Authors Floyd and John silhouetted on top of a background that features their book.

Schools and districts across the nation are expressing a commitment to equity and trying to take action. How is that working for you? Your classroom? Your school? Your district?

We might not want to admit it, name it or claim it, but if we look around honestly, we can see that many educational equity initiatives are failing.

Sure, some have resulted in positive changes, but taken as a whole, “equity” remains more of an aspirational platitude than a reality. All too often, the fairness and quality of a student’s experience in school is still predictable by demographic categories and identity groupings.

The problem isn’t theories such as cultural responsiveness or restorative justice. The problem definitely isn’t “equity” in and of itself. (After all, abandoning equity would be like saying, “Maybe fairness isn’t the direction we should go after all.”) The problem is clearly one of implementation.

Mistakes and challenges with equity implementation abound. For instance, research shows that focusing professional development on diversity or relying exclusively on anti-bias trainings don’t result in sustainable change for the better. In fact, many initiatives have had the opposite effect: further inequity, hardened attitudes against equity, disappointed expectations, damaged relational trust among adults, and even a backlash toward colleagues with marginalized identities.

Nevertheless, all of these initiatives were designed with the goal of equity. What’s gone wrong? This cake we’ve tried to bake — did we use the wrong recipe? Did we leave out some essential ingredients? Leave it in the oven too long? Not long enough? What do we need to make this right?

Dr. Floyd Cobb and I have described a predictable pattern of failure in our book, Belonging through a Culture of Dignity: The Keys to Successful Equity Implementation. We call this phenomenon the Dysfunctional Cycle of Equity Work. From studying this cycle, we can uniquivacably say this: most equity implementation lacks the key ingredients: inclusion, dignity, and belonging. The most vital of these is belonging.

The dysfunctional cycle of equity work.

But instead of inspiring a vision of a culture and climate of belonging, common equity implementation results in trying strategies and techniques within the existing school and classroom culture.

Brilliant approaches such as culturally relevant pedagogy and restorative justice become reduced to “just good teaching” or episodic relational activities/events, such as periodic community circles. Ultimately, techniques and strategies alone do not bring about sustainable change due to the fact that the prevailing environment remains less than inclusive. It lacks the requisite conditions: a culture of dignity and a climate of belonging.

Instead of belonging, equity initiatives remain focused on the concept of access (e.g., resources, advanced programming, highly-qualified teachers). While absolutely necessary, access alone won’t get us to our goal.

As john a. powell of UC Berkeley puts it, “Belonging, or being fully human, means more than having access. Belonging entails being respected at a basic level that includes the right to both co-create and make demands on society.” To bring about educational equity, every student must experience access and belonging.

Why is belonging essential? Decades of research shows that belonging leads to engagement, which leads to performance and achievement. So, beneath any so-called achievement gap is a gap in belonging. That gap can be a chasm, a dangerous one. When belonging is missing or uncertain for people, their self-efficacy takes a hit; they are susceptible to myriad perils.

Hierarchy of needs infographic.

One of the most well-known perils is the Stereotype Threat, a phenomena affecting students from stigmatized identity groups who underperform due to the pressure of possibly confirming negative stereotypes.

Additionally, belonging uncertainty yields results that are unhealthy to people, community, and democracy: anxiety, dropping out, conformity, exhaustion, negativity, emotional numbing, self-segregation, lowered life expectancy, and gangs, cults, and radicalization.

Belonging is also essential for adults in the workplace. One study found that employees with a sense of belonging take 75% fewer sick days, have a 50% lower rate of turnover, and have 56% better job performance than employees who feel excluded.

How can we help our students and colleagues feel like they belong? There is sound research on the subject, pointing to specific belonging interventions and programs.

Although these strategies are effective, we can’t fall into the trap of relying on techniques alone. We must also address the culture. The truth of the matter is, the sole reason these strategies work is because they honor dignity. Thus, if we learn to honor dignity (the human worth and value of every person) and center it in everything we do, we can create and maintain a culture of dignity. In doing so, we will foster belonging through each and every policy, practice, and behavior.

Dignity framework inforgraphic.

In Belonging through a Culture of Dignity, we offer this Dignity Framework for Educational Equity to help our fellow educators do just that. With the vital ingredients of dignity and belonging, we have a recipe for success. That’s why we wrote this book: to offer research, language, and concepts to help us move forward in making educational equity our reality.

How could a focus on belonging ease challenges of implementing real equity work in your school?


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