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Noguera: Educators Must be 'Guardians of Equity'

Dallas

At the outset of his keynote address before several hundred educators at Learning Forward's annual conference here yesterday, New York University professor and influential education activist Pedro Noguera noted that he was disappointed by the recently released PISA results, which showed U.S. students falling behind their counterparts in other nations in reading, math, and science.

But Noguera went on to explain that, when asked by members of the media to comment on the results, he had emphasized that U.S. students' poor showing wasn't "simply an education problem." Rather, he said, it was tied to "profound inequities" in American society—and, in turn, in American schools.

The PISA results, Noguera said, reflected a persistent achievement gap in U.S. education that is "largely about inequity—inequity in opportunity and backgrounds."

Noguera said that inequity is deeply ingrained in the U.S. education system because, in American society, the pursuit of excellence is often seen as being "at odds with equity." When that dichotomy exists, he said, "equity always loses." Ambitious parents, for example, will always push schools for greater excellence for their children, but, he asked, "who's the advocate for equity" in resources and educational opportunities for all students?  

Noguera went on to argue that schools themselves can help reconcile this philosophical divide by working to "achieve excellence through equity." He said he has seen this work taking place in a scattering of schools and districts around the country. "It can be done," he said. "We don't have to write off certain children."

10 Equity Practices

Noguera pointed to a recent study out of the University of Chicago identifying five proven components of school-improvement efforts: offering coherent instructional guidance; building staff capacity; developing partnerships with parents; creating a positive school culture; and fostering strong and responsive leadership.   

Unfortunately, he said, none of these principles is well-reflected in current education policy, which he claimed is largely based on "mandates and slogans."

But building off the study's list—and drawing on his own research in schools—Noguera outlined 10 specific principles and practices for educators that he said could lead to sustained improvement in schools, largely by aggressively supporting the academic growth of all students and confronting systemic inequalities. They included:

• Challenging the ways race and socioeconomic status become predictable patterns of achievement in schools (particularly by countering low expectations and complacency and using data to generate "tough questions" about students' performance and needs);

• Becoming guardians of equity (for example, by exposing the "pockets" in schools where kids aren't learning or are discounted, stereotyped, or demeaned);

• Embracing immigrant students and their cultures (for example by building staff capacity to teach them and honoring, rather than dismissing, their language skills);

• Giving students guidance on what it takes to succeed (by "demystifying school success," helping them understand "codes of power," and by giving them detailed information on a range of career options);

• Building partnerships with parents (by training teachers to work constructively and "compassionately" with parents to help reinforce school objectives at at home);

• Developing partnerships in the community (including by working with local businesses, nonprofits, and health-care providers to address student needs that can't be met in schools);

• Aligning discipline practices and education goals (by, for example, introducing creative approaches like restorative justice instead of removing already-struggling students from class);

• Focusing on acceleration rather than remediation (by identifying remedial programs in which kids aren't showing improvement and expanding access to and support for challenging coursework);

• Implementing evidence-based practices and evaluating such practices for effectiveness (by continually monitoring student and teacher needs in connection with new instructional initiatives, including the Common Core State Standards);

• And teaching the way students learn rather than expecting them to learn by the way you teach (meaning that, rather than just covering required material, teachers should adapt their instruction to their students' needs and see students' work as a reflection of their own practice).  

Most of all, Noguera said, schools and teachers "need to be beacons of hope for students." They need to "help kids believe in the power of education" at a time when many of them feel discounted or left behind as a result prevailing school-system practices, including cuts to music and arts programs.

"Educators need to keep that big vision that puts child development at the center of their work," he said.

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