Academic Redlining

Type: Article
Topics: Equity, School Administrator Magazine

April 01, 2022

A New Jersey district’s efforts to reduce education inequities hiding in plain sight
Christopher Tienken
Christopher Tienken

Findings from AASA’s “The American Superintendent: 2020 Decennial Study” suggest that superintendents are more often the ones leading discussions about educational equity in their school communities.

But educational equity also was found to be one of tasks that superintendents engaged in the least. Only 7 percent of respondents in the national study indicated equity was an issue on which they spent a considerable amount of time. Personnel management, conflict management and relationships with the board of education were the top three issues that most frequently consumed superintendents’ time.

The 1,000-student Wildwood School District in Wildwood City, N.J., has been shining a light on educational inequity for years. The district leadership is not immune to issues that can divert time away from equity, which might seem less pressing than the sharks circling the boat. The district leadership created a systemwide focus on education inequity so that it does not get obscured and left hiding in plain sight.

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Christopher Tienken & Kenyon Kummings
About the Authors

Christopher Tienken is the AASA research professor in residence and an associate professor of education leadership, management and policy at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. He is the author of The School Reform Landscape Reloaded: More Fraud, Myth and Lies.

Kenyon Kummings is superintendent of Wildwood Public Schools in Wildwood, N.J.

The Equity Equation Stresses Counseling Support and Empathy

Access to higher-level course work is only one variable in the equity equation. Academic and social-emotional support and empathy will be needed once students have access to more demanding classes.

In addition, school counselors and teachers must be part of the equation for those students to succeed.

Because counselors are an early point of contact for course placement decisions, they can benefit from specific training to increase the enrollment of historically underrepresented students into higher-level courses and selective programs.

Counselors may find themselves in a precarious position between a parent and a teacher over recommendations for placement. Counselors find it difficult to advocate for students when they don’t have a good understanding of the whole child and the potential barriers to academic success in more challenging coursework. Without such advocacy, students will be denied the access and the resources that could help them to reach and perform well in higher-level instruction.

Safety Nets

Teachers appreciate professional development that delivers tools and strategies for adjusting their pedagogy to capitalize on the strengths of historically underrepresented students. They also benefit from support for how to teach and relate to students who come from culturally and economically different backgrounds than they do.

Empathy is the key variable to increasing educational equity, and the research literature sees teacher-student relationships as an important factor for student success. It can be difficult for educators to fully comprehend the challenges faced by some students and build meaningful relationships with them if educators do not come to understand how it feels to walk in their students’ shoes.

Creating the space for students, families and teachers to have conversations that lead to a better understanding of their experiences is an important part of changing the culture to one in which everyone owns the equity issue. District leadership can facilitate ongoing and proactive dialogue with students and their families and teachers and school counselors as a way to increase staff understanding about individual student circumstances and potential barriers to success.

Students are more successful in higher-level coursework when schools offer support such as meals, laptops for home use and portable Wi-Fi, more time to complete assignments, on-site tutoring, after-school homework help and assistive technology. Procedural safety nets such as automatic notifications, based on grades and performance on assignments, that lead to conversations with teachers, guidance counselors and administrators may trigger additional supports for students to succeed in demanding classes.

The work of increasing access to higher-level courses and promoting success within those courses is multifaceted. Everyone in the school district ought to own a piece of the equity equation.