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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

‘Equitable Practices Elevate Everyone’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 19, 2019 19 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the difference between treating students “fairly” and treating them “equally”? What are some examples of how that looks in the classroom?

In Part One, Dr. Rocio del Castillo, Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat, Holly Spinelli, Sabrina Hope King, Joe Feldman, and Dr. Felicia Darling provided their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Julia and Holly on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s commentaries came from Kelly Capatosto, Gina Laura Gullo, Cheryl Staats, Dr. PJ Caposey, Ashley McCall, Orion Nolan, Jen Schwanke, Marisa Nathan, Carol Bruzzano, Keisha Rembert, and Tatiana Esteban.

Today’s contributors are Dr. Debbie Silver, Gloria Brown Brooks, Tasha Moyer, Barbara Blackburn, and LaChawn Smith.

Response From Dr. Debbie Silver

Dr. Debbie Silver is a 30-year veteran educator and a former Louisiana Teacher of the Year. She is a bestselling author and highly acclaimed national and international speaker. This popular keynoter has presented in 49 states, Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada, Mexico, and the Middle East. She is a former university professor and a multiple award-winning educator who has taught almost every grade level and every kind of student along the way:

In 6th grade, I had one of the strictest teachers in the school. You can imagine my surprise when she announced early in the year that every time all of us students made 100 percent on the Friday final spelling test, she was going to let us have a party. I was thrilled! How hard could it be for 33 kids to spell 20 words perfectly on one test? I envisioned weekly parties throughout the year. She added that our cursive writing was also a part of the scoring so an undotted “i,” an uncrossed “t,” or any ill-formed letter counted as an error in spelling. I didn’t care, I knew we would DO this! Only, we didn’t. Not once in 36 weeks of tests did our class make the goal. I felt angry at the students who kept messing us up until I was one of the ones who did. I learned to dread spelling, loathe handwriting, and really dislike the teacher who repeatedly told us, “I’m giving you all an equal chance; it’s up to you to make it happen.”

In her mind, the proposal was fair because the same set of rules applied to every student. But how reasonable was the contest? Like most classes, we had students who had a natural gift for reading and spelling as well as kids who could meet the standard with substantial effort. But what about the ones who had learning challenges such as dyslexia or dysgraphia? What about students with hearing impairments or anxiety issues who struggled with having the words read out only once? Our teacher’s challenge to us may have seemed unbiased because the same criteria applied to all, but even as an 11-year-old, I knew her requirements weren’t just.

Later, when I was a novice teacher, my district was forced by the federal courts to re-examine the notion of “separate but equal.” We teachers already knew those concepts were usually mutually exclusive and we welcomed the chance to plan for providing a quality education for all. We soon found there was overwhelming disagreement among all the major participants on what equal education should look like. Since that time, “the powers that be” have compelled me to participate in nearly every major educational reform movement that has swept the country. Each new wave of mandates peddles its own brand of equity and accountability under the guise of “in the best interest of students.” Too often, political discourse and self-seeking agendas pollute the ideas about what is fair and what is equal. I’ve stopped fighting that rhetorical battle and simplified it into one statement—Every student deserves a reasonable chance at success.

Let’s Switch Our Focus to What Is Reasonable

Competent teachers do everything in our power to engage every one of our students in meaningful learning with the purpose of moving them toward incremental improvement. We subscribe to Lev Vyotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) theory of starting students just beyond what they have already mastered, structuring challenges in a way that requires them to stretch and grow, and carefully monitoring their progress to ensure they have a justifiable chance to achieve. We put more emphasis on the individual improvement of every kind of learner than on a single standardized assessment that amalgamated scores.

Teachers have to be experts in differentiating our instructional strategies. (Cheryl Mizerny offers great ideas for also adapting assessment methods). We must stay attuned to the social and emotional components of what is going on with kids. Reasonable means constantly reassessing where our learners actually are (rather than where they ought to be) and creating challenging opportunities within the realm of what is logical.

Examples of Reasonable Classroom Expectations

Equal- “Students, all of you will take the final spelling test on Friday. If every one of you scores 100 percent on the 20 words I’ll be calling out only one time, I’ll provide a special surprise for everyone.”

Reasonable- “Students, I’d like to issue a challenge about Friday’s spelling test. You can qualify for a special surprise by making 100 percent or by improving your last test score by at least 10 percent. Your tests will not all look the same. Whether you are asked to correctly write the word called out, find the correct spelling in a group of words listed on your paper, or do a matching activity, you will be assessed only on the words you have been practicing in your small-group activities.”

Equal- “My number one rule is that every student remains in their seat, sitting straight, with both feet on the floor. Believe me, that’s the best way for everyone to have the same chance to learn.”

Reasonable- “The reason I’ve switched my classroom to flexible seating is to help each of you find the place best-suited for you to learn. You can choose different seats or keep the same one. Whether you choose to stand, sit on a bounce chair, sit at a table, or stretch out on a rug, remember that you are responsible for being respectful to others and staying focused on the task at hand.”

Equal- “I am handing out copies of the novel I’ve selected for you to read this grading period. Your first assignment is to read Chapter One and respond to the 12 questions I’ve posted on the class homework portal.”

Reasonable- “For our unit on novels, I’ll be meeting with each of you to select your book you would like to read. I’ll be conferencing with you throughout the grading period to get your thoughts about certain aspects of your selection. Your assessment will be a creative project you will work on throughout this unit. Just a few ideas are creating a soundtrack that helps tell the story, writing an ad campaign to market the book, presenting a monologue written from the perspective of your favorite character, making a board game that is based on your book, or other ideas you want to run by me. I’ll be presenting other suggestions, the project grading rubric, and several exemplars both in class and on our class website.”

A Broader Concept of Reasonableness in Education

Taking reasonableness to the next level, what about standardized tests, pacing guides, and strict adherence to scope and sequence directives? Educators have debated their fairness and equitability since their inception, so let’s think about something more reasonable. Why can’t we administer preassessments during the first week of school that cover the standards governing students’ particular grade level or subject? We could then provide the individual student data to teachers early in the year so they can use the information to drive instruction for each learner. Teachers (and their coaches, if available) can make decisions they believe will best improve learning in their classrooms.

End of the year post-test scores could be merged with a predetermined formula designed to factor in demographic data, language barriers, identified learning challenges, special circumstances, etc., to determine sensible, expected gains for individuals during the school year. Actual student gains would be compared to the anticipated gains. Parents, teachers, schools, districts, and states would then be able to compare “apples to apples,” and every teacher would have specific, authentic evidence to improve their classroom practices. What could be more reasonable than that?

The next time a student declares, “That’s not fair!” create space to address the concern. Help students determine whether fairness or equity is at play and for what reason. Allow them to draw conclusions about these principles in the learning community and in their own personal lives. With practice and experience, I hope my students come to see that equitable practices elevate everyone.

Response From Gloria Brown Brooks

Gloria Brown Brooks recently retired. She was most recently a Teacher in Hollister, Calif. She is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

There are important differences between equal and fair. Many times, it depends on the classroom environment and the locale. I am using these definitions as guidelines for my responses: Equal is having the ability and or resources to meet a challenge. Fair denotes something being free of favoritism and free of judgment. (Oxford Dictionary)

I worked in a small, rural agricultural community. Ninety-seven percent of my students were Mexican-American or Mexican. We were a continuation high school. Our main comprehensive high school has a population of approximately 3,000 students. The sheer number of the student population was a problem for many. At our site, we have ranged between 130-200 students. The majority of our students come to us because they had not been successful in our local high school environment. There can be a plethora of reasons that they become our students.

When I chose to work in this alternative school, I was motivated by the fact that all students can be successful, given the opportunity. Our students are being treated equally when they have the same curriculum, books, calculators, supplies, and access to technology that is offered at the comprehensive high school. By having the same curriculum, students can return to this school. A percentage of our students come to us with goals to return there to graduate. Many times, the students are introduced to new ideas and opportunities by attending our programs. Many students are given more individualized assistance in mathematics as well.

Lunchtime at other schools was a main stressor for many of our students. Many went without a meal during the school day because they could not afford lunch and were not given anything when they were hungry. Though this was equal treatment, this was not fair. We are now offering free lunch to all. There is no division amongst students at lunchtime. This is fair and equal treatment.

Our students are being treated fairly when they are given the accommodations that they need to be successful. Many of them are behind in mathematics and/or English credits. These students are given additional means and supports to become proficient in those subjects. We try to meet the students where they are academically. Not where the text or society says they should be. One method is through the use of online classes with a tutor for additional help. Another method is our Independent Study program, which gives many students the opportunity to work or to care for a child. Our Restorative Justice program gives many students an opportunity to revise and adjust their “life outlook” as well. These options are not equal treatment. Every student is not offered the same supports. Rather, they are offered the supports that they need. This is fair.

Our goals of access and equity are shown daily. We want to send the message that growth and learning are an important part of the students’ lives. It is fair to grade according to how long a student is with us and their overall productivity. As a mathematics teacher , I did not want my students disadvantaged by culture, curriculum, or class. If you are with us less than the quarter and have a transcript, we can average the grade. If not, then we use the amount of days that quarter, how many days you attended, and class productivity to determine a grade. This is due to the fact that we receive students throughout the school terms.

We have planning guides but strive to accommodate the students that come to us. If a student has not attended school for a year, it does not matter what I planned. I have to accommodate and educate to the best of his/her ability. It is fair to give them a chance to recoup their credits and learn grade-level material. It would be equal treatment to cover the same sections at the same pace, but this is not necessarily fair since students need time to develop understanding.

Treating students fairly (equitably) is to provide all the help and assistance they need to be successful. Treating our students equally is to make sure all students have access to the same quantity and quality of needed materials to promote a successful educational experience. There can be a very thin line between equal and fair in education; yet the distinctions matter.

Response From Tasha Moyer

Tasha Moyer is the director of teacher development for Art of Problem Solving (AoPS), a leader in math education for highly motivated students since 1993. AoPS offers online, in-person, and blended learning programs for grades 2-12 that are rigorous and engaging, providing students an opportunity to achieve exceptional outcomes. Tasha is a 2009 Teach For America Bay Area alum and former math department chair at KIPP King Collegiate High School. In her current role, she designs professional development for AoPS Academy teachers across the country:

Treating students equally means treating everyone the same. Each classroom is full of unique individuals with different skills and personalities, so treating everyone “the same” doesn’t make sense. A better approach is to treat students fairly, or according to each student’s needs. This means customizing your approach based on students’ various learning styles, social preferences, and knowledge/skill sets. Specifically, treating students fairly from an academic perspective means meeting each student where they are and pushing each student to hit their “wall.”

Meeting each student where they are requires taking the time to find out where each student is academically and adjusting plans accordingly in individual, small-group, and whole-class settings. Unfortunately, I have more commonly seen teachers under pressure plow through their plans in order to “cover the material” (and I have been guilty of this myself). It can feel scary to go backward as far as an individual or a class needs, but it’s a bold choice we have to make to promote true learning and build a solid foundation. This may come at the expense of “getting through everything,” but I know I’d rather inherit a student who knows what they know deeply, even if they didn’t get through every standard, rather than a student who has a Swiss-cheesy understanding of the full year’s content. Clear vertical communication also helps teachers meet students where they are because teachers passing off students can share exactly what each student has mastered.

Just as it’s important to meet each student where they are, it’s important to periodically push each student to their “wall,” to the point where they don’t know how to do something. How else will we know how far each student can truly go? Pushing each student to their wall gives them exposure to real challenges beyond their current capabilities. We especially must push high achievers to their walls since high achievers won’t be challenged by regular content and may begin to expect to always have all of the answers. It can be easy to neglect them since they already exceed normal requirements, but we’d be doing them a great disservice if we didn’t help them reach their breaking points. If high achievers don’t start hitting walls from a young age, they will not know what to do when confronted with more meaningful challenges later in life. I learned this firsthand: I didn’t hit my wall until my junior year of college and I was not equipped to deal with the new types of problems being thrown at me. It took years for me to learn to love math again.

It’s the teacher’s job to connect each student with what they need to hit their wall. As with meeting students where they are, this requires individually checking in with each student and setting goals, since each student’s wall will be different. Students need to be given true challenges: problems that require experimentation, patience, and out-of-the-box thinking. Problems without clear-cut solutions prepare students for real life.

Challenging advanced students may mean finding outside resources and programs that suit their needs. It’s generally better for advanced students to go deeper before going faster; for example, there is no need to rush a young student along to calculus when there are countless tough but accessible problems for their current age. In fact, going too fast without building a solid and deep foundation will hurt a student in the long run.

Many students will get frustrated when they hit their wall, and that’s understandable! Draw analogies to learning a new instrument or sport, when we tend to accept mistakes and crave challenge. Draw upon your own experience of hitting walls so students don’t feel alone. Let students know that you would never want to deny them the joy of eventually solving a very tough problem. And remind students to compare themselves to their past selves, not to others, since everyone is different, and personal growth is what matters.

Respone From LaChawn Smith

LaChawn Smith is the deputy superintendent for New Hanover County schools in North Carolina. Previously, she served as assistant superintendent for instruction and academic accountability, director of instructional services, principal coach, principal, assistant principal for New Hanover County schools and special education teacher for Brunswick County Schools. She began her career in 1991 with a B.A. from UNCW (University of North Carolina Wilmington), received her master’s in special education from Fayetteville State University, and her M.S.A. and doctorate from UNCW:

We are doing a lot of work in our district around equity. Ensuring that students have what they need to succeed, in my opinion, should be the goal. Providing the same support and resources to people with different needs just helps to highlight inequality. In the classroom, a teacher that choses to greet a student in a welcoming manner regardless of whether they arrived to their class on time or not, knowing that it is likely the student is late because of reasons beyond their control, and then supporting the student to “make up the learning” that was missed, is providing an environment to ensure that student’s success. This allows both the late student and the student who arrived on time equitable access to the learning.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn, a Top 30 Global Guru, is a bestselling author of more than 20 books, including the bestseller Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word, Rigor and Differentiation in the Classroom, Money for Good Grades and Other Myths of Motivation, and the Quick Reference Guide to Instructional Rigor. An internationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor, motivation and leadership, she regularly collaborates with schools and districts for on-site and online professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website: www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

Whenever I think about how to treat students fairly, I remember the quotation that is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “Nothing is more unequal than equal treatment of unequal people.”

I recently spoke with a math teacher, who commented, “My struggling students can’t do rigorous work. If I treat them equally by holding them to the same high standards, it’s not fair. I need to give them something they can complete successfully.” I chose to show her an alternative that does allow fair treatment, without lowering standards. A rigorous indicator in math is for students to recognize and explain misconceptions. In that case, I might provide my students with four completed word problems, ask them to determine which is incorrect, explain why, and solve it correctly. If I taught that in a “fair” way, I would give the task as is to my standard students. I would give another set of four problems to my advanced students, requiring them to determine how many were incorrect (more than one) and follow the process. For my struggling students, I would provide two solved problems, rather than four, and guide them as needed. In this example, “fair” means all students have the opportunity for critical thinking, with a structure that can help them be successful.

Thanks to Debbie, Gloria, Tasha, Barbara, and LaChawn for their contributions.

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