So, what’s “equity,” really?

I’m always fascinated by the lengths to which educators and education writers will go to label old practices with the hot new jargon. Right now, the buzzword is “equity.” Just this morning I opened up my new copy of Ed Week and found this article, titled, “The Art of Making Science Equitable.”

That was the title. By the time I tracked down the article online, it was called, “The Art of Making Science Accessible and Relevant to all Students.” No more “equitable.” Hmm.

You can change the title, but you can’t change the whole article . . . and this whole article is a stretch. It’s trying to claim that we must promote “equity” by promoting . . . basically good, old-fashioned engaging instruction.

Elementary science units need to be relevant to students’ lives. Lessons should be designed with students’ interests and backgrounds in mind. That will — you’ll never believe this — make children more engaged.

It’s interesting to see the extent to which some of us will go to use the new buzzword — “equity” — to paint basic, bread-and-butter pedagogy as a quasi-moral social justice-y cause. A teacher’s science lesson that’s based on a plant found locally? It “(gives) all her students, regardless of their race, class, or cultural backgrounds, a way to enter science on equal footing, through something they all share.”

Another teacher “tries to create assignments that put no child at a disadvantage.” Her noble assignment? Light. She’s having the students study light. The article says, “Using light as an instructional anchor . . . works because it deals with an everyday thing that all kids have the privilege of accessing, in their houses, their mobile homes, or even in the cars they’re living in temporarily.” How compassionate of her.

Even if this article is a stretch, there’s a hard question at the bottom of this — one that has seemed especially urgent in the Trump era: How to ensure that American teachers, who are primarily white, are creating relevant lessons for an increasingly non-white student population. This gets tricky not only because of race, but because of poverty, and teachers who don’t live in the communities where they work. Toss in the mandates of scripted curriculum, the demands of state-level testing, and teacher accountability measures and you’ve got more barriers to culturally relevant lessons.

And it’s not just about using materials that students can relate to — it’s about honoring what each student brings to the classroom — personally, culturally, and linguistically. As I said, the calls for this sort of thing, usually termed something such as “culturally responsive teaching,” have been especially plaintive in the Trump era, for all the obvious reasons. There’s been a lot of talk about making sure that students are “seen” — in part because we live in a time when our government can’t seem to do the same.

I think the idea of knowing your students — who they are, where they come from, and what they value is important. Not simply thinking there’s something wrong with students who are different is critical. That said, I think it’s possible to take the push for “equity” — and all that entails — too far. Cloaking policy ideas in civil rights or social justice language is an easy rhetorical move, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t scrutinize the policy. Sometimes — as with this article — it’s just people trying to sound more cutting-edge than they are. Other times it’s well-intentioned, but poorly thought out. No Child Left Behind was marked with just such humanitarian rhetoric and noble ideals, but it turned out to be the most damaging, punitive education law imaginable. Still other times the idea is well-intentioned, but downright ill-liberal. This is the case with advocates who push well-meaning but censorious speech codes for the purpose of protecting the vulnerable. Anytime I see anyone invoking “equity” these days, I look closely at what they’re selling.

And how do we choose culturally-relevant materials? How do we balance — in the words of one influential educational article, giving students mirrors in which to see themselves, and windows from which to see new worlds?

I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read lately that have called for more diverse curricula, better cultural understanding of one’s students, more sensitivity to the messages we’re sending to students through the “hidden curriculum.” Whose voice is valued? Whose books are on our selves and on our syllabi? These are important questions.

That said, there are no easy answers. The curriculum is not infinite. Teachers must make hard decisions. Most high school English reading lists only contain five or six books. Which cultures and voices get included? And how do you do so in a way that fits your particular clientele of students? I remember a panelist at a conference who was still upset that she had not once “seen herself reflected in the curriculum” when she was in school. “We didn’t read a single book by a Lebanese American,” she said. Whose voice do we include?

That plays into an even greater question: What is our goal and our mission as teachers? Is our goal that students see themselves in curriculum? If so, why? I am not saying that is a bad aim, just that we need to think more deeply about it. Is our goal to teach students “tolerance”? If so — tolerance of whom? Is it our goal to liberate students? Okay, but from what? Are we training them to right political wrongs? Yes, but which ones? According to whom? Should our goal be to present students with works and thinkers whose characters present positive role models? Or is there value to be found in studying the inconvenient aspects of history, or “problematic” characters and stories? If so, what is the value?

So while I get it with the equity stuff (who wouldn’t want that as a goal?), I think the time has come to push past the buzzwords and the posturing and to ask ourselves the harder, deeper questions.

What comes next?

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