Teacher Education

Equity Literacy With Dr. Paul Gorski [Podcast]

Equity Literacy With Dr. Paul Gorski [Podcast]

Equity in education.” It’s an issue frequently addressed by keynote speakers, research projects, journal articles, and teacher prep courses. But with all this discussion, research, and effort, are we making any headway?

To answer this question, I interviewed Dr. Paul Gorski. Dr. Gorski has dedicated 20 years of his career to equity in education, and he’s the founder of Equity Literacy Institute and EdChange. In this interview, Paul provides K-12 schools and teacher prep programs with ideas of how they can strengthen their equity efforts.

Paul is down to earth and admirably honest about this difficult issue. I know that you’ll find his insight relevant and applicable, so let’s jump right into my conversation with Dr. Gorski.

How Equity in the Classroom Has Evolved

Dr. Gorski, welcome to The Teacher Education podcast. We’re so happy that you are joining us today. How are you? (01:16)

Dr. Paul Gorski: I’m doing great. It’s been a little bit of a crazy day, but this is a nice way to end it. (01:22)

So Paul, you’ve dedicated 20 years of your career to equity in the classroom. Why were you drawn to this issue? Was it an experience early in your career that was a catalyst for it? (01:29)

Dr. Paul Gorski: Yeah. I would say there wasn’t one particular experience, but a series of things that built up over time. Part of it was growing up in a pretty conservative household and trying to make sense of that in relation to also growing up in a very racially and economically diverse neighborhood. Also, I think having a couple of men of color at a very young age who are really important role models to me, including a teacher, an African American man. I think it was a combination of those things and just always having a really overactive sense of empathy. I just can’t stand to see suffering, and I feel like I have to … I feel a sense of responsibility to do something about that. (01:39)

I just can't stand to see suffering. I feel a sense of responsibility to do something about that. —Dr. Paul Gorski Share on X

After two decades of focusing on this topic, I’m curious, how has equity in the classroom as an issue changed and evolved over the past few decades? (02:36)

Dr. Paul Gorski: That’s a great question. I think one of the ways that it has, I think the conversation has just become a little bit more popular. That doesn’t mean everyone’s doing it, but I think everyone feels pressure to, at least, create the illusion that they’re paying attention to it. There’s a whole industry of people creating that illusion and giving tools that people can use to create the illusion that they’re doing it when they’re not. I think that’s part of it. I think a shift from talking about every issue separately to having a more intersectional view of things. I think it was really popular, when I was coming up through this work, to have “here’s the chapter on race, and here’s the chapter on class, and here’s the chapter on gender.” Then, I think just the complexity of some of the conversations, I think the conversation about gender, especially, when I first came into the conversation, most of the work being done around gender was very binary. The way that that’s shifted to a more inclusive way of thinking about many different gender identities and expressions, I think that’s been a pretty big change. (02:45)

The Illusion of Equity in the Classroom

You just said that there are some people that try to create an illusion that they are creating equity in the classroom. What do you mean by that? I’m curious. (04:09)

Dr. Paul Gorski: I think in schools right now, probably also in teacher education programs, I think there’s a sense of understanding that we have to do something, we have to at least appear to be doing something. A lot of times what that looks like in schools is we’ll have our celebrating diversity things, we’ll have the multicultural arts and crafts fair, we’ll have the international food fair, we’ll hang the flags up of all the different students. Not saying that we shouldn’t do those things, but none of those things makes a school more equitable and just. None of those things is a threat to the ways racism is operating in schools. (04:22)

Again, I think the reason a lot of things become popular is because they create that illusion, like the whole kindness matters movement. It’s not that I would critique the idea of kindness, but the idea that that’s being used as a substitution for racial equity or class equity or for eliminating transphobia. I think there are these tools or these programs or initiatives that people can grasp onto because it suggests more of an investment in equity than is actually there. (05:06)

There are initiatives that people can grasp onto because they suggest more of an investment in equity than is actually there. —Dr. Paul Gorski #ClassroomEquity Share on X

You’ve written and published 70+ articles, at least a dozen books, can you share one of your most surprising or emotionally impactful publications that you’ve worked on during your career? (05:46)

Dr. Paul Gorski: Oh, wow! That’s a great question. I love being able to answer that. I think there was probably, actually, my most recent article, I think the stuff I’ve written that have had the most impact have not been scholarly journal articles, most of them have been more practitioner-oriented articles that have been published in magazines, and recently I published, wrote an article called “Avoiding Racial Equity Detours and Leadership“. It almost felt like it was all this anxiety that had been building up to me over time for my work in schools and all the strategies schools and school leaders have again, to kind of create the illusion that we’re doing something that we’re not really doing or moving. Just being able to name the problem of this tendency, I think it’s a tendency in teacher education, as well as in the K-12 world, but the tendency to move the conversation about equity and justice at the pace of the people who have the least amount of interest and progress on equity and justice, instead of moving at the pace of the people with the most urgency to create change. (05:59)

I think there's a tendency to move the conversation about equity and justice at the pace of the people who have the least amount of interest and progress on equity and justice. —Dr. Paul Gorski Share on X

Entering Teacher Education With Integrity

I think that’s where we’re stuck in education. This idea that we’re not ready for that conversation, we’re not quite there yet, we’re going to make people uncomfortable. What we’re actually doing is just taking the discomfort off of the shoulders of people with privilege and power and reallocating it onto the shoulders of the people who already have the most or dealing with the most inequity and injustice. Writing an article where I was just naming that, just trying to very clearly and without any fluff being able to name that problem. In a lot of schools and in a lot of teacher ed programs, it’s actually easier to be racist than it is to be anti-racist. In other words, I have a better chance of getting support for tenure, I have a better chance of people liking me and my department, I have a better chance of getting good course evaluations, if I just go along with a fluffy way to talk about this, or if I don’t force my students to talk about hard issues, especially if my students are predominantly white. (07:13)

It’s easier to do that than to enter the work with more integrity, which might have an impact on my course evaluations. I’m saying this as a white man. This is way worse for faculty of color in teacher ed programs who are trying to teach about that thing, and then having deans tell them they have to temper their politics and that thing. I also will say, I’m not sure that article would have been published in a magazine if it wasn’t written by a white person. I think that actually helped that article get published. (08:37)

Really? (09:19)

Dr. Paul Gorski: Yeah. This is one of the gross realities of the conversation about equity and justice in education and in teacher education, is that as a white man, I don’t get punished or I don’t get invalidated or questioned for talking very directly about these issues, whereas I have colleagues of color who, literally, have been pushed out of jobs for saying the same things that I’m saying. (09:20)

3 pieces of advice to teacher ed programs preparing candidates to create an equitable classroom #TeacherEd #ClassroomEquity Share on X

Advice for Teacher Ed Programs

Your extensive research and experiences about equity in the classroom has made you somewhat of an expert. Can you give three pieces of actionable advice to teacher education programs that are trying to prepare their candidates to create an equitable classroom? (10:23)

Dr. Paul Gorski: Yeah. That’s a great question. I think, the first bit of advice I think a lot of programs struggle with, do we need to have one or a couple of separate classes on this, or do we need to distribute this across? I would say both. The reason I say both is not every … unless you’re only hiring faculty members who are qualified and have the expertise to incorporate that into their classes, it’s an area of expertise in the same way you wouldn’t distribute math pedagogy across all things. Here are the people who have expertise on that, that’s who’s going to be teaching the courses. (10:42)

I think you need, in my own research about multicultural or social justice teacher ed, one of the things I’ve found is that a lot of the people who are tapped to teach the one diversity course or the one equity course are usually … not usually, but oftentimes the people who are tapped to do that are new faculty members. There’s not someone who’s hired with that expertise. Oftentimes, there are people who are not prepared who don’t have the expertise to teach that. I think you need somebody who has that expertise to do that, so that’s one. (11:23)

I think another piece of advice would be that we need to get … the biggest challenge when I go into schools to do this work is not necessarily the people who don’t want to have anything to do with these conversations. It’s the people who are stuck in celebrating diversity and kindness and character education, and these soft, light versions of equity, who see themselves as doing very transformative work, when really what they’re doing is fluffy, cultural competence things. We need, the knowledge and skills that educators need is, do I know how to recognize bias and inequity and all the ways that it operates in a classroom or in a school or in a school district? Can I recognize subtle forms of transphobia or heterosexism or racism or sexism or whatever it is operating? Can I see that stuff in textbooks? Do I know how to recognize that stuff? (12:00)

The knowledge and skills that educators need is to recognize bias and inequity and all the ways that it operates in a classroom, in a school, or in a school district. —Dr. Paul Gorski Share on X

I think those are the … and then, do I know how to do something about it when I do recognize it? Do I know how to cultivate more equitable and just practices? My number two thing would be focused on that. That’s why we talk about equity literacy, why do we need equity literacy way more than we need cultural competence. (13:07)

I guess number three would be having high expectations for students. Another thing that I saw when I did in my research about these multi-cultural teacher ed classes is a lot of the assignments were just personal reflection kind of assignment. There wasn’t really an expectation that we’re training people who are going to be scholars of equity and justice in schools or students who can do a policy analysis. Let’s look at this classroom policy and do an analysis of it from an equity point of view. Because those are the things that are going to help them do number two, which is to learn how to identify and eliminate inequitable policies practices. I’m going to squeeze in a number four, if you don’t mind. (13:30)

Go ahead. (14:28)

Dr. Paul Gorski: I think a big challenge is really ideological. Too many teachers are being sent into schools with ideologies that are like the inverse of an equity ideology, where they think they need to fix students of color or they need to fix that, “Oh! Students experiencing poverty aren’t doing as well as other students. What I need is how to help them be more gritty or to adjust their mindset or to help them care more about education or to help them regulate their emotion.” There are all these tools students are being given that are really about fixing kids who are marginalized rather than fixing the conditions that are marginalizing kids. That’s really an ideological problem. We need to balance the practical stuff with ideological stuff, and we especially got to make sure we’re not sending teachers into schools with these deficit views of children. (14:29)

Too many teachers are being sent into schools with ideologies that are like the inverse of an equity ideology. —Dr. Paul Gorski #ClassroomEquity #TeacherEd Share on X

EdChange and the Equity Literacy Institute

You’re the founder of two organizations, Equity Literacy Institute and EdChange. For our listeners that aren’t as familiar, can you explain the purpose and the goals of these two organizations? (15:25)

Dr. Paul Gorski: EdChange, basically, was an umbrella organization where I was able to put all of my different projects. I have some web-based projects that are basically just created to offer free resources to teachers once called the Multicultural Pavilion. The Equity Literacy Institute is more like the professional learning arm of EdChange. Basically, what we do is work directly with schools and school districts and other kinds of educational organizations. We’ve actually worked with teacher ed programs and several colleges and universities to strengthen people’s equity literacy around all the things that we’ve been talking about, what we base our work around. Instead of basing our work around a set of practices, we based it around a set of principles or values that are meant to maximize the transformative potential of equity work. (15:37)

Lightning Round

At the end of each podcast episode, we do a lightning round with our guests, so I’m going to ask you a series of questions and you just need to respond with one-word or one-sentence answers. Are you ready? (16:43)

Dr. Paul Gorski: Okay. That sounds like a challenge, but I’ll try. (16:53)

Okay. Last book you read and enjoyed? (16:56)

Dr. Paul Gorski: Oh! I just re-read a book called Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldua, who is an amazing, critical theorist who writes about race and identity and sexual orientation and very intersectional. That book, Borderlands, Gloria Anzaldua. (17:01)

Your favorite conference to attend? (17:27)

Dr. Paul Gorski: I love the White Privilege Conference. I really love it because it’s a combination of educators and activists together. (17:29)

I noticed that you’re a poet, and as I love poetry, I wanted to ask your favorite poet? (17:40)

Dr. Paul Gorski: Oh! Gwendolyn Brooks. (17:45)

The next destination on your travel bucket list? (17:48)

Dr. Paul Gorski: Bucket list. Probably somewhere in Southeast Asia, I would like to go. (17:51)

The best resource for educators that are trying to learn more about equity in the classroom? (18:01)

Dr. Paul Gorski: I would name two because I think they work really well together. Rethinking Schools and Teaching Tolerance, their new social justice standards and curriculum. Today’s teaching tolerance is not your parents’ teaching tolerance. It’s become a real social justice education resource. (18:06)

Fantastic. Dr. Gorski, thank you so much for joining us on the Teacher Education podcast. As I said, equity in the classroom has been a theme as we’ve interviewed professionals all across the country, so I’m so happy we could provide our listeners with someone that has so much experience and expertise in building equity in our classrooms. If our listeners want to learn more about your organizations or the scholarship that you’ve done, where should they go? (18:27)

Dr. Paul Gorski: The best place to go for my organizations is probably to start at EdChange, edchange.org. You can get to the Equity Literacy Institute there from edchange.org. You can click on the publications button and see download any article I’ve ever written for free. (18:50)

Thank you so much. (19:11)

Dr. Paul Gorski: It’s been my pleasure. (19:13)


That’s it for today. Don’t forget to subscribe. If you like what you’ve heard, please rate and review this podcast to help others find us. The Teacher Education podcast is brought to you by GoReact. This episode was hosted by me, Hillary Gamblin, and produced by Danielle Burt, Joseph Winter, and Jordan Harris. Chad Jardine is our executive producer. Guests on the podcast are expressing personal opinions for informational purposes only. They’re not acting as official representatives for the universities or organizations.