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How Do You Create a Culture of Equity? Start With Ethics

Editor's Note: The next four installments in this blog series will focus on the classroom and beyond as we explore the shifts that need to happen before and along with a school-wide focus on equity.

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"The time has come for the education profession to adopt a common set of professional principles that inform state policy and practice in ethical understanding; thereby guiding school-level behaviors and decision making." —Rationale for the Model Code of Educator Ethics

Two weeks ago, just before I was scheduled to give a presentation to a group of educators from various parts of the country, I was informed that my principal was being placed on administrative leave. Although I was thousands of miles away, I could feel the reverberations from the staff, students and faculty of our proud school. When a principal is removed, the rest of the community feels it. The knowledge I gained from the conference where I facilitated and the reason(s) behind my principal's removal have prompted me to address the conditions necessary for equitable practice. 

Just as there were shifts in teaching that were brought on by the adoption of the Common Core, there are shifts that need to take place in our school communities in order to cultivate an environment of equity where the practices are not superficial—but deep and purposeful. The change in paradigm will make it possible to fully actualize the dream of classrooms, schools, and school systems that sincerely value and effectively educate black and brown students at all levels. The first of these four shifts is a shift in ethical practice. As educators and leaders, we hold the public's trust as it relates to educating and keeping our children safe and so before there is equity in practice, we must embrace the principles of ethical conduct. 

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You may believe that your school or district has a code of ethics and you may be right; but in my 13 years of education I have yet to see a building or a school system operate by a code of ethics made in the same mold as other fiduciary positions such as lawyers, psychologists and physicians. Simply put, a code of ethics is an agreed upon set of principles that helps guide a practitioner in making decisions that are in the best interest of the profession and the people it serves. A code of conduct in the education world, which many school systems label a code of ethics, is usually a list of Do's and Don'ts that mostly centers around accepting or receiving gifts and inappropriate contact with students. A code of conduct gives rules. A code of ethics gives guidance. Although your school may not have a formal code of ethics to guide behavior, an informal code of ethics already governs the actions and inactions of every teacher, student and staff that you encounter.

Whenever you see (in practice) or hear (in words) the expression: "that's the way we do it here," you are experiencing your school's code of ethics. This is where equity comes in to play. Too many schools have an invisible assumption of good intentions attached to bad practice. I have yet to meet a teacher, assistant principal or principal who says he/she believes that all children can learn. I have also yet to meet any test of grade level standards where black and brown students consistently support those beliefs. So what's missing? Check the assumption. 

The assumption that teachers and leaders truly believe in the capacity of students to achieve at high levels consistently is undermined by a rarely spoken set of principles that actually controls the work of the school. This 'invisible code' actually undermines the good intentions of every one working in the school and can sap the energy from even the most eager and energetic teacher. This is why we need to adopt a model code of ethics for educators.

This code would standardize the principles that every teacher holds him/herself accountable to within a classroom, building and system. It would give practical guidance to dilemmas that often-times leave teachers and principals at the mercy of their own judgment and values. And while teachers are fantastic people, all value systems and perspectives were not created equally and nearly all of our perspectives have been influenced by bias, privilege, and racism. Let us see how this could work in one scenario:

Mr. Gerald is a high school English teacher. This is his fourth year in the classroom and he works in an inner-city high school just outside of the city center in Newport News, Va. Mr. Gerald usually receives students who enter his class reading at least four grade levels below their assigned grade level. When he tries to get students to read a text that is difficult, the emotional (and even physical) push back from the students is hard for him to take. He is too afraid to tell a colleague or an administrator, for fear that his evaluation would be impacted. In response to the push back, he consistently chooses to use the city's mandated curricular resources which often assign texts that are also several grade levels below the academic grade level of his sophomore students. The students are happiest and most engaged when performing this type of work, so Mr. Gerald continues teaching in this way for the rest of the year. 

In the above scenario, Mr. Gerald's dilemma is whether to teach his students grade-level texts or texts that are several grade levels below in order to have a smoothly flowing classroom. If there is no model code of ethics for the school, he will default to his own values and dispositions and invariably choose what is comfortable (and perhaps practiced throughout the school). This is how students who come in low, stay low. 

If Mr. Gerald were to internalize a principle found in the model code of educator ethics, created by NASDTEC which reads:

Principal II. C. 1. The professional educator acts in the best interest of all students by increasing students' access to the curriculum, activities, and resources in order to provide a quality and equitable educational experience,

it is possible that his decision would have been different. He would have known that as a teacher, he is the gate-keeper of language in his room and is responsible for the outcomes of all students. Simply giving students texts because they are easier cuts off access to the deep and meaningful learning that all kids need to be successful. 

Equity has become a buzz-word for letting people know that you are on the right side of the dominant education perspective. It has become the way you let a potential employer know that you are committed to diversity in a new school you hope to teach in or lead, or a way to establish credibility with progressive participants in a presentation or a Twitter chat. That type of equity is as deep as a hash-tag and as useful as a cliche. 

Real equity happens in the mind. It is informed by experience and education. It operates from a set of principles that flows from the heart and head into the hands so that the decisions that are made in a building are consistent with the ideals that we profess to hold dear. Equity happens at the decision level. It cannot get to the decision level if there is not first a revolution in the principles that we hold ourselves and our peers accountable to. This can be done by adopting a model code of ethics. (Even fictional characters have codes of ethics!)

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Waking up to the sight of my principal (and district) in the local newspaper is jarring. Now, our courageous chancellor must address what the paper has called 'a system-wide failure.' He is doing it by examining the culture that has existed to permit the inequities that have happened. 

Back at my school, we must now think about what the way forward looks like. What will our culture be made of? There will be many discussions in the days, weeks and months ahead about how we should hold students accountable for attendance while giving them the support that they need to be successful. However, if any conversation does not go deep enough to the guiding principles that we must all hold ourselves accountable to, the hope for a school that practices equity will be lost and the students will divide the consequences. You cannot change a culture without changing the shared principles that create that culture.

What is the code of ethics at work in your school? In your classroom? In your school system? Does it actively promote equity or prevent it?

Let's get to work. 

"For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become." —James Baldwin

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