Photo credit: John Mccann

A Path Forward to Educational Equity

By Karla E. Vigil and Emily Abedon

We live and work in Providence, Rhode Island, the smallest state in the United States and one that is struggling mightily right now to meet the needs of students in its public schools. It’s heartbreaking actually. In June 2019, Johns Hopkins University completed a two-week study on Providence Public Schools. In the ninety-three-page report (Providence Public School District: A Review), these key findings are cited: “PPSD has an exceptionally low level of academic instruction, including a lack of quality curriculum and alignment both within schools and across the district” and “school culture is broken.”

Further challenges the report illuminates include racial equity being a low priority within the district. Providence schools have 91 percent students of color and 9 percent white students, and 65 percent of students are Latinx/Hispanic. In contrast, teacher demographics report about 83 percent white teachers, and teachers of color represent only 17 percent. To us, there is a clear disconnect between student and teacher cultural experiences, and this disconnect leads to poor learning outcomes and broken school cultures. There is extensive research showing the benefits for all students when they have teachers of color. Academic success rates increase for students of color when they see teachers who look like them in the classroom.

We see culturally responsive teaching and multicultural teaching and leading as part of the path forward for Providence schools especially and for schools looking to meet the needs of diverse learners. Building a multicultural and culturally responsive teaching practice is an educational imperative and an extremely daunting task for novice and tenured teachers alike. Fortunately, there are incredible resources available for educators and leaders who recognize and value these types of supports. Using these tools and resources in practice first requires an understanding of one’s own identity and thoughtful reflection on how culture has shaped the lens one uses to see the world. It is critical that educators explore how socialization has impacted their behavior, beliefs, and ways of thinking. This type of reflection gives teachers a path toward understanding the diverse students they teach and how their teaching is filtered through their own cultural lens.

At the Equity Institute, we have worked to develop a framework to guide teachers and leaders looking to become fluent in multicultural education and become more culturally responsive in their practice.

Inspired by the research of education pioneer and father of multicultural education Dr. James A. Banks and the work of Dr. Kim Ridley at the Gordon School, this framework focuses on helping teachers develop lessons that connect students’ backgrounds and life experiences to the content while also fostering a culture of achievement. It allows for a curriculum that pushes students to think critically about the content while at the same time unpacking assumptions, stereotypes, and biases. Students begin to understand different perspectives and respect multiple identities, including social class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and others. This allows students to reflect on their own identities while also learning about their peers. Our Culturally Responsive Walkthrough tool can serve as a daily accountability tool that ensures teachers and leaders implement these practices effectively.

As educators and leaders use this framework for lesson planning or coaching sessions, they will become practiced at asking critical questions. One important question educators should ask themselves when reflecting on a lesson or during lesson planning is Were there multiple perspectives presented within the content of the lesson? For example, if you are designing a unit on the Great Depression and considering the groups of people it impacted, it is common to cover the white, midwestern families. Considering multiple perspectives will push your thinking to include questions like What groups of people are missing from this account of history? How did the Great Depression impact the Asian community? The Black community? Women? Educators using the framework will become skilled at recognizing whose voices are missing from lessons and units.

Another great question from the framework is Does this lesson or unit help unpack biases or stereotypes? All educators walk around with unconscious biases and stereotypes. Where are these biases coming from? How are television, media, or images shaping our worldview?

Being proactive about unpacking cultural stereotypes in the classroom when they come up is an important part of being culturally responsive. Educators should take care when addressing stereotypes so they are not perpetuating negative messages or making students feel embarrassed or ashamed. Community morning meetings are great opportunities to address and work through stereotypes heard in the classroom. Educators can pose the question of the day as “What are stereotypes?” You may post a variety of statements that you’ve noticed either from your students or in the media and ask what they think of those statements. Discuss what stereotypes mean and how they can label a group based on untrue statements. Finding time to embed these types of conversations into our classrooms and schools is critical in preventing harmful biases from taking hold.

It is the educators’ and leaders’ responsibility to be reflective about our own identities and the implicit bias we all bring to the work. Using this framework can help us be consistent and accountable for what we innately bring to our teaching.

Whether you are starting out integrating content in isolation, working across divisions on curriculum, or ultimately working toward an empowering school culture where all students are healthy and safe, these frameworks provide entry points for all educators. This practice will help build a strong equity lens and allow educators to reflect deeply on their identity and culture.

Equity in education and culturally responsive practice supports the academic and social development of all learners and should be an integral part of the path forward for all learners.

Karla Vigil is the creative director of the Equity Institute, an organization whose mission is to develop innovative systems that cultivate culturally responsive schools and communities. Karla oversees the creative vision and all the development of the organization’s initiatives including their key program, EduLeaders of Color RI. Previously, Karla was a Senior Associate for the District and School Design (DSD) at the Center for Collaborative Education where she worked as a thought partner in the development of frameworks and resources centered on equity, culturally responsive teaching, and personalized learning. Prior to joining CCE, she was an Education Strategies Specialist with Highlander Institute where she supported the implementation of blended and personalized learning initiatives in classrooms across Rhode Island. She also served as a 4th-grade classroom teacher dedicated to broadening students’ perspectives through multicultural and social justice education.

Emily Abedon comes from a family of educators and community organizers. She is a passionate youth developer and skilled motivator. Emily spent years working in non-profit, college prep programs in New York City. Her formal teacher training began as a New York City Teaching Fellow. She has her Masters of Science in Education through Brooklyn College. Emily spent six years teaching fourth and fifth grade students at her neighborhood school in Brooklyn. Emily has completed anti-racism training with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Peace and Nonviolence. She is a member of the antiracism group White Noise Collective that works at the intersection of whiteness and gender oppression and organizes with Showing Up for Racial Justice RI. Emily consults with the Equity Institute in Rhode Island. She teaches in East Providence RI.

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