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VOICE FROM THE FIELD

Don't try to 'fix the kid,' fix the system

If your district is like many others, “equity” may be a buzzword that you’re starting to hear more and more frequently. What is equity, why is it the focus of so many initiatives right now, and how does it relate to social studies?

Equity-oriented classrooms and schools are ones in which educators work to ensure fairness and justice for all students. Kids and families who have not historically been served well by public schools (e.g., the differently abled, girls, people of color, working class families, non-Christians, and LGBTQ students, for example) have long known about and struggled against inequitable education – schools that are segregated, that discriminate against them, that forcibly assimilate them, that denigrate their home cultures and traditions, that impose deficit beliefs of their worth or abilities. Because of these families’ activism over generations, conversations about how to ensure equity have become more common among administrators and classroom teachers today.

To some degree, these conversations have also picked up steam because of policies and legislation like No Child Left Behind that have forced districts to disaggregate achievement data by different “sub-groups.” In most districts across the country and in Iowa, there are clear and troubling gaps showing that kids from marginalized groups are at higher risk for disciplinary action, not graduating, not matriculating, scoring poorly on standardized tests, not engaging in advanced coursework, and not participating in extracurricular activities.

While some people may see these gaps as proof that some kids or families are simply not smart, lazy, apathetic towards school, etc., decades of research not only debunk those theories but show that the gaps are actually evidence of deep and systemic inequities that both intentionally and unintentionally reproduce social inequalities.

Quite simply, equity-oriented educators see it as their professional obligation to disrupt that.

Unfortunately, districts’ responses to these gaps have often been to try to “fix the kid” with no attempts to examine how the school systems themselves are producing these outcomes through policies, classroom practices, and curriculum. It is very common for administrators to ditch or downplay “non-essential” content areas (like social studies!) to focus exclusively on test prep in reading and math. Again, decades of research shows that this is absolutely, no doubt about it, the wrong response. In fact, a rich and rigorous social studies curriculum is what has the best potential to connect kids from all backgrounds to schools, to engage them in interesting and relevant critical thinking, and to result in better test scores, graduation rates, and all the other data that districts feel so much pressure to improve. As one example, check out the documentary “Precious Knowledge” for a fantastic story of how a high school ethnic studies program in Tucson did just that.

It is worth noting that this approach to social studies is beneficial not just for kids from marginalized backgrounds, but for kids from dominant backgrounds, too (e.g., boys, white students, straight students, Christians, able-bodied children, wealthy kids, etc.). These young people need to be cognizant of historical and contemporary social inequalities, demonstrate empathy towards people from non-dominant communities, be self-aware, and have the ability to engage in their community in non-oppressive, thoughtful, and inclusive ways. These kids need social studies rooted in equity just as much as kids from marginalized backgrounds. Frustratingly, what is more common are social studies that teaches them (whether implicitly or explicitly) that their voices are the only ones that matter, that their experiences are “the norm,” that oppression is in the past, or that they have been the sole and/or most valuable contributors to our communities.

Again, equity-oriented educators see it as their professional obligation to disrupt that.

Hopefully you’re on board and asking yourself, “How do I do that?” Consider a conveyer belt of sorts with four “stops” on a factory floor that you have at least some control over. First, equity-oriented educators ask themselves about access – do all kids have genuine access to materials, opportunities, spaces, etc.? In social studies, this means we differentiate or scaffold or offer support services to students who may need it (e.g., include lots of images as primary sources for students struggling to read or who are learning English). We look for ways to de-track or remove barriers to advanced placement coursework – and then work hard to actively recruit kids who may not believe that they are truly welcome in those spaces. And we make sure that our physical space is as inclusive as possible (e.g., posters and artwork that reflect the diversity of the school and broader community). This is especially important in schools that are more or less homogeneous. Check out the wonderful “What If All the Kids Are White?” for more ideas.

The next step is the curriculum itself. What is it that we are giving kids access to? If it’s oppressive (e.g., racist, sexist, classist, etc.) curriculum, then forget it. As social studies educators, we must constantly scrutinize our materials and lessons to make sure they are as inclusive as possible. If we teach a U.S. history survey course, for example, are we focused on a chronological march through wars and presidents? If so, talking about women or people of color will always seem like something “extra” that we tack on or read about on the literal margins of a textbook. Equity-oriented educators reframe their courses so that fundamental issues, social movements, and diverse communities are at the center of the curriculum (e.g., units about immigration, women’s rights, and foreign policy throughout US history). This is important at the elementary level, too. At the most basic level, we must ensure there are windows and mirrors in the books we read our students. Are we only reading about “white boys and dogs” as young educational activist Marley Dias asks, or are we including stories about people from all backgrounds and walks of life? Are we making space for kids’ questions and curiosities about the world, including current events and “hot topics”? Are we teaching kids about active citizens who are identifying problems and working to make change? If so, then we are equity-oriented. Check out this website for more ideas about how to integrate this content with specific Iowa connections.

Next up is our teaching practices or pedagogy. We could have the most equitable curriculum ever that is inclusive and thoughtful and multicultural, but if we teach it to students through lecture, popcorn reads, or worksheets, then we are not being equity-oriented. Instead, the National Council of Social Studies calls for teaching that is “powerful and purposeful”. This means using strategies that are constructivist and student-centered (“active”), connected to other disciplines (“integrated”), responsive to students’ questions (“meaningful”), tapped into students’ critical thinking rather than rote memorization (“challenging”), and rooted in dialogue that is inclusive of multiple perspectives (“value-based”). If all the desks are facing the teacher and students are discouraged from asking questions, discussing topics with their peers, and challenging each others’ ideas, then our classroom organization and pedagogical strategies are implicitly conveying the message that good citizens are compliant, uncritical, and obedient. Of course, a healthy democracy demands the opposite and classrooms K-12 must provide students opportunities to engage with ideas and each other. It may take some time to help acclimate students to a classroom with the expectations that their voice, ideas, and questions matter – that’s OK. Equity-oriented educators help students practice these skills and hold high expectations for all members of the class.

Last, but not least, equity-oriented educators pay attention to outcomes. They use kids’ scores on tests, summative assessments, formative assessments, comments in class, conversations outside of class, and even many different forms of resistance to reflect on what might need adjusting in the first three categories: access, curriculum, and pedagogy. Rather than “fixing the kid,” they look first to making adjustments in these three areas and consider how their actions may be contributing to inequitable outcomes. It’s not that every student will get an A+ in every class or exceed every standard and benchmark – but, at the very least, equity-oriented educators are watchful of patterns and trends that make it all-too-easy to predict who will fail and who will succeed.

As you commit to being an equity-oriented social studies educator, keep in mind the fundamental value of public schools in a democracy: to prepare citizens who can and want to engage in their communities in order to improve them. If we lived in a monarchy or a dictatorship, having educated citizens would be less of a concern other than for economic reasons – in those types of societies, the voice of “the people” is irrelevant in decision-making. In our collective efforts to build and sustain a healthy democracy, however, it is vitally important that young people learn how to identify and solve social problems, think critically about multiple perspectives, analyze evidence, and engage in constructive dialogue across difference. What better place to do this than public schools? And what better discipline than social studies? As equity-oriented social studies educators, we must commit to ensuring access to rich and rigorous curriculum and instruction that will equip all students with the necessary commitment, skills, and knowledge to be the kind of citizens that our democracy needs.

For more information about orienting towards equity as an educator, check out “Equity Literacy for All” by Paul Gorski and Katy Swalwell.