- May 18, 2023
There’s no such thing as a small decision when it comes to addressing institutional inequity.
Credit: GoodStudio / Shutterstock
In her allegory “A Gardener’s Tale”, public health expert Camara Jones explores how our personal actions—including choosing not to act—can propagate institutional racism. More than 20 years after the paper was published, her thesis deserves repeating: institutional inequity flows from the action and inaction of individuals.
In Jones’ allegory, a gardener sows red flowers in a planter filled with new, rich soil, while pink flowers are sown in a planter filled with used, depleted, rocky soil. As the growing season progresses, the gardener observes the red flowers thriving and the pink flowers struggling to survive. The gardener then jumps to the wrong conclusion: red flowers are superior to pink flowers.
The allegory illustrates how institutional inequity can be allowed to take root: Before the gardener ever began planting, the soil was inequitably nourished—and the gardener didn’t alter the growing conditions for the seeds that were planted. Additionally, Jones demonstrates the insidiousness of biological determinism, the belief that some are naturally superior to others at birth. Rather than seeking out a root cause for the disparity between the flowers, the gardener assumes the flowers are inherently different—and that the pink flowers are inferior.
We have a duty to be responsive to students’ needs and adjust the conditions in which students grow and flourish.
Although it is easy to see in this example that it was the difference in soil that led the gardener to jump to inaccurate conclusions, we seldom have such clarity in our role as educators. Yet, we still have a duty to be responsive to students’ needs and adjust the conditions in which students grow and flourish, or “enrich the soil,” in the form of opportunities commensurate with their needs.
School communities provide many opportunities that result in students receiving extra encouragement, instruction, opportunity, or access—for our purposes, let’s call these “soil-enriching” opportunities. Consider the following list of soil-enriching opportunities commonly found in schools, and notice how many of them depend on educator input or decision-making to gather or select their recipients:
- Free and reduced-price lunch programs.
- Specialized education services.
- Gifted and talented programs.
- Reading support.
- Budget allocations.
- Clubs and activities.
- Letters of recommendation.
- Honors/AP courses.
- Summer school.
- Pilot/magnet programs.
In theory, all students have equal access to soil-enriching opportunities. But teachers are often called on to notice, report, and gauge the intensity of students’ needs so that institutions can decide who receives such opportunities. After all, not every student needs the same things.
In this way, we determine who receives soil-enriching opportunities—and our input takes on new gravity. Therefore, it is necessary for educators to be mindful of how they notice, report, and gauge students’ needs and apply an appropriate level of care when contributing to the allocation of soil-enriching opportunities.
The Big Impact of “Small” Decisions
Education leaders make and contribute to hundreds of decisions per day. Some of them are obvious in their impact, such as hiring, budget, eligibility for specialized education, etc. These decisions are often closely regulated and have built-in checks and balances through laws, audits, and oversight.
Both large and small decisions can generate damaging institutional inequity.
Many more of our decisions, however, are “smaller” in impact: which student is identified for reading support, which parent is encouraged to refer their child for gifted and talented services, or which students are selected for robotics club. These decisions are often made more quickly and without consultation or oversight, often due to lack of time—but Jones reminds us that both large and small decisions can generate damaging institutional inequity. If we are making a soil-enriching decision (one that results in determining who receives an opportunity), we must acknowledge that it is a large decision and respond appropriately.
For example, consider the following email-messaging approaches from a hypothetical K-2 reading specialist:
“Dear Colleagues, It’s that time of year again! Please send me the names of three students in your homeroom that need the most help with reading. We have 18 spots and 6 homerooms, so this works out easily. Reading support will begin on September 27.”
“Dear Colleagues, Attached, please find the data from our beginning-of-year reading assessment. Students that are far below our district benchmark have been highlighted. We start with data, but your wisdom and experience are also very important! After looking over this list, please send me the names of students you are most concerned about with early reading skills, and I will administer our phonemic awareness test to them. On September 20, we will meet during our collaboration time to review the anonymized data results and choose the best candidates for the 18 spots available. Reading support will begin on September 27.”
While both approaches seek to distribute limited resources, Approach B indicates that the educator is aware of the impact of this soil-enriching opportunity and takes a clearly intentional approach by including multiple points of data, redaction of names, and team decision-making.
Approach A, although expedient, could easily perpetuate institutional inequity because it wrongfully assumes that each homeroom teacher applies the same criteria and that student need is distributed evenly; the approach does not apply an appropriate level of care or respect for the impact of the decision.
How to Shift to Intentional Decision-Making
Understanding the influence and gravity of our soil-enriching decisions can be unsettling. Educators already carry tremendous responsibility, so the realization that we need to take more time and consideration with every opportunity can be daunting.
The good news is that awareness is a great place to start, and not every soil-enriching decision requires a meeting or data sets. Sometimes, educators need only consider the opportunity more closely to guide their next steps. This is accomplished by first asking some important questions, either alone or in a group:
- What are the benefits of instruction, access, and encouragement inherent to this opportunity?
- Which students have the most to gain from receiving these benefits? How do we know?
- How are we going to make this decision without bias?
Once the educator has considered these questions, they can match the appropriate communication and selection strategies to the opportunity. Naturally, not all strategies are appropriate for every situation, and they should be used judiciously. Soil-enriching strategies for equity include:
- Advertise frequently, in the languages of the school community, and across multiple platforms and venues as appropriate.
- Offer multiple paths of application.
- Develop data-informed arguments from multiple assessments, not single discrete metrics.
- When appropriate, redact names and other personally identifying information from your data: this eliminates campaigning and improves both trust and accountability.
- Make a team decision, not an individual one.
Consider the following hypothetical example, which illustrates how merely considering the actual benefits of a soil-enriching decision can help an educator match an opportunity to a student need quickly and efficiently:
Mr. Pedan, an elementary school gifted and talented coordinator, has always had “his” students volunteer to read the morning announcements. They are early readers, often have large vocabularies, and will need practice with public speaking—they have bright futures!
There is nothing inherently “wrong” with Mr. Pedan’s approach here; he is meeting a perceived need for his students. However, he did not intentionally consider who was and wasn’t included in this opportunity. Are students who have already been identified as gifted and talented the only students who would benefit from this opportunity?
After considering the multiple benefits of the activity (increased practice with public speaking and positive, affirming daily interactions with office staff), Mr. Pedan decided to invite the speech/language pathologist and the school counselor to help him widen the volunteer pool of students. They are aware of students who could use enrichment with public speaking or more positive interactions with office staff.
Mr. Pedan didn’t need to set up an elaborate system to make the opportunity more equitable. He only needed to stop for a moment and give consideration, which led him to see this opportunity as more than a “gold star” and consider the other groups who may benefit. Additionally, he included other educators to help him make team decisions.
Reducing Institutional Inequity
As an education leader, you are both the face and the fabric of your institution and may find yourself in situations where you are singularly responsible for determining the process of selection for a soil-enriching decision in the name of your institution. It is not uncommon for lone educators to be placed in this position, but we often fail to realize that our individual decisions regarding how to approach a soil-enriching opportunity become “the way it’s done here”—perhaps even after we leave. Although intentional decision-making can be a large responsibility, it is also an excellent opportunity to repair previous injustices and make improvements at an institutional level. By recognizing soil-enriching opportunities and treating them with an appropriate level of intentional consideration, it is much easier to foster institutional equity, one decision at a time.