Main Points

  • The Problem of Disproportionality
  • Causes of Disproportionality
  • Making More Equitable Learning Environments
  • How Disproportionality Effects School Discipline
  • Mitigating Disproportionality in Schools

Dr. Sheldon Eakins: (00:00)

Welcome, Advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. I have a very special guest with me today, Dr. Renae Azziz. She's with me today. So without further ado, Renae, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Renae Azziz: (00:18)

Thanks for having me. Sheldon, it's a pleasure.

Eakins: (00:20)

Well, the pleasure is always mine, and I look forward to talking to you. We're going to be discussing disproportionality today, and before we get into that, I would love for you to share a little bit about you and what you're currently doing on a professional level.

Azziz: (00:33)

Sure. So I've been working in education for more than 20 years now, and that's exciting for me. I started my career really as a behavior consultant, spending my days working with students who were in need of additional behavior support and I really found that in that role I was observing [that] many students on my caseload were commonly referred and eventually found eligible for special education services, most commonly kind of with -- as students with emotional disabilities. And just something didn't seem quite right to me about that. So I decided to enroll in graduate school and study school psychology. So I'm a school psych by training. I did that because I really wanted to be able to, at the very least, understand my experience working with kids more, but my passion was really to kind of disrupt the system that was producing those outcomes that I saw. So I was really lucky to be able to go to graduate school at Indiana University and study with Dr. [inaudible], who's one of the leading researchers in the area of disproportionality and learned a great deal about the complexities of the issues, how to accurately measure the problem, but most importantly, how to begin to help systems remediate that issue.

Azziz: (01:48)

I guess fast forward, I finished grad school and started practicing [as] a school psychologist and pretty quickly realized that I was not going to disrupt the system and produce better outcomes for students in that role. I really needed to be able to change policies and practices and procedures with leadership, and so that led me to begin working with state and district level leaders. And many years later, I eventually started my company Virtuoso Education, which is what I'm doing now full time. And we are a professional development firm that focuses on providing training and consultation for educators on the implementation of best practices with an equity focus lens.

Eakins: (02:29)

Well, welcome again to the show and -- Virtuoso. So tell me where's the origin of the name?

Azziz: (02:35)

You know, I get that question from everyone. There's nothing special about it except for the fact that what I was noticing in my work is that every kid had something special in them. They were virtuosos in essence, and we just really had to pull that out of them. So that was really what my thinking was. And I named my company, and there's no other story to it than that. I think it's a great name, and we've been pretty fortunate to help schools do just that.

Eakins: (03:01)

Okay. It was unique. So I was like, "Oh, where that came from?" Okay. Alright, no problem. So we're talking about disproportionality today and just kind of listening to your background and kind of what led you to this work. I can tell that this is a passion of yours.

Azziz: (03:17)


Eakins: (03:18)

So let's start off with, can you tell us what is disproportionality and why it is a problem?

Azziz: (03:26)

Well, simply put, I guess I would say disproportionality is a disparity that really shouldn't be. More specifically, I think when we use the term, we're describing the over or under-representation of a particular group and a particular outcome, and you have to think that the root word is proportionality. So what we're really describing is the extent to which outcomes for a particular group really match what we would expect given their overall representation and population. So let me give you some concrete examples. So our national data trends around disproportionality tell us that maybe even our own experiences would tell us that students of color, especially black students, are over-represented in discipline. That means that they are more frequently experiencing that outcome. In the same vein, we also noticed the under-representation of students of color in gifted education. So again, disconnect between what we would expect. We also see that students of color are more likely to be placed in more restrictive settings in schools, more likely to be identified as special education students, which [is] my initial experience. So again, the disparities are problematic, I think, because not only do they maintain systems of inequity, but in a very real way, they can really change the trajectory of student lives in negative ways.

Eakins: (04:55)

Yeah, they can definitely change the trajectory, and not only that, we see like tracking, and we see those who have quote-unquote power when it comes to placing students where they need to be and even when it comes to the referral process and how those processes are created. So I would love to get your thought like some of those causes. I mean, in your experience and your research and the daily things that you do in the work that you do at schools, I mean, what are some of the causes that you're seeing for disproportionality?

Azziz: (05:26)

Well, you've already started to hit on some of them, and the causes are really the million-dollar question. I think. I always stress that it's important to understand that there's really no one overriding cause of racial and ethnic disparities in special education or even school discipline, but our best knowledge from the research suggests that there's really a lot of factors that contribute to the issue. So you know, in our own experience at Virtuoso, we're helping people look at the impact of poverty, test bias, the impact of the special education process as you just mentioned, and tracking. I think there's also a conversation needed about unequal educational opportunities and resources across our schools. We often deal with seeing the impact of schoolwide and classroom behavior management issues that are contributing to disproportionality. But I would say always we are having a conversation about the impact of cultural mismatch as it relates to being a contributing cause of disproportionality.

Azziz: (06:28)

I would say if I think about Oprah, one thing I know for sure she says is that no system can remediate disproportionality without a really deep look at the impact of culture on learning and behavior. And that's really because when we look at all the contributing factors, so all the things we mentioned, poverty and bias and special ed process and behavior, we can control for similarities across gender, across education levels, across poverty. But we continue to see the racial disparity. So I think simply put, race is not neutral. And if you're going to think about how to tackle disproportionality and what some of those causes are, we're really talking about systemic biases and racism that we've got to face head-on.

Eakins: (07:19)

So here's my next question. So you do this work, this is what you do, this is what Virtuoso Education does. And I love that you're doing this work because it is definitely an area of concern. So walk me through the process, and I know each school is different, each school is unique, has their own challenges, but like when you first arrive on a campus, like what is kind of like the steps that you take to bring more awareness and then what is the steps that you take or what are the steps that you take to kind of create a plan to make a more equitable learning environment?

Azziz: (07:55)

Great question. And as you hit on, it really depends on how we get invited to those places, what the situation[s] are. You know, one thing I didn't mention is that a lot of people really don't start to talk about disproportionality outside of how it impacts special education students. And that is because the federal government, the federal office of special education mandates all state agencies to monitor and respond to schools that are showing disproportionality. And there's a financial penalty for it. So usually, that's how we show up. But once we get there, I always start with data. I think you gotta start with letting the data drive decision making. It's my experience that many leaders know that there's an issue, but they don't really have a good handle on how to measure and talk about data. I find that they're fairly proficient at disaggregating data, but going deeper to think about proportionality within and even across subgroups is a skill I observe less often.

Azziz: (09:03)

But that's important for us at Virtuoso because without that accurate data, you really don't know what it is that you need to address. So we start there, we start with data, and then we start with lots of focus groups with multiple stakeholders. So from practitioners in the classrooms to building in central office leaders, families, community, we're all trying to figure out what it is that folks see as contributing factors. And once we kind of do those needs assessments, spend time in buildings, seeing what current realities are. We identify some opportunities for growth and develop a plan from that. And again, the plan really focuses on looking at policies, practices, and procedures and always asking the question, are the current practices benefiting all students equally? And to the extent that they're not, we really focused on professional development to help close those gaps.

Eakins: (10:00)

So my understanding from what you were saying is you get called out to schools based off of state mandates or maybe some data that says we need you to go over to this school and address some of the equities that are there. Your principals or administrators or district superintendents, are they receptive to your presence or is it, and again, I know situations probably vary, but I just kind of want to know as far as how open to your feedback are these school leaders when it comes to your presence on their campus?

Azziz: (10:34)

Right. So as you can imagine, some are much less open than we would like, but the fact of it is that's the nature of this work. People, when they think about disproportionality as educators, we go into this work because we care deeply about students, and they often feel accused when you're facing these issues. And so my team and I really try to have that lens that people really want to do what's right for kids. And sometimes when the state is saying you have to fix things in this way, again, they feel blamed. And I feel sometimes that folks don't really know their reality. So that's where we try to start our work with listening for understanding, not as if we are the experts that just know everything. That's why it's really important for us to do focus groups to hear realities. And I think one thing that has helped sustain our work and really produce really good outcomes, both for students and districts.

Azziz: (11:35)

We've helped a lot of school districts come out of disproportionality and stay that way. But I think a factor in that is that we always push conversations of culture, but we do that really with a clear understanding of how that process has to go. You cannot go into a school and say the system is built on systemic racism, and you've got to fix it right now. I mean, Janet Bennett is one of -- a scholar -- that I read a lot on and she does intercultural development work, and she says doing culture is kind of like cooking frogs. Right? And I know that's a bad analogy. It sounds gross, but she says you have to think about the just right starting spot. And for lots of schools, the just-right starting spot is not to start with conversations about systemic racism. It is to start with data and then ease into conversations about how the data does not benefit all students equally and have those things come to light. We always get to those hard conversations, but we don't always start there. And I think that's what helps people feel safe with our support.

Eakins: (12:41)

Okay, well, that's good to hear. So I didn't want some folks in your area that might be listening to this episode and be like, "Oh man, if she came to my school, I don't know what to do because I'm scared or--" and I liked what you say. "We're not blaming anybody. We start with the data, and we say, 'listen, we're here to help, and we're here to support you and ultimately support your students. That's the main goal.'" Right. And so I, so I appreciate your approach in that sense, but yet you still have the difficult conversations. It's just finding the right moment to have that conversation. So I would imagine, you know, obviously, there's probably school leaders who, you know, they're like, "Man, we're so glad you're here," and then you might have some that will start off with, "We don't have a problem." And, again, you go into the data, and you're able to show it. So I also liked that you touched on disproportionality isn't just special education because…

Azziz: (13:36)

No, no.

Eakins: (13:37)

That conversation happens a lot where it's just, "Oh well, IPs are one thing, 504s are one thing," whatever. But you talked about school discipline earlier on in our conversation. So I want to kind of touch on that a little bit because I would like for you to maybe help us understand a little bit better as far as how disproportionality intersects with school discipline.

Azziz: (13:58)

Well, great question. And yeah, it's not just about special education, as you said. And I even think a lot of times we start to talk about the achievement gap. But another really critical issue facing our schools is the discipline gap. So this is kind of the context of my own dissertation. And I remember looking at the data, and even currently we can see that black students comprise about 16% of our P-K-12 student population, but black students, even 16% representation represent 42% of students who are repeatedly suspended from school. That's disproportionate. Right? And you think about comparison, white students then represent 51% of our enrollment, but just 31% of students suspended out of school multiple times. So that's the concept of under-representation. I think when it comes to discipline, we see the impact greatest, certainly, for black students, we don't always see consistent over-representation of other ethnicities and discipline outcomes when we look at national data.

Azziz: (15:11)

But it is important to say that sometimes that's the case at local levels. So nationally, you might see most over-representation and discipline happen with black students, but that could be different at a local level. And so people really need to look at their data in that regard. I think for me what's absolutely egregious is the fact that those exclusionary discipline trends start at preschool children. Racial disparities and out of school suspensions for black children who represented 18% of the preschool population, they represent black students in preschool represent 42% of those students suspended in preschool!

Eakins: (15:52)

In preschool.

Azziz: (15:53)

Yeah. So that's just crazy to me and sad, and it really motivates me to keep doing the work that we do. Students who are suspended out of school are more likely to experience academic difficulties. We see them more likely to repeat a grade. Older years, we see them drop out of school and certainly have interactions with juvenile justice. So many of your listeners may be familiar with the concept of the school to prison pipeline, which really describes the detrimental consequences of exclusionary discipline. And really that's what that's about. It's a direct connection between the disproportionality we're seeing in schools with the disproportionality we see in the criminal justice system.

Eakins: (16:37)

You know, I'm glad that you brought up preschool because I've seen instances where four or five-year-olds are being escorted with handcuffs on, and it's just like -- how traumatizing that is at four years old, five years old, and you're being escorted by a police officer and how those things can again impact your trajectory. So I want to switch because we're talking about, okay, this is the data that we have disproportionality, it's an issue. It's not just special education. It extends beyond that. And so I'm glad we're having this conversation, but I don't want to leave our listeners with just, okay, this is bad. I want to -- so I want to talk about some strategies. So what are some ways that we can reduce instances of disproportionality? Like what can we do? Like let's say you haven't shown up at the school, how can they mitigate -- I guess it might impact your business, but how can we mitigate these instances of disproportionality in our schools?

Azziz: (17:33)

Well, I think it's important to get that knowledge out there, right? We can't be in all schools, but all schools need to really focus on disproportionate outcomes. I think there are a few things to consider. First, if you are experiencing disproportionality, the first thing leaders for equity advocates for practitioners is really to understand there are no quick fixes that changes or that will actually sustain take a long time because of the multilayered approach to the issue, but also if you're going to fix disproportionality, that means you've got to really impact climate and culture of your organization. That takes a lot of work but to your point, effective strategies. The research gives us some ideas about this. I think as you consider these ideas, you have to do so with an equity focus lens, and that's where I feel like a lot of schools are like, "Oh well, we're doing this.

Azziz: (18:27)

Oh well, we're doing that," but not necessarily with a consideration of how what they are doing is impacting students who are disproportionately represented. So you can look at prevention and early intervention systems like MTSS, multi-tiered systems of support. Those systems deal with assessment practices, instructional practices and interventions that really are going to get ahead of your reactions to when students are in need of either academic or behavior support. Those are really important frameworks to have in your setting if you're going to ensure equitable outcomes. I think another strategy or area that you want to focus on is improving behavior management practices through proactive discipline. I think that has to happen at both the policy and practice level, so again, I in schools all the time are like, "Oh yeah, we have proactive discipline, we have a code of conduct that is not zero tolerance," but they never get down to the level of "How are we ensuring that what we say, we expect of students and of staff, has been done with fidelity."

Azziz: (19:38)

I see very infrequent conversations about the impact of culture on behavior and how there are different ways in which we all define behavior. Like for example, "disrespect" means different things to different people and got to really sort that out. If you're going to have a proactive discipline system that works for everybody. I've not seen folks really sustain positive outcomes without engaging family and community stakeholders. I think we talk about wanting to do that, but we don't really do that in a way that is meaningful always and take what we're hearing from families around their needs into account as we're building our policies and practices in schools. And then Sheldon without question. I think you've got to have strategy training and culturally responsive practices that really move beyond awareness and start to focus on the ways in which educators have to affirm and validate and be responsive to who their students are both in their instruction and their behavioral practices. And then administrators have to then look for those things. Your practitioners, your school, your classroom teachers are going to be doing things that they know you're going to look for as a leader, and so if you're really committed to equity, you've got to have that feedback loop around equity issues with your teachers.

Eakins: (21:04)

Okay. I want to touch on the proactive because I've heard that multiple times where schools say, you know, "We're being proactive," but if you're really being proactive, then why are you having fights -- two, three fights a day? Why are you having these challenges? And you're still suspending folks and expelling folks. So can you share a little bit more on what does it really mean to be proactive with your approaches?

Azziz: (21:32)

Right, sure. So a lot of times, as you said, folks can admire all of the best practices they have in place, but if you're not implementing those best practices -- number one, with an equity focus lens, they're not going to impact the students who you really need to impact. So I think that stands in the way of a lot of good practices working because, again, you don't have a context for how they're meaningful or how to adapt them to the students that you need to focus on. But what does proactivity look like? I think that means that you can use data in a way to predict the things that you need to teach before they become a problem. And you have to then teach those to fluency, whether you're talking about something academic or behaviorally. So you brought up the issue of fights. If we were collecting data in a proactive way to know what are the things that our teachers are giving redirections and reminders about in their classroom settings that eventually get so bothersome to teachers that it eventually leads to, let's say an office discipline referral or heaven forbid a fight.

Azziz: (22:48)

If we can predict what are the indicators of those things, then we can respond to them. And for discipline that has to look like active supervision in the classroom. That has to be positive reinforcement. I can't tell you the number of times we're doing observations, and teachers have so much to do in the classroom that they are experts in the content, but they sometimes forget to also facilitate a positive classroom environment. And so they get so ingrained in the process of teaching the content that when they do respond to behavior, it's already reactionary. So it's the "Stop," "Quit," "Don't," "Get on task," and it's not the affirmations for students doing what you want them to do. And so you have to really switch your lens to be more proactive. And that's hard to do when you're in the trenches, and there are a thousand things going on. But I think proactivity starts with leaders really identifying what are the expectations, how are we monitoring it, and how are we giving feedback?

Eakins: (23:52)

Okay. Thank you for digging a little deeper in there because again, that is a conversation that I've had with several educators and leaders where it talks about proactivity, but then the action is like, okay, we're saying it. But when you look at it and like you said, observe it, it's like, okay, well I think there are some things that we could -- you know, "There's always room for growth," is what I try to say. So even when folks feel like they're on top of their game, there's always, always room for growth. So Renae, I definitely consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. What is one final word of advice that you could provide to our listeners?

Azziz: (24:31)

Well, I think as educators kind of move toward building more equitable systems, which I know is a passion for many of your listeners, the difficult work of changing hearts begins with changing attitudes. In particular, the unconscious ones, and we didn't spend a lot of time on that today, but I really think that in recent days there's been an increased mention of issues of bias in our schools, but in my lens, there's not quite enough action behind that. So as an equity advocate, I think all of us really want to be intentional about using our voices to ensure equity conversations are followed by action.

Eakins: (25:11)

Yeah, we can say we're all about equity, but where's our money going? Where are our financial resources? Where are the support resources? Where's that going? If it's not going towards equity-related items within your classroom, within your school, are we really focused on equity? It's not a buzzword, it's something that impacts our students on a daily basis, and we have to be more intentional about it. Renae, if we have some folks that want to reach out to you, if they want to connect with Virtuoso Education, just shout out to your social media, what's the best way to connect with you online?

Azziz: (25:44)

So we're on Twitter @virtuoso_ed. We're also on Facebook at Virtuoso Education and connect with us there. You can always visit our website at

Eakins: (25:58)

All right. Once again, I am speaking with Dr. Renae Azziz. It has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us.

Azziz: (26:07)

My pleasure again, thanks for having me.


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