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  • Tonya Breland

Opening My Eyes to Some Ugly Truths about our Education System

Have you ever had questions like these about creating equity for students?

Where do I even begin to address equity? I want all students to be successful…in fact I believe they can be, but I cannot seem to close the gaps I see in my school and/or district for my Black and Latinx students. Why is that? What am I missing? What am I not doing? And how can I really make a difference? What needs to change? And what don’t I understand? How does my school or district perpetuate inequities? Do I have the capacity to successfully disrupt the inequities in my school or district?

Well of course you can disrupt the inequities! Anyone can be a champion for equity, and yes that also means you. Just understand that this work is tough work and you need to approach it as though you are going on a long journey. And be careful not to trivialize any step of this journey. Expect it to be long and complex with many winding roads that sometimes leave you feeling exhausted like you've gone no where. But please don't let that discourage you. Keep going.

You might ask, "Where do I begin?" Not a simple question to answer because there could be different starting points depending on your circumstances. Contexts vary from district to district, school to school, and classroom to classroom. You may have to start by assessing what is equitable and what is not. Some inequities may be visible, while others may be invisible. Your job is to shine a light on the inequities and then get to work to dismantle them.

Dismantling inequities is easier said than done. Believe me, if it were simple or easy, the inequities would largely have been addressed and removed by now. This brings me to an important point. Before you delve into this work, it is critical that you have a deep understanding of the history of education from the lens of racial equity. And while I will touch on it lightly in this blog article, it is imperative that you spend time studying this from many perspectives. Unfortunately, there is a long-standing saga of educational and other systemic inequities that exist in communities across this country that have greatly impacted students and families of color, specifically, Black and Latinx.

One place you can start is by researching how America has historically been inequitable in the education of its Black and Latinx students, especially those who live in poverty, according to research (Lee, 2012). Students of color continue to attend schools where educators may hold differentiated expectations, often low, and believe deficits-based misconceptions about these students compared to their White and Asian peers (Liou & Rojas, 2019). It is also not uncommon for students in urban districts, often referred to as majority-minority districts, to go to buildings that are under-resourced, inadequate, and may have policies that create barriers that hinder students from maximizing their learning potential.

Taking the important step of understanding the history and complexities of education and the lived experiences of different student populations, will give you insight and context for what your students of color face on a day-to-day basis. Yet it’s only the beginning of your equity journey. There remains so much more.

Examine the limited access Black and Latinx students may have to resources in and outside of school. And the lack of educational opportunities for them to enjoy high-quality learning experiences, skilled, veteran teachers, and advanced courses. And even when advanced courses are available, the environments are not always welcoming for Black and Latinx students to feel like they belong.

It is also important for you to examine the policies and practices that perpetuate unfair treatment of students, creating distinctions between those who have resources and those who do not. Research suggests that the pervasiveness of inequities in education is systemic and complex and also very difficult to reverse, especially in large urban areas (Anyon, 2005). And while this may seem daunting, identifying and shining a light on these and other inequities can be a meaningful first step in doing the work to dismantle them.

Learning about and understanding the history is only a small part of your equity journey. You should also commit to exploring the history of reform efforts meant to right the wrongs in our school systems, albeit unsuccessful. This, too, may give you context. Unfortunately, reform efforts intended to address inequities, like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) underperformed its expectations, specifically for underserved students, according to scholars who have studied its impact on students of color (Bishop & Noguera, 2019; Darling-Hammond, 2004).

These reform efforts did not address teacher expectations or professional learning to develop talent nor did they build the capacity of educators working with students of color. They did not address how resources were allocated within districts nor the policies that constrained or created barriers for students. Accountability movements that tied achievement to teacher quality, funding, and high stakes testing, like NCLB, missed the mark in attaining equity for this population of students (Finnigan, Kara S. & Holme, Jennifer Jellison, 2015). Reform efforts have also ignored the lived experiences of students in urban areas and the impact poverty has on their school successes (Milner IV, 2015).

I want to also encourage you to spend time talking to families and students and hearing their stories about their lived experiences. What if you asked students how school wounded them and find out the barriers and constraints they say have been placed in their way? And what if you asked them what in the school system is unfair to them and take the time to intensely hear and learn their stories and perspectives? How will these truths inform your beliefs and decision making moving forward?

While taking time to study what’s in front of you doesn’t equate to dismantling the inequities, it gives you a perspective of areas you may want to further explore. I encourage you to learn as much as you can and use your influence to expand and share this knowledge with your colleagues and staff.


Anyon, J. (2005). What "Counts" as Educational Policy? Notes toward a New Paradigm. Harvard Educational Review, 75(1), 65-88.

Bishop, J. P., & Noguera, P. A. (2019). The Ecology of Educational Equity: Implications for Policy. Peabody Journal of Education, 94(2), 122-141.

Cappello, L. (2015). Educational Attainment in the Six Major Metropolitan Areas, 1990-2010: A Quantitative Study by Race, Ethnicity, and Sex. Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2004). From "Separate but Equal" to "No Child Left Behind": The Collision of New Standards and Old Inequities. In Meier, Deborah and Wood, George (Ed.), Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is damaging our children and our schools (pp. 3-19). Beacon Press.

Finnigan, Kara S. & Holme, Jennifer Jellison. (2015). Regional Educational Equity Policies: Learning from Inter-district Integration Programs Brief No. 9. (). Washington, DC: The National Coalition on School Diversity.

Lee. (2012). Young Men of Color, Educational Experiences of. Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education (). Sage Publications.

Liou, D. D., & Rojas, L. (2019). W. E. B. Du Bois's Concept of Sympathetic Touch as a Mediator of Teachers' Expectations in an Urban School District. Teachers College Record, 121(7)

Milner IV, H. R. (2015). Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms. Harvard Education Press.

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