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July 5th, 2019

We recently hosted a panel conversation featuring four outstanding social justice educators, discussing current barriers to equitable learning opportunities and tangible strategies for achieving true equity in the classroom.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Tommy Chang, Education Consultant and Former Boston Public Schools Superintendent. He was joined on the panel by:

  • Dr. Tonikiaa Orange, Director of UCLA’s Institute for Cultural Sustainability and Educational Equity
  • Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah, Director: Elementary & Instructional Support Services, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District
  • Ms. Yuri Lara, 9th grade English Teacher at Santa Ana Unified School District

Read on for a few excerpts. To hear the whole conversation, use the link at the bottom!


Dr. Tommy Chang: What has your work revealed about challenges to equity in education that are not talked about enough?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah

I think the biggest for me are adult beliefs and behaviors. We know that those are the most difficult to change. It takes time and requires someone to analyze their own beliefs about students–specifically students who are under-served and marginalized. Another really important topic is the need to address the whole child and the whole community–and looking beyond trying to starve Maslow to feed Bloom by strictly focusing on academic progress and success without looking at all that students bring to the table. There’s also a feeling of “gap gazing,” or passive participation, in the attempt to eliminate opportunity gaps and achievement gaps for kids, specifically students of color, English Learners, and students with disabilities.

Dr. Tonikiaa Orange:

The work that I do is really around looking at the cultural beliefs, values, and norms that have been dismissed in traditional, dominate public school systems. We need to critique and push back on the the belief systems that really drive inequitable practices that we see today. Part of what is needed is to create counter-narratives and counter-stories from students and young people who have been marginalized. I’m always thinking about, “How can we create equity in a system that is inequitable?” We continue to do the same thing over and over and have the same ideas, ideals, and policies without actually being able to critique the system itself. If we do not help educators and ourselves understand and critique the dominate notions around what success looks like, what schooling should be, what engagement should look like, and how folks should come and walk and be, we’ll continue to produce inequity over and over again. So the work we do is:  “How are we critiquing the dominate systems and norms and beliefs in school and how do we create and push those counter-narratives?”

Ms. Yuri Lara:

Schools are at times not recognizing the linguistic assets and and cultural assets that students have and carry with them in school–or are not using those assets as valuable treasures in the classroom. I also see a lack of conversation happening in schools. There are niches of educators that are very invested and interested in social justice work in education, but it’s not part of the mainstream conversation. We need to have brave conversations about equity, about what we’re not doing, about creating collectives, collaborative work, and a language around equity as educators.

Dr. Chang: One theme I heard from all three of you is the importance of acknowledging dominate structures and notions of power that exist in our systems. But it’s always easier to point a finger and say, “That is wrong,” as opposed to looking inward to ourselves and challenging our own notions–and, to help others down this journey as well. What type of professional development is critical for educators, if we truly hope to close the opportunity and achievement gaps? What should some of the key goals be?

Dr. Orange:

I have a firm belief that if we do not first understand our “identity of self” and understand what we bring with us, culturally–our own biases, our own beliefs, our own norms–we will end up perpetuating inequity. So, for professional learning, the first place we have to start is understanding who we are and what we bring to the table. Because “who we are” is how we teach. “Who we are” is what we think about learning. “Who we are” is what we think about leadership. In professional development, you cannot talk about curriculum, content, and discipline until you first take what is invisible and make it visible. Because all of those things–race, bias, what you believe about learning–all impact the other things we really want to focus on with professional development.

Audience Question: Sometimes it is small changes that can lead to big action. With that in mind, are there any small actions that educators can make at the classroom, school, or district level that might have a ripple effect and lead to macro changes?

Dr. Isiah:

I think a great place to start is analyzing your current culture and climate. It’s the foundation of the work you are about to engage in (or continue to work on). If you are not working on developing, along with your team, a culture where we are indeed having these harder conversations and taking a whole child and whole community approach to our work as educators, then it’s really hard to create macro change. You can also start where you are in your classroom. Tommy previously mentioned types of knowledge that students bring to the table that often aren’t acknowledged; instead, we can perceive students as empty vessels–and that our responsibility is to enlighten them and fill them with knowledge. So if you’re in the classroom, you can begin by learning your students and your community and figuring out who they are. If you’re an administrator looking at your culture, ask yourself whether you are creating a healthy culture with your team.

Ms. Lara:

Speaking to teachers: Get creative with what you do in the classroom and bring your knowledge of your students into that creative approach. Make what you’re teaching relevant. You can always connect. For instance, as an English Language Arts teacher, even if I am teaching a classic text, I can always find a way to make it relevant, and connect it to something that is very real for my students. If you don’t always know exactly how to take that creative approach or make that creative lesson or project, then reach out! There are so many resources.

Dr. Chang:

I think whether you’re a teacher or a school administrator or system leader, you should have some sort of equity tool at your disposal. An equity tool is a set of simple questions you should be asking yourself. Before any important decision is made, ask yourself questions like: First, what are the goals for this decision? If I implement this policy or this curriculum, what are the goals? Second question: Do those goals actually support the students that need the most–in the best way? Is it truly an equitable decision, or is it going to maintain the status quo? Third question: How are we going to hold ourselves accountable, engage others, and communicate these decisions? If you have an equity tool like this, or questions that you ask yourself before any major decision, that helps.

Thanks for reading an excerpt from our panel! Listen to the whole conversation here:


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