Equity is About This Moment in Time

Insights   05 November 2019
By Stephan Turnipseed, Pitsco Education


In any discussion about equity, we must realize that many openings to solve the issues before us have come and gone…however, none of our attempts have equaled the force needed to fully correct the problem.

Stephan Turnipseed
Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer

Chronos and kairos were two distinct ways the ancient Greeks related to time. Chronos represented the sequential passing of time—how we generally relate to time today. Kairos, on the other hand, is best described as “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved” (E. C. White, Kaironomia). What if we brought kairos to the drawing board when talking about and taking action on solving inequitable challenges in the education sector?

In any discussion about equity, we must realize that many openings to solve the issues before us have come and gone. At times, we’ve attempted to take advantage; however, none of our attempts have equaled the force needed (as described by kairos) to fully correct the problem.

Kairos Moments in the Segregated South

My identity has been anchored to Montgomery, Alabama my entire life. I grew up in the segregated South, born in the early 50’s to a rural white farming family working side-by-side with African Americans like my friend, Willie T. 

During this time, it appeared kairos moments were happening right before our very eyes. Powerful rhetoric paired with actions, such as the Montgomery bus boycott, led to a force so powerful that it was able to end a separate-but-not-equal education system. I remember in deep detail the images of that time. 

In a particularly powerful moment, I was a teenage school bus driver in 1968; yes, 16-year-olds could drive buses in those days. I remember the first day of school that year when busing was instituted to achieve racial integration—or at least desegregation, which seemed more the goal than the actual integration of people into a free and equitable society. It was not without challenges; however, it was a peaceful event because, as Willie T said, “country folks, both white and black, had always needed each other.” There was genuine hope that we would organically walk together into a brand new future.

This was an unparalleled civil rights achievement that changed our laws, but today, it makes us question what more we could have done. The urgent messages of the 50’s and 60’s could be copied and pasted today with hardly anyone questioning their relevance. Today, we live in a more racially and economically segregated society than we did in 1968. And in particular, school segregation is ever present.

There are many who look at the situation and accept it is as immutable as the rising of the Sun; while others, myself included, believe that now is a time for a definitive, irreversible kairos moment that finishes what the heroes and leaders of the 50’s and 60’s started.

Reimagining Education Through an Equity Lens

The learner-centered education movement gives us an unprecedented opportunity to rethink not only our conventional education system but also our way of thinking about each other as local, regional, and national communities and the roles we play in education (from young people to educators to parents to business leaders and beyond). I believe there are at least three levers we can pull to reimagine education and address the issue of equity in our schools—culturally responsive pedagogy; connecting learners to the community outside the classroom; and public policy.

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

In Geneva Gay’s third edition of Culturally Responsive Teaching, Theory, Research, and Practice, she writes:

Thus, culturally responsive pedagogy validates, facilitates, liberates, and empowers ethnically diverse students by simultaneously cultivating their cultural integrity, individual abilities, and academic success. It is anchored on four foundational pillars of practice—teacher attitudes and expectations, cultural communication in the classroom, culturally diverse content in the curriculum, and culturally congruent instructional strategies.

I will not try to unpack this rich statement on pedagogy and practice, but I highly recommend reading the book to gain full context and meaning. What I prefer to open for your reflection is the notion that this statement is underpinned with a simple common sense aspect of learning—relationships. 

Two of Education Reimagined’s five elements of learner-centered education are personalized, relevant, and contextualized learning and learner agency. Another way of saying that is, in a positive educator-learner relationship, there is a mutual respect for both the content explored and the contextual impact it has on the learner. It is a process of creating kairos moments for the learner and not just chronos moments. The first is a testament to success and lifelong learning, the second to endurance. 

This relationship journey begins with the recognition that we must accept and understand the implicit biases we carry with us as educators and those who are inculcated in the learners whose journeys we seek to support. A number of school systems are moving along this journey of addressing implicit bias through professional development for the teachers and a commitment to a system of culturally responsive education. 

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has adopted a framework of Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education, which guides the district’s reimagined approach to equity and teaching of a diverse group of learners in New York City Schools. He has also mandated professional development training on implicit bias for the system’s 76,000 teachers. While he has only been in position for a year and there is still much to do, progress is being made. More importantly, progress is reaching into the classrooms.

Connecting Young People to their Communities

Connecting learners to the community outside the classroom provides them the opportunity to see people like themselves in the fields most relevant to their interests and passions. We see this most often in the STEM fields—particularly in after-school and competitive events, such as FIRST® Robotics, Technology Students Association, Science Olympiad, and other opportunities that challenge learners to become interested in and then to pursue careers in these fields. Unfortunately, the competitors in these events, for the most part, are predominantly male and white. And, as mentioned, these are labeled as “after-school,” rather than a core component of how learning happens (and is “counted”) within the conventional education system. 

On the equity front, some notable successes have been made by the National Society of Black Engineers and organizations such as Girl Scouts and Girls Who Code. Unfortunately, much more progress is needed. We know children as early as the second grade opt-out of certain fields based on their sex or race. To create a truly equitable learning environment, a child must see themselves in the curriculum and activities in which they engage. 

In a truly open-walled educational system (yet another element of learner-centered education), diverse mentors from the community, business and industry, and parent groups enter the schools to support the notion that any child can indeed grow up to enjoy careers in any field, including the STEM fields and beyond. 

This in-school presence is being accelerated by the current low unemployment and the exponential growth of STEM jobs. Many employers resort to pre-apprenticeship programs in high schools and more numerous company training programs in the trades, all of which draw workers and concerned leaders into schools to recruit among the diverse populations that reflect the community in which they live.

A recent article about the focus at Delta Airlines on the issue of diversity and recruitment at the middle school levels cites Keyra Johnson, Delta’s chief officer of diversity and inclusion, saying that:

Many people think seeking diversity means seeking diversity that is ready to work now, but a lot of success comes from finding diverse talent for the future. Nearly 46% of Delta’s new hires are younger than 30. “Instead of sitting there and admiring the gap, we decided we needed to grow new professionals who would be interested in the airline industry. We’re starting with middle schoolers and high schoolers,” Johnson said. “We’re sort of birthing that interest and asking, ‘Have you thought about a career in the aviation industry?’ So that’s something innovative that we’re doing in the space of seeking diversity. It’s about growing talent for the future.” 

I should say that I have flown more than four million miles with this airline. I can attest firsthand to the gap in the reality of their workforce versus the reality of the demography of America and the need for action. Said another way, Delta’s approach is about creating kairos moments for children that cause them to reflect on career choices such as aviation.

While the focus on middle school is a strong step in the correct direction, much more is needed at the elementary and pre-K levels. We know that as early as the second grade, girls and children of color have already begun to lose interest in STEM-related career opportunities, if for no other reason than they have never seen anyone like themselves in that field portrayed in the books they read or the curriculum they study. 

One effort to break through this barrier of recognition is the new program called Smart Buddies™. Inspired by Shark Tank contestant Sharmi Albrechtsen of SmartGurlz™, this new approach enables girls and children of color to see themselves in STEM careers through the eyes of diverse figures that look like them riding self-balancing robots called Siggys. The stories and coding challenges solved by the children in a playful, collaborative, creative, problem-solving activity lead to the kairos moments we all treasure. 

Public Policy

There is not enough space in this piece to adequately deal with the issues of structural racism that have been legislated into our systems. What is possible, however, is to highlight what may be accomplished through the learner-centered movement. 

One of the best examples of local policy reform that achieved equitable integration can be found in Clinton, Mississippi and is detailed in Rucker Johnson’s new book, Children of the Dream. In this very unlikely location, diversity and equity are thriving on a level that is difficult to imagine in today’s schools. While it is true that the work in schools on integration and the power of learning in a diverse environment has had it challenges, the fact is that with a single policy change, a remarkable result was achieved. 

In 1970, Dr. Virgil Belue was appointed superintendent of a newly formed school district due to the imposition of court-ordered desegregation for Hinds County, Mississippi. In a moment of kairos, he implemented a new policy replacing neighborhood schools with a series of community schools that served all children within the same age cohort in one building. For instance, rather than three or four neighborhood schools all serving K-5 learners, one community school would serve all K-1 learners in the city of Clinton.

Dr. Belue’s changes showcased an equitable integration policy. More importantly, they avoided the most profound issues associated with wealthy parents supplementing schools on one side of town while doing nothing for schools on the other side of town. He essentially created an equitable school system without tearing the community apart through forced bussing. 

Today, Clinton still ranks as one of the top school systems in Mississippi with graduation rates over 85 percent and test scores well above the state averages.

In the divisive environment that characterizes today’s America, we still have hope for an equitable future. Our clear imperative is the sure knowledge that today’s children are the future upon which all futures will stand. The way forward is often unclear; however, as Thomas Carlyle once wrote, “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” What lies clearly at hand is the kairos moment to reimagine education through equity for all children.

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