Professional Development

How Can Teacher-Led P.D. Tackle Equity? John B. King Jr. and Educators Discuss

By Madeline Will — October 24, 2016 4 min read
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On a rainy Friday afternoon here, a group of teachers, principals, and instructional coaches gathered at the U.S. Department of Education headquarters for tea, cookies, and conversation.

The department hosts these “Tea With Teachers” sessions monthly, offering different educators a chance to share their concerns and best practices with U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. This month’s session, which featured educators from Baltimore, New York, Prince George’s County in Maryland, and the Department of Defense, focused on teacher-led professional development and moving away from top-down, one-size-fits-all teacher-training formats.

King joined the group for about 40 minutes. He listened to the conversation, which ranged from teacher mentorship and leadership to giving teachers a safe way to fail, and then posed a question to the group: “How do we get at equity issues through teacher leadership in a way that overcomes the fact that folks may have a hard time seeing it?” he asked. “How do we connect the teacher leadership work to that equity work when it’s hard?”

He gave an example: He was once in a predominately white school district in Massachusetts, where black male students were disproportionately referred to special education. Teachers, he said, weren’t necessarily cognizant that there was a problem.

“If you asked teachers in the district,” King said, “they would have said, ‘we love our professional development! We have lots of teacher leadership here. We’re organizing book studies, we’re organizing workshops, we’re in each other’s classrooms, and we’re mentoring, and it’s great here.’ Except, underlying that great was not great for a subset of kids. And I find sometimes that those equity issues are maybe a blind spot to the community.”

King said the district’s superintendent ultimately tackled the problem by having all special education referrals go through him—which allowed the superintendent to have conversations with teachers about equity issues. King then cited a recent Yale study that found implicit bias among preschool teachers leads to a disproportionately high suspension rate among black children.

He said he worried that in general, teachers would not necessarily feel comfortable or be aware of potential problems to request implicit bias training—or that it would fall on one of the few teachers of color on staff to bring up. (King has written before about an “invisible tax” on teachers of color, who make up 18 percent of the teaching workforce.)

One of the attendees, William Blake, the principal at Stephen Decatur Middle School in Maryland, responded that his number one focus for professional development among teachers at his school is cultural responsiveness.

“We now have to be more intentional about cultural sensitivity and developing PD around that for our teachers to be successful so they can serve the different demographics and diversity in their buildings,” he said. “To start, it is at times an uncomfortable conversation but we have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

And Celeste Douglas, the principal of M.S. 57 in Brooklyn, N.Y., said it’s important to remember that bias comes from teachers of all races, backgrounds, and experience levels. One of her star teachers, she said, had one of the highest suspension rates in the school.

As a principal, she said, she sees it as her responsibility to show teachers information like suspension data and parent surveys and encourage a conversation: “Today, we’re going to talk about something that’s uncomfortable, ugly, and it’s OK for you to be truthful about it. We all have biases.”

But Mykia Olive, an instructional consultant and coach for Prince George’s County schools, said she was wary about having these conversations without also looking at the principal’s and the superintendent’s roles in creating an equitable and successful school environment.

"[Teachers] get blamed for so much,” she said. “It all falls on us. If we’re trying to have a conversation on equity, that conversation can’t even start in a room with a bunch of teachers because, we’re always told, ‘be vulnerable, take risks, try this,’ and it’s like, OK, ... are your principals really taking the time to train you? Are they taking the time to train themselves?”

As the Department of Education works to give states and districts continued guidance on how to implement the new federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, King said these conversations highlight what he particularly wants to emphasize: the role of teacher leadership and a focus on equity.

In August, teacher-advocacy groups asked the department for more guidance on how to use ESSA to improve teacher training. And last month, the department released guidance on federal money for teacher support, preparation, and training. The guidance encouraged states and districts to use the money to make sure that all kids have access to an effective teacher and to make sure that teachers in high-needs schools get access to extra supports.

Jean-Paul Cadet, the full-time principal ambassador fellow for the department, said the newly released guidance was an “educator-facing document” that provided a clear, helpful vision without being bogged down with technical language. He asked the department to issue more guidance with tangible suggestions for educators.

“Sometimes we talk about these things and discuss them in the abstract but we don’t know—that was a nice conversation, now what?” he said. “We need to be able to have something from Ed. that is able to give us that now what.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.