There’s an old saying that a mother doesn’t divide her love among her children, but instead multiplies it like the stars. America’s recent push for “equity” – a focus on equal outcome over equal opportunity – is sometimes viewed as being “zero-sum,” of dividing or redistributing resources rather than multiplying them.
The Philadelphia School District’s “Equity Framework” is at times zero-sum, and reveals two shifts in thinking from their traditional approach to improving schools and raising quality of instruction. One, it now uses race and social identity to guide instruction and the implementation of educational resources. And two, it not only aims to provide extra services to marginalized students, but seeks to eliminate, disrupt, or remove so-called “dominant cultures” or systems that are viewed as privileged or predictably successful, which supposedly serve as obstacles or impediments to the success of marginalized groups.
The school district’s definition of “equity” is as follows: “Cultivating prosperity and liberation for students and staff, starting with historically marginalized populations, by removing barriers, increasing access and inclusion, building trusting relationships, and creating a shared culture of social responsibility and commitment to organizational accountability.”
I would agree that this kind of “equity” is admirable, being that it focusses resources on populations that face the biggest challenges. No dedicated educator would object to giving extra help to children and families who need it most. The school district’s Equity Framework becomes counterproductive, however, when it ties the success of marginalized groups to the disruption and elimination of so-called “dominant cultures,” and uses race and social identity to guide instruction and the implementation of educational resources.
One of the commitments under the Equity Framework is “redistributing resources to our most marginalized students in order to eliminate the predictability of success or failure based on historical trends.” It’s one thing to eliminate the predictability of failure, but why get rid of a pattern of success? Perhaps it might be better to increase the predictability of success so that it applies to all students? Further, the notion of redistributing resources is problematic, as it suggests taking away from one group to give to another. Which begs the question: which students from which schools/cultures are going to have things taken away from them?
The school district uses a “living glossary” of equity related terms to specifically define what they call dominant and marginalized groups. Dominant Culture is defined as “the cultural beliefs, values, and traditions of the colonizer that are centered and dominant in society’s structures and practices,” and states that “indigenous and diverse ways of life are devalued, marginalized, and associated with low cultural capital.”
The definition leaves much to be desired, as it’s not only an overgeneralization, but insinuates the so-called “dominant culture” is negative, and assumes its dominance is arrived upon not through legitimate entrepreneurship or scientific, academic, or artistic achievement, but through oppression and the devaluing of others.
Interestingly, “Whiteness” is defined by the school district as “the component of each and every one of ourselves that expects assimilation to the dominant culture.” This definition is not consistent with most equity-related definitions of the word, as “Whiteness” is defined by Critical Whiteness scholar Robin DiAngelo as “a term to capture all of the dynamics that go into being defined and/or perceived as white and that create and reinforce white people as inherently superior through society’s norms, traditions, and institutions.”
Still, the fact that the school district defined “Whiteness” as being associated with assimilation to a negative and oppressive dominant culture is unfortunate. If “Whiteness” is associated with all people, why use the confusing and contentious term at all?
Although not directly stated by the school district, the dominant culture by default is made up of white, male, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied, English-speaking, American citizens. This becomes apparent when reviewing the school district’s definition of “marginalized.”
“Marginalized” groups are defined as “individuals or groups that have been systematically disadvantaged, both historically and currently, lacking representation in dominant culture and have limited to no power or capital.” The district lists as marginalized “a person of color/non-white based on race and/or ethnicity,” as well as women, immigrants, English Language Learners, the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities, special education, economically disadvantaged, and non-Christians.
This is the aspect of equity that becomes zero-sum – the splitting and dividing up of groups and cultures into “dominant” and “marginalized,” and insinuating that the gaps between these groups stem solely from oppression. In other words, the complexity of the achievement gap is boiled down to racism, which the school district wants all staff to adopt as the culprit of all racial disparities. Which is why the school district’s Equity Framework asks staff to commit to dismantling policies and disrupting practices “steeped in institutionalized racism and other systems of oppression” in schools and classrooms throughout the city.
A closer look at the Philadelphia School District’s “Equity Professional Learning Guiding Principles” contained in their Intro to SDP Equity Framework video reveals that teachers must “acknowledge that racism is systemic,” and “woven throughout all of the structures of our nation.” Another guiding principle is “recognizing privilege,” and instructs teachers to “acknowledge my privilege,” and to “gain resources and strategies to confront and acknowledge privilege and how this contributes to my work, my role, and the larger system I’m in.”
The core objective of recognizing so-called “privilege” is to foster tolerance, empathy, and compassion, and one could argue it would be more beneficial (and less contentious) to simply have tolerance, empathy, and compassion as a guiding principle for teachers to practice.
Whether or not Philadelphia public schools are steeped in racism and oppression is a matter of debate, but one thing is clear: the SDP Equity Framework racializes the school system from top to bottom, encouraging all people to reject Martin Luther King Jr.’s colorblind “content of character” model in exchange for a color-conscious approach that views all things through the lens of race and social identity.
While it’s important to pay attention to systemic patterns and racial disparities in order to close gaps, an overemphasis on race-consciousness can become counterproductive. As teachers, we should all work to form strong learning partnerships with all our students, and make sure all children – regardless of race and social identity – are given equal opportunities to succeed.
Christopher Paslay is a longtime Philadelphia public schoolteacher, education writer, and coach. His new book, A Parent’s Guide to Critical Race Theory, is available on Amazon.