Last week the federal report on equity in education was released by the congressionally mandated Equity and Excellence Commission. Entitled “For Each And Every Child,” it focuses more explicitly on educational opportunity and the role of poverty in student achievement than most official reports, and makes many useful recommendations. It remains to be seen to what extent the report will shift the national conversation on education and equity and inspire new action.
The report addresses finance, teaching and learning, early childhood education, poverty, and accountability. The section on teaching and learning opportunities identifies a number of areas we address in our work with school district and other partners. The report notes that “too often, schools codify low expectations for some students by denying them the instructional content needed to prepare them for college and careers.” Three key ways of institutionalizing this inequity are mentioned:
- Watered down coursework, including:
- “Leveled” texts that do not stretch students
- Mismatched interventions
- Overemphasis on decoding texts, minimizing comprehension
- Lack of AP and other rigorous courses
- Disparities in suspensions and expulsions
What kind of professional development can support the development of higher expectations embodied in rigorous instruction? The report makes several recommendations regarding the professionalization of teaching and the need to invest in quality professional development:
Professional development must be embedded in the workday, deepen and broaden teacher knowledge, be rooted in best practice, allow for collaborative efforts, be aligned to the Common Core State Standards and provide the supports, time and resources to enable teachers to master new content, pedagogy and learning tools and incorporate them in their practice.
This touches on some key areas that we emphasize in our services. Professional development should be embedded, deep rather than superficial, collaborative, and be provided consistent time and space. The report makes some international comparisons but could say more, as Linda Darling Hammond, a member of the Commission, does in her book The Flat World and Education, about the systemic lack of investment in time for educators to plan, collaborate, and develop.
In the US, typically teachers will have three to five hours per week scheduled for individual planning. In most high-performing European and Asian schools, teachers have 15 to 20 hours a week for a combination of individual collaborative planning— engaging in lesson study, action research, peer study, and collaboration—as well as meeting with parents and students one on one.
Further, only 15% of teachers report that they work in a collaborative environment. Teachers and other leaders can easily get trapped in the tyranny of the immediate, especially in communities dealing with poverty-based stressors. And when personnel turnover is considered as well (from superintendents to principals to teachers, tenure averages less than three years in urban districts), it is clear why it is so difficult to make lasting improvements to systems where constant churn and stress are the norm.
At the National Equity Project we believe that managing stress is a key leadership and organizational development skill, including healing from the effects of working and living in oppressive conditions. We teach approaches to managing these stresses in our institutes and embedded coaching services.
The report also urges districts to audit the level of instructional rigor in its schools and classrooms more thoroughly and consistently. Performance assessments in the current, largely punitive atmosphere of accountability also adds stress. Instruction can be assessed in ways that are productive, fostering learning and motivation among individuals and build positive school communities, rather than often unproductive top-down sanction-based approaches. Districts and other systems need time and support to learn how to do this.
An easy way to begin is to focus on listening. When we teach people listening techniques, they often report that this was the first time they had felt truly listened to in a long time. Being recognized and listened to reduces stress and gives a sense of connection and trust, making people more open to constructive input. We can make all the policy and practice recommendations we like but if we don’t take concrete steps to improve system conditions for learning and collaboration on the ground, equity and excellence will be hard to achieve.