Equity & Diversity Opinion

Thinking Deeply About Equity

By Contributing Blogger — March 04, 2016 5 min read
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This post is by Carlos Moreno, Executive Director of Big Picture Learning, and Claire Sylvan, Founder and Senior Strategic Advisor of Internationals Network for Public Schools

Undoubtedly, it was a shrewd handicapper who advised, “Bet on jockeys, not horses.” A good rider, the thinking goes, can bring even a mediocre steed to a top three finish. And so it is with our most vexing challenges in education: Bet on leaders, not programs. Great leaders will find a way to make even a mediocre program a success.

In the Deeper Learning Equity Fellowship, supported by the Hewlett and ECMC foundations, we have brought together ten superb leaders as Equity Fellows to develop ways to increase access to deeper learning, particularly for learners who have been and are being served poorly by the traditional system of schools and schooling. We undertook this work precisely because we agree with Jal Mehta that Deeper Learning has a race problem and, we believe, a language and a culture problem.

Who are these Fellows? They are leaders and emerging leaders who work in schools and classrooms, in school district central offices, in higher education, and in national policy and professional development organizations. They come from many places and by many paths to the Fellowship community. Their insights, passion, and commitment to this work have emerged from their personal and professional experiences.

We thought, therefore, as we began our work, that it would be good to have the Fellows record a brief statement about themselves, their work, and the journey that brought them to their well-documented commitment to equity. At our first convening in November 2015, we listened to and used these stories to forge a shared understanding of our mission and to build a group culture that the Fellows perceive as safe for interpersonal risk taking, a critical attribute of successful teams that accomplish audacious goals such as ours.

We think these stories are worth sharing with the larger community that is forming around deeper learning and particularly around expanding access for all learners to deeper learning experiences and environments. You can hear the Fellows’ voices here and learn how their experiences and insights inform the work they are doing and the impact they wish to have.

Although the stories are varied, there are several common themes. They speak of challenges. They speak of defining moments and experiences, of moral purpose, of social justice, and of motivation and aspiration. They speak of overt and covert race, language, and class discrimination. They speak of sadness and anger, of optimism and love! Their empathy is forged from deep personal and professional experience with challenging the inequities of the system.

One Fellow recalls in her statement the considerable language barriers confronting a young mother and her daughter as they entered their new country. She speaks of the humiliation she experienced as an immigrant because she was not able to express what she knew because she was not able to use the language of her new promised land. “Never underestimate,” she advises, “students’ abilities based on their language skills.”

Several Fellows noted in their stories the failure of many schools to serve as “safe environments for being oneself,” a common lament of young people who have been disadvantaged by the traditional system rather than helped to develop and exploit their talents, interests, and eagerness to learn. Many stories were poignant descriptions of how the Fellows themselves or others close to them experienced race, class, and language discrimination. You can hear in their voices their moral stance--a desire that this discrimination should be called out--and an “obligation” to ensure that the inequities they have observed and often experienced in their personal and professional lives do not continue in schools and classrooms. They just cannot!

To listen to these stories is to understand equity and deeper learning in new ways. The Fellows recognize the essential message of equity as freedom for every single learner to make their way in the world in their own way--to have unconstrained and unleavened access to resources that allow them to develop and demonstrate who they are and what they can accomplish.

The Fellows understand that the same access for every learner does not constitute equity. They understand that merely providing “alternatives” is not enough if the range of those alternatives is narrow and their quality poor. They believe that knowing the learner is essential for providing equitable access, that extending deeper learning opportunities to every single young person requires that we look deeply at every individual student, and his/her family, community, and culture and with that understanding craft appropriate learning experiences and learning environments.

The Fellows will be designing and conducting “capstone projects” as part of their Fellowship. These projects spring from their work and experiences, both personal and professional. The work they do and want to do is connected to who they are and who they have been and who they want to be. Most projects are targeted on impacting challenges that these Fellows have encountered in their day-to-day work. Projects will start in May and continue for about 18 months. By fall we will bring on a new cohort of 20 additional Fellows. We will record and share their stories as well and look forward to sharing their work.

We have no doubt that these leaders will finish strong, providing the education community with several exemplary models that inform and inspire our own work and in the process stimulate their own development as leaders for equity and deeper learning. You can bet on it.

The Deeper Learning Equity Fellowship is accepting nominations for its second cohort between now and May 1. If you would like to nominate someone, please visit the Equity Fellows nomination page. Nomination is required, so if you believe YOU would be a strong candidate, please reach out to a mentor or colleague who might serve as a strong recommendation.

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