Public education in the United States has long offered itself as “the great equalizer” in American society, leveling the playing field so that all young people have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. In reality, however, our current educational system was not designed for the purpose of educating all students well. Contrary to the promise, the design of most schools reinforces and reproduces structural inequities by race and class (1)(2)(3). Our educational system was also designed for a different economic time when people could earn their livelihoods without a high school diploma or college degree. It was designed with an impoverished understanding of how the brain works, how children and adolescents develop, and the kinds of conditions and experiences that support optimal engagement and motivate achievement. In order to create an education system that meaningfully educates all of our young people and prepares them to be healthy, happy, contributing adults, we must problematize the current design and work collaboratively across roles and stakeholder groups to reimagine how we do school.
Many educators and groups are actively engaged in this work to reimagine how we design learning environments to increase engagement and learning for all students and ensure that our schools provide meaningful and equitable student experiences and outcomes. In 2016, the Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) Network brought together practitioners and researchers from across the country to share expertise, synthesize, and amplify innovative policies and practices with an aspirational vision to transform PreK-12 education systems across the country. By applying the science of learning and development with a deep commitment to equity, the BELE Network seeks to create a fundamentally different kind of experience for young people and adult educators in public schools. The BELE Network includes a wide range of organizations in the education field (researchers, philanthropy, and other nonprofit service providers): Billions Institute, Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR), Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Community Responsive Education (formerly known as Teaching Excellence Network), EducationCounsel, EL Education, Equal Opportunity Schools, Kingmakers of Oakland (Oakland Public Schools Office of Equity), National Equity Project, Network for College Success, PERTS (Project for Education Research That Scales), Raikes Foundation, Shift-Results, Summit Public Schools, Transcend, Turnaround for Children, Umoja, and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
The Starting Your School’s Equity Journey book documents the steps the BELE Network and it's participants have taken in its own equity journey. In this book, you will find content and activities designed to prepare educators to take leadership for creating equitable learning conditions in their districts and schools, which include:
- Understanding the historical context of educational inequity
- Engaging in “window/mirror” work - understanding how my own identities and lived experience have shaped how I see myself and my students
- Developing an “equity lens” so that I can “see” how current policies, practices and ways of working may reinforce and reproduce structural inequities and how policies, practices, and ways of working can be reimagined and redesigned to produce more meaningful educational experiences for all students and more equitable student outcomes.
Applying an equity lens to the work done in schools pushes us to continually challenge our assumptions about how we do school, how we define success, whose ways of knowing and seeing the world are being valued, whose worldview is driving our vision of education, and what changes we will need to make to ensure all community members have influence over important educational decisions. A commitment to equity means being willing to redistribute power in a system and make structural, institutional, and interpersonal changes so that all community members experience a sense of belonging and have access to the opportunities needed to thrive.
- Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world and education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Au, W. (2009). Unequal by design: high-stakes testing and the standardization of inequality. New York: Routledge.
- Lewis, A. E., & Diamond, J. (2015). Despite the best intentions: How racial inequality thrives in good schools. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.