Expanding Our Understanding of Inclusive Education: The Case for Equity in Systemic Reform
In the review of "Ability, Equity, and Culture; Sustaining Inclusive Urban Education Reform", I indicated that "a sustainable, scalable, successful systemic educational reform is attainable, provided that all stakeholders are committed to cultural responsivity and inclusivity for all students. In order to achieve this goal, reform needs to combat discrimination based on socially constructed notions of difference, such as gender, race, ethnicity, ability, class, and sexual orientation" (Fallah et al., 2018).
Most people concerned with the state of education in the United States would agree that our schools are failing a large portion of the culturally and linguistically diverse, socio-economically disadvantaged, minority and immigrant students, as well as students with disabilities. There is a pronounced and pervasive achievement gap between English Language Learners and non-ELL students, for example. The latest data from the Nation’s Report Card shows that “only 3 to 4 percent of ELL eighth graders [are] demonstrating proficiency in math or reading” (National Education Association (NEA), 2015, p. 3). The graduation rate for ELLs is also substantially below the national average at only 61.1 percent compared to 8.4 percent (NEA, 2015). The date on students with disabilities are also deeply troubling. Consider the U.S. Department of Education’s four-year high school graduation rate data for the 2010-2011 school year, which showed that students with disabilities in California graduated at a rate of 59%, while the overall graduation rate of California’s students was 76% (Stetser & Stillwell, 2014, p. 7). Some of these lower-performing students deal with multiple forms of “otherness”, and are therefore, multiply-marginalized.
Despite legal mandates, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which require equal opportunity to students of all abilities, we continue to struggle with issues of equity in education. The disparity in access to resources and educational support has a striking impact on the future of these students. For example, quality education facilitates social and economic mobility. When this is out of reach for many students in poor urban communities, a large portion of the population will continue to experience staggering levels of economic, political, and social inequality. Consider the fact that “[d]ropouts suffer higher rates of unemployment, poverty, incarceration, depression…” (Faircloth, Toldson, & Lucio, 2014, p. v).
The reaction to these significant educational issues has been to advocate for a variety of reform efforts. Some, such as The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), was billed as a direct response to the staggering achievement gaps between dominantly situated students and those at the margins. Educational scholars and activists, such as Jonathan Kozol and Diane Ravitch, have written scathing reviews of these reform efforts. According to these advocates, most reform initiatives have continued the trend of serving some, rather than all, students. Touting “parental choice”, “accountability”, and “autonomy from bureaucracy”, reformers have ultimately pushed for policies that have led to high-stakes testing without the adequate support schools and educators need to reach and lift up the most vulnerable students. On the other hand, smaller and more locally focused reform efforts that actually showed promising results were not easily scalable and sustainable due to a lack of structural support (Ravitch, 2010). Students who are performing poorly simply continue to fall behind. More disturbingly, in the last two decades, many change initiatives have led to a corporate model in managing education. Consequently, stakeholders are not as deeply connected and invested in the local public schools (Ravitch, 2010). Rather than serve the poor, minority, and low performing students with disabilities, many reform initiatives have simply led to more exclusionary practices.
If the goal of systemic reform is to improve education for all students, then a critical analysis of how educators are responding to diversity among students need to take place. While each book focuses on unique aspects of systemic reform and challenges faced by educational leaders, the overall project of both books is to guide practitioners and policy makers towards a more equitable education system; one that works to actively undermine explicit and implicit forms of ableism, racism, sexism, and other forms of exclusionary practices.