Defining Equitable ELA and Math Instruction

December 18, 2020

As the semester ends and school leaders look ahead to 2021, we want to continue our look into the System Leaders Academy and Equity Influencer Residency that’s well-underway. In the first part of this series, we introduced you to our two cohort programs and one of our beliefs that sustained and scaled change is possible through the development and aligned actions of educators throughout an organization. At stake is the success of historically marginalized populations of students. This program pushes the leader participants to name and solve instructional practice problems and improve learning conditions for faculty, staff, and students. That is why more than ever, having a shared definition of equitable instruction in both ELA and math is critical to the success of our teaching and learning.

Defining equitable instruction matters because, as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi puts it, shared definitions “anchor us in principles.” They also help us move towards stable goals and stable support. And it’s no easy task. Working in a team to create this shared definition may become uncomfortable. It causes us to think about and recognize beliefs about our students, school communities, and even colleagues that show up in implementing instruction. In our cohort sessions, we set norms and lean into and ask participants to authentically embrace Glenn Singleton’s Four Agreements for Courageous Conversations. These norms provide guardrails for us to embrace critical agreements we must commit to in beginning our working definitions. We must come to terms that we may not always necessarily agree with one another. Still, it’s about having courageous conversations and understanding another’s perspective to ensure we all hold each other accountable and commit to pursuing educational equity.

As we’ve learned from supporting school leaders and personal experiences in the classroom, there are some pitfalls to reaching a consensus on defining equitable instruction. If our definitions are:

  • Mostly technical, our solutions are going to be mostly technical.
  • Not widely shared, they cannot be widely supported.
  • Not comprehensive, the system-to-classroom coherence is going to be lost. 

The power of enacting a comprehensive, coherent, and shared definition is only as strong as our stakeholders’ ability to be aware of these factors and the choices and what they then can  impact. Suppose the tools and resources we choose aren’t aligned and rooted in a shared definition of what you all mean when you say “equity” or “equitable instruction,” there won’t be coherence. We can plan all the “plans” we like, but we have to make sure that we have a concrete shared definition of this work to keep it moving forward.

What has worked in getting people on the same page about equitable instruction in your district or school?

Once you’ve started to create the shared definition, we’ve learned that it’s essential to make sure you’re sharing and all stakeholders in your building understand it, as well. We ask our cohort participants to visualize this by using an Indian proverb that centers around an elephant in the room that only a few can see and fractionally describe to fellow villagers. If everyone in your ecosystem doesn’t fully understand the definition because you all haven’t all had the same experiences or the shared experiences, it can be like describing the elephant. And much like a mighty elephant, if you fail to get a handle on what equitable ELA and math instruction looks like, sounds like, and feels like as a whole, then that elephant can wreak havoc on the systems and structures that you try to put into place. It’s essential that we come together, bring all of our parts of the elephant, and put them together to have that one clear definition of what we’re working towards when we talk about equitable ELA and math instruction.

The consequence of these pitfalls is what UnboundEd President and CEO Lacey Robinson calls the regeneration of segregation. We fall back into segregationist practices that hinder our students from developing to their highest potential by implementing policies, practices, and processes that continue the impact of historical inequity in our schools and districts. But if we avoid them, even in a hybrid or virtual learning environment, being on the same page, with shared definitions, supported by aligned, high-quality tools and resources can lead to:

  • Increased proficiency in students’ performance 
  • Increased agency in students
  • Awareness of biases and systemic racism 

Having a shared definition of equitable instruction can help us align around principles that move us towards educational equity and is essential in our work to disrupt racism in our education systems. This work can’t wait, and looking to 2021, consider how a shared definition might empower you to act differently with the policies and practices you are implementing in service of all students.