The Student Experience Lab partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to engage teachers in creating and leading local communities of practice focused on issues of equity and closing opportunity and achievement gaps.
Discourse on race and student success has largely revolved around measures of academic performance; however, the achievement gaps noted across racial and cultural lines are indicators of deeper problems: a lack of racial consciousness and the presence of systemic racism.
The current U.S. public school system is built on the beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes valued by white culture. With schools becoming increasingly racially diverse, it is imperative to eliminate the practices and cultural messages that are detrimental to the wellbeing of students of color and their ability to thrive academically.
Problems stemming from systemic racism often manifest on the classroom level. Racial and cultural disconnects between teachers, administrators, and students often lead to miscommunication, disengagement, and disproportionate penalization.
How might we transform the values, norms, and practice of the classroom?
How might we activate teachers to change not only what is taught, but how it is taught, how teachers and students engage, and how school communities learn and grow together?
BIF helps education leaders explore, test, and scale next practices and new models, tackling complex, systemic issues through human-centered design and rapid prototyping. BIF seeks to understand challenges and identify opportunities from the perspective of end users – teachers and students – and to quickly develop and test solutions in the real world.
Educational equity is a system-wide issue that cannot be approached as a bolt-on to existing teaching and administrative practices; it must be at the core of every effort throughout the education system, interwoven into strategies on administrative levels and incorporated into everyday teaching practices. Many current initiatives provide inconsistent, narrow-focused point solutions that fail to address the core underlying issues surrounding racial inequity.
Many racial equity initiatives are also top-down administrative mandates that fail to tap into the catalytic power of organic, teacher-driven change. Teachers are the first responders and advocates within the system; they see racial dynamics being played out in the classroom and can bring valuable insight from the classroom back into the rest of the education system. The goal to advance racial equity must be supported at every level, but most importantly, teachers must be supported in accomplishing this work in order for significant impact to take place.
With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, BIF was tasked with developing and testing a new model that used a system-focused, teacher-driven approach to advancing racial equity in education.
Teachers must be able to discern problems generated from the underlying structures and beliefs that perpetuate educational inequity in order to develop effective practices that go beyond point solutions.
Close proximity to students and the will to promote racial equity do not adequately prepare teachers to approach the problem of systemic racial inequity. Racial disparity within education is a complex issue. Without the ability to distinguish problems generated from individual events versus invisible structures and beliefs that maintain educational inequity, individuals may produce point solutions that, at their best, treat symptoms and, at their worst, continue to support structures and beliefs that do not value the needs of students of color.
Strong teacher-student relationships and familiarity with the local community offer teachers experiential knowledge of racial dynamics. However, in order to increase teachers’ ability to provide leadership to other teachers and proactively address issues of classroom equity, teachers must be trained to navigate and think about problems systemically.