From Playing the Game to Slaying the Game: Why I Wrote ‘Tangible Equity’
Author and attorney Colin Seale wants to give marginalized students the tools to succeed in an unjust system — and the tools to dismantle that system
“Can you do an equity workshop for my teachers?”
After five years of leading thinkLaw, where I work with school systems across the nation to help them create a reality where critical thinking is no longer a luxury good, I was extremely reluctant to step into the world of “equity training” when the demand exploded after the summer of 2020.
For one, I took great pride in my obsessive focus on practical, but powerful tools educators could use to seamlessly integrate critical thinking into their existing content. As a Black man leading this work, it meant something to be known as a curriculum and instruction expert, a resource for enhancing access and outcomes in gifted and talented programs, and a trusted guide for helping parents and families nurture critical thinking at home. I refused to be pigeonholed as the “DEI guy.”
But this was not just about image, it was about impact. Although I’ve attended many powerful workshops dealing with issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, it always felt like something was missing. As many of our school system partners across 40 states engaged in this work, a strange pattern emerged. So many school leaders and educators left these workshops pumped up, especially when you looked past the naysayers and focused on those who were fully bought-in to the big ideas around systemic racism, implicit bias and opportunity gaps.
This pattern raised a challenging question that confounded school system cabinets across the nation: Why do so many educators who are deeply committed to ending educational inequity still struggle with persistent inequities in their classrooms? Inequitable academic outcomes, inequitable disciplinary consequences, and in some cases, inequitable everything?
All of these educators understood why achieving educational equity was an urgent priority. They all saw enough of that equality vs. equity graphic with the little boys standing on crates to see the baseball game from outside of the fence to know, conceptually, what equity was. But the “how” remained elusive, and sometimes, flat-out wrong.
Part of why I wrote Tangible Equity: A Guide for Leveraging Student Identity, Culture, and Power to Unlock Excellence in and Beyond the Classroom was to offer a clear definition of what educational equity actually means to me. I define educational equity as the work we do to eliminate the predictive power that demographics have on outcomes. This would destroy the norm of demographics determining destiny. The outcome of anything we call equity work must accomplish this goal. If the policy change, program, or service does not disrupt the predictive power of demographics, it isn’t equity.
This transformational vision of educational equity is multi-layered. On one level, Tangible Equity requires a laser-focus on traditional academic outcomes. This approach is indifferent to the common practice of rejecting the deficit phrasing of “the achievement gap” calling it “the opportunity gap,” instead. This distinction means nothing to minoritized students grappling with intergenerational poverty, students who will struggle to have any opportunities without successful academic outcomes. In other words, the outcome is the opportunity. How could we reduce the predictive power of demographics on outcomes without focusing on outcomes?
But the second level of the Tangible Equity approach requires a bolder vision. As an achievement-over-everything educator, I preached the same sermon to my students that my immigrant grandmother and mother preached to me. The same sermon so many in marginalized groups heard when they grew up and still preach to their children: “You can’t just be good. You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.”
It is easy to be outraged about crystal clear racial injustice, police killings of unarmed Black folks and racist shooting sprees. But after decades of hearing and preaching the work-twice-as-hard-to-get-half-as-far gospel,. I suddenly asked myself, “isn’t this unacceptable, too?” This gospel is and always has been extremely unjust, but it is so deeply entrenched into our reality that most marginalized and minoritized folks accept it and keep pushing it. But I couldn’t do that anymore. I drew a line in the sand. I refuse to teach this lesson to my children.
Maybe I could lead an equity workshop if the outcome was a practical instructional framework and set of tools that prepared students to not just play the game, but to slay the game. I want to use my life as an example of the problem here. My education was successful on the first level of Tangible Equity, because I am blessed to have a demographics-defying story. I grew up on free and reduced lunch in Brooklyn, New York as a child of immigrants in a single-parent home with a father incarcerated for selling drugs. And I “made it” by getting into NYC’s gifted and talented program, attending one of NYC’s top specialized high schools, graduating with my computer science degree from Syracuse University, teaching, graduating top of my law school class, getting the big law firm job, founding this organization thinkLaw that is working with schools all over the country, and selling over 20,000 copies of my first book, Thinking Like a Lawyer: A Framework for Teaching Critical Thinking to All Students.
But so much of me “making it” was about me learning all the things and doing all the things necessary to successfully navigate an unjust system. I get that this is the way it is. But this is not the way it ought to be. If all we focused on was playing the game, we have to ask, “at what cost?” Scholar-activist and education leader Charles Cole III’s addresses this in his book, Beyond Grit and Resilience: How Black Men Impacted by the Crack Epidemic Succeeded Against the Odds and Obtained Doctoral Degrees, where he coins the jaw-dropping term “The Black Achievement Trauma Tax.” I “made it,” but I also paid this tax. I started going bald in my early twenties, I struggle with prostate and high blood pressure issues, deal with deep levels of imposter syndrome and irrational fears that my success can instantly be snatched away, and grapple with strained family and personal relationships.
Academic success matters. So does building instructional models that give students frequent opportunities to go beyond analyzing the world as it is and push them to question what the world ought to be. It would inflict massive harm on students if we did not give the tools needed to successfully navigate our systems. But if we do not also give them the tools to question and dismantle the unjust elements of these systems, the work is not enough.
This is why I wrote Tangible Equity. I wanted to help educators, school and system leaders see why it was so important to shift from a conversation to something more concrete. Tangible Equity obsesses with the “how” by providing several systemic approaches all stakeholders in our school systems can use to eliminate inequities by prioritizing issues within their individual scope of power and authority.
This book also lays out the five philosophical shifts necessary for school systems to adopt a Tangible Equity culture, such as moving the conversation from closing achievement gaps to shattering achievement ceilings. And lastly, but most importantly, Tangible Equity provides practical, easy-to-implement frameworks teachers can seamlessly integrate into their existing curriculum to deepen learning relationships, accelerate learning outcomes and hold up a mirror to our students so they can see their own power.
It is my hope that this book helps educators, school and system leaders overcome the “one more thing” syndrome that often plagues new initiatives, including equity efforts. Because you should not have an equity plan, anyhow. Equity needs to be the lens used to plan for everything. Please let the Tangible Equity approach guide the vision of your equity lens and translate your plans into reality. A reality where students will successfully play the game and have all the tools necessary to slay the game.
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