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Equity and Excellence, Part Two

April 27, 2011

San José City Hall

San Jose City Hall. (Photo: Paul Robert Lloyd)

The following post is the continuation of my prepared remarks for the U.S. Department of Education’s Commission on Equity and Excellence, which convened in the City Hall Rotunda (above), in San Jose, California, April 21, 2011.  As in my prior post, I’m publishing a prior draft of my comments, since the version I actually delivered for the Commission had been edited down to fit time constraints.  My colleague, Martha Infante, addressed the Commissioners and the larger Town Hall audience later that evening.

Near the beginning of my remarks, I laid out four elements that allow learners to thrive – whether the learning is happening in a classroom, home, church, gymnasium, or anywhere else I’ve observed.  Those elements are expectations, relationships, access and support.  This post covers the latter two elements.

The next essential element in a thriving learning environment is access.  By access I mean ensuring that students have a way in to school success – a relevant and engaging curriculum, authentic purpose and challenges, and the resources to foster sustained inquiry and productivity that lead to real academic growth.  Here’s some evidence of an equity gap: many secondary schools are down to the bare minimum in course offerings, and more shockingly, we have schools without librarians.  Where I teach, our full time librarian (with a full-time and highly qualified assistant) is the most valuable teacher on campus, teaching every student and teacher better ways to access all sorts of information and media.  Additionally,  here’s just a sample of some of the additional offerings at my high school.  Our advanced journalism students are producing a newspaper, two magazines, a news website and a daily television broadcast.  In addition to all the usual science classes, our students can also take biotechnology, geology, astronomy, and marine biology.  Our offerings in the arts include multiple choirs, multiple orchestras, multiple ceramics classes, intro and advanced courses in photography and videography.  If you like technology, there’s not only computer programming, but also video game design and robotics to choose from.

Equity doesn’t have to mean we offer all of these classes at every high school, but equity demands access; equity requires our best effort not only to educate but to inspire.

Inspiration is not only a matter of what we teach, but how it’s taught.  I will tell you from thirteen years in California public high schools, working with close to 1,000 students, I’ve never met a high school student who loved a language arts textbook.  They are not impressed by a standards-based cookie-cutter curriculum-by-committee, nor are they drawn in by ubiquitous glossy images of predictably multi-cultural teens, artificially posed in stereotypical scenes.  Students see right through corporate production grounded in assumptions about who they are as people and students.  They are not interested in answering generic personal questions posed by distant, anonymous textbook assembly workers.  But my students, year after year, will tell you what literature they love: which poems made them want to write, which memoirs inspired them to try harder in school, which novels inspired them to be better people.  My sophomores will work for two weeks preparing to lead a community discussion about the Holocaust, and then give up two to three hours of their time on a school night to impart their own wisdom, serving for one night as teachers to their own teachers, to their parents and neighbors.  They will read, write, speak, and listen – practicing every portion of the state’s English Language Arts standards.  They don’t have to ask “is this going to be on the test?” – because the test is one-hundred adults walking in the door, having done their homework, and waiting to hear what my students will add.  Better yet, students forget to ask if they’re being graded on this work until after it’s done!  That’s what access looks like.  Students want to get in to the curriculum; equity demands we give them a curriculum worth getting in to.

Now, it’s not necessary for students everywhere do the project my students did, but at a minimum we could discourage test preparation classes if we’re serious about equity.  There is a fundamental inequity staring us in the face when we tell some students that they deserve access to authentic learning, and tell other students that their test scores matter more than their minds and their spirits.  If the tests really do provide a valid measure of skills, then the scores will improve when students practice the skills in purposeful ways.  Equity doesn’t demand the same classes in every school, but it demands respect for the learner shown by providing them with access to real knowledge and meaningful practice of important skills.

The last element I want you to think about is support.  Start with financial support.  Our district’s general expenditures per pupil this year stand at $11,431 per student – 87% more than San Francisco Unified, 103% more than Oakland Unified.  This despite the fact that their students, on average, need and deserve even more support than students in Palo Alto.  And from the local perspective, many people I talk to in education feel the federal government’s assistance for school turnarounds seems to be attached to punishments, as if the persistent failure of the school had nothing to do with the persistent poverty in the community and the persistently anemic funding.  Equity, partnered with some compassion and common sense, might involve government support coming with apologies for too little, too late, rather than arriving with restrictive mandates that disempower local stakeholders.

But support is more than a dollar amount.  In every effective learning environment I’ve been in, heard or read about, there is support in place to help each learner reach their potential.  My school is able to offer multiple types of tutoring, available at multiple locations, at multiple times in the day or week.  For some of that tutoring, we even have a tutor coordinator who helps students find the help they need, and then provides reminder notes to students as needed throughout the week to ensure the tutoring takes place.  Some of that work is done by volunteers whose support for the school is manifest both in work done for students and for staff members.  One year I divided the total number of volunteer work hours by the number of school days, and then the hours per day, and determined that my school had a volunteer brigade, providing the rough equivalent of seven or eight full-time support staff.  In addition to the obvious benefits they provide by helping us get our work done, parent volunteers are contributing to their own children’s success.  In other settings, you may not be able to match that level of volunteer support, but equity demands that you look for other ways to provide the necessary support to help students and staff do their best work.

Speaking of support for staff, most schools and districts are slashing classified staff, while we had more to begin with, and have only seen slight reductions in hours.  Most districts are cutting professional development, and tightly controlling the precious little they offer.  My school is dramatically expanding professional development opportunities this year, and offering greater flexibility to teachers to determine how the time and money will be spent.  There is no equity in this picture, when the pursuit of professional excellence is actively supported in a few isolated places, and rendered a luxury item in most of the state.

I don’t imagine for a moment that there is anything easy in the quest for education equity.  But I encourage the commission and the broader community to continue that hard work, because it is imperative to the very nature of a democratic society.  Tomorrow morning in room 201 at Palo Alto High School, my sophomores will be pondering this quotation from To Kill a Mockingbird.  Atticus Finch is talking to his children about inequity, and asking them to confront it head on even though it doesn’t seem to hurt them directly.  He warns, “Don’t fool yourselves – it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it.  I hope it’s not in you children’s time.”  I invite you all to ponder that quotation as well, and ask yourselves what price we already pay for inequity, what excellence we have forsaken.  Consider how much steeper the price may be if we don’t heed the call of equity, to build up expectations, relationships, access and support for all students.  Thank you for your time.

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