The following is a summary of a study I conducted on Equity Teams for a course on Social Justice Teaching, December 2020.
The purpose of my inquiry was to survey Equity Team (social justice committee) leaders in the Seattle region to understand:
- How they perceive equity work to be progressing especially regarding staff engagement;
- If they can identify successes, challenges, and/or intransigent barriers to addressing systemic inequalities at their schools;
- If the pandemic accelerated this work, or stalled it; and
- What social justice policies would they implement if they were in a leadership position with no constraints such as time and money?
I am interested in the work of Equity Teams. My District is in the 4th year of implementing Equity Teams in each school. I had attended my district’s equity training intended for those working on Equity Teams at their school-sites. I was a member of my building’s Equity Team and really enjoyed the important discussions, but was yearning for more. I needed support as I worked to improve my classroom practices. In this project I wanted to find out about successes and challenges that other Equity Teams were encountering in their work to dismantle barriers to student success.
I surveyed a small, mostly heterogenous group of educators who knew me, who work in the Seattle area, and who agreed to participate outside of their official capacity as employees of their Districts. The educators surveyed range from special education, ELL, music and classroom teachers. My interviews were conducted on the phone, with a google form survey or combination of google form survey with follow-up discussions on the phone or email. These are the questions that I asked:
- What are the primary activities of your school’s Equity Team?
- What kind of response do you receive as your Team engages with your building staff and school community?
- Since you have been active with your Team, have you seen progress with regard to student/family success, attitude and engagement? If yes, what does progress look like at your school?
- In your view, what Equity Team activity has had the biggest impact at your school?
- What is something your Team or your school needs most to be able to accomplish your mission and goals to address systemic inequalities?
- Pandemic and Beyond:What barriers to student success do you feel are the most intransigent in your school community?
- Thinking Big: Imagine you are your School District’s Superintendent and there are no budget or time constraints for yourself, administrative or certificated/classified staff:What priority strategy would you implement to have the biggest impact in dismantling systemic inequalities?
- Bonus Question: To the Future! Though the pandemic has highlighted barriers to student success that were long present, there have been new, positive structures, strategies and partnerships created that are supporting students and families in this unprecedented time of distance learning.Which of these student/family supports would you like to see continued or even bolstered beyond the pandemic?
Participants reported a wide range of Equity Team activities. Two of the participants noted frustration from the lack of urgency and leadership toward equity work in light of the needs of their students. (Explicit work toward anti-bias, anti-racism (ABAR) is not required in the participants’ districts.) Activities include: book clubs; monthly meetings; attending out-of-district trainings and reporting back to staff; curriculum audits; community outreach/listening sessions; and student focus groups. One frustrated teacher noted that her Team’s primary activities are “…bringing the District expectations for staff anti-racist (professional) development to the principal’s attention as he sets the staff development agenda.”
Team leaders noted a mixed response from their school communities. The Special Education teacher is a fierce advocate for her students and a vocal critic of District and school policies that continue to create barriers for already marginalized students. Others mentioned complacency, push-back and teachers doing the bare minimum effort towards equity. “Many staff members refuse to put in any time outside of their union designated hours for this work, even though we are only given 10-15 minutes per staff meeting and this work is too vast to possibly make headway in if you are only willing to devote 15 minutes per month to it.” On the other hand, some said their schools were highly receptive to Equity work with teachers working on their own individual growth or in small teams outside of work hours.
When asked if progress in student attitude and engagement was seen due to Equity Team efforts, responses were mixed. Respondents at schools with weak organization around Equity, reported no progress or worse, “Equity Detours”. One reported a hard-won success with an ambivalent Principal in the scheduling of a student town hall. However, progress was seen in several ways: parent outreach resulting in improved student attendance; families-of-color listening sessions; Equity Team led presentations to staff; book study discussion at staff meetings; mentorship program for BIPOC students; and increased teacher-parent partnerships.
All participants said that time and funding were critical to equity work. One mentioned that their district was “finally” moving in the direction of required ABAR training. “We need district allocated time for the work in order for us to properly engage the whole staff.” Other needs include “… staff training that explicitly discusses race and implicit bias.”
Participants talked about how some of the most intransigent barriers to student success come from inside but also outside of the school system, and so many inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Participants see the following barriers to student success: lack of transportation; income-insecurity/poverty; systematic racism; food access; access to educational opportunities; problematic school-to-home communication systems including inefficient to inadequate translation services; dedicated space at students’ home for studying; and lack of ABAR trained teachers and anti-biased curriculum. One participant noted “access to quality internet connection, families losing jobs, (and) language barriers” are the difficult realities many students face.
When asked what policies they would put into place if they were the Superintendent with no constraints, not surprisingly they all wanted to require formal, district wide ABAR trainings for teachers and staff. Several want administrators to conduct building audits of policies through the lens of equity. Other suggestions include hiring more BIPOC and Spanish speaking staff; parenting partnerships; and parenting education and support programs. “I would implement required district-wide professional development that focuses on anti-racism, implicit bias, the intersectionality of marginalization and how to dismantle white supremacist structures in your classrooms.”
Participants were asked to name support systems that have been created during the pandemic that should be continued when in-person school is resumed. After I posed this question to the Special Education teacher, there was a long silence, then, “I don’t see anything positive coming out of this.” An innovative classroom teacher worked with her staff, in spite of lackadaisical leadership, to provide tangible support for her families. “I have been sharing resources directly to families (academic materials) and my husband has bolstered our school’s food bank outreach in alliance with our school librarian. This outside of the building support of each other’s families has been powerful.” Others called for afterschool academic support help for students; ESL lessons for parents; and increased contact and communication with families including home visits.
There were commonalities and recurring themes in the responses. Developing parent partnerships was an idea that was repeated frequently by the participants no matter if they were in the beginning stages or already had attained success with them. Smith et al (2017) highlight the importance of partnering with parents. They are critical to the foundation, or ‘physical integration’, of equity practices and to creating opportunities to learn. In the “Opportunity to Learn” section of their Building Equity Audit, parents and families figure in over 25% of the statements. From the Audit: Schools should “…reach out to families from different backgrounds to ensure they feel welcomed and valued” and invite them to get involved in school events and goals. Schools should develop “…active working relationships…”, communicate high expectations for their children as well as the belief they can succeed. (Smith et al., 2017) One of the survey participants noted, “We have done several Family Engagement meetings via Zoom for these families. I have seen that if the parents participate in these meetings, the students come to class more regularly.”
Participants cite lack of staff training to be a major barrier to dismantling systemic barriers to student success. Participants work in districts that have expressed support for equity, however since teacher training on ABAR practices is not required, the effectiveness of Equity Teams will remain inconsistent and sometimes ineffective. “Schools that teach for social justice must have a committed, highly skilled, and self-reflective teaching staff…” (Kraft, 2007)
Impacts of Unchecked Bias and Racism
Another recurring theme is the awareness of the persistence of systemic inequalities inside and outside of their school systems. (Stands to reason since they chose to lead Equity Teams!) Educators in the survey acknowledge that many of their colleagues’ lack of awareness to their own implicit biases and structural racism at their schools, as well as the resistance to engage in a review of practices, policies and curricula, will continue to hinder student success.
The racial profile of the leadership and teaching staffs in my participants’ districts is predominately white. And even though implicit bias against BIPOC can be present in all racial categories, the resistance on the part of some educators, especially White, to commit to equity training is a major obstacle to progress since implicit bias is pervasive, and racial attitudes continue to discriminate. (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013) And without ABAR systems in place at school, barriers will continue to deepen since teacher expectations are predictive of student success, and teachers are known to have lower expectations of marginalized students. (Boser et al., 2014)
Support from building administrators seemed to be the linchpin to the success of Equity Teams, followed by an engaged staff. From a survey participant: “Weak school leadership can derail best efforts.” One participant was frustrated by the seeming apathy of her Principal, despite his Seattle Superintendent’s stated mission to accelerate growth for “students of color who are furthest from educational justice”. (Bazzazz, 2019) Her District doesn’t have a great track record for students of color which has the fifth largest gap between White and Black student achievement of the 200 largest school districts in the United States. And to make matters worse, the city of Seattle is ranked 6th in the nation for income inequality. (Wiehe, 2018)
Some participants said that income-insecurity and poverty were intransigent barriers. The whole of Washington State has big problems with economic inequality. There is no income tax here, so the State gets the revenue to fund education from sales tax and property taxes. Funding a state with sales tax is wildly regressive where those with the lowest income pay up to six times as much of their income in taxes as the wealthy. Washington State is at the top of the “Terrible Ten” states whose tax structure make the poor poorer. (Wiehe, 2018) School finance experts have long been recommending that States change the mechanisms for funding so poor districts don’t get left behind. (Semuels, 2016) Since participants were aware of the systemic inequities stemming from structures outside of public schools, strong leaders who support equity in education must be working simultaneously from inside AND outside public schools. This participant’s comment takes on a wider meaning, “In my personal opinion, what has the most impact is when the leaders truly believe in equity.”
How Findings Will Inform Me as an Educator
The survey has many implications for me as a music teacher, a teacher leader and citizen. Effective equity work really demands a commitment to be involved on many levels from micro (my classroom) to macro (political engagement in the broader society).
Implications for my Classroom Practice
Most of the participants noted examining school curriculum through an anti-bias lens as a necessary foundation to equity in their schools. I, too, need to make a thorough review of my music curriculum and teaching practice. I should be mindful of what I include and exclude and select materials that allow marginalized students see or hear themselves in class. I need to engage students in a rich exploration of a variety of musical and cultural practices while avoiding superficial “diversity diversions” as Gorski and Swalwell (2015) warn against in “Equity Literacy for All”. Whatever repertoire I select for study, I must always place the music in context with its history, its people, its meaning and function. And I must take care not to fall into ascribing Western European values or standards to the music and devalue its idiomatic nuances.
Apart from what I teach, I need to examine how I teach. Anti-biased teaching calls for valuing ways of knowing and being outside my White cultural reference. White culture, or Eurocentrism, can be anathema to diverse ways of knowing music. White normative values so often expressed in music classrooms include competitiveness, being judgmental, belief in one right way, and being status oriented. These values are not inclusive and create barriers to understanding and creativity for so many students. Developing cultural proficiency is critical in equity work and requires I acknowledge my own cultural bubble and to not treat difference as a deficiency. (Smith et al., 2017) Knowing my students’ cultural backgrounds not only will help me understand what they bring with them to their learning, but will allow me to leverage this knowledge to find ways to get them hooked, make music interesting and ultimately meet their learning needs.
Parent partnerships were mentioned time and again in my interviews as an essential tool to support students’ success. In music, parent partnerships have the potential to be especially powerful. As my students and I expand our cultural competence, parents could share their wealth of knowledge and know their expertise is welcomed and valued. Is there a parent or family member who is a culture-bearer or expert in a cultural tradition my students and I are learning about who might share? This kind of partnership would help me make sure I am not engaging my students in musical tokenism or tourism, but an authentic, meaningful investigation.
Teacher Leader and Citizen
Participants noted the importance of leaders committed to equity. The thousands of employees that make up my District’s staff are predominantly White/non-Hispanic, but more than half of the 21,000 students are BIPOC. If there is no required anti-bias training and action toward dismantling systemic barriers, we are digging ourselves deeper in the hole. One survey participant said that ABAR teaching practices should be part of the teacher evaluation process. This would be a way to build social justice into to school policy and teachers’ practices from the ground up.
Until District leaders mandate equity training for all staff and administrators, I see myself stepping up to share what I am learning about social justice education in my sphere of influence. I would like to assemble colleagues to work collaboratively on infusing our music classrooms with social justice. One of the first steps is acknowledging implicit bias – one of the most insidious barriers impacting our marginalized students. Then comes the work of recognizing our own cultural bubble and decentering the White normative culture that we make compulsory for our students. There is much to do including reimagining the musical canon and remembering it’s not just choosing diverse music, it’s how it is presented and experienced.
I also see work to be done at the union level advocating for time for equity work. Today, equity work is essentially devalued because it is expected from teachers as an additive outside of the workday. One participant suggested the District’s public statements in support of Black Lives Matter were merely “lip service”. Until there is action, I have to agree. In addition to in-district advocacy, there is work to be done politically advocating for equitable policies for school finance and fair tax policies in my State.
Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York: Random House.
Bazzaz, D. (2019, April) At her first major speech, new Seattle schools chief Juneau restates an age-old priority: racial equity. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/at-her-first-major-speech-new-seattle-schools-chief-juneau-restates-an-age-old-priority-racial-equity/
Boser, U., Wilhelm, M., & Hanna, R. (2014). The power of the Pygmalion effect: Teachers’ expectations strongly predict college completion. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress. org/issues/education/report/2014/10/06/96806/thepower- of-the-pygmalion-effect/
Gorski, P. and K. Swalwell. (2015) Equity Literacy For All. Educational Leadership. Retrieved from https://08a3a74a-dec5-426e-8385-bdc09490d921.filesusr.com/ugd/38199c_7ce6ae3958ec4995819a8b3e1e59a09a.pdf
Kraft, M. (2007). Toward a School-Wide Model of Teaching for Social Justice: An Examination of the Best Practices of Two Small Public Schools. Equity & Excellence in Education, 40:1, 77-86, DOI: 10.1080/10665680601076601
Semuels, A. (2016, August). Good school, rich school; bad school, poor school: The inequality at the heart of America’s education system. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/08/property-taxes-and-unequal-schools/497333/
Smith, D., Frey, N., Pumpian, I., & Fisher, D. (2017). Building equity: Policies and practices to empower all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Wiehe, M., Davis, A., Davis, C., Gardner, M., Gee, L.C., & Grundman, D. (2018). Who pays? A distributional analysis of the tax systems in all 50 states. Washington, D.C.: The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Retrieved from https://itep.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/whopays-ITEP-2018.pdf