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Teaching with Purpose Conference addresses equity issues



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 Jeff Duncan-Andrade

Jeff Duncan-Andrade has this advice for teachers anxious to improve student success:

If your students aren’t doing well academically, go back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Duncan-Andrade, speaking at the seventh annual Teaching with Purpose Conference Oct. 14-15 at Parkrose Middle School in Portland, says children, like all humans, must have basic needs met before they can reach their full potential. So if they’re hungry or cold or worried about a place to sleep, they won’t be able to focus their attention on school. The same is true if they don’t feel valued or feel as if they belong.

The conference featured a variety of speakers who are nationally recognized for their work in culturally responsive practices.

Duncan-Andrade, an assistant professor of Raza studies at San Francisco State University, said schools often struggle with whether to treat students equally or equitably. The reality, he said, is that not all kids need the same things at the same time.

He offered this example: one student is hungry, one is thirsty, and one is extremely thirsty. You could treat all three equally by giving all of them something to eat, but two of them would still be thirsty. He said a more equitable approach would be to give the hungry student food, the thirsty student a bottle of water and the really thirsty student three bottles of water.

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Salam Noor

“Equity means you get what you need when you want it,” he said.

Duncan-Andrade said the same theory should apply to instruction and other facets of education.

Oregon Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Salam Noor told attendees that changing demographics are bringing a new reality to the state’s educational system. As school enrollments become more diverse, he said, schools must appreciate the value that these students and their families bring.

While people tend to think about education as a prescribed formula, a “one size fits all” approach does not serve students well, he said.

“We have to recognize that they are assets,” Noor said. “How do we use what they bring to modify what we do?”  

One theme of the conference was the importance of recruiting more African-Americans and Latinos into the teaching profession, so the teaching ranks better reflect student enrollment. Research shows that students of color achieve higher academic success when exposed to teachers of color and teachers trained in culturally responsive practices, said Tawnya Lubbes, director of the Oregon Teacher Pathway program at Eastern Oregon University.

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Gloria Ladson-Billings

While culturally and linguistically diverse students make up one-third of Oregon’s student population, teachers in Oregon are predominantly white females, she said. The Pathway program aims to diversify teacher education by increasing the number of diverse teachers in Oregon and to produce high-quality teachers trained in culturally responsive practices.

Having teachers who are culturally competent is a critical piece of the equation for student success, said keynote speaker Gloria Ladson-Billings, a pedagogical theorist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Teachers shouldn’t expect students to check their culture and family life at the door when they enter a classroom. Instead, teachers should find ways to recognize and embrace those elements into their instruction. Culturally relevant teaching is “less about following a recipe than understanding how to cook,” she said.

Ladson-Billings said teachers need to understand these tenets to be culturally competent:

  • All children are capable of learning
  • When students are treated as competent, they are likely to demonstrate competence
  • When teachers provide instructional scaffolding, students can move from where they are to where they need to be
  • The focus of the classroom must be instructional
  • Real education is about extending students’ thinking and actions
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James Cole 


Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education James Cole told the conference that the key to improving the U.S. education system may be as simple as this: Recognizing the potential of all students to succeed, regardless of their race, gender or family economics.

The United States has a legacy of racism and racial inequalities, Cole said, and society’s expectations aren’t the same for all children. He cited a study that showed expectations are 40 percent higher for white students to earn a college degree than for African-American students. But he noted that studies also show that raising expectations for all students has the same positive impact as reducing class sizes.

What’s needed, he said, is “an unreasonable belief in the ability of students to achieve.”

Cole offered himself as an example. Growing up in a family where no one had ever gone to college, he had no aspirations of schooling beyond high school. He credits a high school English teacher with persuading him he was college material and pushing him to enroll. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in finance, with honors, from the University of Illinois, becoming the first in his family to earn a college diploma.

While there is much work to do, there are signs that things are headed in the right direction, Cole said. For example, he said, 1 million more African-American and Latino students are enrolled in college than when President Obama took office.