Saturday, January 30, 2016

Thinking about privilege and equitable education for all children

Every so often a post on our local community page riles everyone up.  It's happened again, and I need to say something about it.  My thoughts on this issue are definitely influenced by two books in my life right now - one that I read and one that I am writing.

My children are privileged.  They go to a school that offers them many opportunities to grow and learn - both cognitively and social-emotionally.  Through amazing support of parents in the community through the PTO and Ed Foundation, the district also provides many extracurricular options.

One of these programs allows fifth grade students to become entrepreneurs.  By participating, children learn to plan and execute a business.  They create, price, advertise, and sell products.  They pitch ideas to a panel of adults and get feedback.  They develop skills in math, language arts, and public speaking in an interdisciplinary fashion.  They grow as people, developing teamwork skills and self-efficacy.  It is an amazing program.

But it is not part of the regular curriculum.  Which means that not every child gets to participate.

This issue sparked the post on the local page, and the conversation became heated when parents, defending the program, shared how great it was.  Somewhat lost in the long thread were the voices of equity, which is the cause that I want to champion.

First, the fact that our district offers this program shows our privilege.  A quick look at the list of districts who are hosting these entrepreneurial markets reveals that children from wealthier and less diverse communities have the opportunity while others do not.  And even within the schools that offer this program as an extracurricular, there are children who can participate, and children who cannot.

Why aren't fabulous programs like this one, where inquiry is at the heart of the project and important skills are learned within the work, the core of every school's curriculum?  Why doesn't every child have the opportunity to participate, to be inspired as an entrepreneur at such a young age?

Debby Irving openly addresses the issue of privilege in her book Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, which is a book that I recently read for a discussion at work.  Both the book and the conversation with my colleagues reinforced the importance of talking about privilege with those who enjoy it.  I wanted to invite some of my community to read the book and discuss it with me.  I hoped to think together about what we need to do in our small community in order to contribute to change everywhere.  I hadn't quite figured out how to make this happen - or who to invite to participate - when the conversation exploded on Facebook.  In that conversation, however, issues of equity were dismissed, and it's made me sad.

The way we participate on social media affects how we live our lives every day.  We often respond emotionally without reading critically, thoughtfully countering, and respectfully offering evidence that supports our view.  We are also loathe, it seems, to accept that other views may help us to expand our own.  I'm writing a book that focuses on how we make claims and provide evidence for them in digital spaces - and how we can teach children to be critical readers and writers of arguments online.  I've been entrenched in analyzing how people "talk" to each other, and I know we need to do better.

The most recent posts on this Facebook thread indicated that the "debate" was not clear, and I agree.  In fact, I don't think it was a debate at all though I believe people perceived their position (or perhaps privilege) as under attack and responded emotionally.

It's important however, to have conversations about privilege and not dismiss them.  To recognize that by the nature of where we live, the history of our families, or the color of our skin we may have a leg up is so important.  We must value that our country will flourish if all children have access to education that inspires them and helps them learn real skills (not just passing tests) - and not just limit these opportunities to the select few.  We need to do better in listening to others' voices and working to build equity.  (A nice image about equity that has found its way across social media.  It's not licensed for reuse, so I won't embed it, but please take a look.)

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