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Achieving Excellence With Equity: A Mandate for All Schools

Today's guest blog is written by Dr. Avis Glaze. Avis was one of Finding Common Ground's 18 Women all educators Should Know. She played a key role in helping to improve education when she served as the first Chief Student Achievement Officer of Ontario and Founding CEO of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. 

School systems across the globe today are focused on improving educational outcomes for their students.  Politicians are demanding it, parents and the public are expecting it and students deserve it.  The clarion call for improvement is based on moral, economic, demographic, enlightened self interest, community health, social justice, global competitiveness and human rights imperatives.   There is a need for all of us as educators to draw upon our rich knowledge base and repertoire of strategies that work to improve our education systems with a sense of urgency.

The cacophony of demands are being heard at a time when schools systems are becoming increasingly diverse with exploding demands and dwindling resources.  It is clear that our success and effectiveness will be judged on our ability to provide both excellence and equity in student achievement and wellbeing.  Our major challenge, and, indeed our moral responsibility, is to close achievement gaps and to ensure that all students achieve to the to the maximum of their potential.   This is essential not only for individual achievement but also for the future well-being of our society. 

In truly equitable systems, factors such as socio-economic status, race, and gender do not truncate students' life chances or prevent them from reaching high levels of achievement.  In these systems, educators draw upon their rich repertoire of resources, remove school-based barriers to achievement and ensure that their schools create the conditions to ensure success.  They focus on factors over which we as educators have control; instructional practices, targeted supports for struggling students, strategies to improve student engagement and positive relationships which can be very motivating for students.  Throughout my 40 years of experience in education, I am always reminded of the power in the statement, obviously attributed to a student:  "I don't care how much you know until I know how much you care!"

District and school administrators have the power to influence the day-to-day actions of staff and students. They need to use their influence to instill a sense of urgency within their school systems to raise the bar for all students, to close achievement gaps, and to create the conditions for success for all - especially those who have historically under-performed.  Among all the excuses that we make for underperformance, two of their mindset should be that poverty should not determine destiny and that there can be no "throwaway" kids. Our society needs all of our children to be educated so that they can become productive and engaged citizens.

When we look at the highest performing school systems in the world, they are systems that not only strive for excellence but are committed to equity of outcomes:

"Successful schools tend to be those that bolster the performance of students from less advantaged backgrounds. Similarly, countries that have the highest levels of performance tend to be those that are successful in not only raising the learning bar, but also levelling it" (Willms, 2006, p. 67). 

In their study of the world's best performing school systems, Barber and Mourshed (2007) found that these systems constantly monitored student progress and constructed interventions to assist individual students in order to prevent them from falling behind - they focused on preventing early failure from compounding into long term failure.  In short, they focused on equity.

While we know that schools can't control the background factors that can impact student achievement, we can control the factors in the school that can help all children achieve their potential. We have to work with our staff to ensure that they recognize the potential in every child. We need to ensure consistent implementation of the instructional strategies that research has shown to be effective in improving achievement for all students. 

Our job is motivate students, teach them effectively and develop in them a love of learning. 

In Ontario's equity and inclusive education strategy entitled, Realizing the Promise of Diversity (2009), the Ministry of Education states that an equitable and inclusive education:

  • Is a foundation for excellence;
  • Meets individual needs;
  • Identifies and eliminates barriers;
  • Promotes a sense of belonging;
  • Involves the broad community;
  • Builds on and enhances previous and existing initiatives;
  • Is demonstrated throughout the system.

Educators are working to ensure that equity and inclusive education strategies are evident in their programs, policies, practices and interactions.

High Impact Strategies to Close Achievement Gaps

A few years ago, we identified 21 high-impact strategies that have been shown to improve student achievement and equity of outcomes.  We organized these strategies into five key areas of focus. 

  • An Inclusive School Culture
  • Instructional Practice (using research-informed instructional practices)
  • Culturally Responsive Classroom Experiences
  • Early Interventions
  • Character Development (developing a climate of trust, respect and community)

As you look at the strategies that we outline in the book, the vast majority of them do not take more an inordinate amount of money or additional resources.  What they do take is a commitment to change and a willingness to take risks and try different instructional approaches.  And in many cases our suggestions aren't new; the research has been clear for many years that these strategies work.  The problem has been that they have not been implemented consistently in all of our schools, which means that not all of our students have had the same access to these high impact strategies.  The question we have to ask ourselves is, if these strategies have been shown to work, why aren't all schools implementing them in a consistent and intentional manner?

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Inclusive School Culture:

  • Establish high expectations for all students
  • Build relationships
  • Help students feel safe and respected at school
  • Offer flexible programming
  • Establish career development as an integral part of the Curriculum

Instructional Practices

  • Focus on literacy across all subjects
  • Develop oral language
  • Differentiate instruction
  • Emphasize higher order and critical thinking skills
  • Make formative assessment integral to learning
  • Integrate the arts

Culturally Responsive Classroom Experiences

  • Practice culturally responsive teaching
  • Make classroom activities culturally responsive
  • Select culturally reflective learning materials and resources

Early Interventions

  • Implement early and ongoing interventions
  • Provide tutoring
  • Support summer learning opportunities
  • Strengthen access to guidance and counseling

Character Development

  • Identify character attributes
  • Promote inclusive practices
  • Maximize student engagement

Would you consider your school/district to be an equitable system? Do your schools/districts:

  • Ensure access and inclusion
  • Create positive school and classroom environments based on respect and empathy
  • Build positive relationships among staff, between students and school staff, with parents and the community
  • Use a variety of strategies to close achievement gaps
  • Accommodate diverse learning styles
  • Connect students to real-life and culturally relevant experiences
  • Involve parents in meaningful ways

As educators, we have a moral obligation to act as advocates for equity.  We need to take on those issues that enhance life circumstances, especially for those people who experience social or economic disadvantage.  Our challenge is to work diligently to bring about change that will result in better outcomes for our most vulnerable students. 

As advocates for equity we need to ask ourselves:

  • Are we committed to removing barriers to ensure a more just and equitable society?
  • Are we willing to confront issues that evoke discomfort and dissonance?
  • What will it take to achieve our goals for more equitable and inclusive school?

We also have a responsibility to speak out publicly about the issues that we face in schools today, offering recommendations for improvement.  With all the problems that call upon our resources today, and as we compete with health, and social services for dwindling resources, educators must continue to be seen be seen as solution finders.  Over the years, we have demonstrated our resilience and willingness to work in the most challenging of challenging of circumstances.

The most powerful and sustainable change happens from within an organization, not when it is imposed from outside. If we are convinced that the status quo is unacceptable in terms of the achievement of certain groups of students - those who live in poverty, immigrants, racialized groups, Aboriginal students or students with special education needs,  to name a few - then we must use our energy and resources to influence decision making to improve their life chances.  Equity work changes the status quo.  There is no doubt that there are many barriers to be broken and obstacles to be overcome.  It is not an easy path, it requires advocacy, hard work and an unrelenting sense of mission and purpose. 

Out experience and the research have show that schools in challenging circumstances can close achievement gaps.  Our job as 21sat century educators is to remove all excuses from the table, regain our confidence in our ability to make systems work for the benefit of all students, strengthen our resolve,  break the barriers that stand in the way of achieving equity of outcomes for all students and recommit ourselves to what we know is possible.

The children cannot wait.

Resources:

  • Barber, M., &Mourshed, M. (2007).  How the world's best-performing school systems come out on top.  London:  McKinsey & Company. 
  • Glaze, Avis; Mattingley, Ruth; and Andrews, Rob.  (2013). High School Graduation: K-12 Strategies that Work.  Corwin.  Thousand Oaks. California. 
  • Ontario Ministry of Education (2009).  Realizing the promise of diversity:  Ontario's equity
  • and inclusive education strategy.  Toronto: Queen's Printer for Ontario
  • Willms, D. (2006).  Learning divides:  Ten policy questions about the performance and equity of schools and schooling systems. (UIS Working Paper No. 5). Montreal, QC: UNESCO Institute for Statisitics.
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