Access & Equity in the Classroom – A Teachers Role (Equity, Equality, and Access to Quality Education -Part 3)

This is the 3rd installment in my 3-part series on equity, equality and access to quality education. Here are links to Part-1 and Part-2, where I first define these terms and then I talk about funding issues that impact access and equity. As noted in Part 2, funding is a huge component of why schools and districts don’t provide equitable access to support student needs, and why low-economic areas tend to have inequitable education experiences and poor access to the supports and resources needed to help all students learn and achieve, based on their individual needs.

As a teacher, school funding is out of our hands for the most part (except for the personal funds we all spend to make sure the students in our classroom have resources and support). Parents and community leaders need to take a really close look at the money teachers spend out of their own pockets to address some of the inequities within their own classroom and school – it’s not right, it’s not fair and there needs to be more push-back on education policy and more support from local businesses, community advocates, and state and local school boards to ensure that schools that need funding and resources are getting those in an equitable fashion (remember, not equal, but equitable – all schools do not need the same). Teachers will spend their own money, even when they have very little, because they care about their students and what happens in their classroom, but they shouldn’t have to.

But, I digress.

What I want to talk about in this post is what teachers can do in their classrooms to address equity and access to quality education. Teachers, even without adequate funding, resources and support, are the most able to provide equity and access for the students in their classroom because that is where the learning happens. And it’s the learning, it’s the teaching strategies, it’s those interactions and learning experiences that can provide equity and access for all students. Let’s remind ourselves about what equity and access means – it means each student getting what THEY need to learn, meaning they have access to rich learning experiences and teaching that provides them with the support they need to understand the content, to think, to make connections, to apply that learning, and to achieve to their potential. To learn, despite their gender, their race, their socio-economic status, or their disabilities.

I can only speak from what I know, so I am going to take a mathematical approach to equity and access in the math classroom, but even if you are not a math teacher, these ideas and processes work in your classrooms as well, with the only difference being in the content.

NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) has a position for what it means to have equity and access in the math classroom, so I am including it here (this links to the full article):

Creating, supporting, and sustaining a culture of access and equity require being responsive to students’ backgrounds, experiences, cultural perspectives, traditions, and knowledge when designing and implementing a mathematics program and assessing its effectiveness. Acknowledging and addressing factors that contribute to differential outcomes among groups of students are critical to ensuring that all students routinely have opportunities to experience high-quality mathematics instruction, learn challenging mathematics content, and receive the support necessary to be successful. Addressing equity and access includes both ensuring that all students attain mathematics proficiency and increasing the numbers of students from all racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, and socioeconomic groups who attain the highest levels of mathematics achievement.

This means that all students should be engaged in real-world learning, problem-solving kids-girl-pencil-drawing-159823experiences, and applications of the content. These types of learning experiences are not just for those ‘advanced’ students. This means providing opportunities for students to engage in collaborative learning, where they are communicating their thoughts and ideas with others, where they are taught and allowed multiple approaches and multiple solutions, where they have supports (i.e. questioning by the teacher, partnering with others, hands-on materials, technology/visuals, etc.) that might help them make connections or get to that next ‘aha’ moment.  Lower-performing students shouldn’t be relegated to doing drill & kill worksheets and ‘remedial’ math classes where the focus is on test-taking strategies and memorization, but rather should be exposed to the same challenging problem-based, inquiry approaches as the high performing students, but with different supports to help address their needs (so scaffolded questions, or suggestions on strategies, or working with a partner, etc.).

A large part of this equity and access means teachers need to BELIEVE that ALL students can achieve and learn, with the difference being that some need more supports than others. I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “well, my lower-level students can’t do that” or “my students won’t talk or show me different approaches” or “my students will just wait for the ‘smart’ ones to do all the work’ or “my students have a hard time reading so we don’t do word problems” or “my students will just give up or just ask me to show them the answer”. I could go on, but I think you get the point (and have perhaps made those same comments yourself). It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if you think this way, try something once and it ‘fails’, and therefore you don’t do it again – and then you and the students believe they can’t learn, or they can’t talk, or they can’t solve problems, etc. This is where inequity becomes a huge issue in classrooms – because we then resort to teaching students the ‘one way’ to do things (i.e. often the ‘way that’s on the test), and those students who need a different approach or who can’t memorize, can’t ‘perform’ or ‘achieve’ because they are NOT getting what they need to learn, and the cycle continues. To promote equity and access within your own class, you need to do some planning, some hard work up front, and be consistent – but it can change how you teach and how students learn so that all your students are getting what THEY need to learn. As a teacher, this is your responsibility within your own classroom.

cute-children-drawing-teacher-preschool-class-little-40195392Here are some suggestions:

  1. Starting day one, begin creating a classroom culture that promotes communication, collaboration, and respect. Students need to ‘learn’ how to talk with each other and listen to each other – so practice getting them in and out of groups, sharing ideas (start with non-academic sharing first, like ‘what’s the best movie you saw this summer and why”), working with partners and presenting their thoughts. Practice respectful listening. Practice and model appropriate responses when someone might make a mistake (mistakes should be accepted as part of the learning). There are several places to go to help you learn some collaborative teaching strategies – this is a nice list of articles with good tips.
  2. Learn to ask questions instead of giving answers or telling students they are right/wrong or yes/no. Simple questioning skills force students to start thinking, communicating, making connections, asking their own questions. Again, many resources out there to support questioning skills and provide some sample questions (“Why” is always a good one, or “Can you explain?”). Here’s one resource.
  3. Set high expectations and be consistent with those from day one. Expect students to not only show their work, but to explain their thinking (write out in words or draw pictures or explain verbally). Model this when you teach or show things to students (think-out-loud is a great way to model this type of behavior in mathematics class). Consistency is important!
  4. Provide problem-solving strategies from the beginning so that students realize that they have multiple ways to approach an unknown problem or situation. These are great strategies to incorporate in those first couple weeks of school and then to reference as they come up the rest of the year. And yes – even elementary students need problem solving skills.  (Notice & Wonder should become a habit of mind for all students, no matter the age because it provides that ‘think time’ and that ability to try and connect to prior knowledge and use what you know). The Math Forum is a wonderful resource for learning about the strategies and for getting problems to use in class.
  5. Expect and allow for multiple ways to approach math problems. As long as students can justify what they did and it is mathematically sound reasoning/thinking, it should be okay. This is probably the single most important piece to equity in the math classroom – allowing students to solve problems multiple ways, using the strategies and methods that work for them, and allowing for multiple solutions/solution pathways. This is the hardest thing for teachers i think because we ‘know’ the ‘right’ way – but the right way is not the only way, and some students may never get the ‘right’ way, but they have a way and it gets them there and that should be okay AS LONG AS THEY EXPLAIN THEIR THINKING (see #3). To make this work, see #4.
  6. Provide interesting learning experiences that promote thinking, multiple pathways to a solution, even multiple solutions. You will not get students working and communicating if you give them a worksheet with 30 process/skill based problems. You need to find interesting, relevant, problem-solving experiences that engage all students, that allow all students, no matter their ‘ability level’, a way to start thinking about solving. These types of problems should require previous math content knowledge and/or applications of new math content, require some analysis…..so think rich tasks.  There are many resources for interesting problems out there – content-related too – (Math Forum, Mathalicious, YummyMath, Illuminations, links to other resources)
  7. Less lecture, more inquiry, student-based learning. Hands-on, visualizations, student questioning, student explanation. This does not mean you need to have a different activity for every student – that would be exhausting. You need to find learning experiences that address your content that allow all students a way to ‘enter’ the learning from whatever level they are at.

Teaching one way and expecting the ‘same’ approach for all students, no matter the level, will always leave some students behind and others stagnating.Our teaching should always be focused on the standards and content, with the way we structure the learning and the way we allow students to demonstrate their understandings providing the differentiation that will let all students achieve – those who are ‘behind’ learning to catch up and those stagnating able to move ahead and explore. The more students can connect with, engage in, and explain mathematics using what they know  and building on this knowledge, with the teacher guiding them to deeper understanding through questioning, modeling, and supports as needed, the more equitable the learning becomes.

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The Access Formula – (Equity, Equality, and Access to Quality Education – Part 2)

In last weeks’ part 1 of this series on equity, equality, and access to quality education, I defined access to quality education as “the ways in which educational institutions and policies ensure—or at least strive to ensure—that students have equal and equitable opportunities to take full advantage of their education. Increasing access generally requires schools to provide additional services or remove any actual or potential barriers that might prevent some students from equitable participation in certain courses or academic programs.” Access then encompasses many aspects of education, from funding, to resources, to programs and services that help ensure that all students are getting an equitable education (what they need to support learning).

Obviously, all school districts and schools strive to provide access to needed services and supports for their students. There are federal laws in place designed to ensure that all students are getting access to equitable education and getting supports they need. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is a law that all public schools must adhere to, which ensures that students with disabilities (including learning disabilities) have access to the least restrictive educational setting, have rights to ensure they get the services they need to support their learning, and parents can have a say in the educational decisions made regarding their students. An example of this from my own teaching is having an interpreter in my math classes that signed for the deaf students in my classes, or a student with an IEP (individual education plan) who needed copies of my notes because they had a learning disability that interfered with their ability to take their own notes. There is also Title I Laws and Funding, specifically designed to address low-income and disadvantaged students and ensure that schools that serve these students are getting the funds they need to support achievement, through things like extra academic supports for reading and writing, pre-school and after-school programs, with the goal to improve achievement on state standardized testing. I won’t go into all the details (link provided gives more information), but the idea here is to provide additional academic supports to low-income& disadvantaged students who are struggling academically. There are no federal laws that pertain to gifted students needs, though there are individual states and local schools that provide resources and supports for gifted education, but it varies by state.

As you might surmise, there is definitely an attempt to provide access to equitable education. But what’s the reality?

From my own experiences, access is NOT equitable. I would wager in most school districts, there is a huge disparity between what resources are available and the quality of education received at various schools within the same district and between districts within the same state. I have worked in many urban school districts where one middle school has low-achieving students at computers every day in math class, working on computer programs designed to support their mathematical skill development, and the other middle school down the street barely has enough rulers for the 42 students in the class, with a teacher who just has one computer and projector and a room full of ELL students speaking 5 different languages. Same school district. Not equitable access to resources. Not equitable learning environments or supports.

This is NOT an isolated situation, as I am sure many of you have experienced similar situations personally, whether as an educator or as a parent. Why is there such disparity when there are laws designed to ensure access to equitable resources and education opportunities?

The obvious answer is funding, which is a huge factor in access discrepancies. While everyone thinks funding for schools comes from federal money, federal funding makes up only 8% of public schools funding, so those TitleI funds and IDEA funds only accounting for a very small portion of education funding overall.  92% of funding for public schools comes from the states themselves, from taxes, lottery receipts and other sources, and a large portion from local property taxes. This means two school districts next to each other, one with a lower-economic base and less property tax, and one with a higher-economic base and more property tax, are going to have vastly different educational funding and resources. High-poverty schools spend less per student, and often have a more difficult time keeping quality teachers because of the disparity in available resources and services. It’s a vicious cycle. Many of the problems come from the way states/school districts apportion school funding, using different funding formulas that from the outset are ‘unfair and unequal’:

In a separate report, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card,” the Education Law Center answered its own question with a resounding “No.”  Among the findings:

  • Fourteen states, including Texas, Pennsylvania and Illinois, have “regressive” school funding, defined as providing less money to schools with higher concentrations of students from low-income families.
  • In 19 states—including California, Florida, Colorado and Washington—the funding systems are defined as “flat,” meaning they “fail to provide any appreciable increase in funding to address the needs of students in high poverty districts.”
  • Only four states have school-funding systems that earned “fair” ratings: Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Delaware. But “these states have a sufficient overall level of funding and provide significantly higher amounts of funding to high poverty school districts,” according to the report. (from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/06/how-funding-inequalities-push-poor-students-further-behind/395348/)

If we go back to what equitable education means – students should be getting the resources, supports and instruction that supports their individual needs. With the type of funding described above, this is clearly not what is happening (nice graphic here by state showing the difference by state in funding for poor school districts vs. wealthy school districts). Poverty and all that it entails, seems to be a huge factor in the access to equitable quality education. It impacts parental support (hard to be there to help with homework or pay for tutors if you are working two jobs to make ends meet), access to educators and schools support personnel such as school counselors and nurses, access to technology, education supplies (paper, manipulatives, textbooks, calculators, etc.), school safety, and all the myriad of other components that make up quality education.

When thinking about education and how to provide access to the resources every student needs, we need to restructure how states and school districts distribute school funding and resources. Districts need to do a true evaluation of what each school in their district has in terms of education resources (materials, technology, personnel), and most importantly, what they need to support those students in those specific schools. If the two schools down the street from each other in the same school district have math classes in one school of 20, with students at computers, and the other school with math classes of 42 and no computers and not even enough seats or rulers for students, there is clearly a problem. The first step is to really do an inventory of what schools have, what class rooms and sizes look like, what personnel resources are and really identify the glaring discrepancies. You can’t fix something if you don’t even know where it’s broken – once we see the vast difference in access within school districts, then we can take that next step of thinking about ways to reapportion some of those resources in a more equitable way.