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Attaining Equity Through Agency: Creating the Future We All Hope For

Throughout my career as an educator, formerly in United States public schools and now working in independent international schools, equity has always been an area of great importance. I am a personal example of the power of education to transform lives and my conviction around equity is unrelenting. I have worked and consulted in multiple school systems, both large and small, and every one of them uses words like inclusion, social justice, equity, closing the achievement gap, and many others that emphasize an egalitarian approach to education. All of the different school systems clearly articulated that they were focused on achievement for all learners and most of the educators communicated a high level of commitment to all learners. In spite of all of our awareness and focus on sub-groups, representation, redistricting, special education identification practices and other similarly well-intentioned initiatives the achievement gap persists.

As graphic below illustrates, the achievement gap is not an isolated matter that only exists in low achieving urban schools. Unfortunately, it is common across a range of schools both rich and poor, urban or rural, national or international, and private or public. In all of these different circumstances achievement gaps persist.

Additionally, at no greater time in human history is it as important as now to ensure that all learners are educated in a manner that provides equal preparation for the future economy. Research clearing houses like the Rand Corporation and McKinsey and Company both have estimated that the economic impact of the achievement gap is massive to the US and International economies. A June 2009 article from McKinsey and Company estimates that failure to close the achievement gap between 1983 when A Nation at Risk was published and 1998, one educational lifetime, cost the United States 1.3 to 2.3 Trillion dollars in GDP. Likewise, the impact to individual US states has been great as well. A Rand Corporation study indicated that if Pennsylvania had closed the achievement gap between Latino and African American students by 2003, the ten-year benefit to the Pennsylvania economy would have been between 1 to 2 Billion dollars and a potentially 7+% in real GDP. The phenomenal cost of the global achievement gap has had huge impact on countries, states, and industries. Even with the mounting evidence of the impact of the achievement cap on the economy, the achievement gap persists.

As I reflect on these facts, I’ve realized that there must be something very wrong in our approach to education. We have well intentioned, hard-working educators, working in schools that are espousing a commitment to equity, and yet the achievement gap continues to be a significant challenge. We know we have a global inequity in achievement, we believe we have good people working in schools, and we great economic motivation, then what might the problem be?

I believe we have a systematic issue that is rooted at the foundation of our current educational model which was created in the industrial era. The industrial education system was designed with the intent of sorting and selecting human beings into classes for the purpose of employment. The sort and select ethos, created at the turn of the 20th century, is still a driver in virtually every aspect of schooling. Examples of these practices are abundant and range from grading practices based on the evaluation of specific skills which can include grade point average, rankings, percentile rank, etc., to the enrollment structures of schools where students are batched by birthdate as if they are Toyota cars, to the architecture of schools where students are housed in buildings that resemble factories to be held captive for the time specified in the schedule, the list could go on and on. Let's face it, schools were designed to prepare a generation for the industrial workplace where some would be leaders, others would be managers, and the rest would be taught to follow directions and be compliant to the rules as they labored and toiled for the school, I mean company.

The publishing of A Nation at Risk in 1983, the United States intended to improve education by highlighting some of the problems, however the report was rooted its evaluation in the industrial education model that ultimately reinforced the sort and select reality. The report argued for shifts in education that included creation of education standards that would allow for the “measurement” of learning, increased rigor in the standards with additional content, and the extension of the school day to 7 hours and the school year to 200 or 210 days. This attempt at reform was little more than a reorganization and attempted enhancement of the industrial school model. A Nation At Risk was created in the image of the industrial model of performance management and it gave birth to the school accountability movement, which eventually became No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The thinking at the time was, if you measure and hold schools accountable you will immediately improve learning. It created a system that made schools look like factories on steroids. Has there ever been a more contradictory approach to human development? Clearly, the solution to our global achievement gap does not lie in the industrial legacy from which education was created. So, then what is the answer?

I may not have a 100% answer, but I have a strong direction to pursue. I believe the best way to create equity in education is to empower all learners with the ability to express agency. In our book Personalized Learning in a PLC at Work we define agency as the ability of a student to take specific and purposeful action to impact their level of success. Essentially, agency is the ability of a learner to apply the skills of learning independently. Agency is often confused with other non-cognitive factors that support learner success. When we refer to agency, we are also including non-cognitive factors such as self-efficacy, growth mindset, and metacognition, as all of them are central to a learner's expression of agency. The ability of a learner to express agency is at the core of being a life-long learner. Expressing agency provides us with the ability to adapt to changing circumstances as well as transfer knowledge and skills to new and unknown situations. During the industrial era of education, agency was suppressed and students were oppressed. They were taught to be obedient listeners that followed the teacher’s directions. The goal was to transfer knowledge and to have the student demonstrate their knowledge accurately and efficiently. Only the super knowledgeable, or “gifted” students, were provided the space to express agency. They received the more engaging, and often project based experiences, that allowed them to bring their own perspectives into the learning environment. I would argue that it is, and always has been, a learner’s ability to express agency that was the fundamental difference between those that went to university to become the upper class and those that were sorted into an industrial laboring class. Agency is the key to upward social mobility and enduring success in life. If we have any hope to transform the world by harnessing human capacity it must start with agency.

We believe there are two essential things we have to do if we want to shift the balance of power and provide equity for learners. First, we must allow our learners to express agency and with its expression allow them to bring their authentic selves into the learning process. We have to stop imposing our institutional values on our learners. Our learners do not come to us as empty vessels. They come with rich backgrounds that emerge from diverse contexts. We often act as if the only place learners learn is at school, but learning takes place everywhere and all the time. What we often fail to realize is that learning takes place within the the mind of the learner and everywhere that mind travels so does learning. Agency empowers the learner to build meaning by connecting new knowledge and understandings to their prior understandings. For years educators have tried to create relevance for learners when in fact that is a flawed approach. It is the learner that must create the relevance to their world and understandings. As such, a precursor to learning is the learners belief that they are personally valued as individual beings, unique both in the background and aspirations! As Paulo Freire stated in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes a cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding.” Throughout the industrial education era, we have ignored the indigenous knowledge and cultural backgrounds of our learners and, in the process, have oppressed our learners’ agency in an effort to shape them into productive economic units. By allowing our learners to express agency, we communicate to them that they matter, their roots matter, and that we welcome their personal identity into learning. It is from this foundation of agency that we build authentic and contextualized experiences for learners that allows them to attain personalized academic success.

Second, we must have the courage to distance ourselves from the chains of the industrial education system and structures. We have to shift our fundamental approach to education. As long as our system is rooted in the industrial era, we will continue, against our best intentions, to suppress agency and as a result exacerbate the global achievement gap. As long as we continue to impose a schooling system that does not value the agency of learners, and as a result, all they bring with them to the learning environment, we will be stuck in the cycle of differentiated achievement. As Freire states, “No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors.” If we want to see change, we have to stop reinforcing the system that oppresses.

You may be wondering if the system is so bad, then why hasn’t it changed? What we have found in our consulting work is that the most resistant to change are often those who have benefited the most from the existing system. As educators, we thrived in the current model, creating a blind spot in our ability to objectively evaluate the deficits within the system. Subconsciously, we protect it! The most common argument for holding on to the current industrial model of education is the “It worked for us” mindset. It is within this mindset, the privileged mindset, that we continue to hold on to the current system. It is our belief in the false meritocracy of the industrial education system that allows us to perpetuate it. We were told that through hard work and diligence we would find success. Then when we succeed it was obviously because we earned it through our hard work and thus we deserved it. We have to face the reality that all of us were not born into equal circumstances and as a result most of us that succeeded had a head start in the game of school that benefited us in the sort and selection process.

If we want to do more than lip service to universal achievement then we need to change the fundamental paradigm of education. In 2013, Education Reimagined, a non-profit education think tank in Washington DC, presented a different vision for education that focuses on the unique attributes of every learner. They named the new paradigm of education as Learner Centered Education (LCE). In this new paradigm of education starts with a focus on the learner. We hold that if we want learners to express agency then we have to shift from the industrial paradigm to a Learner Centered one.

Moving from School Centered to Learner Center - Education Reimagined

Learner Centered Education holds on to the good of the old system with a focus on standards-based outcomes through a clear competency-based curriculum, but allows the pedagogy of schools to shift focus to the learner by allowing them to express agency. In Learner Centered Education learning is open walled, meaning that it occurs through rich experiences both within and beyond the school walls. Learning that is open walled honors each learner’s unique background allowing them to make meaning through personalized, contextualized, and authentic learning experiences. Through the expression of a learner’s agency, Learner Centered Education drives all learners toward high levels of learning. By shifting our paradigm to Learner Centered, agency becomes the pathway for creating equity.

As educators, if we believe in equity then agency is our new tool to achieve it. By shifting our paradigm, we can honor our learners, their backgrounds, and unique abilities. We can support their expression of agency and empower them to become more than they ever believed was possible. Our power as educators lies our willingness to confront the status quo, embrace the Learner Centered Paradigm shift, and honor our learners by allowing them to create a personalized learning progression and pathway through the expression of agency. If we are able to make these shifts, then we will create the future that we all have hoped for.

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