Disrupting Injustice: Principal Strategies to Advance Social Justice

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The problem: Social injustice across our social landscape, with concentrations in schools where social justice is most needed.

A solution: Leadership focused on targeting, disrupting, and transforming such norms into new outcomes.

Teacher College Record published a paper by George Theoharis, an assistant professor in educational leadership and inclusive education at Syracuse University, titled “Disrupting Injustice: Principals Narrate the Strategies They Use to Improve Their Schools and Advance Social Justice.”

The study’s focus is on principals who positively advance social justice in their schools, who rely on the notion that schools can be places that break the predictive qualities of race, class, gender, and cognitive variation on student outcomes. However, the focus of these principals is not directly on targeting academic gains — which often result in practices that “maintain structures that isolate, track, and segregate instead of structuring inclusion and belonging of all kinds. The findings of this study directly contradict many current practices and reforms that propose that the best ways for students with disabilities, students learning English, and other struggling students to learn involves individually designed and/or remedial instruction conducted outside the general classroom.” Rather, their focus is on targeting the injustices themselves, with academic gains being an outcome.

The principals highlighted in the study focused on strategies to disrupt specific injustices. Below is an overview of the four main injustices and strategies that disrupt these injustices. They are reprinted directly from the study. However, for a fuller analysis and in-depth look at these strategies in practice, we would encourage you to take a look at the article.

Injustice 1: School structures that marginalize, segregate, and impede achievement

Strategies to Disrupt:

    • Eliminate pullout/segregated programs.
    • Increase rigor and access to opportunities.
    • Increase student learning time.
    • Increase accountability systems on the achievement of all students.

Injustice 2: Deprofessionalized teaching staff

Strategies to Disrupt:

    • Address issues of race.
    • Provide ongoing staff development focused on building equity.
    • Hire and supervise for justice.
    • Empower staff.

Injustice 3: A Disconnect with the community, low-income families, and families of color

Strategies to Disrupt:

    • Create a warm and welcoming climate.
    • Reach out intentionally to the community and marginalized families.
    • Incorporate social responsibility into the school curriculum.

Injustice 4: Disparate and low student achievement

Strategies to Disrupt:

    • Confluence of all efforts and strategies

 

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Racing to the Top and Leaving the Impoverished at the Bottom

dollar eyePoverty cripples societal advancement. When prevalent in the richest nation in the world, it becomes mindboggling. Why are so many individuals struggling under the weight of poverty in America? Why is nearly 1 in every 4 children considered impoverished in this land of Race to the Top? Are we racing to the top of the wrong metric?

 My hat goes off to the many families who are pushing their children to aim higher than the constraints of their impoverished surroundings. As members in a society, we share their challenges too, even if we turn a blind eye.

During an interview with CNN, actor Jeff Bridges and “Share our Strength” founder Bill Shore, express why poverty, child poverty specifically, is our responsibility; “If we’re not taking care of our kids, we’re not taking care of our country. If another country was doing this to our kids, we’d be at war.”

relative-child-povertyIn a post titled, “Map: How 35 Countries Compare on Child Poverty,” the Washington Post reports, “A new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, on the well-being of children in 35 developed nations, turned up some alarming statistics about child poverty. More than one in five American children fall below a relative poverty line.” Out of the 35 countries examined, America ranked 34th.

Mind you, In this study, UNICEF is using its own “poverty line.” Internationally, poverty is defined as families living on less than $1.25 or $2.00 per day, and as much as we grumble about how little we are paid, no gainfully and legally employed American is limited to these lowly amounts. (But in the shadows? That’s another story.) In America, poverty is defined as families living on less than about $22,000 per year.

Because of such huge gaps between developed countries’ internal economies, UNICEF instead measures how much poorer children are from their country’s national average.

“The UNICEF report looks at something it calls the ‘child poverty gap,’ which measures how far the average poor child falls below the relative poverty line. It does this by measuring the gap between the relative poverty line and the average income of poor families.”

Again, from the Post, “The picture (in the U.S.) looks even worse when you examine just how far below the relative poverty line these children tend to fall.”

What are we doing, America? And what should we be doing more of?

Eric Jensons, “Teaching with Poverty in Mind” provides insight into the weight of these children’s challenges. He highlights four major risk factors that, because of economic hardship, burden the developing child and hamper student achievement.

E = Emotional and Social Challenges

A = Acute and Chronic Stress

C = Cognitive Lags

H = Health and Safety Issues

This may explain why many of our students coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds experience difficulties performing in their classrooms. Unfortunately the direction educational policy is headed (as well meaning as it may be) is unjust, unequal, and unapologetic for learners outside of more affluent communities. If a student doesn’t make the mark, they are tracked to remediation or retention in attempts to correct their academic deficits rather than build on their strengths!

Show me a dropout who complained about not getting tested enough, and I’ll show a dropout that never dropped out. The truth is, how often do we hear about students dropping out because they felt the system spent too little time focused on their deficits? How many were exasperated with the focus on their strengths? Is this “leave no deficits behind” approach really attending to their needs and cultivating their interests? Clearly not.

However, while schools, school systems, and educational policy makers can play a role in transforming practices to meet the needs of these learners, we as a larger society have a role to play as well. We, the people, need to stand up to demand that the promissory note that MLK, Jr. referred to way back in ‘63 be delivered upon, because it is clear that we are, as a nation, are still defaulting on that promise.

Again, from the Post: “The poor U.S. showing in this data may reflect growing income inequality. According to one metric of inequality, a statistical measurement called the gini coefficient, the U.S. economy is one of the most unequal in the developed world.”

(What would MLK have to say about that, I wonder?)

Until such time that we fully, tactically and strategically engage in the war on poverty, we must focus where we can — on the students, children, and learners in our charge. Their voice, their dreams, their empowerment must be our first and foremost goal.  But how?

The 2007 Dispelling the Myth Award winners, Osmond A. Church P.S./M.S. 124 K-8 School, have done a remarkable job in breaking down those barriers.  Recognized for significantly raising students academic achievement, their dedication to these young minds is reflected in their success. With an enrollment total of about 1,227 students; 97% are low-income, 33% African American, 44% Asian and 21% are Hispanic, educators were able to provoke a lasting change. What once had dismissed this school, because of their high achievers awarded them much acclaim. Perhaps this school’s mission is responsible for their turnaround; “to inculcate all members of the school community with an understanding and acceptance of diversity, fostering individuality and creativity, where high expectations are the norm for all students.”

Yet we know a well crafted mission isn’t enough. Without the leadership and vision to pursue it relentlessly, such a mission is an empty platitude rather than a way out of poverty. If we want to actualize the talking point that education is a pathway out of poverty we must focus on four things:

1. Leadership.

2. Equity.

3. Cradle to college rap-around services.

4. Sustaining educator engagement.

And even these offer no guarantees without a larger effort to break the status quo of inequality. And judging by where we fall in a comparison of developed nations, our leaders seem abysmally disinterested in racing to the top of that metric.

So, for now, education offers our best hope for affecting change and breaking the predictive cycle of race, class, and gender on educational outcomes. So, bring along your copy of Jenson’s work and lets get to work.

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Graph: WashingtonPost

Year at Mission Hill, Chapter 10: The Freedom to Teach

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This chapter opens with the voices of alumni, looking back on their experiences as students of Mission Hill and distilling the wisdom they gained from it. A short collection of the alumni voices below:

I learned how to be a critical thinker. I learned how to play off my strengths. . .

I had teachers who were here to care for me, to make sure I was able to take of myself and to learn.

When you feel respected and you respect them, it is so much harder to not try and to just think that something is not important . . .

. . . constantly putting myself in somebody else’s shoes. Questioning things.

Deborah Meier, founder of Mission Hill, shares her perspective on issues shaping education today,

I think what we are facing in America today and around the world is not a crisis of education, but a crisis of faith, respect for democracy, which rests on having respect for the judgement of ordinary people.

In response to this, Mission Hill gives respect to the process, not just the product — discourse, listening, communicating, and providing students and teachers an authentic and empowered voice in the school.

Challenging this actualization of their mission in action? Race to the Top and the race to test, test, test students. This process limits the flexibility of teachers to attend and respond to the nuanced needs, interests, strengths of the individual students.

Again, Deborah Meier,

The whole point of an education is to help you learn to exercise judgement, and you can’t do that if the expert adults in your school are not allowed to exercise theirs.

Year at Mission Hill, Chapter 9: Seeing the Learning

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“How do we know what students are learning?” So opens the narration of chapter 9, “Seeing the Learning.”

Rather than simply reply on summative test scores to communicate whether or not students have “achieved,” the educators at Mission Hill create exhibitions in which students must present and defend their learning to a committee of teachers and peers. The complexity of learning necessary to pull of such a feat is no small matter. But more importantly, look at the students as they go through this process — they have worked hard, they know it, and you can practically savor the satisfaction they will feel on the other side of the experience.

This is assessment AS learning, a process that is immensely valuable to the most important person in education — the student. Check it out. You’ll be moved.

Year at Mission Hill Chapter 8: The World of Work

missionhillThis chapter, “The World of Work,” offers a look at applying a school-wide theme through integrated projects. Teachers organize opportunities for authentic experiences based on the ideas and recommendations of the kids in an effort to allow students to “see their ideas actualized.” This practice for building student agency works because it helps them develop confidence in the value of their own ideas.

Designing and implementing such learning experiences also changes the relationship of the educator with her/his own work. Rather than simply attending to the scope and sequence of a curriculum, she/he must first and foremost attend to the needs, interests, and passions of the students. By finding ways of connecting those with activities and experiences that build the learners’ skills and understandings about the world, the “work” of the educator is more dynamic, responsive, and professional.

(Make sure you see the final product of the project the older students are working on!)

5 Characteristics of Learner-Centered Teaching

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Maryellen Weimer (whose bio includes: Penn State Professor Emeritus of Teaching and Learning and Editor-in-chief of Teaching Professor) addresses the wide spread use of the term “learner-centered” in her post, “Five Characteristics of Learner-Centered Teaching” on The Teaching Professor Blog at Faculty Focus. At the heart of her concern is this: “With widespread use comes a certain definitional looseness.”

To help tighten up the definition, she offers five clarifying characteristics, quoted below with a single descriptor pulled from her explanations. For more fully fleshed out descriptions, visit her original post, or better yet, check out her book, “Learner-Centered Teaching.”

1. Learner-centered teaching engages students in the hard, messy work of learning.

On any given day, in most classes teachers are working much harder than students.

2. Learner-centered teaching includes explicit skill instruction.

Learner-centered teachers teach students how to think, solve problems, evaluate evidence, analyze arguments, generate hypotheses—all those learning skills essential to mastering material in the discipline.

3. Learner-centered teaching encourages students to reflect on what they are learning and how they are learning it. 

They challenge student assumptions about learning and encourage them to accept responsibility for decisions they make about learning; like how they study for exams, when they do assigned reading, whether they revise their writing or check their answers.

4. Learner-centered teaching motivates students by giving them some control over learning processes.

Learner-centered teachers search out ethically responsible ways to share power with students.

5. Learner-centered teaching encourages collaboration.

Learner-centered teachers work to develop structures that promote shared commitments to learning.

It is pretty easy to see how these core characteristics can apply to any age learner — be they kindergarteners or faculty in a school system. If we want our educators to be learning models for students, we would do well to employ some of these characteristics at all levels of learning.

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Gaming to re-engage boys in school

“If a child can’t learn the way we  teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

-Ignacio Estrada

The disengagement of boys in our education system has become such old news that — yawn — we barely register it anymore. Rather, we diagnose their need for stimulation as a hyperactive disorder and medicate it. We diagnose their disinterest in our recommended texts as a disability and track them into special classes designed to focus on their shortcomings. The unending focus on deficits leaves them even more disenfranchised than they were and the vicious cycle continues.

But what if we are getting it wrong? What if we are forcing them to learn the way we teach, rather than teaching the way they learn? In the below TEDtalk, Ali Carr-Chellman, “an instructional designer and author who studies the most effective ways to teach kids and to make changes at school,” shares her ideas for re-engaging boys. The deceptively simple technique she recommends is — low and behold — proving effective for a wide range of disengaged learners: “Bring their culture into the classroom.”

In the case of boys, she recommends a bit of gaming. Check it out:

Year at Mission Hill, Chapter 7: Behind the Scenes

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Chapter 7 of this fantastic series delves into the fuel that keeps the fire going — questioning everything in relation to the whole child:

  • Asking for help.
  • Inquiry to inspire students’ voice.
  • Shared inquiry about students.

Building a community of curiosity, which changes teachers’ perspectives on teaching, learning, and their own empowerment as educators, empowerment they then pass on to students.

Such a paradigm shift or “mindset switch” is vitally important to sustaining transformational learning.

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18 Myths of Education (Infographic)

Below is a provocative infographic from Open Colleges, an online university in Australia.

What do you think about these? Agree? Disagree? Little bit of both? Share your thoughts in the comments.

<img alt="" src="http://informed.s3.amazonaws.com/informed/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/600px_final the original source.jpg” />

An Infographic by Open Colleges

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11 Characteristics of Meaningful Work

Note from the Editor: While this piece by Shawn Murphy is related to business practices and targeted to managers and business leaders, the parallels to education and student learning are striking. Teachers, curricula developers, and education leaders can find plenty herein to ponder, reflect on, and apply in practice.  It was originally posted at Switch and Shift and is reposted here with the permission of the author.

Meaning_People_700x300Managers cannot make work meaningful for employees. Managers, however, can shape the workplace environment to let meaningful work become possible for employees. With a context set to let meaning be experienced, employees can leverage the environment to derive meaning from their work.

Meaningful work is vague. What exactly is it? Assuredly it begins quite selfishly. But this is out of necessity. For work to be meaningful, it is the employee who must label it so. This requires a belief that meaningful work is a desired outcome from managements’ actions. And employees believe managements’ intentions and see actions aimed to let meaning emerge.

To explain what meaningful work is, let’s look at its characteristics. In short, however, meaningful work is employees’ perceived positive value of what they are doing. It’s a source of joy in their overall life. In the words of Max Depree, “[it’s] maturing, enriching, and fulfilling, healing, and joyful.”

Basic needs are met

Think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Employees physiological and safety needs must be met. It’s a base requirement for meaningful work to emerge.

Strengths are leveraged

Don’t confuse strengths with competency. Strengths are what energize you. Employees must experience work that energizes them. Otherwise all work is draining and meaning is absent.

Pull personal satisfaction from work

Employees’ perceive their work to be fulfilling.

Being in on things

Employees believe they are trusted with important, inside knowledge. This includes knowing that there is important information but it must be kept confidential from employees for the benefit of the organization.

Treated with respect by peers and managers

This doesn’t say liked, but respected. There is a difference. At its core is employees’ believe they can speak their ideas and be in action to achieve the best possible outcomes.

See how one’s work fits into the bigger picture

Really, what hasn’t been said or written about this. Enough said.

Personal sense of independence and interdependence

Autonomy in completing one’s work has always been important. Collaboration is vital in the 21st century given the internet and globalization. These raise the importance of interdependence in today’s workplaces.

Employees believe they are valued by the organization, by management

To be viewed as a replaceable cog in the proverbial wheel is antiquated management. Organizations thrive or die based on human actions. To that end, meaningful work is marked by the belief that employees are the means to a profitable end.

Opportunities to know self

Let’s look back to Max Depree’s words. For work to be meaningful, there must be a maturing nature of work. Such an evolving awareness of the nature of work is best met by an evolving, deepening awareness of one’s self. Coaching, feedback and awareness of one’s place in the universe are vital to make sense of meaningful work. Such opportunities are humbling.

Promotion of other’s satisfaction

Immanuel Kant, philosopher, placed our ability to be concerned for other’s wellbeing and humanity as important to meaningful work. Such a belief places an emphasis on a strong, united team supporting others’ ability to flourish.

Recognized, give recognition for good work

For meaningful work to emerge, employees’ efforts are recognized in manners important to the person. Furthermore, giving recognition is believed to matter, creating a cycle of reciprocity that is genuine.

In today’s workplace, meaningful work is radical. For some managers, to influence a meaningful workplace environment is heretical. This is precisely what our workplaces need.

Image: Shawn Murphy
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