Student Outcomes
Chapter: Truth and Hope

Systemic injustices and its effect on our students


Before we begin, I would like invite you for us to situate ourselves in the world that we and our students inhabit.

With that thought, let’s start with a simple graph – The X-Axis is a progression of time and the Y-axis is the probability of enjoying a broad range of opportunities and choices- be it in education, employment and in every possible aspect in life.

The red line represents the life of most of the students we serve and the yellow line represents the lives of most students from privileged backgrounds. Let’s zoom in a little further:

Think for a moment, about a child you know growing up in adversity – what do you think the first few years of their life were like:

  1. Did they have a strong reliable primary caregiver who provided consistent, unconditional love and support
  2. Did they have safe, predictable, stable environments
  3. Did their parents or caregivers engage them in harmonious interactions that helped towards emotional well-being

For me, that child was Sumit. Sumit’s parents are construction workers in Mumbai and hardly ever around since they both had to work two shifts each day to keep everyone fed. Sumit was left under the care of his grandmom who was so old that she hardly ever knew where he was. His dad was a strict disciplinarian and also an alcoholic, his mom was just 16 when she had him and constantly struggled to stand up to his dad. When Sumit was five, his grandmom passed away and he also had a younger brother. Sumit was then left at home to care of himself and his sibling when his parents were away to work.

In many poor households, parental education is substandard, time is short and warm emotions are at a premium – all factors that are critical and the core guidance needed to build lifelong social skills.


Many children raised in poverty enter school a step behind their well-off peers. The cognitive stimulation parents provide in the early childhood years is crucial, and as we have seen, poor children receive less of it than their well-off peers do. These deficits have been linked to underdeveloped cognitive, social, and emotional competence in later childhood and have been shown to be increasingly important influences on vocabulary growth, IQ, and social skills (Bradley, Corwyn, Burchinal et al., 2001; Bradley, Corwyn, McAdoo et al., 2001)

Children raised in adverse conditions, often fail to learn healthy, appropriate emotional responses to everyday situations and therefore begin with a significant lag as compared to their affluent peers.

When Sumit came into my class, he was five grade levels behind and also had been moved from three different schools due to behavioural issues. He would hit his classmates for no apparent reason and he would take things that do not belong to him. Being five grade levels behind, he struggled to read but wanted to do the worksheets that those around him were doing. He would start his worksheet, tear it when he wasn’t able to solve it and then would proceed to tear the worksheets of those sitting around him as well.

What are some of the behavioural challenges displayed by your students?

  1. Do they display behaviours of “acting out”
  2. Do they show impulsiveness and impatience
  3. Do they show inappropriate emotional responses? For example – a smile or a smirk when you expect contriteness
  4. Less empathy for peers

These behaviours are extremely puzzling and frustrating for new teachers but it is important to understand where it is stemming from and that it is changeable. There is tremendous opportunity within the classroom and working alongside all the stakeholders in the child’s life for significant transformation.


Let’s draw another line to this graph – this green line is to illustrate our hope for the children we work with to overcome the gravitational pull of the red line and have access to the expanded range of opportunities that are available to children from privileged backgrounds.

Here’s where I had like us to pause and reflect upon the idea that we are not saying the children we work with need to become like their privileged counterparts -what we are saying though is that the premise of our work is that every single child has an equal shot at the opportunities and choices in all aspects of life that matter. I would like to acknowledge at this point that this graph is a very simplistic representation of an extremely complex reality.

Our current schools are designed under the wrong assumption that the foundation of the students from adversity are the same as those from privileged backgrounds and therefore the system fails the child even before the school journey begins.

Once in school, the emphasis is on process (how many hours is the child in school, what coursework did the teacher do, what books are available) over learning outcomes. In those contexts, we have no vantage point on student growth at all, much less on whether that growth is meaningfully broadening their opportunities in years to come. Some of our teachers work in systems that do measure student learning but usually those “outcomes” are exclusively academic knowledge and skills, and are usually measured under relatively traditional heads of reading, writing and numeracy without touching upon the critical skills of analytical thinking and problem solving. But we all know education is much more than that.

Academic achievement in the traditional sense predicts very little of success in later life be it in the form of higher education completion, employability, healthy living or being a socially functioning part of society.  In order to be able to navigate through the complexities of this world, our students need skills and mindsets that go beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. 

What is worse is that the traditional form of academic-focused education, does not value the past of these under-served communities, the realities of the present and the hopes as well as aspirations for their own future. 

In our classrooms where our students come from systematically oppressed communities, generations of numbing of critical consciousness and a carefully constructed narrative around self-hate; education’s goal also becomes about unlearning the majority narrative and thriving without having to assimilate into one single story.

Education is being redefined and rewritten from as we know it into all of this and more across our strongest classrooms in the network.

Our most transformational teachers are asking questions such as what are the assets of our students’ community and its challenges.  What is the history of injustice and oppression that has led to the inequitable opportunities these children are experiencing?

Additionally, these teachers explore their students’, families’, and communities-‘-and their own–deepest values and aspirations. We see the most transformational teachers engaging deeply in these questions to inform their own thinking about students’ ultimate aims and learning how to pursue them.

An effort towards contextualized vision is bringing students and families and community to the heart of our work as part of an evolving, contextualized effort to define the purpose to which we are aspiring.

We are in pursuit of end-of-year outcomes (in the bottom left) that give us reliable confidence that students are getting on an enduring path to a collectively contextualized vision of student success (top right). 



Use the below questions to guide your reflection:

  1. If you were to define “success” for your students in light of a collectively contextualized vision, what would it look like?
  2. Is there similar sense of conflict around different pathways of success in your context?
  3. How do your students see themselves today in the current education that they are receiving?

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