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September/October 2020

Swing Away: Why Equity Matters for All Students, Schools, and Communities

Commentary by Mark D. Hansen

When I was 11, my father and another parent coached our youth baseball team. They gave us time and attention, and we were successful, but I will always remember a disagreement between my coaches about Jason, my teammate. 

Coach wanted Jason to look for walks. He said he should never swing the bat until he had two strikes on him. At that age, it was difficult for the other team’s pitcher to throw three strikes to such a small hitter, but Coach also knew something else: Jason rarely made contact with a pitched ball. He had never really played before. His mother was working and raising a family, and he and his brothers spent most days on their own. Even at that young age, he was behind the rest of us, who had played baseball for years with our families and friends. Coach figured we had a better chance of winning if Jason looked for walks. He also believed that Jason had a better chance of getting on base if he didn’t try to hit the ball.

My dad felt it was important that Jason learn how to hit a baseball. In fact, he figured it was his responsibility to help him learn how to do that. His instructions to Jason were to swing whenever the pitch was close, and he worked with him individually before and after practices.

My father was a steelworker. He had no college degree or formal training in coaching or teaching. He was a “non-contractual” volunteer. He just sensed what was required. Dad seemed to believe that Jason’s status as a participant implicitly entitled him to coaching and teaching that could improve his ability to hit a baseball.

Consider exploring this question with a group of your educational colleagues: “As a condition of his/her enrollment in your school district, to what is a given student entitled?” 

You would hope to see similarities in the responses, but not everyone would agree. There are countless ways of justifying our preferred course of action, of bending words and principles to serve personal interests or convenience. 

Lost sometimes in the academic definitions of equity is that it is about fairness. How do we design our schools so that all students are treated fairly, in all classes, every day? We support equity when we treat our students as we would hope to be treated, and when we ensure that all children are taught with the same attention and commitment that we desire and expect for our own. Conversely, we undermine equity when we design or perpetuate systems, or permit behaviors that result in some students receiving less attention or less commitment than necessary to meet high expectations for learning.

Equity in education requires putting systems in place to ensure that every child has an equal chance for success. That requires understanding the unique challenges and barriers faced by individual students or by populations of students and providing additional support to help them overcome those barriers.
-- Thinking Maps: Equity in Education: What It Is and Why It Matters

Leaders support equity when they work with other leaders, teachers, stakeholders and teams to design, implement, and monitor systems that promote fairness within their schools and districts. In highly effective schools, these systems are self-improving such that they continuously inform — and potentially transform — beliefs and behaviors. 
Goals and ambitions matter, but they are not sufficient. The role of school leaders is to be intentional and to compel the same in others so that unfairness is not normalized — so that principles are not bent to serve the interests of one individual or group over another. This can be complex work because 
  • Unfairness can be difficult to see from a privileged perspective;
  • It is scary to identify and acknowledge that some of our systems treat some students unfairly;
  • Unfairness is often embedded in myths and traditions around school;
  • The effort to change unfair systems can increase stress and conflict;
  • Some parents, students, and groups have benefited from the systems as they exist;
  • Some educators have benefited from the systems as they exist;
  • Individual sentiments of intolerance and bigotry are learned and deeply held
Leading Ed Partnerships, a collaborative of Regional Offices of Education, school districts, and universities, has developed Leadership for Equity (LFE) micro-credentials to help aspiring and current leaders develop competencies that will support greater equity in their districts and schools. The LFE series engages participants in authentic, job-embedded learning experiences designed to build competencies that support equitable opportunities and outcomes for all students. 

Leading Ed Partners have worked with BloomBoard to deliver these micro-credentials through a robust, digital platform. Participants analyze information about their schools or districts, design and develop strategies to address problems of practice, implement those strategies, and evaluate their effectiveness. The program’s ADDIE (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate) process promotes “learning by doing.” 

The Leadership for Equity (LFE) micro-credentials series is designed around five competencies: Exploring and Deepening an Equity Mindset — Participants will understand their own biases and assumptions, identify equity shifts meriting priority attention in their schools or districts, communicate those shifts clearly and compellingly, and seek feedback from other leaders in the process.

Applying a Culturally Responsive Lens to a Data Cycle — Participants will identify performance gaps indicative of an equity problem(s) in their school or district, aggregate related data, conduct root cause analysis, collaborate with district and building leaders, use feedback to inform the next steps, and design or schedule professional learning to address the performance gap.

Guiding Culturally Responsive Instructional Practices  — Participants will evaluate the status of instructional practices in their schools or districts, identify practices that merit priority attention, anticipate all of the adult learning that will be necessary to implement a school-wide change in instructional practice, and articulate a professional development plan necessary to support adult learning.

Making Culturally Responsive Personnel Decisions  — Participants will assess current hiring and renewal practices for principals or teachers in their school or district, gather feedback on those practices, use personal analysis and team feedback to identify areas for improvement, and plan an intervention for implementing a high-leverage strategy to improve hiring and renewal practices.

Inducting and Mentoring Staff to Advance Culturally Responsive Teaching — Participants will understand the leader’s influence on culturally responsive schools, analyze the existing plan for inducting and mentoring new principals or teachers, target a principal or teacher competency for improvement, design a strategy to better support that competency through the induction process, pilot the new strategy, and reflect on the pilot. 
While the credentials are designed to be used in isolation or in aggregate, the advantage of completing all five is the deepening awareness that equity work requires a complex, pervasive, and systems approach. Professional development credit is available to those who qualify. 

All schools must work to keep the promise of public education. This promise is best represented in the six tenets articulated by the founder of public education in America, Horace Mann:
“A citizen cannot maintain both ignorance and freedom; 
The education of all Americans should be paid for, controlled and maintained by the public; 
This education should be provided in schools that embrace children from all backgrounds; 
It must be non-sectarian; 
It must be taught using tenets of a free society; and 
It must be provided by well-trained, professional teachers”


In isolation and in aggregate, these tenets reveal that equity has been the core structural principle of our public schools from inception. The singular purpose of public education in the United States is to enhance and promote equity.

Our nation and our schools are becoming increasingly diverse, but this diversity is not yet reflected in our educator workforce. While it is critically important that we advance greater diversity in the teacher pipeline, we cannot wait to act until the workforce perfectly represents the diversity of our contemporary student demographic. Micro-credentials are designed to help current educators “learn by doing.” 

It is always important to listen, read, and learn. At the same time, we should not delay the actual work of improving our schools. In fact, when it comes to promoting equity in our schools, let us all embrace the courage to “swing away,” and to learn as we go.
 
Mark D. Hansen, Ed.D., is a member of the EIR/SEED Project Staff for Leading Ed Partnerships. To learn more about the LFE Micro-credentials series, contact Kerry Frank at  kerry.frank@bloomboard.com.