Equity in Our Schools: A Pretty Little Lie

Updated: Jun 23

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.

Who Speaks?

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.

The Background.

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 inst