Designing for Equity
Designing for Equity

Together, educators are doing the reimagining and reinvention work necessary to make true educational equity possible. Student-centered learning advances equity when it values social and emotional growth alongside academic achievement, takes a cultural lens on strengths and competencies, and equips students with the power and skills to address injustice in their schools and communities.

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To move away from absencing identities, stories, and perspectives toward liberation, we need to ensure learners’ voices, identities, and experiences are at the heart of learning.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes.
–Walt Whitman

They want a shorter version, they want a nickname. They want to Toby us like we Kunta Kinte.
–Heems, American Rap Artist

As the teacher sets the class up for a standardized test, she tells everyone to color in the circle marked “black” for race. 

I raise my hand. “I’m not black.”

The class laughs.

“Your mom’s black,” she says. “Mark black. Or other.”

Race in America has traditionally been viewed through a monoracial lens. Hence the “one-drop rule” of hypodescent, where having one drop of black ancestry meant one was raced as black. Hence the omnipresence of the “What are you?” question. Hence the insistence of diversity experts to “view America as a ‘salad bowl’ with separate racial/ethnic contributions, view diversity from a narrow-minded American viewpoint, and rely on one critical theory—the ownership of power—that requires each race/ethnic group to be completely separate in a hierarchically oppressed system” (Baxley, 2008).

Schools are no different. Teachers often race partially black students as black (Williams, 2009). Students who are part white are overwhelmingly raced by their minority ancestry (Burke & Kao, 2013). Or, they are raced fluidly according to the whims and needs of the dominant institution (Harris, 2016).

Marginalization exists as an absence. It is best heard as a silencing. It’s the images left out of a frame. The stories that are unpublished. The rhythms were renamed and reappropriated. The correct pronunciations are lost. The families were renamed. The histories are forced to be forgotten. Marginalization isn’t a removal—it often isn’t conscious enough for such an act. It is, perhaps more accurately, an absencing. 

Absencing, for our purposes, is the process—consciously and unconsciously, individually and collectively—by which identities, stories, and perspectives disappear or are removed from the dominant narrative and collective memory.

Liberation is a Journey

While reprioritizing, how can we re-imagine schools, especially post a global pandemic? We must talk about liberation with the understanding that it is a journey we are all on together, and at different moments, our different strengths will come to the forefront and position us as learners. Additionally, we must recognize that at different moments, different aspects of our identities will come to the forefront. This requires deeply knowing our students and ensuring that their voices, identities, and experiences are at the heart of the learning process and, indeed, at the very heart of the school community.

In 1939, John Dewey wrote:

“Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.”

A school leader who views learning as the “creation of a freer and more humane experience” will not aspire towards high standardized test scores. Rather, they will aspire to the constant growth of every human being who is a part of that school community. In my role at 2Revolutions I get to work with leaders around the world that see each learner as an individual and integral role to our future. As we co-create a customized apportioned curriculum that meets the needs of individual learners with the flexibility to get what they need, we are upskilling educators to move away from traditional standards to competency-based learning. Reimagine schools from a one room school house where everyone received the same education to a building filled with a multitude of races, ages, SES backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, and range of learning abilities with their own background knowledge being able to show up as their authentic selves and not ONLY being a box but all of it, with layers, each getting what they need from a highly qualified teacher. A teacher who takes the time to know the profile of their students and allows them to show up in the stories they read, the mathematical equations that they learn, the science experiments they do because they know that teaching is a calling, that teaching is leadership, that teaching gives them an opportunity to share a blueprint of real world experiences. 2Revolutions’ mission is about collaboration with educators who believe that learner-centered and equitable learning are the same thing.

Re-Imagining Equitable Learner-Centered Schools

What might this actually look like? Rather than only giving teachers professional goals around standardized test scores and classroom compliance where students face the front, where teachers are sage of the stage and students sit and get whatever the scope and sequence says—even if it hasn’t changed in the 15 years, because, well, that’s the way it’s always been done—teachers, administrators, and students could collectively identify culture goals to measure and work towards.

Rather than coaching for scores and compliance, teachers will be coached for social justice, anti-racism, and awareness of implicit bias.

Rather than approaching learning as a transactional act, students will develop a sense of learning as a transformational act.

Rather than focusing exclusively on academic skills, the curriculum will focus on identity, diversity, oppression, and liberation.

Rather than focusing school events and incentives on data walls and scores, the driving energies of the school focus on celebrating civic engagement, activism, and storytelling.

Rather than claiming all students are viewed and served equally, professional development and cycles of inquiry will focus on identifying who is absenced in the community and how to address this absencing.

Rather than viewing cultural responsiveness as the celebration of Black History Month and other calendar-based celebrations, student voice and identity is present in every lesson, in every class, in every assembly, in every policy, and in every piece of art decorating the walls.

Rather than discussing race as a monoracial construct—or any identity marker as exclusive—we consciously address notions of complex, complicated identities.

How should school priorities be identified? Where should school goals come from? Who makes the final decision on what educators should focus on for students? Should it be learners? Should it be families? Should it be educators? Should it be administrators? Should it be district office staff? Should it be CAO’s? Should it be superintendents? Should it come from the White House with initiatives like Race to the Top, should it come from state governors who take strong stances based on their personal experiences? What about principals that inherit a school and don’t want to rock the boat by saying they are for transformation and radical changes?

While all play a role, where are the learners during these conversations about how we can re-imagine schools, especially post a global pandemic? When we start with learners, we start from a place of what is possible. With an assets-based approach and learners at the center, we collectively define the desired outcome. Rather than telling families what we can give their students, we can talk about where we want to go together. Rather than talk about job preparation, we can talk about world transformation. Rather than tell, we can listen to the most important part of a school community—our learners.

Photo at top courtesy of the author. This article first appeared on the 2Revolutions blog on February 2, 2023.

Shamara Graham headshot

Shamara Graham

Senior Consultant, 2Revolutions

Dr. Shamara Graham is an accomplished policy shaper, skilled educational leader, and influential advocate whose work has vastly improved the quality of education for thousands of students in urban settings around the U.S. For over 15 years, she has served as teacher, dean, assistant principal, principal, and director of curriculum and instruction. Her strategic leadership has advanced policy, programmatic, organizing, and advocacy efforts across diverse sectors that include education, criminal justice, juvenile justice reform, economic inequality/poverty, youth development, civic engagement, and children’s health. Shamara is a graduate of Hampton University, with two master’s degrees from University of Maryland, College Park and UCLA. Additionally, she earned her doctorate from Pepperdine University. As a senior consultant at 2Revolutions, Shamara partners with educational leaders to enhance anti-racist environments that effect all stakeholders and supports re-imagining schools where children have personalized learning opportunities with joy-filled, hands-on experiences. When Shamara isn’t working she enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, playing basketball, and reading.