What is equity? The Danger of a Single Story.

As a Desmos Fellow, we’re asked weekly prompts as a way to get to know one another and dig more deeply into the mathematics we’re doing in our classrooms.  Last week when asked what our goals are for this coming year, I wrote:

“This year I hope to reflect a lot on teacher leadership and how to take what I have learned from 5 years of being an administrator into the classroom. I am deeply committed to equity and want to be better able to define what that means to me as a teacher leader.”

Yes, as I start my 20th year as a (white) urban, public school educator, my goal is to better define what equity means to me.  Over the past 5 years away from the classroom I have coached many teachers on related issues.  Now that I am returning to the classroom, this work becomes even more personal.   If asked what equity means to you as an educator, could you easily define it? I’m always surprised that it’s harder than I think.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 8.36.20 AMMy working definition is that every child gets what they need every day.  I didn’t make this definition up myself, but really liked it when I heard it as part of district-wide coaching for equity work we did with Elena Aguilar’s team last year.  If pushed further I would talk about ending predictability in learning and student achievement by race, class, sexual orientation and other factors.  A more nuanced view of equity for me, also from Elena Aguilar is that equity involves what you see, where you look, who you listen to, and the self-awareness that you develop.

And yet,  I have a deep, deep fear that while we each could craft a public response to the question of what is equity, privately, inside of our minds, our definition is affected not only by our race but by the race of students who struggle at our schools.  This makes sense to some degree.  However, I want to admit some issues which give me pause and challenge us all to consider this notion of the power of a single story and how it might affect our teaching.

Chimamanda Adichie, Nigerian author of Americanah among many others, has an incredible Ted Talk entitled, The Danger of the Single Story.  If you have 20 minutes now, stop reading this blog immediately and go watch it.  If not, carve out time as soon as you can.

“Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become… The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story…The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity.  It emphasizes how we are different instead of how we are similar.”

In my district, there is a huge achievement gap between white students and students of color, however the largest gap is between white and black students.  We talk about why and new programs and job positions are launched constantly to address these inequalities in outcomes.

As a white educator, if pressed, if really, really, really pressed, do I simply believe that equity in my district means getting black students to behave well?  To be on grade level?  I will admit that I have had moments when these thoughts creep into my mind.  I KNOW equity means a whole lot more to me, and yet, these thoughts have existed in my sub-conscious which illuminate the danger of the single story.

To repeat Adichie’s words, “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”  

For example, when a colleague comes up to ask my advice on a struggling student whom I don’t know, do I immediately have an idea of the race of that student?  Developing the self-awareness, as Elena Aguilar discusses, to consciously NOT do this feels like a critical aspect of avoiding the danger of a single story.

The achievement gap between white and black students in my district is a deeply troubling issue with no one program, recommendation or ‘thing’ that will resolve it.  All of the work we do as a district should be rooted in understanding the complex web of issues at play and finding ways to measure the impact of the numerous programs we put into place to attempt to overcome this.  And yet, my fear is that in doing so, we have created a single story, that black kids struggle in our schools.  And while many do, I fear that it makes us look at black kids differently than white kids before we have ever taken the time to get to know them.  And if we look at them differently, we start to treat them differently because we believe we already know how their story in our schools will end.

I have no definite answers here and would love to explore this further with anyone who wants to.  But as I wrote in my goals to my Desmos Fellows colleagues, “…I am deeply committed to equity and want to be better able to define what that means to me as a teacher leader.”  I hope to be very intentional of what I see, where I look, and who I listen to so that I can continue to develop my own self-awareness and not allow a single story to define students.





3 thoughts on “What is equity? The Danger of a Single Story.

  1. Allison, this is a thought-provoking post…and also too easily (lazily) reduced to the “single story problem” that Adichie describes. I think your stated definition of equity as “every child getting what they need every day” is incredibly encompassing. It is individualized and implies that each child’s unique story is key to determining how they learn. The challenge is for the teacher, who is entrenched in their own personal story, to be open to and aware of each of those stories.
    Love your writing!!

  2. Alison, figuring out what equity means is sort of a never-ending process for me. Have you read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”? I found it enlightening and helpful in exploring these questions.

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