Updated: Jun 23, 2021
By Tesha Fritzgerald and Dr. Katie Novak
Who Tells Our Story?
Imagine you attended a professional development session on race and equity. Before the keynote took the stage, the event organizer was thrilled to have a district share the work that they were doing. The school district kicked off their presentation with a short video that highlighted their work around equity. Their reel dazzled the audience as they boasted about their inclusivity, policies, changes, and data mines – but there was one problem. The backdrop of the video featured a Goliath-sized depiction of a Native American painted one color from head to toe: red. The name plastered above the rendering was culturally insensitive, to say the least.
This is our story.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We can’t remain quiet.
The keynote speaker at the same conference, a nationally renowned scholar on education and equity, stood to speak after the video. She shared statistics that included information about the achievement gap and graduation rates for people of color when compared to their white counterparts. The group admired the problem. Then she began to speak about access to the general education curriculum and that pulling students out for “intervention” was a form of normalized segregation in an “integrated” school. Feathers were ruffled, to say the least. There was an undercurrent of grumbling that was growing in the room. One man stood and pointed out that the stats were making people “feel bad” when, in actuality, they were “doing really good work,” he laughed. “We are doing the best we can with these kids, I mean we can’t help everybody. In fact, I think we are doing pretty good considering.”
He stopped himself, but he was encouraged by those around him who shared the same sentiment. His voice carried weight and authority. The waters were filled with sharks that would go in for the kill rather than accept the bait for change – the truth. Brown vs. Board of Education swirled inside our minds, while the power shifted from the expert to the privileged majority group. The shift lasted only a moment, but the data spoke clearly as to why his statements were troubling for some, but devastating to the students who were impacted so greatly.
In December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind and endorsed Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as the framework to ensure that all students experience success academically, behaviorally, socially, and emotionally. UDL calls explicitly for a focus on embracing student variability and teaching students how to learn, how to set goals, and how to share what they know to reach those goals in authentic, meaningful ways. It requires getting to know students and their families, collaborating with them, holding them to high standards, and eliminating barriers in the system that prevent their success. UDL supports districts, schools, and educators in creating learning environments that optimize personalized education for all kids, so every one of them can thrive – not just white, privileged students. Let us make this clear: what we are doing in our schools is “not pretty good considering.”
The answer to improving our schools is not to settle for “pretty good” or to create newer and “better” options. Instead, we need to invest in our current schools and deconstruct the systems we have established that do not meet the needs of teachers and marginalized students. We need to create opportunities where every single student is treated with dignity and respect, held to high expectations, and supported academically, behaviorally, and social-emotionally. This change does not require new buildings or new frameworks but instead involves an acknowledgment of and alignment to the evidence-based ideas about equity and race that are endorsed today that are being ignored.
All school districts have a responsibility to learn why UDL, equity, and culturally sustaining pedagogy is essential and how to deconstruct systems to ensure that all educators know how to design learning experiences so that all students can be successful. As lifetime educators who are committed to high quality, evidence-based learning for educators, students, and families, it is heartbreaking to see so many students failing, being suspended, dropping out of school, and feeling as though school wasn’t designed for them. The truth is – for many students – it wasn’t. We know what is best for kids, and we need to provide them with the schools they deserve. Those are often not the schools we are working in today.
What happens when schools don’t see the problem? In 2015, the same year that ESSA was passed, U.S. News ran a story called, U.S. Education Still Separate and Unequal, which stated, “Retention rates for students hit a high in ninth grade when 34 percent of students held back are black. While 12 percent of black students are held back in ninth grade, just 4 percent of white students are, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. When all grade levels are combined, black students are nearly three times more likely to be held back as their white peers. They’re also more likely to drop out before earning a high school diploma” (Cook, 2015).
These numbers set off some personal alarms that caused us to evacuate the old practices and policies that overturn Brown vs. Board of Education every single day. Retention and suspension are forms of separate but equal that hide low enough under the surface to go undetected until the numbers shout it out. The disparities start early. When examining preschool data for the nation, we see that while black children only make up 18% of the preschool enrollment, they account for 48% of multiple out of school suspensions. The disproportionality continues throughout the school experience, with black students being suspended and expelled at a rate that is three times higher than that of white students. The issue isn’t just black and white. American Indian students and Native Alaskan students are also suspended at higher rates than white students, as well. The span of the separation of the educational experience based on race continues with a disturbing trend in restraint and seclusion as well. Research shows that black students are 19% of the population of students with disabilities but make up 36% of students who were “restrained at school through the use of a mechanical device or equipment designed to restrict their freedom of movement” (2014). This is our story. Yes, it is our story.
We can’t help but think of Linda Carol Brown walking block after block to the bus stop to ride to her all-black school a mile away from her home. We are sure there was someone who stood and proclaimed, in the tone of Plessy vs. Ferguson that separate schools were “pretty good considering,” or at least good enough for “those kids.” What is most inspiring about the case is that Oliver Brown, father of Linda, was recruited for the case by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His name is on the case, but it represented 13 plaintiffs and twenty children. An organization picked up their cause and fought for change that would impact the entire country. This embodies the spirit of the case and cause of education and the real promise of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Learning is not just for the student. It is for the teachers, the leaders, the systems and the world. Race in America is only daunting if we ignore the shadows of the past and cover it over with the bliss of ignorance that dismisses the fact that there are dark places that still need light. Whether it is a mascot that is insensitive or a content practitioner satisfied with helping some and leaving others to fend for themselves – we have to address the gap, the guise, and gaffes of the educational system. This is our story.
“If we want teachers to have difficult conversations, examine their own privileges and practice, acknowledge that “good enough” is not nearly enough, and to increase the outcomes of all students, we have to give them more professional learning.”
Professional learning experiences are meant to address issues, but more often than not, these experiences need to address and expose hearts.
Whether participants are ready to move forward or not, it is paramount that the status quo be challenged and the cause of education for all taken up and moved forward. During these learning experiences, we need to remain open-minded and challenge ourselves to take on difficult issues so that we don’t continue to widen the gap, exclude students from core instruction and protect the all too precious status quo. The statistics and the practices we so often see today are personal reversals of the Supreme Court’s decision. The truth got repackaged and watered down to protect a pretty little lie that “good” is good enough.
The sad reality is that many teachers lack quality professional learning focused on equity, race, and eliminating barriers to learning through Universal Design for Learning (UDL), despite it being endorsed in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). If we want teachers to have difficult conversations, examine their own privileges and practice, acknowledge that “good enough” is not nearly enough, and to increase the outcomes of all students, we have to give them more professional learning.
Sadly, what little professional development teachers have is always under attack. The proposed 2018 federal budget, ironically titled “Efficient, Effective, Accountable,” ignored the importance of teacher professional development and its role in improving outcomes for all students. The proposed budget would have slashed funds to improve the quality and effectiveness of teachers, principals, and other school leaders. The proposed cuts didn’t happen, but the damage was done. Teachers and administrators heard the message loud and clear: We won’t invest in your learning, which means we won’t invest in the learning of our students. And you know who will suffer the most? Our brown and black students. We have to fight back. Every school administrator in this country has to be self-directed enough to ignite this work in their schools.
As you step into this work, here are a few questions to guide your professional learning about race and equity.
What issues are you highlighting? What issues are hiding in plain sight? Invite more voices to the table when diving into work about race and equity. If there is no diversity in the decision-making body of professional learning, then it will be difficult to find problematic nuances of bias and racial insensitivity.
Whose voice is the loudest? Whose voice is being silenced? Universally designed learning environments anticipate all learners in advance. Adult learners benefit from multiple means of action and expression, particularly when exploring sensitive topics. Employ a protocol of silence and personal reflection before sharing with the whole group. Utilize various methods for participants to contribute their voices, such as pictures and nonlinguistic representations, electronic polls, post-it notes, and speaking aloud (CAST, 2018). When having small group conversations, employ a “three before me” or sentence frames to keep the conversation transparent yet transformative.
What barriers are you knocking down? Who or what in your learning organization has been holding the barriers up? Utilizing an equity data audit tool helps districts to identify common and not-so-common blind spots. These tools objectively examine their data to see the impact of subjective actions on groups of students and individuals. Allowing the data to speak will help the learning organization to uncover hidden patterns and begin the work of addressing the faces behind the numbers. This is the beginning of changing the numbers into narratives of academic success.
Are you ready to face the truth? Are you ready to hear a truth that may be different from your own? Tim Wise, an international speaker on issues of race and social change, said, “Schools are places of inequality not by accident, but on purpose. That doesn’t mean they can’t be made better. That doesn’t mean they can’t be more equitable… We just have to be more honest about who we are and what our institutional DNA has always been about” (2018). Addressing the DNA of a system can be confrontational and challenging work. This will require the emotionally intelligent leaders who continually monitor the sweet spot of challenge and support within the context of adult learners and the impact they have on students.
When will the discussion continue? When will the talk turn into the walk? Talking about race in schools is not a one-time event. It is not one workshop or one presenter. There must be an organizational commitment to investing time and effort to see equal education for all become a reality. Talking about the inequity is not enough. Actions must be taken that matter for all. It will take time and effort before we see a transformation.
Transformative professional learning experiences force us to evaluate the schools and districts that we diligently serve by pushing against any element that preserves a separate, “good enough” standard for students of color. We have to read our story in the graduation rate, in the representation in gifted and A.P. courses, in the retention and suspension data and every area, both academic and non-academic. “Just good enough” is not good enough until it is good for all students.
In the Broadway sensation Hamilton, which is known for both its lyrical genius and its boundary-pushing stances casting beyond the color line, the last questions posed are, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” (Miranda, 2016). It is a haunting set of questions meant to ignite each listener with the fire of self-reflection. Imagine the eyes of every child who is marginalized or who is an outlier. Every child that is struggling to overcome a deficit that started long before they existed gazing into yours posing a trio of interrogations meant to disturb your peace. On their behalf, we ask you, “Who speaks? Who tries? Who saves our story?” Our data, our policies, and our practices are our answers to those questions. There is work to be done, and the time is now.
CS&A. (2018, January 31). Tim Wise at FORUM/Diversity 2018. Retrieved October 31, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThDYdwYeEFM.
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org.
Cook, L. (2015, January 28). U.S. Education: Still Separate and Unequal. Retrieved October 31, 2018, from https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2015/01/28/us-education-still-separate-and-unequal.
Miranda, L. (2016). Hamilton: an American musical. In J. McCarter (Ed.), Hamilton: the revolution (pp. 23-26). New York: Grand Central Publishing.
U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights Civil Rights Data Collection (2014, March). “Data Snapshot: School Discipline [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-discipline-snapshot.pdf .
Tesha Fritzgerald is the co-founder of Building Blocks of Brilliance, which exists to foster innovation and equity in schools and non-profit organizations. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “UDL and Urban Education: An Expressway to Success” (CAST, 2019). Follow her on Twitter @FritzTesha.
Katie Novak, Ed.D. is an internationally renowned education consultant as well as a practicing leader in education as an Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Massachusetts. With 16 years of experience in teaching and administration, an earned doctorate in curriculum and teaching, and 6 published books on Universal Design, Katie designs and presents workshops both nationally and internationally focusing on eliminating inequities for all learners. Follow her on Twitter @KatieNovakUDL .