“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”
— W. Edwards Deming, American engineer and statistician
The deeply entrenched inequities in American education systems and structures are a function of design. We aren’t the first to name this truth.
Yet, as a field, we continue to approach inequity with band-aids and surface-level solutions. The reality is that many education reform movements are regularly designed on the edges of systems, and often not by those most negatively impacted by them.
Most efforts don’t move past managing inequity or simply fail altogether. Inevitably, this cycle persists, and we continue to reproduce the same inequitable results despite the good intentions of millions of educators across this nation.
NTC’s Chief Program Officer, Atyani Howard knows the personal pain of being an underserved BIPOC student. For her, school wasn’t a place to feel safe or nurtured:
“School never reflected my selfhood in a way that opened me to dream of possibilities for myself and people who looked like me. It wasn’t a place where I could comfortably reveal the truth of my familial experiences when they impacted my learning ability. However, rare moments, like those with my venerable, white fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Barth, made a lasting imprint on my educational philosophy. She invited my mother and me to talk about why I struggled to focus and complete my homework, causing my grades to slip. Despite the profound embarrassment I felt discussing the shame of my home life at school with my teacher, Ms. Barth listened with an open heart, never questioning my intelligence or brilliance. She conveyed her belief in me, acknowledging that something external was at play. This experience led me to trust her and lean in for help, not retreat in shame and despair.”
Ms. Barth serves as a powerful example of how a teacher’s mission and purpose can (and should) shape both the soul and minds of her students. An example that isn’t the norm for millions of systemically underserved students nationwide. For Howard, it pushed the question: how can New Teacher Center leverage its experience and platform to shape a new vision for education? One that centers its purpose in shaping human experience, provides equitable access to high quality learning environments, and values and nurtures every student’s unlimited potential and selfhood (culture, heart, and mind).
“If we start where we always start, we will inevitably end up where we always end up,” said Howard. So, for sustainable, transformative change she wagered a new vision needed creation. And for NTC’s programs and services to bring about equitable outcomes for all students, this new vision must be an intrinsic part of their design.
NTC began asking a set of critical questions: what will it take to collectively reflect on these roots and redefine the purpose of public education itself? How can we truly prioritize the humanity of educators and students at least as much as we have invested in learning standards, high-quality curriculum and assessment, pedagogical technique and initiatives, and research? What does it mean to support educators to create student- and equity-centered instruction across entire school systems?
We set off on a journey to answer these field-altering questions; there, the idea of an equity commission was born. We curated a coalition of 23 diverse, nationally recognized experts, practitioners, and students to work alongside us and keep us accountable as we live into the answers to these questions.
We spent months on the commission’s design. Who made up the community mattered. Expertise mattered. Personal experience mattered. Representation mattered. Student voice mattered. And so did every detail for how we would come together and how we’d frame questions. We designed a collaborative process that was people-and humanity-focused to support creating a new vision for teaching and learning that reflected our most deeply held beliefs.
Our conscious preparation for this work underscored the reality that very often the strategic spaces we create to take on complex problems carry many norms, biases, and inequitable practices that perpetuate the very challenges we seek to address. Even when we curate convenings of brilliant thinkers and leaders, we often end up only scratching the surface and skirting around core issues. Essentially, most spaces like the commission aren’t set up for the diverse, BIPOC voices to say what needs to be said in its raw truth.
Our education systems were purposely created to be imbalanced, oppressive, and harmful to millions of students. It’s not limited to racism, although that is a severe and abhorrent failing. By design, education systems discriminate based on privilege and power, leaving many communities on the margins. Yet we are told that education is the great equalizer.
Somehow, humanity — and its many forms: relationships, compassion, and justice, to name a few — is not the beating heart driving our school systems. It’s missing.
So, for the commission to flourish, we formed a communal space grounded in that truth. And a space that represents the interests of everyone who is dehumanized by systemic inequities. We wanted to enable participants to freely make loud what’s long been quietly held or suppressed in these kinds of efforts.
After much introspection, the idea took shape. Invitations to experienced and bright equity leaders and minds across disciplines went out. We took stock of voice, agency, and perspective, ensuring that teachers and students would help keep us at ground-level, not spinning wheels in theory. We committed to centering the Commissioner’s personal stories so that lived experiences were front and center in the conversation.
The “yes” responses rolled in. It seemed that we touched on something that everyone felt was missing in the dialogue about the future of our field.
“The sense of urgency and concreteness and commitment to tangible changes in NTC’s tools and approaches is refreshing,” said Karen Pittman, co-founder and senior fellow at the Forum for Youth Investment. “There is a sustained commitment to the idea that change starts with individuals and the depth and breadth of change is directly related to the depth and breadth of individual’s understanding of the people, cultures and systems they work with.”
Pittman acknowledged that deep connection and understanding starts with human-centered stories. “When used well, [stories] can demonstrate the complexity of the changes needed and underscore the incompleteness and potential harm associated with any single proposed solution,” she said. “This is the first step towards understanding the need to disrupt the ways all of us think, talk, see and hear on a daily basis.”
California-based high school junior, Alejandra Meza, jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the commission and lead the development of NTC’s Student Advisory Group. “Students need to be at the forefront of this movement to reimagine education and having youth in a position of leading NTC’s inclusivity and student empowerment does just that,” said Meza. “I think of NTC as a changemaker because the organization is embarking on the journey of using its platform to channel student agency and empowerment.”
The 23-member commission includes a broad range of backgrounds and expertise: systems leaders, teachers, students, and experts whose work supports students with learning differences, BIPOC students, early learners, English-language learners, students experiencing poverty — along with representatives from the social work and behavioral science sectors.
The group asks and answers very different questions about what it takes to design a vision that promotes holistic, equity-centered, and rigorous academic experiences for all students. It explores the intersection of humanity in learning, assessment, and the craft of teaching. It celebrates the power of shared stories to inform a new vision for teaching and learning that will drive NTC’s programmatic design.
Now, we are writing a new vision. A new way of teaching and learning. A new way of behaving and thinking. The purpose is clear: bridge the gap between our mission-aligned aspirations and what it means to truly disrupt inequities across systems.
The work of the NTC equity commission is challenging us to get there. To be credible; to walk the walk. With their support, we’re developing a set of equity-focused commitments that informs everything we do, every choice we make.
We’ll hold our processes and professional learning offerings up against them to keep us anchored, honest, and unapologetically taking meaningful strides towards meeting NTC’s mission to disrupt the predictability of educational inequity across this nation.
And we’ll carry that forward in our partnerships with schools to align our capacity-building practices with a student-centered rubric for equity. As the work unfolds, it will most certainly evolve, it will challenge us, and it will hold our feet to the fire as we bring our mission to life in classrooms, schools, and districts nationwide.
We’re excited to share our journey with you. Up next will be an unfiltered insider view of our first convening. Our imperfection leads us to unexplored places, and we hope that it inspires you as much as it has us.
→ See a list of our Equity Commission members
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