Education CTQ Collaboratory

Schools Must Break Down Silos to Remove Barriers to Equity

By Marcia Powell — April 12, 2017 5 min read
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As some 3rd-grade students played Duck, Duck, Goose on the playground at my school recently, I was struck by how easily the children welcomed newcomers into the game, simply by making the circle bigger. When the game grew larger, more than one child would walk around the circle, engaging all the participants. This simple game demonstrated the power of inclusion.

It also made me start thinking about the contrast between opening up circles and circling wagons. A pioneer strategy, circling wagons kept the livestock of the travelers inside, but it also excluded outsiders from advancing into the group. You can call it a wagon circle, a silo, or a building wall, but the intent is the same.

Over the last few months, I’ve seen both approaches to circles in a variety of meetings I’ve attended, from leadership team meetings to professional learning communities. In one recent meeting, my colleagues and I were assembled to make decisions about future leadership, while in another, we were discussing grant money allocations. Both meetings began with team representatives providing feedback in a Google form, but the meetings diverged at the decision-making point. The values expressed by the leadership of the two groups went in different directions.

At one meeting, the results were tallied and shared with the group, and decisions were based on accumulated data and group conversations. At the other meeting, half of the members were excused after entering the data, and then people with titles made the decisions. In the former example, I felt like a valued part of the community circle. In the latter, I felt like the wagons of administrative titles circled me until I was left outside. I don’t believe the leaders of this meeting intended for me to feel excluded, but the process was not transparent. Because I didn’t know how my input was utilized, if my opinions mattered, or how the synthesis of ideas came about, this feeling was inevitable.

Realistically, coming into someone else’s wagon circle can accentuate differences. All teachers have had a wagon circle experience, often in our own assigned classrooms. When we shut our classroom doors, we’re alone with a group of students. At that point, it’s up to us whether we tell students what to do or empower them to lead their own learning.

Quick! Tell me the last time you became the facilitator and your students were in charge. When was the last time your students created a product to share with the community? Or when you trusted a student to follow through with a mission-critical step, instead of doing it for him or her? When was the last time you made an administrative decision? No one is immune from the circle-the-wagon mentality. However, when we admit that this is often the status quo, we can work to get better.

Wagon circles aren’t limited to a single individual or classroom. My career in education has spanned multiple schools, and it’s pretty clear from my perspective that silos pitting building against building or district against district are common. Statements such as, “You won’t believe what we get from that school,” or, “The students at that building don’t seem to care as much,” ignore subtle and overt issues of equity, funding, and cultural understanding. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reminds us to be conscious of students’ readiness to learn. Research shows that students who come to school hungry or traumatized, have high numbers of adverse childhood experiences, or experience bullying on the basis of color or creed struggle to learn effectively until their basic needs are met.

Systemic inequity goes far beyond dollars per child, but it’s built out of barriers like inadequate funding and labels such as “poor-performing,” “low socioeconomic status,” or “range of diversity.” Voucher approaches—which benefit a few, but not all—could be seen as a circling of the wagons. The individuals left outside are those who lack access because of distance or additional fees not covered by the voucher. Worse, such inequity in access creates an environment where qualified teachers are available only to the highest bidder.

Let’s open the circle so all students have access to a great education. To achieve this equity in education, we need to welcome all parents, grandparents, businesses, and other advocates into our circles. We must do more than invite them to one-off extracurricular events. It’s vital to create meaningful opportunities for community members to work alongside educators and students to help build better schools and communities.

A school building can still be a silo that is closed to some stakeholders. For a variety of reasons, some members of the community may fear entering a school. Do we as educators know how to pick up the phone and have a meeting in a public place, such as a coffee shop or park? Creating openings for our schools to flow into the greater community allows us to advance our pedagogy to include design thinking and project-based learning.

Ultimately, expanding circles means pushing the paradigm of educational leadership. It’s not just about having administrators and counselors who have the “flexibility” to go out to a noontime meeting—although that’s important. We must widen the circle. Consider using a substitute regularly, so a cross-section of teachers regularly interacts with your community in leadership opportunities that represent the school. Talk to businesses about career academies and internships for high school students and their benefits for employers. Embracing collective leadership empowers all teachers to share their gifts and become true changemakers. Only after taking this step will we see the silos of individualism begin to crumble.

Silos, wagon circles, and walls are abundant in our society. We belong to multiple circles in our families, interests and hobbies, schools, departments, and administrative offices. Schools historically have organized (and isolated) themselves in content silos or demographic subgroups. To truly respond to each learner’s needs, we must become more cognizant of our own boundaries of comfort. As the late Rick DuFour and his wife Becky, who are well-known for their research of effective teaching and professional learning communities, have concluded, we must do “whatever it takes” to educate all children.

It’s critical that we give all stakeholders a voice and ask students, colleagues, and community members what resources and support they need to be successful. We must continue working to build bridges, remove barriers, and value all the stakeholders who affect our students. That equity challenge requires us to be inclusive, listening to multiple voices and opening our school “circles” to newcomers and the community. This is more than a playground game; it is a responsibility we owe our children.


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