Generally speaking, an educational discourse is an institutionalized way of thinking and how it affects the views and practices in all areas of individual and organizational work. The discourse that emerged in the Saline Area Schools in the late 1999-2000 was one of Equity and Excellence. Excellence was not defined by standardized testing and sub-group comparisons but was intended to refer to a commitment to personalize education for all students.
The underlying assumption embedded in the discourse was that each and every student deserves an equitable education regardless of his/her race, class, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, or gender. It is the responsibility of all educators in the district to ensure an equitable and just education for all students by valuing and respecting the varied backgrounds and lived experiences each student brings to the educational setting and providing a culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy. Today as well as then the promotion of multi-culturalism was at the heart of the dialogue.
Two consultants were brought into a regional county district in the Ann Arbor, Michigan in the county of Washtenaw. The regional superintendent, Dr. William Miller and his ten local district counterparts were invited to re-visit countywide plans and initiatives and a team from Indiana University was asked to facilitate the ten year plan that he envisioned. One of the ten, Dr. Ellen Ewing has begun her own planning effort and invited the facilitators to discuss the purpose and core values that they thought should drive the future of her small, suburban town with little diversity economically or in terms of ethnicity. After a few meetings, the facilitators captured the dialogue of the district prepared the following statement.
The Saline Dialogue
Getting to a clear vision and understanding of what this discourse means as well as to promote a common direction with common language and beliefs guiding a multicultural orientation and instructional framework throughout all the Saline Area schools was a primary focus This discourse had the potential of dramatically changing the way education is perceived and practiced. All students, whether or not they have a label indicating entitlement for services, would receive instruction that meets their needs, interests, and aspirations. This required a shared responsibility among all educators for all students’ learning, flexibility in organizing and providing instruction, and a commitment to providing an authentic education for all students. It required re-conceptualizing curriculum such that students move through the curriculum as they grow and demonstrate mastery. Students are encouraged to make informed choices about their learning and the curriculum is personalized for all students and is known by their families. Assessment is understood to be an integral part of instruction, is ongoing, and is used to continually inform progress and reported out to the student, teachers, and parents.
The new discourse required that the district full staff quit pretending not to know what we know. We know schools fragment and compartmentalize learning. We know we are trying to “cover” too much content and need to make better decisions about what is meaningful and relevant while still complying with the ongoing changing state curriculum mandates and now state standards. We know some groups of students are marginalized and are not receiving full access to the school’s curriculum and resources. Even more devastating is we know some groups of students are treated as invisible and their cultural differences are dismissed and treated as a pathology. We know schools are organized in ways that are constraining and rigid. We know that schools and classrooms are non-neutral spaces and different groups of students may have access to more power and influence than others with their teachers and school administrators. Most importantly, we know students don’t care what the teachers know until they know the teachers care about them.
Making It Happen
Shifting an educational discourse is highly complex and requires that we examine our guiding values and beliefs, create new structures to do our work, and implement new practices that support any new vision. This clearly requires ongoing dialogue to begin to create a shared understanding of the meaning of this discourse and a commitment to be a part of this emerging process.
Guiding Values and Beliefs
Dialogue is certainly critical in this whole process so as to develop new educative relationships, deepen our understanding, and in turn lay the groundwork for changing schools in ways that will enhance equity and a commitment to multi-culturalism and cultural competency. Even when we have different perspectives and ideas about this work, dialogue is a dynamic force that holds us in relation to others and keeps the process moving forward.
We believe engaging in dialogue about our values and beliefs is an important process. A helpful starting point may be asking what it means and what it takes to be a responsible, authentic, and present educator and leader (Starratt, 2004).
Perhaps the following type of questions could begin the process:
- Who are we responsible to?
- What are we responsible for?
- What does it mean to be authentic with our students?
- What does it mean to have an authentic curriculum?
- What does it mean to be present in this work?
- Are these things we want in our schools?
It might also be helpful to make some distinctions between the work representing a discourse of equity and cultural competency and a different discourse that represents solid education, but not with this critical lens. For example, the following table represents a distinction between “good leadership” and “social justice leadership” (Theoharis, 2007). Dialogue surrounding these issues may prove extremely enlightening and uncover deeper issues that need to be explored over time.
Leadership for Equity and Excellence
Works with sub-publics to connect with community
Places significant value on diversity, deeply learns about and understands that diversity, and extends cultural respect
Speaks of success for all children
Ends segregated and pull-out programs that prohibit both emotional and academic success for marginalized children
Supports variety of programs for diverse learners
Strengthens core teaching and curriculum and insures that diverse students have access to that core
Facilitates professional development in best practices
Embeds professional development in collaborative structures and a context that tries to make sense of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and disability
Builds collective vision of a great school
Knows that school cannot be great until the students with the greatest struggles are given the same rich opportunities both academically and socially as their more privileged peers
Empowers staff and works collaboratively
Demands that every child will be successful but collaboratively addresses the problems of how to achieve that success
Networks and builds coalitions
Seeks out other activist administrators who can and will sustain her or him
Uses data to understand the realities of the school
Sees all data through a lens of equity and diversity
Understands that children have individual needs
Knows that building community and differentiation are tools to ensure that all students achieve success together
Works long and hard to make a great school
Becomes intertwined with the life, community, and soul of the school
Adapted from Theoharis, G. (2007). Social justice educational leaders and resistance: Toward a theory of social justice leadership. Educational Administration Quarterly, 43 (2), 221-258.
Guiding Structures and Practices
It is also critical to make a distinction between the type of structures and practices that are needed to support a discourse of equity and multi-culturalism from a discourse that does not have a critical lens. Following are some examples to begin the dialogue:
Schools with Discourse of Equity and Multi-culturalism
Deep collaboration with teachers, students, parents, and community
Recognizes individual learning styles
Culturally responsive teaching
Use of data
Use of data to uncover and erase systemic inequities
Professional development opportunities
Ongoing and embedded collaborative professional learning
Focus on accountability
Focus on the responsibility to create the conditions for all , student learning
Schedules collaborative planning and teaching when possible
Schedules created with collaborative planning and teaching arrangements as a priority
Curriculum, instruction, assessment is program driven
Curriculum, instruction, assessment led by general education
Resources are program driven
All resources are used for all students
For those of you who would want to add even more current information about critical transformative leadership (Shields, 2013) see her eight key tenets of critical transformative leadership theory which include the following tenets:
1 - The mandate to effect deep and equitable change;
2 - The need to deconstruct and reconstruct knowledge frameworks that perpetuate inequity and injustice;
3 - A focus on emancipation, democracy, equity, and justice;
4 - The need to address the inequitable distribution of power;
5 - An emphasis on both the private and the public good;
6 - An emphasis on interdependence, interconnectedness, and global awareness;
7 - The necessity of balancing critique with promise; and finally,
8 - The call to exhibit moral courage
A comprehensive planning process is needed to begin this work as well as stay the course as the discourse comes alive. Some guiding principles for planning such a complex and large-scale effort include the following starting with a deliberative democratic participatory planning process:
- Dynamic and changing
- Inclusive and collaborative
- Focus on the five dimensions of well-being (Seligman, Flourish, 2011)
- Emphasis on district and each school’s positive core of talent and existing capacity to move the organization into the future
- Requires ongoing monitoring guided by internal accountability indices designed by all stakeholders
- Plan for dissemination of information and on-going renewal
It is important to continually recognize the necessity and complexity of this work. This work is necessary to ensure that all students, regardless of race, class, ability, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, receive an equitable and multi-cultural education. It is complex because it not only challenges us to do our work differently, but it also requires us to confront our personal beliefs, biases, and convictions. This is the work of the 21st century in education and Saline Area Schools have the opportunity to lead the way.
Originally prepared in 1999 and updated in April, 2017 for the Superintendent of the Washtenaw County School System, Ann Arbor Michigan