How to implement an equity series
Conversations about race
By Ryan Haven | January | February 2021
James Baldwin said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, nothing can be changed unless it is faced.” Recent events centering around racial injustice remind us of how deeply the race problem is embedded in American institutions and the urgency of tackling this problem head on. Certainly, more people all across the United States are talking about race, and there is an increased appetite to engage school staff in meaningful conversations about race. But how does a leader get such discussions going practically? How do leaders develop buy-in to engage in such conversations? What would objectives and goals be? How can educational leaders facilitate such a series and keep the focus on improving student outcomes?
Edenvale Elementary, an elementary school in Northern California, is comprised of 420 students, 85 percent of whom are Latinx, and 70 percent of whom are English Learners. With more than 85 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunch, Edenvale is representative of the thousands of Title 1 schools with significant numbers of ELs, socio-economically disadvantaged students and a large English learner achievement gap. Here, I will tell the story of how we at Edenvale designed a scope and sequence for equity training at my site to equip my teachers to more effectively work with all students, including students of color and ELs.
Our literacy coach, Sharon Leahy, shared: “I think it is important for everyone to engage in conversations about race as we watch our country become increasingly divided. At Edenvale, we serve a population that has had a different experience than me, and I need to work to learn what those lived experiences are so that I can better disrupt the systems put in place to keep people of color down.” The goal of this series is to develop teacher cultural proficiency by fostering mindsets, discourse and practices that will support the achievement of students of color and ELs.
My experience with building cultural proficiency through conversations about race does reveal some important lessons. First, I don’t pretend there is a simple blueprint for any school site. It depends on numerous factors. For example, you cannot put a timeline on this type of work. I certainly would have rather gotten into this work several years ago with our current intentionality, but that wouldn’t have been wise. On the other hand, although it took our school seven years to start this work in earnest, it does not need to take that long for another school or system.
Research and student outcomes
When we talk about conversations about race here, we want to stay grounded in research about improving student outcomes. Although personal and professional growth may be a side effect of this inside-out work, that is not the main reason we do it.
The main reason is to improve educational, academic and life outcomes for students. This is crucial. We must maintain a connection to student learning by identifying specific culturally-responsive practices, taking student’s cultural background into account while planning instruction and continuing the regular disaggregation of student data.
I wrote my recent doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern California on “Narrowing the English Learner Achievement Gap through Teacher Professional Learning and Cultural Proficiency.” While there are many reasons for the English learner achievement gap, a lack of teacher cultural proficiency — meaning their expertise in working with culturally diverse students — is one main reason for the EL achievement gap (Aguado, Ballesteros, & Malik, 2003). However, there is a shortage of culturally proficient teachers (Lindsey, 2016; Goldenberg, 2013; Lindholm-Leary & Genesee, 2010).
Through professional learning, we must provide teachers more in-depth knowledge around culturally-relevant and responsive practices for English Learners and students of color (Gay, 1975; Ladson-Billings, 1995). Such knowledge and skills alone are not enough (Aronson & Laughter 2016, Genesee et al., 2006). The necessary professional learning must change by going beyond just improving teacher pedagogy and methods to also changing teachers’ beliefs and attitudes about cultural diversity (August, 2009).
Also, effective professional learning must provide teachers greater self-awareness of their own cultural identity and bias (Killoran et al, 2004; Darling-Hammond, 2015). To develop this metacognitive knowledge, teachers must examine their own beliefs and values around race, class and even notions around “whiteness” to develop a “cultural critical conscious” (Lin, 2005). Chartock (2010) found that it is best for all educators to willingly examine their positions as well as take risks by being receptive to conversations about race.
It is important to acknowledge that cultural proficiency is dependent on more than just conversations about race. This article only addresses this one component. However, among other things, building cultural proficiency requires ensuring that concurrently teachers are building knowledge around high-leverage pedagogical skills. For example, since arriving at Edenvale eight years ago, we have been building teacher capacity through our partnership with Sobrato Early Academic Language, a high-leverage literacy (and bi-literacy) model. Also, it is important to build support systems in instructional coaching, professional learning communities and family engagement. In addition, a school leader must ensure that there are ample multicultural and bilingual curricular materials.
The leader paves the way If you had told me 10 years ago when I started out as a principal that I would be writing about how to get a series about race started at my school site, I would have doubted you. As a white, middle class, 47-year-old male, I didn’t think that race played a big role in my life or affected my approach as an educator. Although I attended a “prestigious, liberal” East Coast university, was brought up in a progressive Jewish family, studied abroad, was bilingual and taught for nine years in Title I schools, I never really engaged in serious conversations about race. Seeing myself as colorblind, I had never deeply explored my white privilege, U.S. history through the lens of race, or how institutional racism works in our school system. I didn’t understand the “why” for having courageous conversations about race.
The change in my beliefs and that of my staff can also be seen in the context of the important foundational equity work that has been going on for more than two decades in the Oak Grove School District and the practices and culture that has come out of that work. Through my time working at OGSD these past seven years, I’ve been strongly influenced by the ongoing consultancy I’ve received from Partners for School Innovation, training from SEAL, and the work of Glenn Singleton. I would go on to participate in a personal experience panel where I began to reflect on my own racial identity and bias and how race affects me real-time in my interactions with a diverse staff and student population and multi-cultural America. Increasingly, I came to believe that transforming schools would require more than just changes in teacher practices. It requires changes in teacher beliefs. Conversations about race are a vital part of that change.
I have not “arrived” anywhere, nor do I expect to. My equity journey is ongoing as well. I need to constantly be aware of my white privilege and social responsibility, and examine my own positionality and racial identity. I realize that I have much to grow in understanding my own positionality, racial identity as well as my cultural and racial bias. But I intend to stay on this journey and stay with these conversations about race, for they are a crucial piece in the puzzle to make a difference for our students.
Building teacher buy-in Even as my conviction in the role of conversations about race to develop cultural proficiency grew, I knew this could not be a “top-down” transformation effort. These teacher leaders and instructional coaches needed to be brought into such equity work.
In terms of initial assessment relating to mindsets, years ago I noticed that at my school, some teachers approached their students with a “deficit mentality.” They attributed student academic failure to factors outside of their locus of control. Second-grade bilingual teacher Sandra Lineros related how some of the teachers had lowered standards for their students because of bias: “In spite of the difficulties and challenges that some of our students face, believe in them, value them and have high expectations.”
Trust is another main obstacle. An organization needs a culture of trust between TK-6 teachers and principals and between one another as they receive professional development around teaching ELs, and in order to engage in equity-based discussions around culture and race (Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005). Just a few years ago, some teachers indicated they were not ready to confront their own racial and cultural bias.
When we talk about conversations about race here, we want to stay grounded in research about improving student outcomes.
To prepare for the work and obtain staff buy-in, we had a group of teachers participate in a two-year equity and leadership training program called the Transformation Network led by Partners in School Innovation. We provided intensive, job-embedded professional development on specific leadership skills including coaching, facilitation and change management that are needed for system-wide impact. Over a period of time, this team — and eventually the entire Instructional leadership team — came to the shared conviction that as a teaching staff, we needed to collectively reflect on our mindsets and practices around equity in order to build our cultural proficiency and better meet the needs of our diverse group of ELs. This team was pivotal in influencing the entire instructional leadership team to make the strategic decision to have these facilitated conversations about race. Again, over the course of our last seven years, this collaborative work set the stage for the strategic decision driven by our entire instructional leadership team to have intentional courageous conversations about race. After this time, the members of the Transformation Network became fully convinced of the importance for teachers to make personal connections to their own racial history or cultural history or racial story (Dray and Wisneski, 2011).
Our equity scope and series about race To build upon the equity learning that we have been doing in the past few years, Edenvale has developed a professional learning scope and sequence for race, class, culture and power. Edenvale is collaborating with Partners in School Innovation to plan and facilitate 10 monthly two-hour PD sessions. We will cover topics such structural racism; systems of oppression and marginalization; intersectionality; ELs: history, language and relationships; dominant white culture/privilege; and internalized oppression.
We also plan to integrate equity-related readings into discussions. For example, we as a staff are rooting some of our equity work around a book study on “So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo. In the spring, we may choose another book to anchor our work — possibly something with more of an EL focus. Sandra Lineros stated: “Reading the book made us dig deeper within ourselves to understand how our experiences have shaped us in a different way.”
In terms of our processes to engage in inside-out equity work around race, we will engage in listening and speaking protocols including affinity groups, fishbowl activities, personal experience panels, racial autobiographies and roleplay. As the work got underway, Sharon Leahy said: “I really appreciated the vulnerability and bravery of our staff. Hearing from staff members who rarely speak up was really powerful. I’m looking forward to hearing more about disrupting the systems and also learning more about/from my colleagues.”
In terms of measurable outcomes, teachers will be able to demonstrate greater self-knowledge around their own cultural and racial bias as well as report improved self-efficacy in instructing English Learners. In terms of ways to measure outcomes, we will use teacher surveys, focal group interviews and one-on-one interviews to determine changes in teacher self-efficacy and bias. In addition, as we go, we will regularly reflect upon feedback forms to help us to adjust our scope and sequence. Ultimately, we will evaluate effectiveness by examining changes in the percentage of students of color and ELs meeting or exceeding grade level standards. I should add that over the past seven years, Edenvale English Learners have witnessed marked gains in student achievement.
Now, even as we embark on these conversations about race, I don’t expect us to “arrive” anywhere by the end of this year. Singleton (2014) brings up that correcting teacher misconceptions that can lead to bias is not a one-time thing, but rather requires ongoing work by each teacher over the course of their careers. To sustain the equity work, we will continue working through our instructional leadership team, professional learning communities, instructional coaching and outreach to the parent community. I am more hopeful than ever that by engaging in this important work we are on the right course.
Resources Aguado, T., Ballesteros, B., & Malik, B. (2003). Cultural diversity and school equity: A model to evaluate and develop educational practices in multicultural education contexts.
Equity & Excellence in Education, 36, 50-63.
Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (2016). The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A Synthesis of research across content areas. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 163-206.
August, D., Shanahan, T., & Escamilla, K (2009). English language learners: Developing literacy in second-language learners-Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Journal of literacy research, 41(4), 432-452. Chartock, R.K. (2010). Strategies and lessons for culturally responsive teaching: A primer for k-12 teachers. New York, Pearson.
Darling-Hammond, L., & Rothman, R. (2015). Teaching in the flat world: Learning from high-performing systems. Teachers College Press.
Dray, B. J., & Wisneski, D. B. (2011). Mindful reflection as a process for developing culturally responsive practices. Teaching Exceptional Children, 44(1), 28-36. Gay, G. (1975). Organizing and designing culturally pluralistic curriculum. Educational Leadership, 33, 176–183
Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders,W., & Christian, D. (2006). Educating English Language learners. New York: Cambridge University Press. Goldenberg, C., Hicks, J., & Lit, I. (2013). Dual Language Learners: Effective Instruction in Early Childhood. American Educator, 37(2), 26-29.
Haven, R.L. (2019). Narrowing the English Learner Achievement Gap through Teacher Professional Learning and Cultural Proficiency: An Evaluation Study [Doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California].
Killoran, I., Panaroni, M., Rivers, S., Razack, Y., Vetter, D., & Tymon, D. (2004). Rethink, revise, react: Using an anti-bias curriculum to move beyond the usual. Childhood Education, 80, 149-156.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 465–491.
Lin, X., Schwartz, D.L., & Hatano, G. (2005). Toward teachers’ adaptive metacognition. Educational Psychologist, 40(4), 245-255.
Lindholm-Leary, K. & Genesee, F. (2010). Alternative educational programs for English language learners. In California Department of Education (eds.) Research on English language learners. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education Press
Lindsey, R. B., Nuri-Robins, K., Terrell, R. D., & Lindsey, D. B. (2016). Cultural proficiency: A manual for school leaders. Corwin Press.
Marzano, R.J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B.A. (2005). Some theories and theorists on leadership. School leadership that works: From research to results, 13-27.
Singleton, G. E. (2014). Courageous conversations about race: A field guide for achieving equity in schools. Corwin Press.
Ryan Haven is the principal at Edenvale Elementary School in the Oak Grove School District.
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