Paul C. Gorski is an assistant professor in New Century College, George Mason University. Gorski’s work and passion is social justice activism. His areas of scholarly focus include anti-poverty activism and education, critical race theory and anti-racism education, and critical theories pertaining to women’s rights, LGBT rights, labor rights, immigrant rights, and anti-imperialism. Gorski is an active consultant and speaker, working with community and educational organizations around the world—such as in Colombia, Australia, India, and Mexico—on equity and social justice concerns. Gorski founded EdChange, a coalition of educators and activists who develop free social justice resources for educators and activists.
In my view, the challenge of educational inequity is not, as many assume, that too few people care about creating learning environments that work for all students. The challenge, despite an overwhelming desire among most teachers and administrators to serve the needs of all students, is that we generally have very little understanding of the depth and complexity of the problem.
Consider, for example, the monster we commonly refer to as the “achievement gap”. I use this example because a vast majority of education equity attention today is focused on this “gap” as measured in standardized test score comparisons. Over many decades, even before today’s term for it was coined, school leaders have attempted myriad strategies for redressing “achievement gaps” among and between students across race, language, class, and other identities. But we’ve made so little progress. Why?
I have spent a lot of time in schools examining what teachers and administrators are doing in the name of educational equity. Of all of the conditions that commonly impede real progress toward equity, one has stood out to me: an institutional culture that increasingly values the pragmatic, the quick fix, the simple, practical solution over a more contoured and deeply-informed approach to rooting out inequities.
Let me be clear: I understand the pragmatic tug. I spend hours digging through websites, attending workshops, looking for a tool or two that will help me immediately. We contend daily with the reality that tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, we will stand before groups of young people eager to be engaged in invigorating ways. What’s more, the weight of high-stakes testing ratchets up the pressure. The practical is essential. But, just as the practical is essential, a reliance on pragmatism without ample critical reflection can be dangerous, especially when we assume something is useful just because it is practical.
One benefit of spending time in a lot of different schools is that I have an opportunity to see trends—to monitor the ways schools adopt equity programs and practices. Of the many troubling trends I have witnessed, three stand out as examples of how a culture of pragmatism contributes to the adoption of supposedly “equity”-oriented programs and practices which, however well-intentioned, do not make schools more equitable.
Identity-Based “Learning Styles”
Many schools and districts have adopted a pedagogical approach focused upon identity-specific notions of “learning styles.” Oftentimes, these learning style models are based around race and ethnicity or gender, suggesting that there exists a predictable and consistent African American learning style, Latina(o) learning style, female learning style, and so on. Attend professional conferences or diversity workshops most anywhere in the U.S. and you likely will find sessions on “Teaching Hmong Students” or “Interacting Effectively with Asian American Families.”
Certainly we should learn about the cultures of our students. However, there is no evidence that we can know anything about a student based on a single dimension of her or his identity. In fact, despite popular belief, there is no evidence of a consistent and predictable African American learning style or male learning style. In the case of gender there is evidence of some minor trends, but trends become mere stereotypes when applied without a more complex understanding of identity.
Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)
Unfortunately, sometimes all it takes is for a couple of people to write some books on a catchy topic. PLCs, one of the trendy responses to all sorts of education problems, have been implemented in schools and districts all over the U.S. in recent years. Although some research on the effectiveness of PLCs shows that they can improve teacher morale when implemented in particular ways, there exists no evidence whatsoever that schools adopting PLCs are any more equitable for, say, LGBTQ students or teachers than schools not adopting them. As with many programs and policies, the point is not that we shouldn’t put resources into PLCs. The point, instead, is that we should not divert resources meant to make our schools more equitable into PLCs.
The “Culture of Poverty”
It is amazing and troubling to think that the “culture of poverty” model continues to dominate professional development on poverty and learning in the U.S. After all, the culture of poverty hypothesis was rejected by social scientists more than forty years ago. Just as there exists no singular Latina/o learning style, there exists no singular culture among all poor people. Regardless, schools continue to invite Ruby Payne, today’s most active purveyor of the culture of poverty myth, to provide workshops to teachers all over the country. What is most unsettling about this is that, as several studies of Payne’s materials and its effects on those who attend her workshops show, not only is her work full of inaccuracies, but it deepens the stereotypes of people who consume it.
This, perhaps, is the ultimate trouble with an over-reliance on pragmatism. After all, Payne’s work did not spread like wildfire because it had been proven independently to be effective at eliminating class inequities in schools. (It hasn’t.) Instead, despite its inaccuracies and oppressions, it blankets the education milieu today because it is practical and easily digestible. We should all be concerned that what we know of its inaccuracies and oppressions have had little mitigating effect on its popularity in our schools. Thus is the danger of unbridled pragmatism.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering if I have a practical solution to this trouble.
I don’t. But I do urge us, as a community of educators, students, parents and other caregivers, and interested citizens, to be just as vigilant about consciousness as we are about finding practical solutions. We must demand evidence of what this or that practice or program does before implementing it. It’s not enough that Payne’s work “rings true” for some folks or that the district next door is doing PLCs. What matters is that we resist tripping into an institutional culture that privileges immediate, practical measures, regardless of whether or not they have proven effective, over the sort of deep, informed change that moves us closer to social justice and equity.
As educators, we have a responsibility to examine new programs, pedagogies, and policies with a critical lens toward their relevance, effectiveness, and impact on the learning of all students before implementing them. We must commit to allocating our precious equity resources in ways that we know will make a real difference. This is a matter of consciousness as well as a matter of pragmatism.
But most of all it’s a matter of equity.