Let’s Multiply, Not Divide: A Closer Look at the ‘SDP Equity Framework’

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.

Conversation with Haverford Township School Board Candidate Helene Conroy-Smith

by Christopher Paslay

Transparency by school district administrators, attention to the needs of special education students, and fiscal responsibility are Conroy-Smith’s main concerns.

Helene Conroy-Smith, a special education teacher and mother of three from Delaware County, PA, is running for a seat on the Haverford Township School Board this November. A lack of transparency by Haverford Township School District administrators, along with a controversial Black Lives Matter BrainPOP video being shown to fifth graders in the school district, is what prompted her to run for school board.

“In my opinion the board and the school district administrators were not listening to the people, and so I decided . . . to run for school board,” Conroy-Smith said, explaining that her concerns over transparency and the controversial BrainPOP video were not being adequately addressed. “Once you close out parents in your community and only listen to a small body of your constituents – and it’s a very small vocal body that has political ties to large organizations – then I became the mom who was annoyed, and I had enough, and I had to step up.”

Conroy-Smith decided to become more vocal at school board meetings, presenting concerns from the “silent majority” – parents who did not like what was happening in the school district, but who were afraid to speak out.

“People are afraid to be cancelled, people are afraid to be talked about in moms groups – my name would get dragged through the mud in moms groups . . . parents are afraid, people are afraid,” Conroy-Smith said.

Because of “whispers” from concerned parents that things were going in the wrong direction, she now spends time working with moms and dads in the Haverford Township School District. “People are no longer feeling empowered,” she said, “so I’ve been working on educating them, helping them, talking about the points of their concerns and how to frame them to the school board. I have been behind the scenes working with many families.”

Many have thanked Conroy-Smith for giving them a voice.

Conroy-Smith has started a parents group called, “Give Kids Education,” which aims to put both rigor and transparency back into instruction. She believes in “equality” over “equity,” because all children are unique and are not going to end up in the same place.  “Not every kid is going to go to college, not every kid is going to join the Marines, not every kid is going to go out and get a job right away. . . . We need to look at this and say how can we give every kid an equal opportunity.”

Critical Race Theory, and its various offshoots, have made students overly race-conscious, Conroy-Smith says, which can be polarizing to children and disruptive to learning. She believes in the traditional colorblindness of the Civil Rights Movement, and supports Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” of judging people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  

She also supports diversity, and feels strongly that all children should feel welcome. However, diversity should be organic, and not contrived through identity-based school models tied to CRT.

Conroy-Smith has three major issues on her platform: One – more transparency from school district administrators, especially when it comes to curriculum and so-called “teacher resources,” which can come in through the back door from activist groups pushing CRT and other agendas. Two – more attention to the needs of special education students, who don’t always receive the rigor of instruction they need. And three – fiscal responsibility.

“When you’re implementing programs or purchasing curriculum, teachers should be appropriately using those programs,” Conroy-Smith said. “Because when you’re not using it with “integrity,” the kids are not going to necessarily learn, or have the outcomes that we usually see.”

The Haverford Township School Board general election is November 2, 2021.

Individualism and Group Identity: A Conversation with Kyle Boyer

This is my conversation with Kyle Boyer, an educator, pastor, and member of the Tredyffrin/Easttown School Board.  On June 14th, during the last TESD school board meeting of the school year, a dozen parents and community members challenged the school district’s equity initiative and use of critical pedagogy. After public comments were closed, Kyle addressed the meeting, calling the comments “hurtful and harmful,” and suggested what he witnessed helped explain why the Capitol was breached on January 6th.    

I did a video analyzing the public comments and Kyle’s response, titled “Tredyffrin/Easttown Parents Compared to Capitol Rioters for Opposing CRT.” The following day, Kyle contacted me and we agreed to have a discussion about his comments and the school board meeting, as well as talk about broader topics such as racism, individualism, group identity, microaggressions, and other issues. This video is our conversation.

The Importance of Running a Transparent, Skills-Based Classroom

by Christopher Paslay

If educators feel uncomfortable presenting virtual lessons on equity and inclusion with parents in the room, then these teachers must reevaluate the appropriateness of the content of these lessons, and perhaps refocus their teaching on traditional academic skills.

Over the weekend Matthew Kay, an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy, had a conversation on Twitter about distance learning.  Specifically, he wondered how parental oversight might impact his ability to teach equity and inclusion during the fall semester.  Before I continue, I’d like to state that as a fellow Philadelphia public school English teacher and coach, I support Matthew and his passion for education, poetry, sports, and honest conversations about equity and inclusion; Matthew is also a published author and writer, and I applaud his achievements.

So this blog about his recent tweets (and my video analysis above) are not meant to disparage Matthew or add to any hostile blowback that has come from conservative media sources. I’d simply like to politely add to the discussion that Matthew started on Twitter on Saturday, August 8th, and join the conversation with additional perspectives and offer constructive criticisms that might help future distance learning this fall.

As is now public knowledge, Matthew Tweeted the following thread on Saturday:

So, this fall, virtual class discussions will have many potential spectators — parents, siblings, etc. — in the same room.  We’ll never be quite sure who is overhearing the discourse.  What does this do for our equity/inclusion work?

How much have students depended on the (somewhat) secure barriers of our physical classrooms to encourage vulnerability?  How many of us have installed some version of “what happens here stays here” to help this?

While conversations about race are in my wheelhouse, and remain a concern in this no-walls environment — I am most intrigued by the damage that “helicopter/snowplow” parents can do in honest conversations about gender/sexuality …

And while “conservative” parents are my chief concern — I know that the damage can come from the left too.  If we are engaged in the messy work of destabilizing a kids racism or homophobia or transphobia — how much do we want their classmates’ parents piling on?

Several journalists and news organizations got wind of this thread (as did scores of twitter users who posted comments both supporting and criticizing Matthew), and several stories were written.  The Daily Wire, a conservative news website founded by Ben Shapiro, wrote two critical stories about the tweets (see here and here), and a popular conservative blog titled American Thinker also wrote a scathing story about the tweets (see here).  To be fair, these articles were overly hostile and although they raised legitimate concerns, were a bit sensational and skewed by politics.

Benjamin Boyce, a popular YouTube podcaster whose claim to fame was covering the Evergreen State College protests while attending the school, recently did a segment on Matthew’s tweets, which I feel is the most thorough, insightful, and balanced analysis (see Boyce’s podcast here).

There are two main questions at the heart of all of these articles and podcasts (including my own podcast above), and they are as follows.  One — should teachers worry that parental oversight during virtual learning will harm efforts at teaching equity and inclusion? And two — should teachers place social justice and so-called equity issues above traditional academic skill building?

I agree the most with Benjamin Boyce’s take on the tweets.  First, parents have every right to see what exactly it is that their children are learning in classrooms.  In fact, we the teachers work for the parents, not the other way around.  The notion of “what happens here stays here” is in my opinion misguided and inappropriate, with certain exceptions, of course; as a PA certified school counselor myself, I understand there is a very real difference between a therapist and teacher. Other than issues such as abuse and assault, which may be coming from inside the home, teachers should not be shielding their lessons, objectives, and activities from parents, and the inclination to do so is a cause for concern, as it does call into question the issues of transparency, trust, and the appropriateness of the lesson.

Second, academic skills should take precedent over any social justice initiatives.  Academic teachers are not counselors or social workers, and lack the clinical experience and training necessary to delve into such therapy-oriented sessions as described by Matthew Kay in his book, Not Light But Fire.  As Boyce states in his podcast, English classes should not turn into dramatic struggle sessions about equity issues, hence the learning community may devolve into the chaotic and quite divisive environment characterized by the Evergreen State College fiasco of 2017.  And besides, academic classes should be preparing students with skills for college or the workplace, not indoctrinating them with highly charged identity politics (which some parents may or may not agree with).

Yet, curiously, according to the article in The Daily Wire by Matt Walsh headlined, “Teachers Openly Fret That Parents Might Hear Them Brainwashing Children, Call Parents ‘Dangerous’,” a number of teachers do feel parental oversight is a problem when it comes to virtual learning:

It’s important to note that while some teachers responded to Kay’s comments with the appropriate level of horror and disgust, many others chimed in to share their own strategies for brainwashing during a pandemic. One teacher said she’d also been “thinking about” the problem Kay described, and had decided that she’d ask students about their preferred pronouns via survey — though she still worries that “caregivers” might see it and learn something about their children that they weren’t supposed to know.

Another teacher said that students last semester would sometimes “type secrets into the chat” whenever the discussion turned to “anti-racism and gender inclusive content.” Another complained that a white parent — she made sure to specify “white” — in her district recorded a Zoom class and “filed a complaint against the teacher for an anti-racist read aloud (saying the teacher’s commentary was inappropriate and biased).” This, the teacher says, “is going to be an issue.”

A ninth grade teacher shared in the commiseration, saying that her class required students to “read and respond to a news article,” but that participation in this exercise is stunted now because “outsiders” are “listening.” The “outsiders,” to be clear, are the children’s parents. A teacher with pronouns listed in her Twitter handle said that she plans to use the chat function more than voice lectures because she wants children to share “information” with her in a “parentless way.” A science teacher agreed with all of the sentiments expressed here and summarized it bluntly: “Parents are dangerous.”

If educators feel uncomfortable presenting virtual lessons on equity with parents in the room, then these teachers must reevaluate the appropriateness of the content of these lessons.  Further, academic teachers should prioritize teaching the appropriate skills in their content area, and with some exceptions, leave the “messiness” of delving into the vulnerability of things like gender and sexuality for trained counselors and social workers.