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Beliefs That Block Equity

author: Nancy Love
description: We present an excerpt from Nancy Love's upcoming book "Using Data - Getting Results: Collaborative Inquiry for School-Based Mathematics and Science Reform" This book presents school-based teams with a straightforward approach to using data as a tool for improving mathematics and science education. The section we have chosen, "Beliefs that Block Equity" is from the chapter "Overcoming Obstacles to Equity."
published in: from "Using Data - Getting Results: Collaborative Inquiry for School-Based Mathematics and Science Reform"
published: 2000
posted to site: 08/18/2000


Beliefs That Block Equity

"The biggest obstacle to equity is that we keep trying to avoid seeing children. We want to resort to some way of sorting and classifying. We are instistant in making truer their deficiencies than their capacities."

(Patricia Carini, former Director, Prospect Archive and Center for Education and Research, North Bennington, Vermont)

Why, despite overwhelming evidence that tracking does not work, does it prevail? Why do gaps in mathematics and science achievement between rich and poor, minority and white, persist despite decades of reform? Why do practices like cooperative learning fail to catch on widely despite their well-documented success for all students?

The answer to these questions lies in deep-seated beliefs that perpetuate unequal opportunities and outcomes-beliefs that are incompatible with success for all. This section examines three sets of beliefs that are pervasive in our society and our schools, so pervasive that, like the air we breathe, we may not even be aware of them. They are not the beliefs we espouse or put in our mission statements. But, intentional or not, they shape the way we treat children. These include beliefs about the nature of intelligence and the purpose of schools, the abilities of poor, minority, and female students, and the nature of mathematics and science.


"There Are Only So Many 'Smarts' to Go Around"

Jeff Howard, a social psychologist and founder of the Efficacy Institute in Lexington, Massachusetts gets right to the point: "Our approach to educating children is failing because the attitudes that underlie it are wrong" (1991, 1). He describes these attitudes as the "innate ability paradigm," which is based on three simple (and false!) assumptions:

"No matter what their socioeconomic background, race, or gender, babies of similar ages tend to perform similarly on the basic [cognitive] test."

(Denson 1990, as cited in Hilliard 1991, 34)

  • There is a distribution of intelligence in the population ranging from "very smart" to "sorta smart" to "kinda dumb" (in kid terms).

  • How much intelligence you have determines what you can learn and what you can be in life.

  • All this can be sorted out through standardized testing and teacher observation (1991, 4).

    One outgrowth of this paradigm is our educational system's obsession with testing and labeling. Think of all the labels you may hear in the course of a school day: ADD, LD, LEP, SPED, gifted, at risk, Title I . . . Even before kindergarten, children are subjected to testing that is specifically designed to shake out differences, identify deficiencies, and compare one child to another. Minor differences in performance, representing only a few months' difference in cognitive development, can determine what label a child may get tagged with for his or her entire school career (Howard 1991, 5).

"I have heard teachers say that math is a good indicator of how successful students will be and that some don't. Until we question that assusmption, nothing is going to cahnge."

(Joy Wallace, Equity Specialist, Columbia Education Center, Portland Oregon)

Anne Martin, a kindergarten teacher in Brookline, Massachusetts, expressed her dismay and anger at the effect of testing on children just entering school, many of whom are quickly identified as "at risk" on highly dubious grounds:

These young children, often not yet five years old, were being sorted out and categorized with little allowance for the infinite variety of their learning styles and developmental patterns . . .

. . . there is no way that twenty minutes of contact and a set of test scores can adequately describe a child's potential to learn. All children come to school as complex persons with their own unique backgrounds and sets of experiences. For me the fascination of each new school year is the gradual revelation of this complexity . . . (1988, 489-90)

If all this sorting helped so-called "slow" learners catch up, that would be one thing. But the opposite is true. Once a child is labeled as slow, teachers, counselors, and administrators start expecting less. Low expectations undermine confidence; lack of confidence undercuts performance; and the downward spiral of self-fulfilling prophecy begins. Any small gap in performance that may have existed initially tends to grow over the years, despite special services students may receive (Howard 1991). And, saddest of all, the children themselves come to believe the labels.


"All Kids Can Learn Except . . .":
The Devastating Effects of Racism, Classism, and Sexism

"During a science lesson, a primary school teacher asked students to brainstorm what they knew about eggs as she held up a sample. Some students offered characteristics such as 'oval,' 'white,' and 'gooey on the inside' and were praised for their answers. A latina student offered an example of a time she had cooked eggs with her grandmother. Her answer ws ignored, considered irrelevant by the teacher."

(Presenter, Institute on Cultural and Lingistic Diversity, 1997)


"A fourth grade teacher stood in shock when she learned that an African-American student who was failing mathematics was single-handedly managing the family budget. 'How could I have overlooked her obvious strengths in mathematics?' "

(Panelist, Institute on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity, 1997)


"Prejudice is a preconcieved judgement or opinion, usually based on limited information."

(Tatum 1997, 5)

When the innate ability paradigm meets racism, classism, and sexism, the results are devastating for poor, minority, and female students; they are the ones most often judged as less intelligent. These ideologies are more than individual prejudices: they involve a whole system of cultural messages and institutional policies and practices, such as tracking, differential allocations of resources, and unequal access to jobs, housing, and power (Tatum 1997, 7; Weissglass [1997], 102). Eliminating individual prejudices is a necessary but not sufficient condition for equity. These deeply ingrained institutional practices and power relationships have also got to go.

One of the most pernicious forms of institutional racism, classism, and sexism is the way in which children are sorted in schools by their supposed "intelligence." Society's image of the "very smart" student is one with white, middle-class behaviors and values. If students don't fit that image, if they are culturally different, they are judged to be less intelligent. "There is a rumor of inferiority that follows minority children to school," says Jeff Howard (1991, 6-7). Students who have not yet mastered English are also judged less capable, especially when it comes to mathematics and science. Girls are considered to be not as smart as boys in these subjects, and the poor are judged to be inferior by almost any measure to the rich. "Children from middle class homes tend to do better in school than those from non-middle class homes because the culture of school is based on the culture of the upper and middle classes of those in power," explains Lisa Delpit (1995, 25). For Delpit, the culture of power consists of ways of talking, writing, dressing, and interacting; success is based on learning the rules and codes of the dominant society. She advocates explicitly teaching students these rules and codes, acknowledging the power relationships that exist, while encouraging students to express their own culture and language style.

Cultural differences emerge in subtle ways in the classroom. For instance, students from different cultures have different styles of recounting events, writing, and arguing, all important activities in mathematics and science classrooms. Without understanding these differences, teachers may judge certain students as having nothing to contribute, missing important steps in a procedure, or being disorganized (Estrin 1993).

"...racism [is] a 'symptom of advantage based on race'."

(Wellman 1977, as cited in Tatum 1997, 7)

Take the example of the Latina in the vignette above. When asked what she knew about eggs, she offered a story about making eggs with her grandmother. In Latino culture, social relationships are an important way that children experience and understand their world (Sinha and Tripahti 1994). She was, as the teacher invited, connecting the egg to her prior knowledge and experience. The teacher, however, was looking for more objective descriptions of the egg-oval, white, has a shell-but never specified that that was what she expected. She was operating out of the dominant culture's assumptions without teaching culturally different children what the rules were. The result was to discount the child's response and teach her that her contributions have no value in that classroom.

The second example, about the fourth-grader who managed the family budget, illustrates another way racism blinds us to students' strengths. Many poor and minority students are successfully running households and businesses at very young ages. Outside school, they use mathematics, verbal, reasoning, and management skills on a daily basis. They are, as Connecticut equity activist Mj Terry remarked ironically, "only dumb in school."


Mathematics and Science:
The Special Realm of the "Very Smart"

"'What do you think you are not smart enough to do?' Jeff Howard asked a group of Efficincy Workshop participants seated around a giant conference table. An uncomfortable silence took over the room as participants realized that they themselves, a group of adult educators, had been victims of the innate ability paradigm. Some wept, others spoke with anger as they recalled vividly when and where it was - Mrs. Kraner's fourth grade, geometry class, the guidance counselor's office - that they learned they were not smart enough. For virtually every African American and female participant, the answer was higher-level mathematics or science."

(Participant, Efficiency Institute Workshop, 1986)


A third set of beliefs comes into play specifically in relation to mathematics and science: that these subjects are the special realm of the "very smart." This is based on a view of science as a set of authoritative facts accessible only to experts. Those who do well in science tend to be students who can "talk. . . like science books do" (Lemke 1990, as cited in Warren and Rosebery 1993, 3). A similar view of mathematics is that it too is a static body of knowledge. If mathematics is viewed as memorizing formulas and giving quick responses to lots of questions that have right answers, then students who do that well are considered to be good at mathematics (Weissglass, interview, 1997).

These views of mathematics and science contrast sharply with those put forward in the national standards. The standards advocate for mathematics and science as dynamic pursuits involving asking questions that may never be answered, making meaning, solving problems, discussing ideas with peers, and using common sense. This view is potentially more inclusive of diverse students (if other barriers to equity are addressed), as the vignette below illustrates.

"I was working with a child who had difficulty with computation. That was disturbing to him and his family. Then we started to notice some things. In almost any kind of discussion, he would be a person who would state a point of view and then argue it from another angle and subvert his own statement. We looked at his writing. He wrote about knights and warriors' adventures. In one story, he wrote about how many heartbeats it took them to get to the cave. That reminded us that he was a good estimator. We began to put things together about this child. He didn't trust absolutes. He saw a more complicated picture-much more mathematical than numerical. He saw complicated relations and patterns, so we thought it better to start from geometry, patterns, approximation and not keep beating away at computation. It is so important that we have a larger picture of what math and science are. The bigger the picture, the more children we can include."

(Patricia Carini, former Director, Prospect Archive and Center for Education and Research, North Bennington, Vermont)


Right now our picture of mathematics and science, of schools, and of human potential is still too small to include all children. The belief systems described above-the innate ability paradigm; racism, classism, and sexism; and elitist views of mathematics-continue to have a strong hold on our schools, our policies, and our practices. Making schools work for all children will require honest examination of these belief systems and a concerted effort to eradicate them in all of their manifestations.

Examining Belief Systems

Examining belief systems takes courage and conviction. It is a true measure of our "will to educate all children," for it is only by breaking the silence about racism, classism, and sexism that we can begin to break their grip on our society and our schools. Because beliefs are intangible, examining them is much more complex than collecting and analyzing student learning data, although it may begin there. How can teams begin to gain a better understanding of these powerful, yet elusive, belief systems and how they influence what we do? In this section we offer four questions to guide your inquiry into beliefs, with suggested approaches and relevant resources for each.

How Do Racial, Class, Cultural, and Gender Bias Manifest in School and Classroom Practices?

Although beliefs themselves are invisible, they nonetheless manifest in what we do and say. One window into beliefs is the more objective forms of data collection about student performance and school policies and practices discussed above. For example, gaps in student performance and opportunities to learn signal the prevalence of certain assumptions about students and their potential. As you look at practices such as tracking or course enrollment and counseling procedures, you can also ask yourself what beliefs drive these practices. As you evaluate special education or English language learners programs, consider the deeper assumptions that underlie them. Classroom practice offers another window into belief systems. Later in this chapter we discuss how to monitor unequal expectations and treatment in the classroom and how to scrutinize curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices for overt and subtle biases-two other avenues for exploring belief systems in practice.

". . . To really examine my class and how I deal with the students and other people, it changes you. I think that there's a lot of lip service. . . To really be conscious of equity and effectively deal with equity in the classroom, you have to open yourself up and look at yourself."

(European-American teacher, as cited in Weissglass [1997], 122)

How Can Individuals Come to Grips with Prejudice and Its Effect on Their Lives?

Another whole avenue of investigation into beliefs is far more subjective and personal. It involves looking at our own beliefs and experiences and how prejudice and discrimination have affected us. "Although we may feel afraid," says Julian Weissglass, Director of the Equity in Mathematics Education Leadership Institute (EMELI), "avoiding the issues through denial or intellectualization will be harmful in the long run" (Weissglass [1997], 122).

Weissglass believes that addressing prejudice and discrimination can be productive if it focuses on people telling their personal stories, listening intently to each other, and avoiding blaming, criticizing, and analyzing. In his work with mathematics educators, he uses such structures as dyads ("the exchange of constructivist listening between two people" [p. 45]), support groups, and personal experience panels to facilitate constructive and deep dialogue about equity issues. Guidelines for structuring this dialogue are summarized in the box to the left.

Principles for Dialogue about Prejudice and Discrimination
  1. Only one form of discrimination is addressed at a time.

  2. Everyone in the group is listened to attentively about their own experiences, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.

  3. Participants have the opportunity to reflect deeply in dyads (pairs) on their assumptions about equity.

  4. It is recognized that the origin of present interpersonal difficulties is often in early distress experiences, cultural and racial biases, and societal discrimination.

  5. Those who have not experienced a particular form of discrimination listen respectfully (without analysis or debate) to the personal
experiences of people who have been discriminated against.

  • Listeners get a chance (in dyads, support groups, discussions) to talk about how they found out about prejudice toward or mistreatment of the group in question and their own experiences at the time.

  • All participants have the opportunity to talk about their common mistreatment as learners and as children.

  • Participants have the opportunity to talk or write about what they have learned and their next steps (or goals) in working for social justice in their personal lives, classrooms, or schools (Weissglass [1997], 122).

    Using these principles, you can engage in productive conversations about questions such as those below.

    Exploring Prejudice and Discrimination: Questions to Consider
    What personal experiences have helped you understand your own prejudices? What has helped you understand better how inequity and discrimination affect education?

    • What productive educational experiences that address prejudice and discrimination have you participated in? What has been ineffective?

    • What support do teachers, parents, administrators have in your school district to address equity issues? What else is needed?

    • From your experience, what do people have trouble listening to concerning prejudice and discrimination? What do you think is the source of their difficulty?

    • What can you do to see that equity is addressed productively in your school community? Take some time to write down some short-range and long-range goals for yourself in this area.

    • How did you first learn about the mistreatment of someone different (racial, gender, economic class, physical difference) from yourself? Who was this person? How did you feel? What were the questions you wanted to ask? (Weissglass [1997], 124)


    Who Are Our Students? How Can We Better Understand and Appreciate Their Cultural Backgrounds?

    A third avenue for inquiry into belief systems is to learn more about your students and their cultural backgrounds. If you have not done this already, first collect and analyze straight demographic data about your school's student population. (See Data Tools, DT 3-2.) For many schools, like the one in the first example at the beginning of this chapter, having a realistic picture of who your students are can be a real eye-opener. Also gather information about demographic trends in your area so you can project what your student population might look like in the future.

    Once you know your school's demographics, the next challenge is to understand more about the culture of the children those numbers represent. What are their traditions and languages? How does their culture shape the way they make sense of the world and experience school? Inquiring into your students' cultures requires going much deeper than learning about food or music or dress. It involves, as Lisa Delpit puts it so eloquently,

    "By culture, we mean traditions, language, and daily experiences of the home and community."

    (Williams and Newcombe 1994, 76)

    . . . seeking out those whose perspectives may differ most, by learning to give their words complete attention, by understanding one's own power, even if that power stems merely from being in the majority, by being unafraid to raise questions about discrimination and voicelessness with people of color, and to listen, no, to hear what they say. (1995, 47)

    By carefully listening to and observing students in a nonjudgmental way, teachers can learn a great deal about their students' cultural backgrounds, what knowledge and experience they bring to school, and how they learn best (see information about Descriptive Processes, page 5.37). Ewa Pytowska, Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Central Falls, Rhode Island, where 70 percent of students speak Spanish, uses children's literature from students' own cultures as a way to give voice to children and promote teachers' understanding:

    Resources for Learning about Students' Cultures
    Connecting Cultures: A Guide to Multicultural Literature for Children, by Rebecca L. Thomas, 1996

    Connections Across Cultures: Inviting Multiple Perspectives into Classrooms of Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering, by the Connections Across Cultures Project, 1997

    Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults: Volume 2, 1991-1996, by Ginny Moore Kruse, Kathleen T. Horning, and Megan Schliesman, 1997

    Multicultural Teaching: A Handbook of Activities, Information, and Resources, by Pamela L. Tiedt and Iris M. Tiedt, 1995

    Multicultural literature can turn teachers' negative perceptions of children into positive appreciation of their language, culture, and learning capacities. When I read children books which are familiar to them and congruent with their sense of the world, they know exactly what questions to ask, what to pay attention to, and what statements to make about the stories. This is true of all children, but especially those with limited formal schooling, just learning English, or placed in special education. When teachers see this happening with a child they perceive as a problem, they immediately begin to question themselves. Instead of saying "What is wrong with this child?" they ask "What's wrong with my teaching?" Multicultural literature helps teachers to see how much their children already know, but cannot share in a standard American classroom. (Interview, 1999)
    Other ways to deepen your understanding of your students' cultures are to talk to parents, visit their communities, and read about their cultures. You can also survey or interview students and parents to learn more about how they perceive themselves, their children's future, and their school (see "Listening to Student Voices: Measuring Aspirations" in Chapter 3). Taking the time to investigate your students' cultures can help bridge the gap between teachers and their increasingly diverse students.

    How Can We Learn to Recognize Students' Strengths?

    A group of seven teachers from the Lawrence School in Brookline, Massachusetts, squeezes around a child-size table in a primary school classroom after school one afternoon to do something they have been doing on a monthly basis for years: working together to better understand their students' strengths. Today a kindergarten teacher is presenting drawings done by Adam, a student whose impulsive outbursts have been upsetting her and the classroom. "These sessions give me hope," she explains. "I see things about the children I never saw before. Then, instead of giving up on them, I have an idea of how I can build on their strengths." The meeting follows a set structure, with a facilitator guiding participants through a sequence of activities and carefully summarizing after each. Most of the time is spent in a go-round, where participants describe what they see in Adam's drawings without judging, classifying, or using clinical terms or labels-just their impressions. "I'm struck by the fish." "I see a lot of attention to what color is being used." Each go-round probes a little deeper, revealing more about the patterns, symmetry, use of color, attention to detail, and variations in the child's work.


    A fourth area of inquiry, closely related to understanding students' cultural backgrounds, is recognizing diverse students' strengths. The teachers in the vignette above are using a method called the "Prospect Center's Description of Work Process," one of three Descriptive Processes developed by the Prospect School in North Bennington, Vermont (see Data Tools, DT 2-6, and the Prospect Archive and Center for Education and Research in Resources, page 5.90). The Descriptive Processes provide a structure for teachers to come together to discuss their observations of students and their work in a descriptive rather than a judgmental way. Structured group processes such as these can help teachers discard cultural biases and discover students' strengths.

    Resources for Examining Belief Systems
    "Building on the Strengths of Urban Learners," by Belinda Williams and Ellen Newcombe, Educational Leadership 51(8) (1994): 75-78

    "Do We Have the Will to Educate All Children?" by Asa Hilliard, Educational Leadership 49(1) (1991): 31-36

    Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, by Lisa Delpit, 1995

    Ripples of Hope: Building Relationships for Educational Change, by Julian Weissglass, [1997] (see Equity in Mathematics Education Leadership Institute in Resources, page 5.88)

    The Efficacy Institute, Lexington, MA

    Empowering Multicultural Initiatives (EMI), Wayland, MA

    Equity in Mathematics Education Leadership Institute (EMELI), University of California, Santa Barbara, CA

    New England Desegregation Assistance Center for Equity in Education (DAC), Providence, RI

    The Prospect Archive and Center for Education and Research, North Bennington, VT


    Fully appreciating diverse students' strengths requires a shift from the innate ability paradigm to a new set of assumptions about learners and schools. Research for Better Schools in Philadelphia, in their framework for working with urban students, offers some guiding principles for building on the strengths of urban (and other underserved) learners:

    • Urban students bring to schools cultural strengths and learning experiences that must be reflected in curriculum, instruction, and school routines.

    • Culture plays a fundamental role in cognitive development. While many of us were taught that intelligence is genetically determined, unitary, and fixed at birth, psychologists now argue that intelligence is modifiable, multifaceted, and mediated by the cultural environment.

    • Motivation and effort are as important to learning as are innate abilities. Urban students will benefit from school environments in which they can learn from their mistakes, are effortful in their learning, and fully engage themselves (Bernal 1992 and Stevenson and Stigler 1992, as cited in Williams and Newcombe 1994).

    • Resilience is a characteristic of urban learners. Despite adverse conditions, many urban children grow into healthy, responsible, productive adults. These "resilient" children display characteristics of social competence, autonomy, problem solving, and a sense of the future (Williams and Newcombe 1994, 76).

    Based on these assumptions, we offer the following questions to guide your inquiry into diverse students' strengths:

    Inquiring into Students' Strengths:
    Questions to Consider

    • What are the strengths of our diverse students? Do we recognize their resilience, social competence, autonomy, and problem-solving abilities?

    • How do our curriculum, instruction, and school routine reflect the strengths of diverse students?

    • To what extent do we believe that intelligence is not fixed at birth, but changeable based on the cultural environment? How would our school practices change if we fully embraced this belief?

    • How do we encourage students to learn from mistakes and connect effort to achievement?

    • What structures, such as the Tuning Protocol or the Descriptive Review Process (see Data Tools, DT 2-5 and DT 2-6), for collegial reflection can we use to support us in discarding cultural biases and recognizing students' strengths?