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  • Writer's pictureDr. Melissa Winchell

Let's Not Go Back to Basics: Equity as Rigor

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

We are reading and re-reading some great books on educational equity this summer.

Two of them--Hammond's Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain and Delpit's "Multiplication is for White People"--begin by re-visiting the conversation around the so-called achievement gap.

Delpit writes that "there is no 'achievement gap' at birth" for Black children (p. 5). In fact, Black babies outperform white babies, and even at age four, Black children "had an edge in fifteen categories [of development], while whites bested Blacks in only three" (Delpit is quoting a study done by Frankenburg & Dodds in 1967; p.4).

Yet Delpit and Hammond both agree that as children progress in schools, a gap between white children and Black children (and between rich and poor children, white and Latinx children, white and indigenous children, abled and disabled children) grows.

Further, they both agree that we--these children's teachers and these students' schools--are the cause.

As Hammond writes, "The reality is that [students] struggle not because of their race, language, or poverty. They struggle because we don't offer them sufficient opportunities in the classroom to develop the cognitive skills and habits of mind that would prepare them to take on more advanced tasks" (p. 14).

Students who are behind their peers need rigor, not remediation. They do not need a relentless drill of "the basics."

Struggling students need the best pedagogy we can deliver--high-interest, engaging, and cognitively demanding learning experiences.

Schools have never been more concerned about the numbers of students who are falling behind academically. As we enter our third school year affected by the COVID pandemic, let's resist the tendency to drill the basics. Instead, let's create meaningful, engaging, and demanding opportunities for student learning--and design the cognitive supports every student needs to succeed at those opportunities.

Need an example?

One high school we know is accelerating student learning through a project-based approach.

Their theme? The Olympics.

9th grade math students are competing in teams to solve all kinds of Olympic-related mathematical challenges, like calculating the amount of water needed to fill an Olympic-sized pool. Cool, right? Especially because these students have a pool in their school, and a hands-on opportunity to get inside and outside of it and take some measurements.

But they could level up the rigor.


By applying an equity lens to their mathematical challenges.

Imagine what could happen if these students' work became even more engaging: for example, by comparing the cost of all that pool water to the cost of living for an average family in Tokyo. Or teaching about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and young activists like Mari Copeny who played a pivotal role in bringing justice to her community. Or calculating how many wells could be purchased for the amount it costs to fill the Olympic pool through an organization like Charity:Water. Or using educational resources from Project WET to examine what water justice might look like in our own nation and around the world.

Imagine if a math unit on water volume inspired a chemistry unit on lead poisoning or a history class on the right to water within the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

Are you looking to move past the basics, especially with your struggling students?

Do you want to design more rigorous curriculum for your K-12 students?

Here at EQUITYedu, we do, too. And one of the best ways to do it: Look outside our classroom walls for real-life challenges of equity and engage our students' minds in them.


This summer, EQUITYedu has been reading these two books (and some others) as part of a school district's decision to offer Equity Book Circles to their district-level administrators.

18 administrators in this district chose from a list of equity-themed books we curated for them.

Based on each individual's choice, we formed and now facilitate, on an every-other-week schedule, Equity Book Circles. The Circles serve as a dynamic tool for accelerating the equity learning of the leadership of this large school district.

If you'd like us to facilitate Equity Book Circles for your district or organization, contact us today.

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