The upcoming Revenue Purpose Statement election gives the community another opportunity to revisit the issue of what equity requires with regard to facilities. Certainly every child deserves to attend school in a well-maintained facility that is not overcrowded. And it is hard to argue with the notion that each school in the district ought to have similar amenities (air conditioning, technology, library collections, and adequate playground equipment, for example). Whether equity requires new buildings or upgrading current facilities, and whether equity requires adjusting attendance boundaries to balance student demographics, are issues that need to be publicly debated and resolved by school board members.
However those issues are resolved, I hope that the public conversation about equity in the district doesn’t end with facilities because instructional and curricular decisions can also contribute to inequity within a district.
My husband had a conversation with a recently retired teacher (not from around here, by the way) about seeing more and more job applicants unable to sign their own names to job applications. The teacher, defending not teaching cursive, said that cursive is not needed in a world of computers and that teaching cursive “is a good place for parents to step up.”
Maybe being able to sign one’s own name is less of a hallmark of literacy than it used to be, although I wouldn’t personally gamble on that, so let us consider that a district might have a policy of not systematically teaching phonics or grammar, not requiring “rote memorization” of math facts, or de-emphasizing paper and pencil proficiency with traditional math algorithms. Having those policies does not make phonics, grammar, memorization of math facts, or paper and pencil proficiency with traditional math algorithms inessential to later success in reading, writing, and mathematics. But it does shift the burden to families to recognize that their children may need help in these areas and to effectively provide that help.
So when decisions like these are made, such as not to teach X or to teach X in this way and not that way, I think equity requires us to consider the consequences for children whose parents are either unaware of the need to “step up” or whose parents are unable to “step up” for any reason.
Dan Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology, wrote about family investment theories and stress theories of why wealthier children usually do better in school than poor children, noting:
Many low-SES kids are not getting the cognitive challenge they need from their homes and neighborhoods, but neither are they getting the support they need.When I look at the following charts, pulled from Iowa School Profiles (click to enlarge), it is hard to imagine that inequity in the district will be adequately resolved by focusing on facilities alone.
To compensate, teachers should offer in the classroom what these children are missing at home. Much of this is what we’ve called human capital—academic knowledge and skills—which is the teacher’s bread and butter. It’s also well to remember that some of this knowledge, though important for long-term success, is not academic knowledge. It’s knowledge of how to interact with peers and adults, how to interact with large institutions like a school or a government agency, how to interact with authority figures, how to schedule one’s time, strategies to regulate one’s emotions, and so on. Some of this information is taught implicitly, by example, but much of it can be taught explicitly.
The research reviewed here also highlights the importance of a calm atmosphere in the classroom and in the school. This is obviously a goal that virtually every teacher shares—no one wants a chaotic classroom—but knowing that a child’s neighborhood and home might be noisy, crowded, and threatening makes the creation of a serene, joyful classroom all the more important. Kids in more chaotic classrooms show higher levels of stress hormones. Knowing the consequences of stress for cognition, and the potential long-term consequences to the brain, makes the matter more urgent.
How much parental involvement do the reading, writing, and math programs used in the district require for a child to be successful? Do the programs exacerbate inequity within the district? Are there other programs that might make success less dependent upon the willingness and ability of parents to be actively involved with the child’s schoolwork? Are there other ways that the district and the community might more effectively support children to help them succeed in and out of school?
Thoughts about educational equity, facilities, the Revenue Purpose Statement, or district curriculum and instruction are welcome in the comments.