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Beyond Disproportionality


In 2015, I inherited the New York State Education Department’s largest technical assistance center on disproportionality (TAC-D). This experience taught me four important things about transforming education.

 

1. Focusing on Disproportionality Misses the Mark

 

Disproportionality, highlighting social group disparities in educational outcomes, often presents a cosmetic approach to educational reform. At best, this focus is about how something looks as opposed to how well it works. At worst, it is racist, reinforcing racial hierarchies that compare vulnerable students to their more privileged peers. According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, such comparisons perpetuate stereotypes and uphold systemic racism. Rather than disrupting these hierarchies, focusing on disproportionality often reinforces them.

 

A study by the National Education Policy Center found that schools focusing solely on reducing disciplinary disproportionality often implemented superficial measures that did not address underlying biases. This resulted in minimal long-term impact. Instead of merely highlighting what vulnerable students lack compared to privileged peers, how can we shift our focus to equity—recognizing and nurturing each student’s unique potential? As Gloria Ladson-Billings put it, “We need to stop talking about the achievement gap and start addressing the education debt”—a debt owed to all students, particularly those historically neglected.

 

2. The Problem with Proportionality

 

The implicit goal of proportionality is akin to equality; it assumes all students are the same, learn in the same ways, have the same starting points and desired destinations, etc. This assumption is not only unscientific; it is fundamentally flawed. The other problem is that proportionality, as in equality, can mean sameness not just across areas of success but also across areas of failure. I don’t want more privileged groups to succeed less in achieving proportionality. I prefer all students succeed more, even if successes are disproportionate. The focus here is not equality but equity, which requires tailored support that meets students where they are. This concept resonates with Ladson-Billings’ theory of culturally relevant pedagogy, emphasizing the importance of adapting educational practices to the cultural contexts of students.

 

Consider Boston Public Schools, where equity-focused initiatives have provided additional resources to schools with higher needs. This approach has significantly improved student performance and well-being, illustrating the power of addressing unique challenges with targeted support. “Equity means that every student has what they need to be successful,” says John B. King Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Education. Moreover, we know that some students have much farther to travel. Some will journey on different routes and get to different destinations. The goal, in essence, is not proportionality but disproportionality, as defined by equity, where each situation requires a unique set of treatments.

 

3. Additive Over Subtractive Strategies

 

The focus on dismantling disproportionality is a focus on what we are not for (e.g., disparate outcomes), but it does not imply what we are for (e.g., quality education as measured by a series of outcomes that humanize education across a variety of viewpoints, values, and experiences). That is, dismantling disproportionality is not the same as promoting equity. It is not the same as creating systems that work well for all students. It is not the same as racial justice or other affirmative aspirations we might seek in education.

 

Instead of a subtractive focus, we need an additive one that promotes positive outcomes, valuing diverse perspectives and experiences. We need a centering of what we are for as opposed to what we are against. This aligns with the principles of positive youth development, which focus on building strengths rather than addressing deficits.

 

The “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative launched by President Obama exemplifies this additive strategy. By providing mentorship and support to young men of color, it highlights the importance of nurturing potential and fostering success. As bell hooks eloquently stated, “What we cannot imagine cannot come into being.” How do we envision and strive to build the systems that deserve our children in addition to tearing down the ones that harm them?

 

4. Local Solutions for Transformative Change

 

The most effective way to transform education is locally. Education will not be transformed from the outside in but from the inside out because those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

 

From decades of working in education, I’ve learned that a system works best when those most implicated by it have a central voice in its construction, maintenance, and operation. Local communities that understand their unique challenges and strengths are best positioned to drive meaningful change. Research from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform supports this concept and highlights the success of community-led education initiatives.

 

The Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City also demonstrates the power of local solutions. By combining education, social services, and community support, it creates a holistic environment for human success. This success implies local partnership, where people on the ground work together to understand what they are trying to achieve when given the time and resources to achieve it. It means localizing definitions of achievement, moving at the speed of trust toward a common purpose, and refusing unhelpful comparisons that misrepresent or, perhaps worse, deliberately distort the value of progress.

 

No education system should aspire to be identical to its neighbor, just as no student should be expected to be identical to any other student. Such goals are fundamentally non-attainable and oppressive, tied to supremacy cultures that flatten all possibilities into singularities that set the dominant model as the end on which all other things must be based. Local solutions imply diverse possibilities and a range of meaningful realities that make our world more colorful. No single outcome is more desirable than another, except that all education ultimately points to an investment in and affirmation of human dignity. But still, as Margaret J. Wheatley reminds us: “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” Local solutions, driven by those who are most affected, hold the key to transforming education.

 

In my quarter-century of helping schools transform, I’ve seen that while it’s essential to acknowledge disproportionality, we must not fixate on it. It’s more important to recognize that equity can exist, and aiming for it offers a far more promising path than standing against all it is not.

 

After a quarter-century of doing this work, I am persuaded that building systems that work for our children requires that we reject the trap of appearances and seize on the promise of substantive change. This means moving beyond cosmetic adjustments to data to address the deep, structural inequities perpetuating data disparities. It involves creating educational environments that recognize and celebrate every student's unique strengths, ensuring that each one has the resources and support necessary to thrive.

 

Equity is not just the goal but a continuous process of transformation. It is where we actively work towards a future where every child, regardless of background, can flourish in a way measured not by what sits outside them but by what grows from within.

 

References

 

Harris, C. I. (1993). Whiteness as property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), 1707-1791.

 

Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. (2014). Understanding Implicit Bias.

 

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

 

National Education Policy Center. (2015). Discipline disparities series: Overview.

 

King, J. (n.d.). Statement on Equity, available from the U.S. Department of Education website.

 

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

 

Wheatley, M. J. (2009). Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.



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Suggested citation: Kirkland, D.E. (2024). Relationships over rigor. In forwardED Perspectives, https://www.forward-ed.com/post/beyond-disproportionality.

 

David E. Kirkland, PhD, is the founder and CEO of forwardED. He is a nationally renowned scholar of education equity. He can be reached via email at: david@forward-ed.com.



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