All In for Equity: The Importance of Responsive, Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction for All Students
Equity in literacy instruction is a key topic for many educators, and for good reason. For one thing, as a 2019 article in The Washington Post noted, classrooms across the United States are rapidly becoming much more diverse.
For their piece, reporters Kate Rabinowitz, Armand Emamdjomeh, and Laura Meckler closely analyzed the racial composition of all public school districts in the country and selected two years—1995 and 2017—for comparison purposes. According to the trio, the results were striking, with “a dramatic movement of districts toward diversity” between 1995 and 2017.
Crunching the numbers
To put this assertion into context, the majority (66%) of today's public school students attend school in racially diverse districts; in 1995, the same could be said for just 45% of such students. By 2020, it is estimated that more than half of all children in the U.S. will be non-white, which suggests the percentage of diverse schools and districts will continue to rise.
Moreover, there are now approximately 12 million emerging bilingual students attending public schools. This rapidly growing demographic represents both a challenge and an opportunity for teachers and administrators who, as mostly white, native English speakers, may need to broaden their focus in order to work effectively with students from a variety of backgrounds.
The problem of inequitable access
Against the backdrop of this increasingly multicultural, multiracial setting, concerns about equitable access to high-quality literacy instruction continue to mount. As the International Literacy Association phrased it:
Literacy is the essential education, the learning through which all other learning takes place. Crimp, deny, reduce, or thwart robust literacy acquisition and the prospects for achieving all other educational attainments are correspondingly diminished, resulting in serious social consequences that are known all too well.
The same organization noted that resources for improving literacy instruction tend to be meager where they are needed most. In a 2016 white paper about the need for reform in literacy education, ILA researchers detailed the changing student population in many classrooms along with the accompanying need for responsive, evidence-based literacy instruction.
Cultivating capability and confidence
In other words, as the student population becomes more racially, economically and linguistically diverse, teachers are under increasing pressure to help all students become capable, confident readers and writers. Indeed, the ILA paper argued, these fundamental skills undergird all future academic work and can help students from a multitude of backgrounds gain access to enriching career and life opportunities.
The question is, how? How is this work done? How can teachers apply an equity framework to literacy instruction? While there is no simple answer, here are some places to start:
Embrace equity: Dr. Suzanne Carreker, CALT-QI, the principal educational content lead at Lexia Learning, tied the push for more equity in instruction to the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act in a recent white paper. Because this law mandates that schools work to provide all students with a “fair, equitable, and high-quality education,” Dr. Carreker argued that school districts and educators have a legal obligation to take this work to heart. After all, equity means students are given the instruction and support they need, which may not necessarily be the same lessons and interventions as others.
Support teachers: Dr. Carreker maintained that teachers must possess the “time, tools, and knowledge necessary to meet the specific needs of each student—in other words, to provide an equitable education.” That said, although instructional practices grounded in equity have the most potential to address stubborn achievement gaps in education, teachers themselves need specific support in identifying and implementing such practices.
Improve equity literacy: Continuing with this idea, education professor and researcher Paul Gorski has contended that to truly practice equity, teachers must first embark on their own literacy project: equity literacy. According to a post by Gorski for the Teaching Tolerance website, this involves a deep dive into the many facets of inequity to help educators gain the “skills and dispositions that enable us to recognize, respond to, and redress (i.e., correct for) conditions that deny some students access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by their peers.”
Skip the fads: It is important to acknowledge that education policy is full of silver bullet ideas and “quick-fix” proposals that, ILA researchers advised, should be largely ignored in favor of research-based best practices. According to the ILA, the bottom line is this: “Effective approaches to classroom literacy instruction are always grounded in rigorous, peer-reviewed research. Not politics, not ideology, not speculation.” Ultimately, students who come from marginalized communities need equal access to high-quality instruction if they are to gain the requisite skills for a successful future.
Reject failure: As one specific, equity-based instructional method is unlikely to work well in all situations, approaching teaching with something akin to an equity mindset may be valuable in itself. Indeed, noted educator Pedro Noguera recommended that teachers contemplate the “normalization of failure” and work to avoid it. Rather than simply accepting the idea that “those” kids just can’t succeed, Noguera urged educators to challenge this damaging view and work to understand why some kids “make it” while others don’t.
Although these tips for how to bring equity to literacy instruction hardly compose a comprehensive list, they may be a very good place to start. When teachers, administrators, and even entire school districts work not just to tolerate all students but to actively embrace them, better outcomes will likely follow. After all, students who feel seen, heard, and appreciated are much more likely to step up to meet school-based challenges head on.