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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Equity is Not a Strand: Detracking Professional Learning

It was the spring of 2017, and I was, despite a decade and a half working in education, at my first major national education conference.  At first, being inundated with choices made the pre-programmed thematic “tracks” tempting. These strands of workshops allowed a busy and confused newcomer a narrower range of choices. But a rather strong bias informed by my teaching and leadership experience against anything that might be confused with tracking made me doubt this. Instead, I made sure to visit an array of workshops from any number of these strands, all of which aligned with my coaching role in different ways: leadership, SEL, student agency, equity.

Equity must be embedded in all that we do.

This scenario has repeated itself many times by now at a variety of regional and national conferences and institutes. At these conferences, I’ve found a few camps of educators tend to form comfortably, often along lines of race and power, into predictable strands. The equity and justice strands, often led by passionate educators of color, often are scheduled – largely by nature of logistical challenges – against competing workshops that pull in the policy leaders, those holding formal power, and school leaders touting their innovative success stories. As a result, both kinds of sessions seem to lack the productive dissonance that more varied – less tracked - attendance might invite.

There are good intentions behind tracks and strands. Indeed, I’ve struggled, when planning professional development institutes with my team at CCE, over how best to create coherent learning sequences for our varying attendees.  But over time, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with some of the unintended consequences of tracks or strands at conferences, ones that replicate some of the reasons why tracking is problematic, and why de-tracking is now synonymous with progressive school reform.

Instead, as a learner, I’ve jumped from an interactive session focused on pedagogy of the oppressed, to fireside chats about new policies in competency education.  I’ve benefited from the interplay of these differing ideas, and they’ve helped me to build a strong foundational understanding of the landscape and its potential, informed by both an equity lens and the acquisition of innovative tools. Equity doesn’t float about, divorced from its important relationship with the other topics, and the workshops in this strand are rich in ways that go beyond an urge to “wokeness” about inequity. No longer can I imagine a full toolbox of innovative leadership strategies without the impetus to use these for equity.  Equity and innovation need each other.

This fall, I am excited to be part of the District and School Design team at CCE as we embark on a new project, compiling our various tools, resources and experiences into a toolkit focused on infusing school innovation with equity.  A foundational principle of this toolkit is the belief that equity must not be a sideshow in the world of innovative education. It must belong to all of us. Whether our classrooms are populated by a diverse array of students of color and English Learners or not, we are jointly responsible for the dissolution of white supremacist ideologies. White teachers in suburban districts are just as responsible as their teaching peers for disrupting the hegemonies that benefit them and their students. Those of us who retweet links about disrupting systemic oppression must also engage in professional learning shoulder to shoulder with administrators, innovators, and the brave educators leading this fight – or else our words and gestures of support are empty, devoid of the fuel we need to be authentic and active allies.  There is some merit to the argument that equity is a big topic in its own right that deserves explicit, focused sessions so that it won’t languish as an afterthought within other topics. But if “equity” is relegated to a strand or track at every conference without also being integrally, centrally located in each track, then we are not providing all attendees with the impetus to prioritize it.

Cohesive session sequences are helpful, and I laud conferences for their attempt to bring order to chaos. Tagging sessions with multiple “strands,” or integrating equity workshops into every track, might be ways to ensure that social-justice-focused sessions are integrated into every attendee’s pathway.  And the responsibility is on those of us who attend, too – to be bold and branch out from the tracks where we are comfortable and take workshops that challenge us.  After all, we would ask no less of our students.

As my team works to build our toolkit, we have learned that innovative practices and equitable ones are largely overlapping.  With a careful lens sharpened on this nexus, we can all improve our work. I plan to start, at conferences and otherwise, with my own professional learning.  

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