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November 1, 2010
Vol. 68
No. 3

Questioning Our Beliefs and Biases

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A school system examines how privilege and disadvantage affect students.

EquityInstructional Strategies
Questioning Our Beliefs and Biases - thumbnail
Credit: www.peopleimages.com
Like a coin, a system of oppression has two sides: systemic advantage and systemic disadvantage. Although most of the conversation around closing achievement gaps has been centered on helping the disadvantaged, we must also focus on eliminating systemic advantage if all students are to have fair and full access to equal academic opportunities. As systems thinkers have told us, if we are serious about real, lasting change, we must address our values and beliefs, both on personal and organizational levels (Argyis, 1990; Senge et al., 1999).

A Story of Systemic Advantage

To see more clearly how systemic advantage operates in schools, it may be helpful to look at another system that gives unearned advantage to some of its members: Canadian ice hockey.
In Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) Malcolm Gladwell exposes a clear pattern of achievement that correlates with professional hockey players' birthdays. Boys born shortly after January 1, the cut-off date for enrolling in youth hockey, play with and against children almost a year younger. This one-year advantage of physical growth can start a gap that only widens as years go by. This advantage often causes boys with birthdays early in the year to be funneled into elite programs with more access to practice time and superior equipment and coaches.
Thus, it's not surprising that Canadian National Hockey League (NHL) players are far more likely to have been born early in the year. Those in youth hockey with late-month birthdays fare proportionately worse, and the NHL is deprived of a larger pool of talent simply because the talent of these younger boys is not nurtured as well as it might be.

The Challenge Before Us

Like Canadian hockey, the education system cannot be leveled without a critical examination of our culture and the systemic advantages it may confer. However, the task of describing, critiquing, and changing our education culture from within is not easy. Brenda CampbellJones and Franklin CampbellJones (2002) describe this work as "akin to rewriting the script while participating in the play" (p. 143). It requires a significant commitment of time, resources, attention, and intention.
The Howard County Public School System in Central Maryland is doing just that through adopting a cultural proficiency framework (Lindsey, Roberts, & CampbellJones, 2005). Moving toward cultural proficiency is an inside-out process of personal and organizational change (Cross, Bazron, Dennis, & Isaacs, 1989) through which we become "students of our assumptions about self, others, and the context in which we work with others" (Terrell &Lindsey, 2009, p. 20). Thus, in Howard County, we started by asking all of our 7,875 employees to become more aware of their cultural assumptions.

Developing Awareness

The only way to truly close opportunity gaps is to uncover and jettison any unearned—and often invisible—advantages the system confers. This requires significant dialogue about experiences within that system from a variety of perspectives. The result is a greater awareness of how we may unwittingly participate in maintaining disparities that we say we want to eliminate. Awareness makes visible the often invisible foundations of our culture, contexts that are historically steeped in traditions of separation and inequality. We've found that certain exercises are especially effective in stimulating awareness.

Simulating Inequity

Starpower is a simulation in which a large group of participants is divided into three smaller groups, each possessing a bag containing an equal number of poker chips (Shirts, 1969). Because the value of each chip is based on the chip color, an unequal distribution of chip colors creates inequity. As players work to trade chips, the most disadvantaged group quickly realizes that the game is rigged to favor the group that started out with more valuable chips. Interestingly, the "higher" group often does not become aware of its advantaged state until those in the "low" group point it out during the debriefing.
Without exception, members of the disadvantaged group are astonished that those in the advantaged group are reluctant to acknowledge that they did not earn their power but instead possessed systemic advantage from the start. Further, not once in the dozens of times we have facilitated this experience has the privileged group used its power to transform the system into one that provides equal opportunity. When we share this observation during debriefing, participants gain insight into the moral responsibility of those benefiting from systemic advantage to fully engage in the work of education equity.
As they process this experience, participants also come to realize that the words they used to describe one another during the simulation are the same words they have used to describe students and groups within their schools: angry, unmotivated, uncooperative, apathetic, and so on. They realize that our education system may grant some groups a competitive edge by valuing their cultural capital over that of others. They also realize that students' anger, frustration, and apparent apathy may be responses to their perception of those gaps.

Unpacking Racial Advantage

Another linchpin in our training is the classic article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh (1989). This article uses the prism of race to illustrate the concept of systemic advantage. Participants read the article and take an inventory, agreeing or disagreeing with the following statements and others drawn from McIntosh's article:
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  • I can do well in challenging situations without being called a credit to my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge," I will be facing a person of my race.
After they complete the survey, we ask participants to line up according to their scores. Inevitably, people categorized as white have the highest scores and are clustered on one side of the room, and the gradation of skin tone is progressively darker as scores get lower. Discussing inequitable systems in the context of race evokes powerful emotions, and the learning experience is visceral—and unforgettable.
In our trainings, people regularly share that they have been taught not to "see" color and other differences. However, for many students of color, failing to see color means failing to see them (Tatum, 1997). One of the biggest changes our educators have professed is a shift away from believing that it's bad to acknowledge cultural differences. Today, our administrators and teachers are pursuing more open and constructive conversations about race, class, and culture among staff, students, and families.

From Awareness to Application

Once the will to change is present, action flows from awareness. But our experience as facilitators of professional and organizational learning has shown that the temptation to look for answers outside ourselves is alluring. Culturally proficient change requires us to examine our own assumptions as well as our schools' practices and policies, keep those that ensure fairness, and change those that don't.
Take, for example, one of our high school principals who noticed that his student graduation speakers were all white and not representative of his school's ethnic diversity. The senior committee told him that all students received information on applying to be a speaker, but only white students applied. Recognizing that this culturally blind practice did not serve all students well, this principal took deliberate action: He personally invited nonwhite students to apply to be graduation speakers. He had to take this action only that one year. In the three years since, the graduation speakers have been more representative of the school's population. The senior committee now regularly receives applications from diverse students.
Because every community is unique, applications of a culturally proficient framework will vary. We describe here a few intentional actions that have emerged from individuals and groups within our district. What emerges in your area may look different, but perhaps our experience can act as a guide.

Changing Our Perceptions

A high school biology teacher of East Asian descent shared that she never felt talented in math and attributed her success in high-level math classes to her teachers' high expectations. Reflecting on this after our seminar, this teacher realized that her own current negative beliefs about her failing students had great influence. She saw that she needed to change her beliefs in order to change her practice. Once she did, her failing students began succeeding.
To balance class sizes among 5th grade teachers, a teacher responsible for teaching above-grade-level math assumed instruction of a second group of students that had been receiving on-grade-level instruction for the first month of the year. The teacher's original plan was to manage two different grade levels of instruction. However, when she realized that the new students believed they had just been promoted to a higher grade level, she decided not to tell them and instead to change her beliefs about the students. By the end of the year, all her students easily passed the 6th grade math assessment. Two years later, each of these students was still performing above grade level in math.
A middle school science teacher who taught several classes of students labeled as "gifted and talented" had one class that he referred to as his "regular" class. This was the class he dreaded because of the students' "behavior problems." During a moment of awareness, he questioned his beliefs about these "regular" students. Was the way he treated them different because of his beliefs associated with their label? He decided to stop thinking about his students as "regular" and instead to perceive and treat them as though they possessed the "gifted" label. He has since testified in front of districtwide audiences about how the students' behavior immediately improved. He changed his interactions with the students and as a result, their behavior changed—but first, he had to change his thinking.

Changing Our Language

A paradox exists when we use language rooted in systems of oppression to frame our conversations about closing education gaps. Continued use of this language, in and of itself, is a manifestation of systemic advantage and a guarantee that the work to close gaps in education will fall short.
Because we are steeped in our own culture, we may not realize the power of normalized language until someone —alized by it points it out. For example, during a data analysis meeting with our system leaders and parents, the conversation focused on student "subgroups." A parent pointed out that we were talking about her child and that she did not consider him "beneath" or a "sub" of anyone. Realizing that we were participating in an oppressive practice, our school system officially changed its language from subgroups to student groups. Other shifts include moving away from "those students" to "our students," from "autistic child" to "child with autism," and from "underachieving kids" to "kids who are underserved."

Changing Our Practices

Several schools have formed inquiry groups guided by cultural proficiency rubrics (Lindsey, Graham, Westphal, & Jew, 2008) to eliminate opportunity gaps in curriculum and instruction, family and community involvement and engagement, assessment, professional development, and positive behavior supports. The inquiry groups have resulted in committed actions, including these three examples.
Restructuring parent-teacher conferences. One school began to share decision-making power with families by asking them prior to conferences what topics are important to them, tailoring each conference to address those topics, and checking in afterward to ensure that each family's needs had been met. This demonstrates the school's interest in addressing the unique needs of each student and family. Engaging families as partners in setting the agenda also extends trust, creates a collaborative culture, and strengthens the home–school relationship.
Broadening instructional materials. Another school discovered that its storybook and textbook inventory did not reflect cultural diversity. As one teacher put it, "I couldn't even find a contemporary story that featured the main characters living in housing other than single-family homes." This teacher has since provided leadership in acquiring and using high-quality texts that reflect diversity in race, ethnicity, national origin, language, gender, social class, sexual orientation, faith, and ableness. This teacher felt a moral obligation to ensure that all students are honored with literature that reflects their culture positively and are engaged with perspectives that prepare them to participate responsibly in a diverse world. This school's intentional moral action has led teachers and administrators throughout the system to examine their own instructional materials.
An early childhood teacher became aware of the exclusively pink skin tones of the farming figures she used during a unit on agriculture. She realized that many of her students did not see themselves reflected in these materials and that she was instilling beliefs in all of her students about people who become farmers. It took much longer to find farming figures with different skin tones, and these figures cost more. However, the teacher felt this was worth the effort and expense.
Improving Positive Behavior Supports. After four years of implementing Positive Behavior Supports (PBS), one school discovered that moving toward cultural competence meant reevaluating its PBS expectations. These expectations espoused values that had been established four years earlier by a small committee. The school administration has set goals to engage all students, staff, and community in dialogue about the PBS expectations. This dialogue will include questions such as "Is respect one of our top shared values?" and "What does respect look like from various cultural perspectives?" Opening up the values conversation in this way might mean creating new expectations more reflective of the school community's shared values.
For example, a school engaging in dialogue about PBS realized that its existing PBS expectations—productivity, accountability, willing to respect, and safety—were not changing the school environment. The group then turned their focus to factors that did bring about change. A few weeks into the process, a teacher shared that when she started to feel more valued in the school, she began making more efforts to value her students, which resulted in changes in student behavior and achievement. The teacher realized how important it was for both for the adults and students in the building to feel valued. The team discussed the power of relationships and delved further into how to expand such relationships with their students' families and within the community. The dialogue initiated several conversations that critically examined whether the current PBS expectations were going to help them value everyone in the school community.
The PBS teams in schools throughout the district are now working to move away from unwittingly excluding cultural perspectives different from the school's dominant culture and toward recognizing how culture influences students' expression of PBS expectations.

New Ways of Being

Let's return to our Canadian hockey example from Outliers. When Gladwell asked an official from the national junior hockey program why it wasn't taking intentional action to correct the system, the official shrugged and replied that changing the system would be "complicated" (Merron, 2008).
Indeed, visionary leadership often is complicated. But as leaders, we need to take ownership of our systems rather than allowing the systems to define us and our students' experiences. This means drawing out, making explicit, and questioning deeply held assumptions about ourselves, our colleagues, our students and their families, and the context in which we work with them. We are fully aware that this process is not easy, quick, inexpensive, or neat. Yet it is worth it because education is not a game of hockey; the quality of education our students receive affects their entire lives.
We can no longer ignore systemic advantage, shrug our shoulders, and say meaningful change is too complicated. We need a new way of being. The time for making excuses is over; the time to commit to deep, enduring change is now.
References

Argyris, C. (1990). Overcoming organizational defenses: Facilitating organizational learning. New York: Prentice Hall.

CampbellJones, B., & CampbellJones, F. (2002). Educating African American children: Credibility at a crossroads, Educational Horizons, 80(3), 133–139.

Cross, T. L., Bazron, B. J., Dennis, K. W., Isaacs, M. R. (1989). Towards a culturally competentsystem of care: A monograph on effective services for minority children who are severely emotionally disturbed. Washington, DC: CASSP Technical Assistance Center, Georgetown University Child Development Center.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success, New York: Little, Brown.

Lindsey, R. B., Graham, S. M., Westphal, R. C., & Jew, C. L. (2008). Culturally proficient inquiry: A lens for identifying and examining educational gaps. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Lindsey, R. B., Roberts, L. M., & CampbellJones, F. (2003). The culturally proficient school: An implementation guide for school leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

McIntosh, P. (1989). Unpacking the invisible knapsack of privilege. From Peace and Freedom, 49(4), 10–12.

Merron, J. (2008, December). Q&A with malcolm gladwell. ESPN Conversations Retrieved from http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=merron/081208

Shirts, G. R. (1969). Starpower. Del Mar, CA: Simile II.

Senge, P., Cambron, N. H., McCabe, T. L., Kleiner, A. Dutton, J., & Smith, B. (2000). Schoolsthat learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents, and everyone who cares about education. New York: Doubleday.

Tatum, B. (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? And other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books.

Terrell, R. D., & Lindsey, R. B. (2009). Culturally proficient leadership: The personal journey begins. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

John Krownapple is the coordinator for cultural proficiency for the Howard County Public Schools in Maryland.

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