2017 National Advisory Council: Equity in Education—Engaging and Empowering Students, Families & Educators

On May 4, 2017 Scholastic convened its National Advisory Council (NAC)—an esteemed group of educational thought leaders—to participate in a day-long dialogue about equity in education through the lens of engaging and empowering students, families and educators

The 2017 National Advisory Council includes:

  • Brandon Dixon (Sophomore, Harvard University)

  • Dr. Josh Garcia (Deputy Superintendent, Tacoma Public Schools)

  • Dr. Walter Gilliam, PhD (Director of The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy; Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology at the Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine)

  • Jahana Hayes (2016 National Teacher of the Year)

  • Chris Lehmann (Founding Principal, Science Leadership Academy; Assistant Superintendent, Innovation Network, School District of Philadelphia)

  • Dr. Karen Mapp (Senior Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Faculty Director of the Education Policy and Management Masters Program)

Dick Robinson, Scholastic CEO, opened the meeting with remarks on Scholastic’s long history of inviting leaders in education and learning to join the company’s National Advisory Council. The first meeting of the NAC in the 1930s comprised primarily school superintendents (as well as the poet Robert Frost). Today, our diverse Council represents a wide spectrum of educational leadership.

Robinson emphasized that a deep understanding of the full scope of education necessarily includes knowledge of how schools are organized, what is important to local school leaders, and how the life of the school affects teaching and learning, and kids’ social-emotional and academic growth: 

"We are in the life of the school to help teachers support the child’s learning, and to help engage children in what they’re reading and discussing, to help them understand who they are, who they can be; to touch their hearts, as well as their minds. And how to help them develop the resilience, perseverance, and hope that will encourage them to learn and to grow."

In a panel discussion that followed, the National Advisory Council emphasized the need for policy and infrastructure that supports equity in education; the importance of a student-centered approach for meaningful engagement and deep learning; and the critical importance of building and nurturing relationships between kids, schools, families and communities. 

Q: Please share how your work focuses on equity and enabling every child to reach the stars.

Josh Garcia: Equity is not an episodic conversation, but a relentless fight on behalf of the invisible. Our opportunity to lead will come through teaching students how to think. When you heard Robert Frost’s name earlier this morning, you sighed. But when you heard “superintendent” you didn’t do anything. You have to remember your passion: your passion for literature can be part of a social revolution. Don’t let today be episodic, but let it be the way of your work.

Chris Lehmann: Most kids view school as something to endure, and if they’re lucky, they get one teacher that inspires them. I think we should dare children to do real work in school that matters to them in their world, and in their neighborhoods. Our job is not to empower kids but to help them unlock their own agency. Every child has the right to walk into a school and know that they are cared for. Every child deserves the kind of education that is meaningful and real, and allows them to see themselves as fully active and fully realized citizens of the world.

Karen Mapp: My work is about putting the public back in public education. So I focus on making sure families and communities are co-producers and co-creators of the kind of excellent educational outcomes we want for all of our kids. If we put the public back in public education I think we can reach the equity goals that we all want a lot faster if we keep them on the outside. I have been very inspired to find that there are more superintendents and practitioners who feel strongly that without partnerships with families and communities, they can’t succeed in the work of student achievement and school improvement. 

Walter Gilliam: At the Yale Child Study Center, our work is about asking how we take research around helping children and families, and put it into actionable policy. How do you move that forward? In the process of doing that work, certain things become impossible to ignore, and one is the stark inequities that many children have from the very minute that a child first draws a breath. People refer to education as the great equalizer. But the reality is that the great equalizer is inequitably distributed. How can it fulfill its promise if it’s another place for social injustice to rear its head? 

Brandon Dixon: All of these issues start with conversation and student input. Without that, we won’t be able to move anywhere. So I tell stories; I report for The Harvard Crimson. I think a big part of the effort is telling the stories of education, and helping people understand the value of it.

Jahana Hayes: I have kids who come in to my classroom and oftentimes I am the only one who sees their potential. My job is to help them to believe it, to give them the audacity to believe that they are somebody. That is heartbreaking as an educator, to have to convince children that they are important, that they don’t come in with that already. This is draped in the framework of equity. I have students who come in with a deficit and have to meet the same expectations. As classroom teachers, we get what we get. We have to meet kids where they are. I might have in one classroom a student who has been given all the resources they need, and comes to me ready to learn. And I may have a kid who really doesn’t even understand why they’re there. My job is to deliver instruction to both of those students in a language that they can both understand.  

Q: In the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report, many principals reported seeing an increase in the population of students experiencing barriers to learning in the past three years. What has happened since we had this meeting last year, or over the last few years? Have we moved backwards? Are there new challenges?

CL: Equity requires more resources. To achieve equitable outcomes we have to spend money. As a nation we don’t understand that. And in the last year there’s also been a shift, a feeling of repudiation of who people are as people. And kids feel that. And so we have to teach them, and say to them: Within these walls, you’re cared for, you’re loved, and you can make a difference. You matter. 

JH: I have a unique perspective as a classroom teacher, and I don’t accept that we’ve moved backwards. We can get discouraged by policy and the news, but if kids don’t see someone in front of them who believes in them, then nothing else matters. So as teachers, we have a choice: we can get wrapped up in policy, or we can go in there and teach like our hair is on fire. All that matters is these kids in my classroom. For that small time they’re in front of me, I want to create a space where the kids own that space.

KM: We have to ask what we’re willing to do to make a more equitable world. What are we willing to give up so someone else is able to have more? I think we need to bring this from a 40,000-foot conversation back down to the ground and ask ourselves: Are we willing to step up and not just see this as someone else’s job?

Q: OK, so let’s bring it to the ground. One of our themes is engagement. What does that look like in the classroom?

BD: I think engagement starts within the school context, but outside the classroom. The times when I’ve felt I had a higher stake in my education came as a result of extracurricular work with teachers. Those experiences made me feel like I had buy-in into my education. 

JG: There is a fatal assumption that the equity has to come between 7:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. But if we’re thinking about the whole child, we need to be thinking about it 24/7. We need to engage and honor the education that takes place outside the classroom. Supporting the whole child is thinking 24/7, 365 days a year. And so we need to align our support of kids to this, and honor it not as a classroom credit but as a truly meaningful, authentic learning experience. That’s how you’ll engage a kid.

CL: It bothers me that it’s the extracurricular that inspires us. I want the curricular to inspire us. There’s a difference when we let students have a voice and choice in their education. Teachers can ask three powerful questions every day: What do you think? How do you feel? What do you need? then listen and take action on the answers. That will make the curricular every bit as rich as the extracurricular. 

WG: Learning happens within relationships. When a baby is born, it wants to look at nothing more than a face—that is the beginning of learning and engagement. And later when the child goes to preschool and meets new adults, the child will look at the parent for cues on how to engage with the new adults. If that relationship exists, the child will be ready to learn; and if it doesn’t, it will be rocky. From the beginning of learning, it is all about engagement. 

KM: I am very excited about the Parent-Teacher Home Visit project, where teachers go to the families’ homes, not to check up on them, but to build relationships, and to learn from them about their children. Not only do families feel honored and connected to the school, but biases teachers may have had about families are challenged when they go to the home. When we engage with families, they tell us things about their kids that helps us be the best practitioners we can be. 

JH: This works in high school as well. All my life, I wanted to be a teacher but I struggled a lot in the beginning and realized that the responsibility to educate children does not fall to teachers alone. So I went to businesses, churches and civic organizations and I said, help me educate the children in this community. We have to start looking at it not as what happens in the four walls of the classroom, but in the context of community. We need to look differently at roles and responsibilities. 

Q: Does it make sense for the equity issue that one of the end goals is empowering?

WG: Absolutely. When the curriculum works best, it flows right out of the children’s own interests, creativity, and curiosity. That’s empowering. When children of any age get to help shape the curriculum based on what’s important to them, their families, their communities, and there’s an adult in the classroom who cares about that, and knows that the real engine of learning is not in the curriculum, it’s in the heart of the child—that’s empowerment.

JG: Educators need to learn how to build trust. We have an opportunity to build connections in a thematic way: around social-emotional learning and social awareness. The students are the ones we need to empower, and right now it’s not done in a connected manner. There are just spotlights here and there. I think the opportunity is to enhance the empowerment of our students through trust, and through building trust with families. That furthers the learning on a whole other level. 

CL: That’s where we have to think systemically. We need to create healthier systems and structures in our schools to guarantee that every kid knows they are cared for, and every family knows who their child’s advocate is. So adults have long-term relationships with kids, and educators understand that their professional responsibility is to help take care of these kids over a four-year journey. We can create systems where communities come together, and do it thoughtfully, and devote the time and resources to make it easier for us to care for one another. 

To read more about the 2016 National Advisory Council meeting on equity in education, go here.

Photos by Gina Asprocolas