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Excellence Without Equity Is Neither

By Eric Witherspoon — November 01, 2011 6 min read
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There are many excellent public schools in the United States—schools that receive distinguished awards, produce students with perfect ACT scores, and send their graduates to elite institutions of higher education. Yet within these same schools, you can find students experiencing none of these things firsthand, many of them students of color and from low-income families. I know this because I am the superintendent of just such a school, and my school is working hard to erase these divisions.

Through the years, educators and policymakers have used many means to address gaps in opportunity and achievement through programs designed to support students with lower achievement histories. Many efforts have spurred gains, but nowhere near enough. To genuinely address these issues, schools need to rethink everything they do to maintain and grow excellence while ensuring every student shares in that excellence. Excellence without equity is in fact neither and is no longer an option.

To ensure that every student—no exceptions—experiences and benefits from an excellent education, schools need to examine deeply and attend to three key areas of support, changing and growing in each area to meet the needs of all students: the school’s belief system, organizational structure, and instructional program.

Analyze and reframe the belief system. For every student to succeed, everyone must believe that success for all is possible and that failure is not an option for any student. This belief is fundamental and must be shared by every student and adult in a school. Expectations correlate directly with results.

At my school, Evanston Township High School, or ETHS, which is also a stand-alone school district in Illinois, we have about 3,000 students, 41 percent of them from low-income households. Our enrollment is approximately 43 percent white, 32 percent African-American, and 17 percent Hispanic, with smaller numbers of Asian, Native American, and multiracial students.

Here, we have studied Carol Dweck’s research on achievement and success and her book Mindset to reinforce the idea that intelligence is not fixed at birth, but can increase with effort. From this, we developed a unit of study about “effective effort” that we introduce to all freshmen. ETHS professionals also engage in what we call “courageous conversations” to explore race and institutionalized racism and grapple with how each influences our school. Beliefs and behaviors interact, and we need to be overt about understanding and addressing this as a school community.

Rethink and retool traditional roles. We need to analyze each job in our schools to ensure all have a role in supporting excellence and equity for every student. Principals, teachers, department chairs, and administrators need to reframe their jobs to ensure they are analyzing the curriculum and classroom instruction as they begin to define excellence. For example, deans, often seen as disciplinarians, need to become “interventionists,” seeking answers to questions like, “Why is this student in trouble? What is going on in his or her life?”

Value and support professional learning. Professional development must be ongoing, embedded in practice, and reflective of students’ needs. It must be expansive and intensive, providing coaching and analysis of student data, and connected directly to instruction. We found that administrators need to learn how to use evaluation and supervision in professional development—building from classroom visits, coaching, and ongoing dialogue with teachers to support improved teaching and learning. Educators’ continuous reflection on curriculum, instruction, and the impact of beliefs and expectations on student outcomes is a fundamental piece of ensuring excellence and equity.

Schools need to rethink everything they do to maintain and grow excellence while ensuring every student shares in that excellence."

Develop a system of supports for all students. The culture of achievement in schools needs to shift, and asking for support must become the norm for all students. ETHS has a tiered assistance system that includes department study centers, a writing center, support before and after school, and Saturday help, as well as individualized supports and interventions for struggling students.

Focus on literacy. Reading is the gateway to all learning. Literacy must be addressed in every classroom, every day—reading strategies must be an integral part of history class and math class and of physical and technical education. At ETHS, teachers receive training to help them implement literacy-learning strategies in everything from history and math to physical education.

Expect more, get more. Many schools are expecting less from some students and—with a painful impact on these students’ futures—getting what they anticipated. With a past system of course placement based on 8th grade achievement tests, ETHS could predict with tragic accuracy who would populate freshman classes: White students were the majority in our most rigorous classes, and nonwhite and low-income students filled the classrooms with the least opportunity to later take honors and Advanced Placement classes. It was as if we were determining academic futures even before students took a class at ETHS.

Three years ago, after reviewing national education research and conducting our own, we restructured our freshman humanities course (which is a team-taught English and history class), consolidating it into three levels. Students reading below grade level were placed in a class with intensive literacy-development support. Students testing in the top fifth percentile were placed in an honors-only class. A majority of students were placed in a class that combined regular and honors students. These combined classes were taught the same curriculum as the honors-only class by the same teachers. Students took this course for regular or honors credit. Students in the class with lower reading scores also took a reading-support course.

This restructured program—with high-quality supports for students and teachers—was designed to encourage more students to take honors- and AP-level courses.

Based on our experience, we expanded the restructuring of the freshman year in 2011. Now, we place students with reading scores between the 40th and 99th percentiles in the same freshman humanities courses. We also ramped up the curriculum, aligning it to AP expectations, ACT college-readiness standards, and the Common Core State Standards.

And, in a profound shift, students in freshman humanities may now receive an earned honors credit, meaning they can earn honors credit based on the quality of their work throughout the semester. Previously, the honors designation was based on placement criteria that did not take into consideration how students performed in class. The new model requires students to perform well each semester on a series of earned-honors-credit assessments. We are working now to expand the earned-honors-credit restructuring to include biology.

Examine evaluations. Through formal and informal, quantitative and qualitative, formative and summative evaluations, schools must constantly analyze what they are doing and whether they are helping students. With the support of data, schools must continually refine their work and make the adjustments necessary to ensure achievement of all students.

Achieving excellence and equity for all students is possible. It requires an honest look at beliefs, structures, practices, and a willingness to do what it takes to make change. Schools should not be daunted and must begin immediately—there are too many students who cannot wait. We can act our way to new beliefs and start to make the structural and instructional changes necessary to achieve excellence and equity. To do anything less is educational malpractice.

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Excellence Without Equity Is Neither

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