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Guest opinion: Equity in education should not lead to hysteria and fear

Educators and community activists stand on the steps of the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City to protest a plan to pass a resolution encouraging the ban of critical race theory concepts.
Betty Sawyer joins educators and community activists in protesting Utah lawmakers’ plans to pass resolutions encouraging a ban of critical race theory concepts outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021, as counterprotesters stand behind her.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A caring teacher attends first communion for a student to learn more about the community he works in. District administrators examine the extent to which honors and Advanced Placement classes are offered in high schools in low- versus high-income neighborhoods. Teachers are provided a regular time and place to examine their practice — to plan lessons that resonate with the lived experiences of students of color. A state board works with local school boards to explore ways of decreasing differences in per-student funding across districts and schools.

These are examples of equity in education, defined as equal access to high-quality and meaningful learning opportunities by student gender, race, social class, language, immigrant status, etc. Equity in public education is about providing every student with what they need to thrive as members of their communities and in their eventual chosen occupations.

The recent hysteria about critical race theory in American schools seeks to undermine vital equity work in public education. During the public comment portion of a recent school board meeting in Utah Valley, a white, upper-middle class parent expressed:

“Equity is the word that raises concern for me. This sounds a lot like critical race theory. … With equity, are you going to take opportunities away from some to give to another? What are those opportunities? Who is deciding the end goal? What is equitable? CRT promotes unfair and unearned success while punishing the values of hard work, honesty, respect and civility that make our country the most free in the world. Equity doesn’t raise everybody up but it will result in bringing everybody down.”

These politicized accusations raise more heat than light and are removed from reality. Equity in education is not zero-sum. It is about fostering opportunities for all by transforming systems designed historically to favor some over others.

For example, a school district recently supplemented its high school history curricula with units on Native American genocide; historic portrayals of Asians, Latinos and African Americans in the media; labor organizing of minority communities during the Great Depression and World War II; and social movements stemming from the civil rights movement. An experimental study found that participating in these units increased school attendance and GPA for all, regardless of student race, ethnicity or social class background. Equity benefits everyone.

In my own research with colleagues across the country we find that teachers who seek to enact equitable teaching are more fulfilled at work, and their students are more participatory in learning activities. Again, equity benefits everyone.

We cannot achieve equity in education by ignoring human differences in the name of “equality,” or by dismissing the ugly parts of our history that disparately affect opportunities in the present. To participate meaningfully in school learning, students need to be able to bring all of who they are into the classroom — their identities, experiences, language practices, values, interests, routines, etc.

The object of educational equity is not shame or guilt. Its purpose is to strengthen unity and community by appreciating differences and by transforming systems that privilege white and upper-middle class students over their peers.

Students of color are now the numerical majority in U.S. public schools. They are the fastest-growing student population in Utah. At the same time, achievement opportunity gaps by student race/ethnicity have remained stagnant for a generation; and gaps by family income are steadily growing. All of us as U.S. citizens have a stake in advancing equity in public education.

Let’s enroll our children in more integrated schools and work with legislators, school leaders and board members to ensure:

  • Programs meet learning needs for all students.
  • Civil rights laws are adhered to.
  • Curricula reflect the experiences and identities of every student.
  • School funding is equitably distributed.
  • Hiring practices emphasize expertise in equity.
  • Educators are provided on-the-job opportunities to learn to enact equitable practices.

Let’s turn our advocacy from hysteria, misinformation and fear to understanding, love, inclusion and renewal. Equity in education benefits us all.

Bryant Jensen is an associate professor of teacher education at BYU. His research and teaching address educational equity, teacher learning and school improvement in the U.S. and in Mexico. His views do not necessarily represent the official views of BYU.