María G. Hernández for over a decade has coached pre-K–12 educators in developing culturally responsive education systems that address disproportionality and equity by providing technical assistance and training, and developing evidence-based solutions. David M. Lopez delivers technical assistance (TA) and expert consultation, develops research and evidence-based tools and resources, and provides research and policy support to state education agencies, district leaders, and school-based educators, focused on creating culturally responsive and equitable systems. Reed Swier is a former elementary teacher and administrator and brings this experience with him as he trains educators and works with district leaders to foster more culturally responsive and sustaining school environments. Together they are the authors of Dismantling Disproportionality: A Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Systems Approach.
This Q&A is published in coordination with the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at NYU.
NYU Metro Center Deputy Executive Director Dr. Maria G. Hernandez, WestEd’s Senior Technical Assistance Specialist, David M. Lopez, and NYU Metro Center Director of Innovations in Equity and Systemic Change (IESC) Reed Swier have written Dismantling Disproportionality: A Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Systems Approach, which has been widely recognized as an equity resource for teachers, parents, caregivers, school administrators, and district leaders alike. The book presents a framework to deliver educational services to all students, equipping educators with both operative strategies and heartening inspiration to conduct the anti-racist work necessary to confront historical and systemic oppression and foster a more just future for our children.
The authors of Dismantling Disproportionality recently gathered to share the inspiration behind their impactful text, as well as considerations for equity and improved student outcomes.
The authors offered collective, singular responses to questions, unless otherwise noted.
Your book positions disproportionality as not solely a special education issue but as a broader issue of educational inequality. Can you walk us through why that framing is so important, and how it differs from conventional thinking about disproportionality?
The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) has provided an entry point to address disproportionality, but this inequity extends beyond special education and permeates the entire education system. While compliance with special education regulations and requirements is crucial, it alone cannot solve the long-standing inequities stemming from racism, ableism, and other forms of oppression that impact our students (Voulgarides, Fergus, & Thorius, 2017).
Disproportionality cannot be effectively addressed by solely focusing on special education systems. Instead, we must take a holistic approach and examine the entire education system, identifying the policies, practices, procedures and underlying beliefs that impact students of color, students with an Individual Education Plan (IEP), LGBTQIA+ students, and students with intersectional identities that experience marginalization.
To effectively address the root causes of disproportionality, we need to take a systemic approach. Merely addressing the symptoms of this issue by applying “band-aids” is not sufficient. We must identify the underlying beliefs that perpetuate these inequities and take steps to change them. Ultimately, policies, procedures, and practices are created and carried out by people. Therefore, we need to support educators responsible for creating policies and procedures and those responsible for enacting educational practices to ensure that the necessary changes are made by addressing systemic beliefs.
How did your work as technical assistance providers with the Center for Disproportionality inform your work on the book?
Having multiple years of experience as technical assistance providers, including offering coaching, consultancy, and a mixture of training and coaching informed the impetus to lift the transformative relationships and systemic shifts that evolved from partnering with districts and schools. Fundamentally, it started with us observing educators being brave to tell the truth of what was happening in their schools and districts to children, and witnessing educators stepping in when others did not. Many times we watched how educators authorized themselves to take action. This included shifting their beliefs, developing culturally responsive classroom practices, and school based practices, and district wide efforts to implement practices to shift disproportionality. Further, over time based on what educators shared their needs were, we built a technical assistance approach that built educators’ capacity in schools and districts for educators themselves to lead the work. This included a coaching, train the trainer model, in which educators developed skills to implement the Center for Disproportionality Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) training themselves. Additionally, our root cause analysis process shifted from primarily being a training to a blended model of training and technical assistance support. Such an approach permitted educators to apply the content in trainings. The improvement of our work as technical assistance providers would not have been possible without the ongoing feedback from educators.
What recommendations would you make to an educational leader looking to address disproportionality in their system?
Educational leaders aiming to tackle their district/school disproportionality must prioritize allocating resources such as training, time to build competency and capacity, and pay incentives, and adopt a systemic approach that will address underlying beliefs, policies, practices, and procedures. They will have to be bold and bring along as many educational community partners (e.g., families, students, community partners, teachers, educational leaders) as possible while avoiding equity detours (Gorski, 2019) and common equity traps and tropes (Safir & Dugan 2021). It is important to actively listen to and implement changes directly from those who are impacted, including students, families, and communities of color, while also taking an intersectional approach to account for multiple marginalized identities. Making a longterm commitment is necessary as addressing disproportionality is not a quick fix. Educational leaders must clearly communicate the what, how, and why of tackling disproportionality and understand that once a district and school are on the path, achieving progress is possible.
What do you think is missing from the conversations being had about equity and justice in schooling today?
In our work we have encountered many districts and leaders that may think they are having dialogues about equity and justice but are still failing to name the elephants in the room—the ways in which students of color, Black students in particular (as well as other intersecting identities), continue to be disproportionately impacted by schooling spaces. So, for starters, we need to reckon with the root causes that are leading to these inequities. In spaces that continue to value and center whiteness and white normative school culture this means committing to interrogating the bias-based beliefs that maintain exclusionary systems and practices.
Additionally, although families and students of color have always led the fight for equity and justice, we tragically are still excluding these voices in decision making positions—conversations continue to be siloed which often leads to a lack of accountability for change.
Can you tell us a bit about the case studies in the book—or other cases in your research and work—and what this framework looks like when it’s put into practice?
The case studies underscore the journeys that districts have undergone to address their disproportionality, including the wins and challenges they have experienced on their journey. What binds the chapters together is the importance of conveying a coherent message about the work a district has undergone to address their disproportionality to multiple stakeholders, making a long time commitment, maintaining on the path, building internal capacity to lead the work and building localized practices, and tackling biased based beliefs.
Chapter 3 centers the processes that led to developing a strategic plan centered on culturally responsive practices and the ongoing work that the Office of Pupil Support Services has led, slowly chipping away at bias-based beliefs and existing disproportionate outcomes. Further, this chapter underscores how the district used data systems that calculate disproportionality to monitor their disparate outcomes. Chapter 4 unpacks the strengths and pitfalls of the role of leadership in shifting disproportionate outcomes. Even when a superintendent is committed to equity and boldly addressing who is disproportionately impacted in schools, the work of improving disparate experiences and outcomes of students and families is not just the lift of a superintendent, it is the work of other leaders to lead, and take ownership, and teachers and staff collectively. Chapter 5 stresses the impact of developing a readiness mindset in districts in order to shift and the steps a district took to recalibrate their commitment to tackling their disproportionality. Chapter 6 spotlights the ongoing journey to develop competency, and ultimately capacity in culturally responsive practices through a Train the Trainer (TTT) model. In addition, this chapter addresses the barriers that exist when district leadership sees the urgency of addressing disproportionality, but wants to expedite the process without offering sufficient time and resources to effectively implement practices. We offer perspectives from long-time district-based CRE co-facilitators engaging with how they defined this as “life’s work.”
Foundationally, even with one of the authors no longer being at the same institution, the approach to tackling disproportionality continues to sustain across institutions in our training and technical assistance support we offer to State Education Agencies (SEAs) and Local Education Agencies (LEAs) as a result evidence from our CfD work that unless we center beliefs, policies, practices, and procedures that are leading to disproproporationate experiences and outcomes of students, families and communities who are currently and historically marginalized, along with culturally responsive and sustaining education, we can not get to equity and justice.
What inspires you to do this work?
David Lopez: My community, family, and public school experiences have been a great source of inspiration for me. I strongly believe that we can achieve equitable educational experiences for all. I hold a deep conviction in the power of education and the educators who dedicate their lives to empowering students. This vital work has the potential to bring great joy and fulfillment to all involved.
Furthermore, the educators who have demonstrated a steadfast commitment to centering and advocating for our students, families, and communities impacted by disproportionality continue to inspire me. Their unwavering dedication and tireless efforts make me believe that we can attain equity and justice in education.
Reed Swier: I am inspired by the educators I have worked with in districts that recognize CR-SE as the plate, the foundation to teaching and learning and a “way of being.” I am inspired by educators who make everyday antiracist choices and actions that challenge systemic inequities. I am inspired by the co-facilitators we have trained and supported and who are currently leading trainings in their own districts, bringing their own local expertise to the work as they challenge colleagues and hold the system accountable for critical change. Lastly, and most foundationally, I continue to be inspired by young folks who never fail to name the elephants in the room and hold us adults accountable to creating welcoming and affirming spaces that every student deserves.
María G. Hernández: I am inspired by students, families, communities, and educators who I have been humbled to meet and on a daily basis are brave, stand up when others don’t to mitigate the harm of historically, and currently marginalized students, families and communities, and hold others and the system they are part of accountable. They are the everyday heroes who take personal risks out of their commitment to dismantle inequitable experiences and outcomes in our schools. We can get closer to equity and justice as a result of our trailblazers who are willing to risk it all for our children.
A Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Systems Approach
María G. Hernández, David M. Lopez, and Reed Swier
Photo by Caleb Oquendo