning. One student might say, ‘I really do understand it. I just didn’t study it last night and that’s why I got it wrong.’ And someone else might say, ‘This is what I thought it was.’ And so, OK, they misunderstood the concept. So even within that 5% of students, why they did not master things is going to be different.”
This best practice may be less cut-and-dry than analyzing data, but it is a critical piece of the equity equation. “Another thing I think is important … is having educators examine their own thoughts, ideas, and beliefs about the issues of equity, injustice, fairness, and diversity. You have to be honest with yourself before you can address issues in your classroom,” Dr. Marshall-Bradley says.
A teacher who believes individuals from other countries should not be allowed into the United States could potentially bring that bias to the way he or she works with English language learners and their families, she explains. “Teachers are people too, and while they should maintain their personal views, having the ability to put those beliefs aside in order to focus on the true objective is crucial. It really comes down to a matter of professional behavior. How in the world can you teach students effectively if you’re bringing your own biases into the classroom? In short, teachers must gain understanding and become aware of their own thoughts and ideas,” Dr. Marshall-Bradley says.
“There are strategies in terms of addressing those particular things with yourself so that you can make the right decisions for working with a population of students. And, you can measure whether or not you are successful in working with those students,” she says. “That does not mean that you have to be devoid of your feelings. It’s just putting them in place. You are responsible for objectively meeting the needs of all students, and how do you go about doing that? Starting with this framework and developing your literacy in this area will help you meet the needs of your students.”
Another best practice is for educators to use what they learn during in-service days, professional training, or master’s in education programs and incorporate it into their practice. Too often, valuable information is unused, Dr. Marshall-Bradley says. She shared an example shared by a colleague following a poverty simulation at a diversity conference. During the simulation, educators engaged in scenarios that immersed them in the challenges families with low incomes experience.
“My colleague was saying, what she was disappointed with was that many of the institutions kind of just left it there. They didn’t do the follow-up and incorporate some of these learnings into what they were doing to develop as teachers. To help participants figure out, how do I find out more about this? Or, what is it that one can do if you’re a teacher? In other words, it was just a learning moment.”
And sometimes, equity exercises can go “really, really wrong,” she says. In one instance, some school districts stumbled in attempting to emulate an educator’s success. But there can be learning in that as well. Dr. Marshall-Bradley explains:
“A principal was concerned that his teachers were not from the community the school served and so they didn't understand the community. On one of their professional in-service days, he provided transportation, and they went into the community. He had a list of the children the teachers would have in their class, and they would stop by their homes, knock on the door, introduce themselves to the family, and talk about what some of their expectations were. Well, he presented this at a conference and all of a sudden other schools were doing it. But they missed the point,” Dr. Marshall-Bradley says.
“I was teaching in a graduate program, and I was talking about this particular activity and the fact that what many districts did was they just put teachers on the bus and just had the bus drive around the community. Nobody stopped or engaged. These were grad students, and they were teachers, and they were like, ‘Dr. Marshall-Bradley, you don’t know some of these communities. They’re dangerous, and I don’t feel safe,” she says.
“And one young lady raised her hand and said, ‘You know, no. We need to stop because, by the way, the school where I taught did this. And when we were sitting on the bus, and we were driving around the community, people were laughing at the conditions of the houses, and the clothes hanging out in the backyard, and the trailer park.’ And she said, ‘I didn't participate in the laughing, but nor did I speak up. And then all of a sudden, we drove by the house that I grew up in. And it was poor. But I know that there was love in there, that people cared.’ I get choked up every time I tell the story; it had such a visceral effect. It has to do with, as professionals, do we speak up when our colleagues are saying these things?”
“So, you have these experiences, and then you do something. You actually transition that into, how do I create an environment where everybody feels comfortable engaging in what is going in this environment? I can’t change the fact that these children live in poverty. … But I can create a space for them to be empowered. There are things in the literature that we know that you can do in order to make sure that a diversity of individuals in that same environment all feel that they’re important, that they matter, and that they can engage in the activity of learning, of cognitive development.”
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