You know that image of a fence, with the kids trying to peer over it, but they can’t unless they have different sized boxes? We often use that image in education, to highlight differences between equality and equity. We discuss how giving everyone the same access or kind of education might be “equal,” but not equitable: providing the same things in education (the same size box) doesn’t actually provide similar access or fair outcomes for kids (the ability to peer over the fence). We talk about the need to create different sized boxes. We have to differentiate to be equitable, and educators do try: we provide special education services for the child with autism; we design English language development or bilingual courses for children and their transnational, immigrant families; we offer counseling for students living with trauma.
And what about racial equity? What kind of boxes have we created here? Or is this even the question we should be asking? In a recent blog post, Dr. Anjalé Welton points out that thinking about equity in terms of building boxes puts most of our attention on individual children and what they need. It implies that if we simply fix the kid by offering some additional services, we’ve achieved equity. But sometimes we need to rethink – or open up – the whole fence, don’t we?
Today, we stand at a new crossroads. We’re living, right now, with a pandemic that we have not figured out how to manage. We’re living, right now, in a world built by and still defined by colonialism and institutionalized racism. Our current health crisis has only exacerbated and shown a bright light on the inequalities and inequities that exist all around us: in health, education, economic opportunity. It might be time – not to provide a new set of boxes – but to take down the whole fence, open new doors, and start all over.
Thinking about what we might do, what we need to do, in education helps me understand the idea to defund the police. It’s the systems around us, that have been built over centuries, that are hardest to fight. It’s the desire to integrate our schools, but the reality that real estate agencies still guide families to particular neighborhoods and many white families still self-segregate by settling in mostly white suburbs. It’s the desire to improve the achievement gap with policies — but those policies only further the deficit discourses of racialized and minoritized groups by constantly reporting what they “lack.” It’s the belief in standardized tests to classify one’s worth and opportunity to go to college — . . . and on and on.
Next year, school will not look like it ever has. And this could be an incredible opportunity. How can we rethink education around the whole child, the whole community? How can we work together to share ideas and resources? How can we move away from defining kids as a standardized test score?
There are amazing things we can do if we demand it of ourselves. But we have to take our time, and we must take some risks. What if we don’t start school on August 24? What if we don’t use the ACT and SAT for college admittance? What if schooling is not age-graded? What if learning is self-paced, with small group facilitation as needed? What if we valued the trades the way we value “college for all”? What if school districts provided learning opportunities beyond “K-12”? What if learning meant more than reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic — or uploading 30 worksheets every Friday? What if high school credits included internship hours from a job? What if high school didn’t have to end at age 18?
Right now, in the middle of a pandemic, we are asking educators to do more than ever — with less than ever. Teachers have become professional fundraisers, IT specialists, computer delivery personnel, and video producers. As much as any of us can follow their lead, let’s jump in, and let’s re-work our ideas of equity. We don’t have to build new boxes to jump over the fence. We have to tear it down, together, open doors, and (re)build something new.