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Equality or Equity?

Jeff Duncan-Andrade discusses why schools need to be equity-focused and how equality hasn't produced the results needed
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Longtime educator Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade thinks schools have been focused on equality for too long and need to fundamentally rethink the way they do things. He says a focus on equality is not producing the results that schools really need — providing all students with a quality education. While visiting schools many years ago, he noticed educators used the terms "equality" and "equity" interchangeably. Then, he started tracking what that actually means. The data clearly demonstrates that aiming for equality doesn't work. What would schools look like if they were, instead, truly equitable places?

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Duncan-Andrade reimagines what education could look like in America if we dared to break free of the system that constrains it. 


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast. Long time educator, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, was working with schools when he noticed people using the words equality and equity interchangeably. Those words don't mean the same thing. Everybody's talking about equity without really taking the time to understand what it means, he says. And even worse, he says American schools have been more focused on equality for decades, and data shows it's not working. He's calling for a fundamental rethink of education nationwide with a real focus on equity. I wondered what that means, and what that might even look like. But I wanted Jeff to first tell us a bit more about the difference between equality and equity.

Jeff Duncan-Andrade
Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade: On its face, equality's really not that hard to do. It's Sesame Street. Right? It's one for you, one for me, one for you, one for me. And we are not even close to having equal schools, and so for us to suddenly start talking about equitable schools, which is calculus compared to creating equal schools, really concerned me because it will fail if we don't do a fundamental rethink. And then all the kind of naysayers will say, "See, equity doesn't work." Right? When in fact, so much of what we see in the research is that equity's actually the only thing that does work, particularly for the most vulnerable and the most wounded children and communities, which are the ones who we continue to not serve in our public school system.

Jill Anderson: What is the difference between equity and equality? Because it seems like a lot of us are confused.

Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade: Well, so the way that I talk about equity is that I use my own home. I have twin boys that are nine years old. On virtually every measure, they're as equal is two children can be. Right? And yet, one of them when he was much younger was constantly thirsty, and the other one was constantly hungry. If I give both of them a bottle of water, is that equal? The immediate reaction of some people is to shake their head no. Then I ask the person, I say, "Why do you say it's not equal?" And then they say, "Well, because you're not giving [inaudible 00:02:35], your son who's always hungry, what he needs." And I say, "Yeah, but that's not the question I'm asking you. I'm asking you if it's equal." And then they kind of course correct. And they're like, "Well, yeah, it's equal, but it's not fair." 

What I follow up with there is to say, "Yeah. You're right." But if you look at the definition of equality, there's nothing in there about fairness. It's presumed. The problem is we're attempting to have an equal education system in the most radically unequal industrialized nation in the history of the world. So to design an equal education system is both to ignore present and historical data and real material conditions, and it basically virtually guarantees that the social reproduction of those same inequalities. And we're not even doing equal schools.

Equity, on the other hand, is about fairness. And so the definition of equity that I use is that in an equitable system, you get what you need when you need it. This requires schools to first really assess: What do the children and the families in the community that we serve actually need? So you can't carbon copy. You can't just say, "Well, this worked over here in this community, and they have a really similar demographic profile, so we'll just copy this over." You can't McDonald-ize it. Right? And that requires, one, a lot of institutional dexterity, which schools really don't have right now. It requires dexterity around resource allocation. And it requires a very different kind of questioning and wondering and thinking and teacher support and teacher development, which schools really don't have right now.

And that's why I said that if we were going to really pursue an equitable education system, it requires us to make a hard pivot. And I think the hard pivot begins first with the purpose question, which I don't hear us asking in this country. And the purpose question is: For what? Why do we take children by law from their families for 13 consecutive years, for seven hours a day? Why are we doing that? And because we don't reexamine the why, the purpose, then what we end up doing is effectively putting lipstick on the pig. Public schools are presumed good in this society. I want us to challenge that.

Jill Anderson: I was looking around and I read an interview with you from many years ago where you said, and I'm quoting, "We lack the public will to transform our public schools."

Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade: I do think we lack the public will, and it's particularly disconcerting to me right now because I felt like coming back from the pandemic that we had a real opportunity. I felt like the potential for the will was there. People were really willing to rethink a lot of stuff. And what happened was that window has largely closed and what happened was that schools really went back to business as usual, even though they were saying, "We can't go back to business as usual." If you go to schools today, they look exactly like they did before the pandemic, excepting that you'll see more masks, you'll see more hand sanitizer, and you'll see occasional group testing for COVID. That's it. Everything else looks literally identical, the design of the school day, the curriculum, the set up off the classrooms, totally blew the opportunity to do a fundamental rethink.

In order to do a real rethink, you have to have resources. And I think that one of the things that gets in our way is that people don't really know what happens in schools. And so their kid gets dropped off, they come home. How was your day? It was good. Continue on. Right? And so we really want to re-jigger this whole thing. So I think that, one, we have to raise the national consciousness about what is actually happening in schools, and raise the national consciousness and awareness about the fact that, one, schools are really not good for kids the way we've designed them. Our children are not well. I'm not talking about just vulnerable and wounded kids, poor and working class kids, kids of color. I'm talking about the national data set on youth wellness is deeply, deeply troubling. And it's reflected in our larger public health data outcome.

I mean, we are the least well of any of the industrialized nations, and it's not even close. And yet, we spend by some estimates 100 X as much on healthcare as the next closest industrialized nation, which actually makes some sense because: When do you need healthcare? When you're sick. We have a national crisis, public health crisis, that public health officials have been banging the drum about for quite a while. And it can be directly connected to the way in which we organize our school day, and the experiences of our children over those 13 years. You can only ride this ride for so long before slamming on your brakes doesn't prevent you from careening off the edge of the cliff. And if you really look at the data, and I'm talking about our economic data, I'm talking about our health data, I'm talking about our broader social data, it's really, really troubling. We're in trouble.

This sits right up there with the climate crisis. If we correct the climate and the ozone layer, that doesn't mean we're going to be well. So I think that we have to raise the national awareness and consciousness about the place we're in as a society. And then we have to follow that by saying that it doesn't have to be this way. This is a choice that we can make, and the good thing that may be different than the climate crisis is that we could literally course correct this in one generation. If you had a generation of children that experienced in the public school system for all those 13 years and all those hours, a singular focus on wellness, to me, that is the purpose of public schools in a pluralistic multiracial democracy, is a promise to every family that when you give us your child, when you come back at the end of the day, they will be more well for having spent time with us than when you dropped them off. That's it.

So you can teach reading, you can teach writing, you can teach math, you can teach science, you can do sports, you can do art, you can do dance, you can do all of those things. But the question is: For what? If it's the model that we've designed, which is to maintain social inequality without social unrest, and to create pathways into employment, then carry on. If the goal is a pluralistic multiracial democracy that is more equal and more equitable, then we have to rethink the role of public schools in growing a generation of young people that know that is the agenda of our society.

Jill Anderson: Do you think that the intent was never really to make anything better? Is it just a Band-Aid? 

Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade: We have an allergy in this country to truth telling. And I think without real truth telling, then the consciousness won't emerge. And I think that there's a fear in the broader society that: If we change schools, if we really do what you're saying, Jeff, if we really change schools, what if it's worse? Better the devil you know, right? Again, this goes back to people don't really know what happens in schools. The fear is I don't want to experiment on kids. Right? And what people don't process in that statement is we're already experimenting on kids. And we have an incredible amount of data on how that experiment is going, and it is failing, flat out. 

And it's not that things have been slow to change. Things are worse. We're headed in the wrong direction. The wealth gap in this society is far and away the biggest it's ever been. Health outcomes, wellness is far and away the worst it's ever been. The forms of inequality that we can track, even economists are freaking out. They are really concerned. So for me, the question is one: Why aren't people putting that picture together? Why aren't more leaders talking about that? I'm an imminently hopeful dude. I firmly believe we're going to figure this out. But I don't think that you can really close your eyes and pray your way out of this. I was looking for what's the kind of big, global gold standard data set for looking at this in nations, and what I stumbled upon is called the World Peace Index. 

That is the global gold standard for measuring peace, democracy, economic stability and sustainability in 99.8 of the world's population. So I figured when I started looking at this in 2015, and this is used by the United Nations, UNESCO, by the World Health ... I mean, this is a widely accepted kind of mega index to look at how our nation's doing. And when I first looked at it, I figured we're top 20, some of the Nordic countries will probably outpace us. But in 2015, I think we were 94th.

Jill Anderson: Wow.

Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade: And my jaw dropped. I was like, "Whoa." Right? And then I kept tracking it every year, and every year since 2015, we have dropped and dropped and dropped. The '22 index just came out, and I think now we're 122nd in the world. That is such an indictment of the maintenance model that we're hanging onto, the devil that we know. And we're in a free fall. And I think schools are ... If we're going to do a fundamental rethink about schools, we have to really have a coming to truth, as South Africa did. We have to have a truth and reconciliation conversation about: Where are we? How did we get here? What sets of decisions did we make to get here? And then how are we going to course correct? Right? How are we going to raise a generation of young people that experience truth telling about what this society is? And then let's create school systems that are really developing young people that are problem solvers, whether it's for cancer, whether it's for the climate crisis, and schools are not that.

Schools are about compliance, internalize, regurgitate, repeat. That model at some level made some sense when we first started schools because schools were designed to create functional workers for factories. We're not that anymore. And I think that's why so many young people find school completely inane and obsolete.

Jill Anderson: Are there any schools that you would say are equitable today, are practicing that kind of model? 

Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade: Whole schools, none that I've seen. I think some are more committed to it than others. There is incredible research and examples of spaces and places where it's happening inside of schools, so individual classrooms, or individual programs. But tip to finish, edge to edge, top to bottom, I have not seen it in a US school. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. But I think that is one of the questions that we have to solve for. There has to be a major influx of resources to begin to create the space for schools to innovate, to begin to figure out. How do we stop moving deck chairs around on a Titanic and calling it different? And how do we start really thinking about remaking the ship? And schools are not given the runway or the resources to be innovative.

You saw that coming out of the pandemic. All these superintendents were like, "Yeah. You're giving me this crisis money right now, but I can't build anything long-term with this because you're going to take it away. And then I'm going to have to cut that, and the damage that does both to staffing and to the climate and culture of a community is bad." I'm immediately adjacent to Silicon Valley. And I've had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time with some of the leaders of some of the largest companies there. And to a person, when I'm in those conversations with them, one of the things that they have all said to me at some point or another is that one of our most valuable commodities as a corporation is failure. And I was like, "Huh?" 

And then I started thinking about how in education. We duck, dodge, and deny failure like it is the worst thing ever. And the more I explored that with them, the more I understood just how different the consciousness, the climate, and the culture has to be for a space to be innovative, the goal isn't to fail, but the known is if we're going to push the envelope, if we're going to innovate, if we're going to try and really do things that are cutting edge and different, we're going to fail, and we're going to fail a lot. And the key is not that you start worrying about failure, but that you build an infrastructure around the failure, so that you're learning and you're growing.

What schools try to do is they try to do mega change, so the whole school's going to do X, Y, or Z. The whole district's going to do X, Y, or Z. And that consistently falls flat on its face because one, that's not how you do institutional change. The only way that you pull that off is with power. You just force people. But no one actually changes, they just comply. But if you want to change, you have to start with smaller units. You have to have good R and D. And you have to innovate and tweak constantly. You can't wait for a semester to get test scores back and decide if your literacy program needs improvement. You can't wait for a year. There's a whole lot of spaces and places that we could be learning from in education about how to make this move in a way that is actually creating transformation and change that's healthy, that's good for kids, that's good for teachers, that's good for families. 

Jill Anderson: So in an equitable school model, do you think that it's just every school, every classroom, will really look different?

Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade: I think it depends on how you operationalize the term different. Every classroom you go into right now looks different. Whether you want to admit it or not, it is a different teacher, a different group of kids. So there's a way in which there's a cold comfort in the kind of fast food approach to schools, which is I'm going to go in and I'm going to see a teacher in front of the room, and I'm going to see desks organized. I'm going to see kids seated and calm. And I'm going to see important stuff on the walls, and kids are going to be raising their hand. And I think that we have to let go of that. The classrooms that I know where real learning is happening are on fire. And people are like, "Whoa, this is chaos."

But when you look at what actually comes out of that classroom, it's super investment. Kids are super excited. The teacher's super excited. And lots and lots of learning is happening. So part of the national consciousness has to change in giving people live look ins to: What are we actually talking about here? What should we expect to see when we walk in classrooms? What that looks like day to day and room A to room B, it needs to look a little bit different based on who's in there and what they're doing in the particular moment. 

What I think shouldn't be different is the core values. So pedagogically, you're going to see some difference. Curriculum, you're going to see some difference. Interactions, you're going to see some difference. But when you kind of zoom out a little bit and you look at what are the core values that are happening right here, no, we've actually known this again for 40 years from the research. The most effective teachers across four decades of research pretty much do the same things. And no matter what the political climate of the day is, or what the sexy curriculum or assessment is, they are doing pretty much the same things. What we've been calling the kind of new three Rs, but they're not new, they're the old three Rs, that is widely supported by the research not just in education, but across all those fields about what actually creates wellbeing and investment from children.

First and foremost, it's relationships. Right? So if you walked into classroom A or classroom B, what you would see is deep, caring relationships between the adult and the children, and between the children and the children. The second thing is relevance. You walk into the space and you would see kids on fire about learning because they actually care about what they're learning. Right? It's relevant to their life. It's relevant to their history. It's relevant to their language. It's relevant to their community. If you went space to space, that might look a little different because what's relevant to group A might be a little different than what's relevant to group B. But you could still hit all the state and national standards with a modified curriculum.

And then the third thing is the space would reflect responsibility, a responsibility to themselves, a responsibility to the school, a responsibility to the community, a responsibility to the nation, a responsibility to the world. Part of that responsibility would be that if a child is wounded, that we don't punt. We don't send them away. We don't make them somebody else's problem. The classroom community would be responding and understanding that is education. Learning your responsibility to your brother or your sister that's sitting next to you, and saying that we can teach all the standards we need to teach with a focus on wellness and care. That's not going to stop you from reading.

In fact, that's actually going to increase reading. But what happens right now is because we're trying to develop, we're trying to sanitize classrooms, so it's like, "Don't bring any of that in here." What you end up, people think they want to see is they want to see flat compliance. Nobody is hurting. Nobody is sad. Nobody is laughing out loud. None of the human emotions are allowed in the classroom. We don't even let kids talk to each other. That's seen as disruption.

Jill Anderson: If we have some educators listening, what can they actually do? 

Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade: Start a pilot. Start a pilot project, one classroom. You're a parent, just figure out. How can that classroom where your child is going to school every day be more equitable? My sons are in fourth grade. Oftentimes when I go in, I'm not particularly focused on them because I know where they're at. I'm looking at some of the other kids that are sitting next to them that I know based on my conversations with them, and based on my time being invested in the kids that are moving along the grades with them, I know the kids that need a breakfast bar. And so I'm coming with that to begin to develop a relationship with them around: How do I start getting you loving reading as much as my sons love reading?

People will be surprised at how micro investments can create institutional cultural transformation because if you really think about it, if you change one kid's experience on one day, you've changed the institution. Schools have become consumed wrongly with not only big data, but the wrong big data. And that then leads us to think about change at the wrong scale. For a teacher, or for a school leader, seriously, just start a pilot project, one unit, one classroom, one group of teachers that say, "Hey, we really want to do something fundamentally different." And give them the runway and the bandwidth to innovate and learn with the expectation, this is the expectation that I always have when I go in and work with schools, is that we're going to start with the coalition of the willing. So if you're not down for this right now, it's cool. Right? 

But if you are, then we're going to invest and work with you, that small group. But the expectation is that you become a teacher of teachers. So you're not going to get all this runway to be really innovative and then you're off and running and goodbye. There's going to be a phase two, and I often work in three year phases because that's about how much time it takes for you to really start seeing cultural transformation. It doesn't happen overnight, it takes a real investment of time and energy. And then at the end of that phase one, that third year, then those teachers that I work with, they go get five more teachers. And that becomes meta project two, where now each of those five teachers that did the innovative process for the first three years, they now have satellite groups. And it's something about when a parent invites a parent, or a kid invites a kid, or a teacher invites a teacher, that warrants a very different entry point. Right?

And I think that's back to our earlier commentary about: How do we build the will? I think part of the way you build the way is the way you do the ask. And if it comes from power, the relationship to power in schools has historically been a negative one, so even when good ideas get shoved down from power, the idea wasn't bad, the implementation approach was flawed. Part of what we need to rethink, or part of what I would encourage the audience to rethink is the way in which you approach innovation and just the invitation to doing it, and a commitment to learning, an arc of growth, and understanding that at the end of year one, at the end of year two, at the end of year three, at the end of year 30, it's still going to be messy. But what we have got to change in our consciousness is this desire to sanitize the classroom, and embracing that meaningful education is messy. The meaning is in the mess. And if you resent the mess, you will miss the meaning. 

Jill Anderson: Thank you so much, Jeff. Lots and lots of stuff to think about from this conversation today.

Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade: Thank you for making some time to allow me to run my mouth. 

Jill Anderson: Jeff Duncan-Andrade is a professor of Latina and Latino studies and race and resistance studies at the San Francisco State University. He's the author of Equality or Equity: Toward a Model of Community-Responsive Education. I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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