CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
Building for Equity Amidst a Pandemic
CCE’s Building for Equity framework and guide, available for free online, has a lot to offer schools in the current circumstances.
Right now, it feels to many of us like everything is falling apart. Precious ceremonies have been cancelled; many of our summer plans are broken; even our food supply chain is disrupted. Most of us know at least a few people who have been ill, and many of us are grieving. A historic number of our jobs have been lost, including hundreds of thousands of jobs in education. In the past, scarcity of resources has not brought out our best. As long as we have believed that education was a zero-sum game – that there would, that there must, be winners and losers – we have built, and continually reinforced, an education system that is unequal, inequitable, and unjust.
And now, amidst a pandemic, this is laid bare like never before. The inequities in our schools stand out starker than ever. One teacher said to me recently, “The 10% of students I suspected that I wasn’t reaching before are the same 10% who I haven’t seen in any of my online class meetings.” Inequities run rampant and cross sectors: children with disabilities and English Learners are lacking many of their usual (already sometimes inadequate) support systems; people of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in health outcomes; and “geographical, income-based, and racial/ethnic disparities in technology,” while long present, are exposed anew by the move to remote learning.
When the COVID-19 crisis is over, we do not have to go back to business as usual in our educational system, or any other system for that matter. We just don’t. The question confronting us at the moment is not can we prepare to come back differently but will we?
At CCE, we couldn’t agree more. Just prior to the advent of the pandemic in the US, CCE released our guide to inclusive school redesign, Building for Equity. One of the principles behind its design was the belief that equitable school design is always essential, always “in season.” The unique present circumstances not only make the need for equity more obvious and obviate some of our usual constraints; they have made true redesign an essential exercise. We will have to rebuild, and we are aware of inequity. More than ever before, this requires an approach to addressing both of these simultaneously.
Driving equitable change
Building for Equity, available for free online, is just such an approach. The three critical drivers of Building for Equity remain constant, even in the present situation. They are intertwined, essential ingredients for any redesign work that will produce equitable outcomes. Namely:
- The Intersection of Self & Systems – finding opportunities to engage in personal and group learning around identity and mindset and how they interact with social systems of privilege and oppression
- Culturally Responsive Design Principles – an understanding of the principles of strong and equitable design, to establish a beacon for change, as well as to allow for an honest self-assessment the gap between these goals and the school’s “business as usual”
- A Community-Driven Process – a process of redesign and creation that includes and gives voice to the constituents who will be most affected – the students, their families, and the wider community, with equitable approaches constantly in mind.
Making equitable redesign work during a pandemic
The Community Driven Process leverages what we call the Equitable Redesign Cycle, a four-phase cyclical approach that begins with the assembly of the team, includes data-based inquiry, transitions to visioning and planning, and concludes with implementation and progress monitoring. This process is always present, and all of these phases, as well as the critical drivers above, work well even at present, though they require some modification. Modifications to anticipate during the pandemic include:
- Online Team Meeting Basics: CCE has developed several of these, such as the Virtual Text-Based Discussion Protocol, and peer organizations have also contributed to this growing body of tools. Regardless of the protocol or tool selected, online meetings are most likely to be effective if they build in breaks, build and regularly revisit Community Agreements (similar to norms) appropriate to inclusive online interactions, and do not exceed 90 minutes. Moreover, the period of outreach and recruitment requires some patience during a pandemic, as well as careful consideration of how to equitably include participants facing access issues or competing demands.
- Online and remote mechanisms for data gathering: While learning about the community and gathering data to support inquiry is an essential part of Building for Equity, many of our “go-to” data sources, such as classroom observations, materials audits, and community forums are challenging to do online. Others, such as focus groups, outcomes data analysis and surveying, can be done more easily online. The key is to develop a strong inquiry question and develop a continuous learning plan that includes both data that can be gathered immediately and other data that can be gathered as circumstances change.
- New ways of learning around the intersection of self & systems: The personal learning that is essential to equitable redesign is just as doable in this environment, but it looks different. For example, individuals can do reading and watch videos in their own time, discuss their thinking and learning in facilitated conversations, and reflect afterward in writing. CCE strongly recommends that groups find an experienced facilitator to help the group navigate Self & Systems discussions on topics such as social justice, equity, antiracism, and cultural proficiency.
- Visioning – and Visiting - Done Differently: While it’s trickier to find culturally-responsive design principles in action during a period of social isolation (site visits and observations, for example, are almost impossible), there are ways to get creative in this arena. Once the team has established its inquiry question, coaches, allies and peers in the field can be surprisingly supportive in finding ideas and resources that can be accessed remotely, including videos, artifacts, and web-based educator testimonials.
- Getting Down to Business: While many adult learners are, like our youth counterparts, habituating ourselves to online learning and social interaction, productive planning is still a muscle we are learning how to stretch. Meetings that jigsaw between small groups with clear deliverables and larger groups to vet ideas and finalize decisions can be effective, if well-facilitated and carefully structured. This is the time for teams to leverage partners and allies who can provide support and direction with protocols, tools, and online facilitation moves.
Although including students, working parents, and harried educators may require some creative thinking during a period of physical distancing, the payoff is immense. Every time I dig into an online meeting with a partner design team and hear the passion that its members bring, I find that the progress is well worth the awkward pauses, unmuted mics, and clipped audio that we have come to accept as a part of our meetings. Someday we will forget these minor annoyances as well as the significant effort it took to bring everyone together. But if we’re fortunate, the changes to our schools will ensure more equitable approaches and stronger student outcomes, which will have ramifications for our students long after the memories of the pandemic have started to fade.