In a Time Like This: Lessons from the Racial Equity Institute
By Dr. Lanette Trowery, PhD, Senior Director of Learning Research and Strategy, and Jhade Pilgrim, Academic Designer at McGraw Hill
Have you ever walked by a lake and seen a dead fish floating in it? Most people would wonder, “What happened to the fish?” Now, imagine you walked by that same lake and saw a plethora of dead fish floating in it. Would you still wonder about the fish, or would you start to wonder what is wrong with the lake?
That is the metaphor we grappled with at the Racial Equity Institute (REI) with the West Palm Beach school district in Florida. REI is an alliance of trainers, organizers, and institutional leaders who are devoted to the work of creating racially equitable organizations and systems. They help individuals and organizations develop tools to challenge patterns of power and grow equity. We had the opportunity to join with teachers, administrators, school psychologists, and others for a Phase 1 workshop designed to take a deep dive into the historical and institutional legacy of race and racism in this country.
The focus and purpose of the workshop was to help participants shift their understanding of racism from personal experience and opinion to one based on facts and data-driven research through the careful study and analysis of the racial advantage of white people in America throughout history.
In the workshop, we spent time examining events, conditions, laws and public policy, social climate, and cultural narratives that created a system of advantage for white people. Some examples from the workshop:
- Race was constructed in this country back in 1640, when the first case of unequal sentencing based on race occurred. Three indentured servants were captured and sentenced after trying to escape, but only the Black servant, John Punch, received a lifetime of servitude as his punishment.
- Race and racism were codified through the 19th and 20th centuries by continued policies, laws, and rules, such as Jim Crow, that were designed specifically to create a sense of inferiority amongst non-white races and led to a systemic set of advantages for those who were identified as “white” by American society.
- Through the early 20th century, white people were given opportunities to improve, learn, and financially advance their place in society — The New Deal, most college and university admissions, the GI Bill, FHA — while other races were denied these opportunities. This furthered the system of advantage whites had over other races in this country.
- As the Civil Rights Movement worked to dismantle both codified and implicit forms of racism in the country, programs were developed that focused on ”correcting” the behaviors and habits of people using those programs. Many of these programs do not provide much in the way of financial or advancement opportunities. More importantly, these programs did not address ways to ameliorate the systemic racism in our institutions.
The “fish in the lake” analogy illustrates our tendency to ascribe racially disparate outcomes to individual behaviors and decisions (“a sick fish”). When we locate the bad outcomes in the fish — the fish’s deficiencies, decisions, behaviors, culture — our remedy is going to be to try to “fix” the fish. We are a nation of “fish fixers.” Yet when we observe that our institutional “lakes” are filled with fish floating belly up, it should be clear it is time to examine the lake water. What would it mean to shift our attention from the deficiencies of individuals to the deficiencies of the systems and institutions they come into contact with? As we look at the services and programs provided by our organizations and institutions, we see that many address problems at the fish level. Fish often need services — hungry people need to be fed, homeless people need to be housed, sick people need healing.
But if we diagnose the problem of racial inequity as being something wrong with the people who are adversely impacted, then we will spend our efforts and resources trying to “fix” them in some way.
Like epidemiologist Leonard Sym, in the “Bad Sugar” episode of the documentary series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? states, “If we took everyone at risk of disease and cured them…it would do virtually nothing to solve our problem because new people would continue to enter the at-risk population at an unaffected rate forever”. If we want to really address the problem of racial inequity, we need to understand what is causing the problem. To what extent are we examining our lakes and their culture, structures, policies and the practices — what would it look like to do a “lake analysis?”
We grappled and puzzled with ideas of how educators might work toward fixing the lake. Many schools and districts have grappled with incorporating ideas of equity and cultural relevance as a foundation of their work culture and processes (see, as an example, McGraw Hill’s Guiding Principles of Equity in Education; Snyder, Trowery, & McGrath; 2019). However, school is focused on developing individuals or “fixing the fish” — helping students to achieve. How do we address systemic institutional racism through the school institution born to support individual success?
By developing critical inquiry skills
Develop critical inquiry as a way of learning– inquiry as a process of gathering, analyzing, and evaluating information from multiple perspectives to confront taken-for-granted understandings. Critical inquiry can and should be used in all areas, subjects, content areas — helping students learn to consider, critique, and break apart things that are thought of as given or “just the way things are.”
Teachers can develop lesson plans that include questioning on multiple cognitive demand levels — from basic recall to evaluating and analyzing ideas — and encourage students to probe and think critically about solutions. In the Guiding Principles for Equity in Education, the Challenge principle states, “In an equitable educational system, every student should have access to rigorous learning experiences that meet them where they are and challenge them to grow and excel” (Snyder, Trowery, & McGrath, 2019, p. 12).
Critical inquiry also is based on listening with intent; teaching students how to listen, focus, and interact with the topic at hand while working to understand the viewpoint of who is sharing promotes and leads to active listening, open dialogue, measured disagreement, and respectful debate.
By using critical inquiry skills
Empower students to question the systems around them through the content they are learning. In order to consider and understand the ways in which systemic biases impact policies, rules, and structures, students will need to use critical inquiry skills to uncover such biases.
Encourage and support students’ use of those inquiry skills to consider and analyze school policies, community practices, and institutional decisions as a way to bring the “lake” view front and center in their own world. Using these critical inquiry skills is not only important when considering issues about society and the community, but they are also important for ideas within all content learned in school — such as basic algorithms in math or understanding scientific discoveries.
Asking questions about why certain algorithms are taught and not others or what were the negative impacts of methods used in life-changing discoveries encourage students to critique and analyze information to get a fuller picture of an idea or concept. This type of critical analysis will also help with the information overload that students face today — learning to question information, not just taking it at face value.
By emphasizing collaboration and connectedness
Use programs and products that rely deeply on the ideas of collaboration and connectedness where students have opportunities to reach out in their own communities and beyond to problem solve, create, and engage with others in the broader society.
Another principle from the Guiding Principles for Equity in Education, Collaborate, supports this idea: “The creation of any type of equitable system — especially a system that involves teaching and learning — requires the consistent prioritization of inclusive communication” (Snyder, Trowery, & McGrath, 2019, p. 6).
Tasks and activities that connect students’ lives with the lives of other students and communities around the country (and world) can help students become culturally conversant and culturally aware.
These kinds of learning experiences help students develop a more nuanced global viewpoint and gain a better socio-political understanding of the perspectives and ideals of others.
By supporting and uplifting teachers
Teachers are a big part of this methodology — they need the support, guidance, and courage to take on this type of teaching and connect it to global citizenship and social justice concerns. Providing teacher professional learning, in safe spaces where teachers can grapple with sensitive and thorny issues, would support them in their efforts to actively understand and champion critical and social analysis for all students.
As stated in the equity principle, Support, “Existing research … suggests that educational equity initiatives are more successful when they include extensive, ongoing, and job-embedded professional learning opportunities for all staff at every level” (Snyder, Trowery, & McGrath, 2019, p. 13). This professional learning would go beyond content and could include topics such as developing authentic and engaging collaboration spaces for learning, encouraging critical analysis in everyday lessons, learning to use differentiation as a statement of understanding student individuality and personal progress, or using technology and other tools critically but effectively.
To combat the insidious effects of racism, we must consider it a system-level problem, not an individual problem. All of us together can become leaders in our own spaces for equality and equity through a careful analysis of our beliefs and how they manifest in our daily lives and our work. The suggestions provided here are but a very small step toward making a change toward a more just society.
Snyder, A., Trowery, L. & McGrath, K. 2019. Guiding Principles for Equity in Education. McGraw Hill. mheonline.com/equity
Lanette Trowery, PhD is the Senior Director of the McGraw Hill Learning Research and Strategy Team.
Lanette was in public education for more than 25 years, working as a university professor, site-based mathematics coach, elementary and middle school teacher, mathematics consultant, and a professional learning consultant, before coming to McGraw Hill in 2014. She earned her Master’s, in Educational Administration, and Doctorate, in Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum, from the University of Pennsylvania.
After earning her PhD, Lanette furthered her work in teacher education by becoming a professor in teacher education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. Her next position brought her to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN where she was the director of the Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools Master’s program. As director, Lanette led a team of faculty and coaches, along with school principals and district leadership, in supporting urban middle school teachers through a focus on developing and enhancing the teachers’ pedagogical, content, leadership and advocacy skills. Her research work focused on understanding the impact of culturally relevant pedagogies on teaching practices in mathematics.
Lanette’s team, Learning Research and Strategy, serves as the center of excellence for teaching and learning best practices. They collaborate across teams and with experts and customers to establish guiding principles based on learning science research and lead the efforts to move from theory to practice through a strong learning science foundation for our programs, efficacy research into our products, and professional learning both internally and externally.
Jhade Pilgrim is an Academic Designer at McGraw Hill.
After graduating from Rutgers University, Jhade worked abroad, primarily as a K-6 ESL instructor, language consultant, and curriculum developer in South Korea. While there, she also authored Listening Express, an ESL textbook series distributed by Compass Publishing.
Jhade joined McGraw Hill in 2017. In her current role, she works on the development of the Wonders English language arts program.