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For nearly a decade, I have made a living navigating an incredibly convoluted ecosystem called educational leadership. Like many fields, it has its own unique structure, governance and jargon.

Education leadership requires a proficient understanding of students, schools and systems if one seeks to obtain longevity and success. I’ve had both, but neither has provided immunity from the frustration of observing how the education system continues to fail so many of our students.

We have gotten so good at failing nonwhite and nonaffluent children that we know exactly what to do in order to continue this trend. Even when concerns are raised, the use of the word “equity” has allowed us to feel good even though it seldom leads to necessary change within our organizations.

Educational equity is inaccurately depicted. A quick online search of educational equity returns a picture of different-sized boxes for kids of different heights to step on to help them see a baseball game. Such an image leads to an oversimplification of the barriers certain students face in schools, many of them a result of how their schools function.

Instead, educational equity should be described as creating policies, systems and practices in schools that positively impact the experiences, outcomes and access to resources of students from previously excluded groups — and eliminating those that negatively impact these students.

We have gotten so good at failing nonwhite and nonaffluent children that we know exactly what to do in order to continue this trend.

This means that if you are reading books about equity, listening to podcasts or marching with others to protest racism, injustice or other inequities, although you may be on your journey, those efforts alone will not achieve educational equity.

Neither will hiring a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) specialist. Too often, DEI specialists are set up to fail because they ultimately report to someone who has not done their own anti-racism and diversity work.

Or they work for an organization that protects white supremacy by denying any attempt to address long-lasting systemic issues related to inequities.

That is why we must challenge and push back on committees, surveys, audits and other non-action-oriented tasks that were never intended to create sustainable change.

These time-hoarding, emotionally draining maneuvers typically lack the necessary accountability structure to render any desirable impact. They leave students in “left field” while we remain comforted by our good intentions.

Related: Access does not equal equity

Educational equity means taking action. It means unapologetically creating and/or eliminating racist policies, systems and practices.

Until we reframe our thinking and begin viewing educational equity as action, we will continue to miss the mark. Think about what former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston used to do on the football field.

His role on the team included blocking those who served as barriers to Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith. Daryl flourished in this role. This is the kind of image we should be using to illustrate what we need to do for previously excluded students.

Here are the questions we should be asking:

Are we blocking and removing discipline policies that disproportionately impact students of color, students who receive special education services and students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals?

Are we removing barriers so these same students can proceed into advanced and gifted courses?

Are we using one-sided, single-story, Eurocentric curricula that do not prepare students for a global and diverse society?

Are we embedding diversity in lessons, materials, books and author selections?

Are we hiding behind the word “fit” when an interview candidate does not look, sound, or think like the majority of the interview panel and we need an excuse not to hire them?

Are we allowing our bias and insecurities to make us perceive a candidate as threatening?

If your organization does not change systems as part of their equity efforts, your equity efforts may be “trash equity,” which is defined as superficial efforts built on deficit models.

(In this context, deficit models are built on the belief that student failures are the result of student deficiencies as opposed to organizational deficiencies. Educational institutions too often enamored with “fixing” students and not the aspects of their own policies, systems and practices that contribute to outcome disparities.)

Nonquantifiable, nonsystemic trash equity practices typically lack accountability and thus do not impact the overall experiences, outcomes and access to resources for students from previously excluded groups.

I intentionally use the term “previously excluded,” as opposed to the more commonly used “underrepresented,” because it frames lack of representation as being the result of deliberate actions and inactions within a system.

The kids-on-boxes in the aforementioned equity image, like many vivid images in education, lacks context to properly display what needs to be done. As educators, parents, policymakers and community members, we must use our influence and actions to achieve educational equity.

The ones with their views obscured may be us, not our students.

Howard Fields is an assistant superintendent of human resources and adjunct professor in Missouri. He is also the author of “How to Achieve Educational Equity.”

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  1. Mentoring Blindly
    James Miles & Chris Daikos

    The first documented use of the word mentor dates back to the 8th Century BCE, from Homer’s The Odyssey. In the epoch poem, Odysseus left his young son, Telemachus, at home to protect the family as Odysseus embarked on a journey with his band of brothers to fight in the Trojan War. Needing someone to guide Telemachus into adulthood, Odysseus asked his old friend Mentor to look after Telemachus. Throughout the poem when Mentor provided guidance to Telemachus, Mentor functioned as a vessel for the goddess Athena, and encouraged Telemachus to draw upon his ancestors’ heroics and wisdom. Athena wanted to embolden Telemachus’ courage as he defended his home and his family from the suitors who were seeking to take advantage of Odysseus’ prolonged absence.

    Mentoring in contemporary US society takes on a similar meaning. Often, we see those taking on the role of a mentor are older and experienced adults who seek to impart their insight and wisdom for the benefit of a young person. However, history has changed the context of how we view youth mentoring relationships, where most of are made up of mentees of color (mostly boys like Telemachus) and mentors who are mostly white women, just like Athena.

    It seems we’re continuing Athena’s deception, in the sense that most mentees are young black boys, tasked to try to be something that they are not, by modifying their actions. Interestingly, most public- school teachers are white women, and the most disciplined among youth are children of color, particularly Black boys and girls, and they’re disciplined mostly for their actions. If the goal of mentorship is to increase the aptitude for young people to succeed, then white women are failing, at an extraordinary rate.

    Yet, we do not often highlight the negative impacts when those mostly white and well- meaning mentors leave their mentee, sometimes making the situation worse. When youth of color are taught in a colorblind way, as if we live in a meritocracy where hard work pays off, the reality of racism/sexism/paternalism prove the opposite, and those youth feel more marginalized. A 2017 study stated that that led to ‘lower self-esteem and behavioral problems’ and that ‘they may come to believe that they deserve their disadvantaged place and are to blame for their obstacles and setbacks.’ When we push for colorblindness, whiteness is the default, whereby youth are taught to act and engage in white culture, practices, and policy, erasing their own existence. In books, ‘a man walks down the street’ means a White man. If the character were Black, Latinx, Asian, Trans, Differently Abled, or any other identity, the character would be named as such. In Super Bowl LV, a team playing is called ‘The Chiefs,’ though that is a derogatory term for people of the First Nations. We are to take for granted that if there was a team called ’The Ofays,’ that would be completely unacceptable and there would be swift backlash. Even on progressive mentoring sites, when discussing the positive benefits of mentoring, when it speaks of how mentoring helps youth of color, it centers on how mentoring helps youth ‘lessen the negative impacts discrimination’ but does not address what actually causes that discrimination.

    Mentoring for youth of color continues to focus on deficits and on overcoming their circumstances, proving themselves(to the default, white establishment), and dealing with their trauma. Meanwhile, for White youth, their mentoring programs are asset based, focused on careers and education. Their mentors are often family friends or colleagues in leadership positions. There is no discussion around living in a just world, an equitable world, a world where whiteness should NOT be the default in 2021. Whiteness laid the foundation of our country’s success, which was built on the backs of enslaved people. The irony of course is that as Christianity was one of the country’s founding principles, where service and giving back is key, that type of empathy and charity is only designed for people that still look like the country’s founders.

    Our nation tells a story of “forefathers” invigorated by the ideals of The Enlightenment Period to build a more perfect union. This union was centered on white patriarchy, where only men white men could own property and only property owners could vote. In other words, our forefathers believed that only white men that owned property were warranted the ability to properly direct our country. Lest we forget that this property was not limited to land or cattle, but also to human beings. Human beings that were considered only three fifths of a human, for 94 years, yet still couldn’t participate in the electoral process until 1965. The deeply engrained discursive formation in our education system is not just limited to this historical narrative, it is reflective in educational funding, it is reflective in college admission, it is still reflective of our representative republic, and it is reflective of our mentoring practices which continue to view youth of color as property to be controlled by white superiority.

    Vargas, et al. argue that, “the discursive properties of a dysconscious dialog that rationalizes modern racism is pervasive throughout our ecosystem.” Such pervasive racism has been embedded in our practices through the historical and culturally specific schema in which white supremacy has been embedded in our ecosystem since the Birth of our Nation. It is not a matter of external determinations being imposed on an individual’s thoughts, rather it is a matter of rules which has resulted in reflexive white supremacy constructs, white is right.

    Yes, we have made some course corrections in our educational paradigm, in fits and starts, with some districts embracing critical race theory. Yet we still see significant disproportionality in punitive discipline across the nation, as mentioned above. Unlike The Odyssey’s Athena, this country must be honest about who it is, and its intentions, or the abhorrent narrative of white supremacy, will continue to plague our nation. No mentoring program, not even a divine intervention, will be able to right that wrong.

    James Miles is the CEO of Mentor Washington and consultant with Continua Consulting Group. Chris Daikos is Co-Founder & Principal for Continua Consulting Group.

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