Paul C. Gorski is an associate professor of Integrative Studies in George Mason University’s New Century College, where he teaches classes on class and poverty, educational equity, animal rights, and environmental justice. He recentedly designed the new Social Justice undergraduate program and minor there as well. He has been an active consultant, presenter, and trainer for nearly twenty years, conducting workshops and providing guidance to schools and community organizations committed to equity and diversity. He created and continues to maintain the Multicultural Pavilion, an award winning Web site focused on critical multicultural education. Paul is serving his second term on the board of directors of the International Association for Intercultural Education (IAIE). He has published four books and more than 40 articles in publications such as Educational Leadership, Equity and Excellence in Education,Rethinking Schools, Teaching and Teacher Education, Teachers College Record, and Teaching Tolerance. Prior to his current position Paul taught for the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland, and Hamline University. He continues to publish and present in education-focused forums on topics including white privilege and racism, anti-poverty education and economic justice, and multicultural organizational transformation. He lives in Washington, DC, with his cats, Unity and Buster.
For years I have been dissatisfied with many popular frameworks for talking about diversity and equity in schools, nearly all of which—cultural competence, cultural proficiency, intercultural communications, multiculturalism—tend to put culture rather than equity at the center of the conversation. Sure, every educator should learn as much as possible about the cultures of individual students. But knowing a little bit about Mexican or Mexican American culture does very little to prepare us to see and respond effectively to bias or inequity—especially to the most subtle bias and inequity.
Nowhere is the “culture” obsession more dangerous than in the ways in which teachers generally are taught to think about poverty. This is especially, devastatingly, true given the baffling popularity of the “culture of poverty” approach for understanding low-income students’ experiences. I call it baffling because the idea that we can assume anything at all about a student based on a single dimension of her or his identity or that all people in the hugely diverse population of people in poverty universally share the same beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors is nonsensical.
The excerpt below, taken from my recent book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap (Teachers College Press, 2013), describes what I call Equity Literacy, a framework first used by my super-genius colleague, Katy Swalwell, to describe a kind of literacy youth should learn in school. I built on her conception of Equity Literacy to include the skills and consciousness with which teachers ought to be equipped in order to create equitable learning environments for students and families in poverty.
I came to define Equity Literacy as the skills and understandings that enable us to recognize, respond to, and redress conditions that deny some students access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by their peers and, in doing so, sustain equitable learning environments for all students and families.
The Equity Literacy framework borrows some of its principles from other approaches for thinking about diversity in schools including resiliency theory, diversity pedagogy theory, funds of knowledge theory, and cultural proficiency. What distinguishes Equity Literacy, broadly speaking, from these and other popular frameworks is Equity Literacy’s recognition that the problem is not primarily cultural. The issue before us, as we attempt to create more effective learning environments for low-income students, is not culture, but equity. I can learn everything I want to know about this or that culture, but doing so is not going to help me spot subtle bias in learning materials or help me realize the injustice at play when schools eliminate arts and music programs, which are known to help low-income students achieve academically.
The principles of Equity Literacy are the consciousness behind the framework. Each principle is based on research about congruence between what educators believe about, and their effectiveness working with, low-income students and families. Read more