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Becoming Fearless, Serious & Strategic About Equity in Schools

January 26th, 2017

Although President Donald Trump has promised to “make America great again,” the truth is that America has never reached its potential to be a great nation for many U.S. residents. This is especially true for its “stepchildren”—students who have been historically underserved by the U.S. public school system.

Test scores, graduation rates, dropout rates, grade-level retention rates, college readiness rates, school-to-prison pipeline statistics, and other indicators reveal that the following groups are more likely to receive a substandard education than other students:

  • Low-income students
  • African American students
  • Latino students
  • American Indian students
  • Southeast Asian American students
  • Students in the foster care system
  • Students whose parents are incarcerated
  • Special Education students
  • English Language Learners

So, one way that educators can play a significant role in making America a great nation for all U.S. residents is to become fearless, serious, and strategic about improving the public school system.

The results will allow the students who have been underserved to be treated fairly and justly, while receiving equal educational opportunities in schools. All of which will improve their chances of having a better and brighter future.

What Does This Mean?

All stakeholders, especially school leaders and teachers, must be involved in order to improve the school systems. There are two main components required for “becoming fearless, serious, and strategic about equity in schools”: (1) Doing the Mindset Work and (2) Promoting Equity-Driven Actions.

The Mindset Work

The Mindset Work consists of identifying, examining, and addressing beliefs, biases, fears, and stereotypes that result in unfair treatment, low expectations, and other actions that prevent disadvantaged students from receiving a quality education on an ongoing basis.

To start the Mindset Work journey, educators should answer the following questions as honestly as possible.

  1. Do I believe that all students regardless of their background deserve to receive equal educational opportunities?
  2. Do I believe that all students deserve to be treated fairly?

Equity-Driven Actions

The following list contains a brief summary of steps that educators can take in order to become fearless, serious, and strategic about equity in schools:

  1. Identify, examine, and address your biases and stereotypes on an ongoing basis.
  2. Make sure that all students have access to a high-quality, culturally-responsive curriculum.
  3. Make a commitment to treat all students and their parents or guardians fairly, respectfully, and humanely regardless of their background.
  4. Have high expectations for all students but be willing to offer extra academic support and individualized instruction to students who need them.
  5. Make sure that classroom and school rules are explicit and used fairly.
  6. Engage in ongoing professional development.
  7. Hold yourself and other educators accountable.
  8. Study exemplars.

Also, educators can read the works listed in the “Recommended Readings” section below and complete their respective exercises that will help them proceed with the Mindset Work.

Fearless, Serious, and Strategic Equity-Driven Exemplars

County Level

Blueprint for Action: A Framework for Understanding and Improving Academic Achievement for African American Students describes the strategic plan that Riverside County Office of Education officials implemented. Data collection, data analyses, identifying problems, prioritizing areas of focus, and providing recommendations and a list of resources are included in the document that other counties and districts can use to address inequities. Learn more about this here.

District Level

Moreno Valley Unified School District officials, especially Superintendent Dr. Judy White and Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Martinrex Kedziora, have used multiple strategies in order to improve the achievement of students who are disadvantaged. These strategies include requiring all teachers in the district to participate in on-site monthly professional development workshops, providing teachers with professional development books, and paying for teachers to voluntarily take an “Implicit Bias” test.

Dave Stevens’s “Academic Support Index” (ASI) is another example of a district-level strategic venture to improve the schooling experiences of historically underserved students. Stevens, who works in the Department of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment at Berkeley Unified School District, developed the ASI as a screening tool to identify high-needs students and to determine the specific types of support and resources the students need in order to excel academically.

School Level

Dr. Martin Gomez, principal of Santee Education Complex in Los Angeles, is an example of a school leader who identified a problem—African American and Latino males’ disproportionate school suspension rates—and created a systematic plan to address it.

Dr. Gomez collected and analyzed data in order to ascertain the causes of the problems, and used the results to determine the best ways to keep African American males and Latino students in school. Consequently, suspension rates for African American males decreased dramatically, while academic performance improved for African American and Latino students. In his presentation, Engaging in an Inquiry Based Data Analysis to Drive an Equity Driven Leadership Agenda, Dr. Gomez describes the specific plan that was developed and the related results.

Phil Morales, principal of Milpitas High School in northern California, is another example of an equity-focused school leader. Although Milpitas is a predominantly Asian-American, high-performing high school, Morales and his leadership team realized that African American male students were underperforming and were overrepresented among the students who were labeled as “discipline problems.” To address this situation, Milpitas and his team developed a strategic plan designed to help teachers and staff focus on relationship building rather than placing negative labels on students.

Individual Level

In classrooms throughout the nation, many teachers are doing their best to ensure that all students are treated fairly and receive equal educational opportunities. However, some are also helping students understand how they can help the U.S. become a more just and equitable nation.

For example, NaChe’ Thompson, a high school teacher in San Bernardino, CA, helped other teachers develop an Ethnic Studies curriculum. The teachers identified objectives, created lesson plans, and now use this curriculum to help students identify, understand, discuss and complete assignments related to racism and other types of injustices.

Amber Lockwood, a Teacher on Special Assignment in the La Mesa/Spring Valley School District, examines school and district data to determine how educators can improve the schooling experiences of students of color, English Learners, and other students who have been historically underserved. As a Latina who attended California schools during her youth, Amber’s first-hand knowledge and personal experiences fuel her passion and equity-driven agenda.

Recommended Readings

  • Race, Equity & Inclusion Action Guide, Annie E. Casey Foundation
  • The Power of One: How You Can Help or Harm African American Students, Gail L. Thompson
  • Up Where We Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in School and in Life, Gail L. Thompson
  • Moving From Spoken to Written Language With ELLs, Ivannia Soto
  • ELL Shadowing as a Catalyst for Change, Ivannia Soto
  • Keeping Black Boys Out of Special Education, Jawanza Kunjufu
  • Courageous Conversations About Race, Glenn Singleton & Curtis Linton
  • First Aid for Teacher Burnout, Jenny Grant Rankin
  • Yes, You Can! Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color, Gail L. Thompson & Rufus Thompson


  • Race, Equity & Inclusion Action Guide, Annie E. Casey Foundation
  • Unleashing the Power of Differences: Polarity Thinking in Our Schools, Jane Kise
  • Up Where We Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in School and in Life, Gail L. Thompson
  • Yes, You Can! Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color, Gail L. Thompson & Rufus Thompson
  • Effective Strategies to Use With African American Learners and Students of Diverse Backgrounds, Gloria Kirkland Holmes
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1 Comment

  1. Deb Darnell on January 30, 2017 at 5:22 pm

    I’m surprised that you have not included gifted students in your list of “likely to receive a substandard education”. With cognitive diversity our nation is loosing out on what these students have to offer and the inequity they receive in much of public education

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