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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Tackling Educational Inequities Head On in 2018

I recently went to my semi-annual dental hygienist appointment. I’m always interested in people’s stories, so I asked the hygienist, we’ll call her Rebecca, where she grew up and went to high school. One detail led to another and I learned about her life’s journey which led her to where she stood that day (peering into my mouth). Rebecca grew up in Lynn and Revere, two small, depressed urban districts. Her mother and father never graduated from high school; she was first in the family to do so. She always wanted to be a dentist. Her parents had told her, understandably, that they did not have the finances to support her in taking that path. Neither her high school guidance counselor nor any other adult in the school checked in to see what her passion was and offer advice on a pathway that would enable her to follow her dream. So, she graduated and spent her twenties working as a low-paid dental assistant.  

When Rebecca was 30, she met a single mom who was going to college who encouraged Rebecca to follow her dream. Dental school was too daunting, given she had never gone to college and had no money, so she enrolled in dental hygienist school using loans. She sold her small condo and rented a room for the next few years so she could go to school. She so loved studying that she pursued her bachelor’s degree and graduated four years later as a dental hygienist with an undergraduate degree.  

Here she is, sixteen years later at age 49, cleaning my teeth and doing a great job. The problem is, as she said, she won’t be debt-free until age 55 and is living check to check in the meantime. She never got a chance to pursue becoming a dentist. Today, Rebecca is proud of what she has accomplished, and a bit wistful of what never came to be. 

We live in a country rife with institutional inequities that create language, income, race, gender, able-ness, and sexual identity divides that make it extremely difficult for young people to gain traction to follow their dreams and aspirations. It starts with education. A 2017 national survey conducted by National Public Radio, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health confirmed a glaring disparity between the beliefs of white adults and those of African-American, Latino, and Native American adults in whether children of their race/ethnicity have equitable access to quality public education. Sixty-four percent of African-Americans, 45% of Latinos, and 40% of Native Americans agreed that “children of their own group don’t have the same chances for a quality education as White children,” whereas only 12% of White respondents felt their children didn’t have similar opportunities to children of color. Thirty-one percent of African-Americans believed that their local public schools are worse than those in other places as compared to only 17% of Whites. 

So what can we do to uphold and honor the aspirations of our low-income, Black, Latino, and English learner students so that they do not become, in the words of Langston Hughes, “dreams deferred”? As we enter the New Year, here at the Center for Collaborative Education, we commit to working with partner schools, districts, and states to: 

  • Examine and dismantle institutional systems and policies that perpetuate inequities – such as tracking, use of standardized tests as the single determinant of a student’s learning or school’s quality, punitive discipline policies, and restricted access to high-level learning opportunities. 
  • Research, identify, and put in place the K-12 practices, policies, and systems that promote college-going and college persistence among student groups that have been historically denied college success, while partnering with higher education institutions to provide the supports and scaffolding needed for historically underserved students to be successful 
  • Promote places of learning that empower students and give them agency to follow their passions along multiple pathways to graduation, while providing them with opportunities to engage in learning outside the school walls 
  • Create accountability systems in which assessment is placed in the hands of teachers where it belongs, with curriculum-embedded performance tasks requiring students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do in ways they will be asked to in adult life, and in which school ratings and leveling are eliminated in favor of multiple data about the varied aspects of school quality that can be used by the community in reflection and improvement 

Revamping public education to better serve low-income, Black, Latino, and English learner students will require building allies as we go forward in creating an educational system free of disabling inequities that enables every student to follow and attain their aspirations. That is exactly what we are attempting to do within the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA) in which six districts (Attleboro, Boston, Lowell, Revere, Somerville, and Winchester) have come together, with CCE’s assistance, to create a new accountability system. With a governing board comprised of member superintendents and teacher union presidents, a multiple measures school quality data dashboard is being created with teacher-generated, curriculum-embedded performance tasks as the primary means of assessing student learning. The consortium intends to use the eventual system to press the state to change the current high stakes standardized tests to a system that actually benefits the learning of our growing diversity of learners. With an assessment system that enables students to demonstrate proficiency through rich performance tasks rooted in their areas of interest, coupled with advisory systems that provide students guidance on the path needed to attain their aspirations, students like Rebecca will be better positioned and equipped to pursue their dreams.  

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