Instructors’ Journey Toward More Equitable Student Outcomes

It sounds like the premise for a movie. (Especially if you read the following set up with that deep, overly dramatic voice from movie previews):

Five math teachers come together with a nationally-renowned center for racial equity to embark on a journey of discovery and service to their students—with an endgame of eliminating racial and ethnic achievement gaps in their classes.

In reality, this situation has been playing out at Front Range Community College’s Westminster campus for the past two years.

But First, a Little Background

The National Center for Education Statistics defines the problem as occurring “when one group of students—such as students grouped by race/ethnicity, gender—outperforms another group…” Most teachers would tell you it’s one of the most important issues in education today. (If you’re not sure how significant the problem is here in Colorado, check out this recent report from Chalkbeat.)

The issue has been on our radar for many years—but despite the efforts of many educators, large gaps remain.

So What Can We Do?

In the fall of 2017, FRCC began working on a project with the Center for Urban Education (CUE) out of the University of Southern California. The goal of this project was to develop tools for the college to achieve equity in student outcomes for different racial and ethnic populations. (For the purposes of this specific effort, we are focusing on racial and ethnic disparities. FRCC also acknowledges that socio-economic achievement gaps exist, and as we strive to make our student success efforts equitable, we must do that for all students. Our work with CUE is simply one step in the right direction.)

To describe this project simply, we want to make sure that our students succeed, regardless of their racial or ethnic background. In order to achieve this lofty goal in our classes, we five math teachers took a magnifying glass to everything we do:

Breaking Up the Data by Race

We closely analyzed the data on how students were doing in each of our classes. But instead of the numbers being totals per class, we broke the numbers down so we could see how well different racial/ethnic groups were doing in our classes. In a nutshell, we looked at the percentage of students—grouped by race—who passed each class. (“Passing” is simply defined as receiving an A, B or C grade.)    

It was disheartening to compare the groups and be confronted with the reality that these achievement gaps persist—not just at the national and state level but at the personal level of our own classrooms. That said, this critical self-analysis  is vital to decreasing those gaps. You can’t fight a problem you can’t see or clearly define. We need to regularly and persistently evaluate these types of comparisons so we can see the impact of our efforts.      

Training, Brainstorming and Keeping “Equity Logs”

We attended multi-day trainings, called change labs, to critically evaluate our current practice and brainstorm interventions. Throughout the two years, we processed and contemplated our work in equity logs—journals devoted to our efforts.

We also had monthly meetings with the experts from CUE.  With the guidance of these nationally-renowned scholars in this field, we dissected every aspect of our role as instructors in the classroom and their possible impacts on different racial groups.

Action, Research and Interventions

Upon facing the harsh reality of racial achievement gaps in our classes, we worked diligently—adjusting our classroom environments and creating equity-minded habits of mind in the process.  Among the practices we’ve implemented are:

  • Equity-focused peer observations. We visited each other’s classes and paid particular attention to the racial dynamics involved in classroom participation patterns.
  • Individual student focus sheets. We specifically highlighted individual students who came from racial minority groups that were struggling in our classes—and devised supports catered towards their success.
  • Gradebook/attendance/race overlays. We mapped out our gradebooks and attendance by day, by student to help identify any racial patterns.
  • Physical space analyses. We observed multiple areas on campus, including our own classrooms, through an equity-minded lens, paying particular attention to how minority students might feel in the space.
  • Syllabus reviews. We analyzed our syllabi, looking at whether they were welcoming to students from racial minority groups. For some classes, we devised welcome documents that summarize the course information but also personalize the class experience.

Are We There Yet?

The end of our movie has yet to be written. The work of becoming equity-minded and producing equitable student outcomes is iterative, continuous and vital.  Our journey—as five math teachers—is indicative of FRCC’s goal to inclusively serve all of its students, both in the classroom and everywhere on campus. 

We recognize the responsibility and trust imparted on us to educate, and we relish the opportunity to help each and every one of our students achieve their goals.  

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