Educators, especially researchers and policymakers, often use fads and buzzwords to highlight what's important at a given time. Several years ago, “diversity” was one of the most popular terms. At another time, “inclusion” seemed to be the area of focus. Although both are helpful as schools foster a sense of community that allows all children to feel welcomed and successful, social justice is one of the latest ideas related to effectively serving young people.
As a parent, guardian or someone who follows trending topics on social media, you have likely heard of social justice. Because this term means many things to different people—including school psychologists—this article focuses on what families need to know about what social justice means with regard to their children’s education.
What is Social Justice?
To better understand our definition of social justice, think about these words from Eshé Collins, an education attorney and member of the Atlanta Board of Education: “There is a major but often overlooked difference between equality and equity. For example, equality is making sure that every child receives the same pair of shoes. Equity, however, ensures that not only every child receives the same pair of shoes, but they receive the size that fits them.” In other words, more than treating everyone the same, social justice is about giving each child what they need to be successful. Social justice is also a way of thinking. It’s about how teachers teach; the materials they use; the tests students are given; and how decisions are made about everything from children being suspended to having the opportunity to take advanced courses.
What Does Social Justice Look Like in Schools?
When parents and caregivers send their children to school, they all want the same things: for them to be treated fairly and to return home happy and healthy. But did you know that being treated fairly does not mean treating every child the same? For those who are raising more than one child, you know quite well that although you love your children the same, you also love them differently. In other words, the intensity of your love may be equal, but how you express your love for each child is uniquely tailored to their individual needs and personality. The same is true for social justice in schools: Teachers, counselors and administrators should do what’s necessary for each child to make the most of their education.
Schools and school systems often keep track of several outcomes for their students. This information, from the number of suspensions to how many have been identified with disabilities, is also available to anyone. To know if justice—in this instance, equity—is valued in your children’s schools, ask their principals to show you this information or where it can be found. As is the case in many schools across the country, you may see that Black and Latinx students are suspended more than White students. You may also see that these students make up a much smaller percentage of those in gifted programs than their White and Asian peers. And here’s the important part: Because there is nothing about being Black or Latinx that should make a child more at risk for being suspended and less likely to participate in advanced academic courses, when these things happen, schools must examine how they are making decisions. In other words, what process led to these inequities? Although all children are not the same, were they treated equally (the same) rather than equitably (given what they need for success)?
As social justice and equity become more familiar terms in everyday life, it’s encouraging to see schools and school districts take the necessary steps to improve students’ experiences. One such system is Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, which has committed itself to addressing inequities by hiring staff who are specifically focused on equity; providing professional learning opportunities about race, racism, privilege, implicit bias and other factors that negatively affect children and families; and working with equity consultants. And although these actions are a good start, when families hold the school system and its leaders accountable, meaningful change will happen.
What Should Families Be Doing?
Because many families don’t fully recognize the influence they have over their children’s education, check out the ideas below for ways you can advocate for social justice in their lives and schooling.
- All politics is local politics. In addition to voting in national elections, paying close attention to school board races is vitally important. In fact, in some ways, the results of local elections affect the daily lives of children and families more than national ones. Because school board members are charged with developing policies that influence hiring, instruction, discipline and how tax dollars will be spent, we strongly encourage you to learn about your school board’s candidates. If elected, they will be responsible for overseeing your child’s education.
- Remain informed. As mentioned earlier, being aware of data for your child’s school or school system is very important. Regular attendance at PTA/PTO and school board meetings is essential. Knowing what is being discussed allows you to advocate for what’s in your child’s best interest.
- Teach your children the importance of fairness. Even before children enter school, years of learning have already taken place. Treating others as you would like to be treated—known as the golden rule—is very appropriate and helpful to teach youngsters before kindergarten. Yes, teachers are influential in children’s lives, but so are their families. Modeling genuine respect for all people, regardless of background, will go a long way in your child’s school life.
- Expose your children to diversity. Allow them to see themselves and other diverse people in books, movies and cartoons. For a wide selection of materials written by Black people for Black people, check out Mahogany Books. If possible, give them the opportunity to develop friendships with children from different backgrounds.
Without question, knowledge is power; but access to information is also important. It is our hope that with new information about social justice, or perhaps a different way to think about how it affects your children, you feel equipped to advocate for their needs in school. Getting involved and remaining as active as possible helps to hold schools and their leaders accountable for treating students fairly.
Charles Barrett, Ph.D., NCSP, is lead school psychologist with Loudoun County Public Schools and an adjunct lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at Howard University. Follow him on Twitter @_charlesbarrett and Instagram @charlesabarrett using #itsalwaysaboutthechildren.
Desiree Vyas, Ph.D., NCSP, is a school psychologist and faculty member with Loudoun County (Virginia) Public Schools' APA-accredited doctoral internship program in Health Service Psychology. Follow her on Twitter @DesireeVyas and Instagram @desiree_vyas.