Equity – a collective effort required

Global Ed Talks

Equity is a hot topic among many involved in researching and reflecting on what we have learned from the COVID pandemic, and the forced lockdown of schools. Many in our system have seen, possibly for the first time, the full extent of inequity experienced by many learners (and their whānau/family) – much of which is ‘hidden’ from view in our relatively ‘homogenised’ school settings.

Despite this, in parts of the world where the immediate threat and impact of the pandemic appears to be under control, and the opportunity to return to school is possible, we’re hearing many in rather relieved tones say they’re looking forward to getting back to ‘normal’ (i.e how things were pre-COVID). While there are many reasons we could make to justify this sort of response (psychological, economic, sociological…) the fact is that this inequity has been exposed, and to go back to ‘normal’ can’t be an option when we consider that ‘normal’ simply hasn’t worked for so many in our system.

In their policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 the OECD warns that an holistic approach to education – that addresses students’ learning, social and emotional needs – is crucial, especially in times of crisis. The report continues to say that school closures have a very real impact on all students, but especially on the most vulnerable ones who are more likely to face additional barriers, and that these students are likely to lose the most in terms of educational outcomes and the support provided by schools if countries take insufficient measures to promote educational equity and inclusion.

In another OECD publication titled How can countries close the equity gap in education?, Dirk Van Damme makes the point that education plays a dual role when it comes to social inequality and social mobility. On the one hand, it is the main way for societies to foster equality of opportunity and support upward social mobility for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. On the other hand, the evidence is overwhelming that education often reproduces social divides in societies, through the impact that parents’ economic, social and cultural status has on children’s learning outcomes.

The World Bank reports that even before the pandemic, there were growing concerns about the widespread extent of “learning poverty”. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the learning crisis and resulted in a number of shocks to children, families and education systems this year. The impacts on the human capital of this generation of learners is likely to be long-lasting. Without dramatic remedial efforts and acceleration in education access and quality, there will be major long-term costs in lost human capital accumulation for this generation.

So what can we do about this? Who should be responsible? What action needs to be taken?

These are the questions I’d been pondering when I sat to watch an interview between Tony McKay, CEO of the National Centre on Education and the Economy interview Arne Duncan, former US secretary for education under President Obama (see video below). This interview (approx. 22 minutes) provides some valuable insights – and challenges – that are well worth considering. The things we need to do, as Duncan points out, are complex – but not beyond the capabilities of all of us as a collective to address.

Early in the interview Duncan gives expression to the familiar line; “we can’t go back to normal.. we must reimagine education.” But there’s also the acknowledgement that “the education system is resistant to change”, and so there’s no magic bullet, no quick fix, no single solution that will work here.

My major takeaway from the interview is the agreement between McKay and Duncan that the way forward lies in our ability to understand the importance of community, of collective action and of co-responsibility. An holistic approach to education is one that considers the learning, social and emotional needs of students and that requires governments and schools to work in partnership with other relevant agencies such as health and community organisations, social work agencies, and other support services to address the complex needs of the most vulnerable students during and after the coronavirus crisis.

I am drawn to Duncan’s suggestion of focusing on a set of collectively agreed goals at a national level (not sure the examples he provides are the ones I’d use though,) and then releasing local communities to actively pursue the solutions that will work in their context. We must then share the knowledge that emerges of what works and find ways to scale that up. Similarly, we must have the courage to stop the things that aren’t working – as they suck the oxygen out of what we’re trying to do and weaken our system response as a result – not to mention they continue to disadvantage the vulnerable we’re trying to serve.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of the sorts of practices that may exist currently in your context as a place to begin, for example…

  • re-think the rationale for streaming and ability grouping – what is this doing for those who are ‘left behind’? What messages are being reinforced about privilege and inequity?
  • consider the language you use on a daily basis – do you use language that ‘labels’ individuals and reinforces stereotypes? (e.g. “boys will be boys”, “she’s just naughty”, etc.)
  • make the curriculum relevant to the lives of learners – can they ‘see’ themselves in it? Consider the opportunities re local curriculum, local histories, mix of gender and cultural role models as a focus etc.
  • reflect on your school approach(es) to discipline – consider how punitive measures reinforce the ‘good and bad’ stereotyping and labels, while restorative practices reinforce the value of the common good.
  • above all, consider relationships – with and among learners – and with parents/whānau. It’s not simply that there are avenues of communication – but that these are used to reinforce the value placed on the relationships. Are respect and dignity characteristics of all interactions between staff, students, community…?

To go back to some statements Duncan makes at the beginning of the interview, “Public education has a critical role in stitching back together the fundamental elements of our democracy.” Whatever our role in the public education system (teacher, principal, parent, student…), we have a responsibility to act within the sphere of influence we have, and to become actively collaborators with others in the system to address the issues of inequity we know exist. It is our sacred opportunity and sacred obligation.

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