Updated: Jul 1, 2020
George Theoharris begins his article “Disrupting Injustice: Principals Narrate the Strategies They Use to Improve Their Schools and Advance Social Justice,” with the following epigram from Ronald Edmonds:
“We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; we already know more than we need to do that; and whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”
Theoharris continues: “Edmonds’s call to all educators presents a specific challenge to school leadership. At its core, this challenge is about recognizing that schools are failing historically marginalized students, and then making the decision to correct this. To that end, school leaders must create school structures, teaching staff, climate, communities, and achievement results that support and demonstrate success for every child” (Theoharris, 2010).
NYSED’s SCEP Plan Inequity Review Self-Assessment is structured to encourage leaders to look at the areas of policy and practice which contribute to ongoing oppression in the areas of race, gender, class and disability status and ask “how do we feel about this and what will we do to disrupt this continuing injustice?” This article explores two sections of the Self-Assessment that are especially important in building more equitable schools.
The Self-Assessment is divided into four categories: Equitable Access to Highly Qualified Teachers (Elementary Schools), Equitable Access to Advanced Coursework and Educational Opportunities (Elementary, Middle, and High Schools), Equitable Decision-Making and Application of Policies, and Equitable Support for Specific Needs. These categories each address several decision points, policies and practices that can lead to inequitable distribution of opportunities and disproportionate outcomes. The strength of the document lies in the breadth of the topics addressed and their direct link to policies, practices and school structures constructed and maintained by district and building leaders. This framing reinforces the idea presented in the Edmonds epigram that people enact policy and have the power and responsibility to change it.
This is illustrated clearly in the section on Equitable Access to Highly Qualified Teachers:
1. When determining classroom assignments, the school considers the teachers each student has previously been assigned and makes sure that students have equitable access to high-quality instructors.
2. The school has protocols in place to prevent some students from being taught by inexperienced teachers for multiple years in a row while other students are taught by experienced teachers for consecutive years.
3. The school prevents parents from influencing who their child’s teacher will be.
Knowing that teacher quality and experience has a profound impact on the academic achievement of students, equity demands that the most vulnerable students have access to effective, culturally responsive teachers. To serve this end, leaders might recognize that APPR ratings provide a reductive view of teacher quality and consider a clear definition of “high-quality instructor” rooted in equity. Teachers who have successfully supported learning for Black, Hispanic, ELL and SWD students in ELA and Math should be considered high-quality. This information could be obtained by looking at several years of data to examine subgroup performance across different class assignments. Qualitative data can also inform this definition. Teachers who develop strong relationships with students and families representing underserved subgroups and thoughtfully construct culturally responsive curriculum, assessment and instructional practices are likely candidates to support their academic and social emotional growth . Empowering BIPOC parents and older students to ground a school’s definition of “high-quality” instructors will help ensure that class assignments align with the community’s values and aspirations (Green, 2017).
Once a community-generated definition of high-quality instructors has been established, leaders can ensure that class assignments are distributed equitably throughout the master schedule. The third item in the above table - “the school prevents parents from influencing who their child’s teacher will be,” speaks to a common “equity trap” (Scheurich, 2004). Essentially it asks leaders to follow through on their commitments to equitable assignments and refuse to allow the schedule to be subverted by persistent parents who are accustomed to being accommodated by the school system (Lewis-McCoy, 2014).
Items 7 and 8 in the Equitable Decision Making and Application of Policies address disproportionality in the discipline and special education classification processes. Researchers such as Pedro Noguera, Russell Skiba, Monique Morris and Eddie Fergus have written extensively on how overclassification and excessive surveillance and punishment of Black and brown students has shaped their schooling experiences and outcomes.
Item 7 states “ School leaders monitor referrals and classifications for special education services to ensure specific subgroups are not unnecessarily and/or disproportionately identified.” As leaders monitor classifications for racial disproportionality, they should be mindful of what disability is cited as the cause for referral. In their 2012 paper, ”Special Education and the Mis-education of African American Children: A Call to Action,” Jamila Codrington and Halford H. Fairchild found “Black students between the ages of 6 and 21 were 2.86 times more likely to receive special education services under IDEA for mental retardation, and 2.28 times more likely to receive services for emotional disturbance than same-age students of all other racial/ethnic groups combined” (Codrington, Fairchild, 2012).
While this is a complex issue, abundant resources are available to support educational leaders in this work. Edward Fergus’s book “Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity: A Leader's Guide to Using Data to Change Hearts and Minds” provides a robust process for analyzing special education data to ensure that students are not wrongfully placed in special education services and removed from mainstream classrooms. “Does Compliance Matter in Special Education?” by Catherine Voulgarides provides detailed, moving descriptions of how Black and Hispanic students experience special education and the school system more broadly. The combination of process and perspective offered by these texts can support leaders’ efforts to ensure equity in special education.
Item 8 is similarly complex, but no less essential to confront. It states “The school has reviewed its discipline data to ensure that no specific group of students has been disproportionally punished as a whole or for specific infractions (e.g., dress code, defiance).” Addressing inequities in school discipline can take several forms. Technical approaches are helpful in illuminating the scope of disproportionate punishment. This can be done by calculating relative risk ratios that illustrate the likelihood of one group of students being suspended or expelled compared to the entire student body. Keith Smolkowski’s article “Vulnerable Decision Points for Disproportionate Office Discipline Referrals: Comparisons of Discipline for African American and White Elementary School Students” explores how information collected in office disciplinary referrals (ODRs) can be leveraged to identify patterns in discipline data and adapt policies accordingly (Smolkowski, Girvan, McIntosh, Nese, and Horner, 2016).
While this data is useful, it may only provide superficial, technical improvements if not accompanied by a deeper, comprehensive examination of policies, practices and the values that they represent. “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” explores the racist carceral logic that undergirds the disproportionate punishment of Black girls and the pernicious impact it has on their academic growth, social development and mental and physical well-being (Morris, 2015). Dr. Morris’s TED Talk on the topic is an accessible resource that building leadership teams can use to frame reflection on current policies, practices and procedures that perpetuate disproportionality in school discipline as they work to construct more humanizing, affirming and sustaining school cultures.
NYSED’s SCEP Plan Inequity Review Self-Assessment offers a helpful lens through which schools can begin to address historic and continuing injustices. District and building leaders have the power and the agency to make changes in the areas the document identifies. However, the absence of an enforcement mechanism through the accountability process means that efforts to build equitable, anti-racist schools will be successful only if educators are willing to confront historic injustice, reflect on current practices and push beyond superficial reforms that maintain the status quo.