One of the nation’s leading researchers on education equity earlier this month called on Arizona leaders to “speak up for equity” and work together to identify and change policies, practices and gaps in access that are denying learning opportunities to the state’s most vulnerable youth, among them homeless, special education, immigrant, Black, Latino and Native American students.
“There’s potential for excellence in all kids,” said Dr. Pedro Noguera, professor of education at the University of California-Los Angeles. “That should be what drives us to make sure that all kids get the education they need and deserve to support themselves, their families and their communities.”
Noguera, who also is co-author of the book “Excellence Through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student,” addressed a group of more than 200 public education, civic and policy leaders March 10 in Phoenix at The Equity Event, a two-day conference hosted by the Arizona School Boards Association.
He said he believes students who have the least need more than they are getting now, but acknowledged that “taking a stand for equity” and asking tough questions about disparities in opportunities and academic outcomes can make people uneasy. “But we’re not going to get change if everyone’s always comfortable,” Noguera said.
He challenged the school leaders in the room to look at student achievement data from their districts to determine if race, class, gender and language are predictors of achievement.
Disproportionality in discipline rates and special education classification between student groups also are indicators that equity issues may exist.
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Align discipline to goals
Educators need to “make sure that we’re not using discipline to put kids out of school that we don’t want to teach,” but rather reconnect them to learning as quickly as possible, Noguera said.
He urged the audience to “get more creative” in how they address discipline, focus on modelling values they want student to display, and addressing the social and emotional needs that are often the underlying cause of behavior problems.
What equity is
“We need a change, a shift, a focus on equity that’s not about compromising excellence, but recognizes that the path to excellence is through equity,” Noguera said.
He also stressed that equity is not about treating all students the same, “it’s about responding to the needs of the kids.”
In his remarks, Noguera outlined 10 ways to pursue equity through excellence. First and foremost, he said, is to challenge “the normalization of failure” that can result from low expectations, complacency and a lack of accountability.
“In too many schools, we are blaming the kids and blaming the parents for not getting better results,” Noguera said. “When we hear people blaming the kids, the parents, the teachers, it means we’re not taking responsibility.”
Among the student needs that Noguera said often go unaddressed at school are safety, health, nutrition, family involvement and extended learning time.
Embrace immigrant students
Embracing immigrant students, who are often over-represented among at-risk students, and their parents by building on their language skills and developing cultural and language competence among staff are also critical to addressing equity, according to Noguera.
It’s also practical, he said, noting that today there are three workers to one retiree as compared to the 28 workers to one retiree when Social Security was created. “We have nobody we can afford to waste, no one we can afford to write off,” Noguera said.
“What are we doing to educate, to acculturate, to understand that they are part of this country?” Noguera asked. “What are we doing to ensure that this generation of immigrants will be able to take care of all these old people we have, because that’s how our system works?”
Guidance on what it takes to succeed
Schools must also provide all students with clear guidance on what it takes to succeed, because “there’s a lot of kids out there that don’t know what excellence looks like. No one has told them. No one has modeled it for them,” Noguera said.
Schools need to give students an education that makes them feel competent so they will be confident they can go anywhere and feel at ease, Noguera said.
“Equity is not about lowering the standard but it is about making the standard accessible,” Noguera said. “If we want excellence then we need a pathway to get there. Simply raising the bar is not a strategy.”
Evidence-based practices like mentoring, personalized advising, peer study groups like AVID, high-quality after-school learning opportunities and even participation in extracurricular activities can help achieve that, he said.
Partnerships with parents, community
Schools also need to build partnerships with parents, Noguera said, because “your highest achieving kids have parental support. It’s very rare to find a kid who’s excelling who has no support at all.”
To engage more parents, schools need to build that partnership on trust and respect, Noguera said. Training staff on how to communicate effectively and respectfully with parents across race and class differences is important.
Calling equity “complex” and “hard to achieve,” Noguera pressed the group to work “against the stream,” focus on outcomes and give “kids what they need to be successful.”