The legacies of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the landmark cases of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) tell the complicated history of the love-hate relationship between U.S. law and the word “equality.” Today, through a process known as “resegregation,” it is clear once again that in our nation’s public schools, separate is not equal. What is also apparent today is that “together” is no guarantor of equality either. But the new frontier of public education is not a quest for equality at all, but a struggle for something much better, equity. While “equality” implies sameness, “equity” speaks of being fair and impartial. Equality means that everyone is treated the same. Equity means that each is given according to their needs.
Educational equity has particular connotations related to the word “opportunity.” There is not an “achievement gap” in U.S. public schools, there is an “opportunity gap.” In order to be given ample opportunity for educational success, some students need more resources, extra-curricular services, and even attention, compared to other students. Students do not arrive at school on an equal playing field. Some students arrive with trauma and life struggles that create major barriers to learning. Other students arrive post ready to learn and experience school as a reflection of skills already attained at home. Every public school has both kinds of students, but more often than not, our schools are concentrated with one type of student or the other.
There is not an “achievement gap” in U.S. public schools, there is an “opportunity gap.”
No serious policy reform effort has ever been put forth to deal with one of the major causes of educational inequity in this country, the dominance of white teachers in the American public school system. The student demographic in the U.S. has consistently trended toward higher and higher percentages of nonwhite students, while the white teacher demographic remains flat as an overwhelming majority. Recent research suggests that students of color learn better from nonwhite teachers (The Importance of Minority Teachers, Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng & Peter F. Halpin, 2016). Aggressive recruitment of teachers of color is essential in the struggle for educational equity, but apart from stepping aside and resigning en masse, what are white teachers to do for the cause of educational equity?
It is important to note that white teachers are not in a position to “save the day” for educational equity. White people today do not approach equity from a neutral position. The primary position of white teachers in educational equity is a position of responsibility. It is less about guilt and more about utilizing the privileges that come with being white in America. Also, white administrators are neither powerless nor irresponsible for educational equity. They are simply outside the concern of this essay.
White teachers in all public school settings (urban, suburban, and rural) and at all levels (elementary, middle, and high school) should advocate for a paradigm shift away from Charter Schools and toward community school modeling. It is now clear that Charter Schools do not create educational equity and only worsen the problem of resegregation. Community Schools are traditional public schools that have adopted a model of schooling where academic learning is only one of many services offered. Community Schooling is a return to the concept of the neighborhood public school as a community center. “Wrap around” services offered at Community Schools may include health care, mental health services, employment assistance, adult literacy, social groups, and even financial assistance. Societal dysfunction in the way such public services are distributed, primarily along racial lines, is the fundamental barrier to educational equity.
There is also the primary role of the white teacher in the classroom that when practiced with a keen consciousness can in small ways chip away at the inequities that precede a student arriving at school. “Color blind” white teachers are absolutely powerless at addressing educational inequity. Likewise, a blanket policy of high expectations for all students does not create equity. White teachers must have high expectations of their black students not in spite of their blackness, but because of their blackness. The same holds true for white teachers and Latinx students, Native American students, etc. White teachers must be culturally competent to teach in a way that does not privilege white students any more than they already are.
A blanket policy of high expectations for all students does not create educational equity.
Finally, white teachers are critical to reversing the trend toward “zero tolerance” policies and the increased policing of public schools. Our schools will never be equitable as long as discipline practices that disproportionately affect students of color go unchallenged by white teachers. One of the absolute most inequitable things a white teacher can do is find joy in the suspension of any student. Students cannot access their education if they are not at school.
White teachers cannot take the view that educational equity is “someone else’s problem.” Even white teachers at all white or almost all white schools must step up and call for more equitable policies and funding at the district, state, and national level. White teachers should partner with teachers of color to transform the system from the inside; one classroom, one building, one community at a time.