Getting Specific And Descriptive About Our Challenges

At the 2019 Impact Florida Summit, Sonja Santelises spoke about leading her district through a review of the materials, practices, and opportunities it provides to students and determining whether the district is providing those resources in an equitable way.  In her speech and this blog post, she describes how looking at and combating this “educational red-lining” will pay dividends for students and the community at large.

I hear and talk a lot about the inequities that exist in classrooms, schools, and districts. Indeed, conversations about access and opportunity in education and our need to address that issue have grown to a point of buzzworthiness. Sadly, many of these conversations miss the mark.

If we are going to remove the inequities that exist in our classrooms, our schools, and our school districts, we must get real about the opportunity gaps that result from the choices we, the adults, make at every level of our education system. We have to look at multiple levels within our organizations or we will mistakenly conclude that we have checked the appropriate box and move on – when the reality is that we haven’t actually addressed the issue. We have to approach these gaps with fervor, but also with genuine curiosity and commitment to improving outcomes in partnership with the teachers who are with our students every day.

Two years ago in Baltimore City Public Schools, we began our inquiry of inequities in our system by looking at the decisions we were making at the programmatic level, and choices that might be leading to the gaps that have existed in our community for far too long. We mapped everything – from where we were funneling capital dollars to where we had teachers with the longest tenure, to where we had gifted and advanced learning sites. The results are what you would expect: our students of color and poor communities were being underserved. And so we asked ourselves, “If the goal is that the numbers of these opportunities increase, what must we do to disrupt the results that currently exist?” Since our initial review, we’ve been intentional about increasing opportunities in our underserved communities.

In our next level of inquiry, we partnered with several experts to look at the rigor and relevance of the content and curriculum being provided to teachers and students in our schools and classrooms. And my word choice here is very intentional: the content and curriculum being provided to teachers and students. It’s worth noting here that our first two rounds of inquiry into the inequities in our system did NOT focus on teachers or teaching practices specifically. As Florida’s 2019 Teacher of the Year Joy Prescott recently put it, “Look, I’m teaching. Somebody else is responsible for the curriculum that’s actually put in front of me.” And SHE IS RIGHT. We cannot talk to our teachers about rigor until we first give them the high-quality materials they need.

Much of what we found in our review of our content was heartbreaking: Our curriculum was failing our students and teachers in general, and it was increasing knowledge gaps for our students of color and low-income students in particular. I can’t say enough about how important it was for us to start our school- and classroom-based inquiry focused on materials rather than teaching. We built a great deal of trust and good will through this process by taking some responsibility for the inequities we were seeing.

We showed we were willing to solve this problem by getting high-quality, standards-aligned, and culturally relevant materials for our teachers and students. We selected curriculum that includes texts that students can relate to, has a strong focus on writing, builds connections, integrates the arts, and clearly connects to state standards. We also then coupled that with literacy coaches and ongoing systems of professional learning.

Now that teachers have the high-quality materials they need to do their job well, we can look with more confidence and authority at what is happening from a teaching and learning perspective, and we know our work is far from done. We continue to see some teachers taking students right up to the point of engaging in rigorous independent thinking and doing, and then turning away from that rigor. It is incumbent upon those of us in leadership roles — from school principals to senior district leaders like me — to continue to problem solve alongside teachers and provide both support and accountability as appropriate so that they can lean in to the rigor that our students need to be successful in college and their careers.

We cannot shy away from our collective responsibility for both where we have been as a school system (and country) and where we want to go to ensure access and opportunity for our students.  The path to truly equitable outcomes for students is a long one, and one that will continue to require adults to do more and do better for our students, every single step along the way.

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