Q&A: Educational Equity

As answered by Bea Young Associates, LLC: Collaboration for Educational Equity and compiled by Theresa Kelly Gegen

School board members play an important and central role in creating a school environment that leads to greater success for all students. And yet, with the best of intentions, people don’t always know what to say or do when addressing the vexing issues surrounding equal educational opportunity. For over 50 years it’s been well documented that there exists an achievement gap between the success of students of color and white students.
 
The Journal corresponded with Bea Young and her Associates, Michael Kilgore and Susan O’Halloran. Young and O’Halloran will be joined by IASB’s Sandra Kwasa to present “Equity: An Educational Imperative to Close the Achievement Gap” as a Pre-Conference Workshop at the 2019 Joint Annual Conference. Also based on this material, IASB will offer a three-hour equity session, available to all Illinois school boards starting in 2020.
 
Q What does educational equity mean?
In preparation for designing this Equity program, IASB adopted the following definition of educational equity:
 
Educational equity means that every student has access to the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education, and students’ needs are not going unmet due to race, ethnicity, dominant language, disability, gender, sexual orientation, religion, family background, and/or family income.
 
This definition speaks to fairness and inclusion. Fairness posits no personal and/or cultural attribute of an individual should interfere or distract from that student’s potential to succeed. A way to think about inclusion is that school districts actively examine their assumptions, policies, practices, personnel, and curriculum to remove systemic obstacles to student achievement.
 
Equality of opportunity is the goal. Educational equity provides the road map that school districts must utilize if all students are to succeed.
 
Q Why is educational equity an imperative?
The fundamental answer to this question is because an achievement gap exists in school districts throughout Illinois (and beyond). Do you know your district’s achievement gaps? The Illinois Report Card, under Academic Progress and Achievement Gap, displays achievement gap information for each school district.
 
Furthermore, the achievement gap has consequences — both to the individual and the community in which they live and eventually, for the country at large. Some of the consequences/impacts of inequitable education are:
  • Socio/economics; quality of life
  • Societal prosperity/poverty; a 2009 report by McKinsey and  Co. asserts that the persistence of the achievement gap in the U.S. has the economic effect of a “permanent national recession.”
  • Legal/social justice; uneven discipline in schools becomes an incarceration pipeline.
  • Innovation; the “best” minds exist in every racial/ethnic/gender group; exclusion of any student is a net loss not only for an individual but society as a whole.
As another way to answer this question of imperative, consider a quote from the Weekly Message from the former Illinois State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith, from September 2018, in which he listed the number-one guiding principle, Equity:
 
We believe that while racial disparities exist in virtually every key indicator of child, family and community wellbeing and that individual, institutional and structural impacts of race, racism and other biases are pervasive and significantly affect key life indicators of success, these differences can change when directly addressed.
  
Q Did something change to pull educational equity into the forefront; was there a catalyst for the discussion we are having in Illinois today?
The achievement gap between children of color and white children remains largely unresolved nationally since it was first documented in the 1966 Coleman Report, Equality of Educational Opportunity. James Coleman’s study was a result of the Civil Rights Act of l964, Section 402, which required the commissioner of education to conduct a survey with a report to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress “concerning the lack of availability of equal educational opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color, religion or national origin in public educational institutions.”
 
In addition, when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) disaggregated data by race and ethnicity for the first time in 2002, it brought the gap in achievement to the forefront once again. There is a relevant quote here, written by the speechwriter for President George W. Bush, when he announced why NCLB was a requirement with these words, “…the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
 
Also, in preparation for the new Equity workshop, IASB’s Office of General Counsel conducted a review of the recent laws which have caught educators’ attention and pulled educational equity into the very recent forefront. This Illinois legislation includes among others:
  • Fixes to the Evidence-Based Funding formula
  • Implicit Bias Training requiring in-service training to develop cultural competence
  • School Discipline Reform (PA 99-0456, commonly called Senate Bill 100), related to disproportionate discipline
 
Q How did we get here; why is education inequitable?
Our history of inequality creates the need for equity. Over the years we have learned that the history of inequitable education began with the forced importation of Africans as slaves in 1619. When their descendants aspired to gain the rudiments of education, laws were passed prohibiting their learning to read or write. And our history of these laws persisted against Native Americans. Immigrants such as Chinese, Irish, Italians, Jews, Hispanics/Latinos and more also faced discriminatory education rules frustrating their desires to fulfill their dreams. Schooling was always “less than” for those viewed as “Outsiders.” Thus, on the 50th anniversary of the Coleman Report in 2016, the achievement gap had barely changed.
 
Q What do people misunderstand about educational equity?
There is a persistent belief that creating equity in school systems and curriculum does not benefit all children; that equity only benefits children of color, immigrants, the disabled, the poor, etc., to the detriment of white students.
 
To illustrate this, the following is a true story from one of the school districts where we have consulted. Prior to beginning a journey toward educational equity, a board member shared his initial belief that engaging in diversity and equity would come at the expense of the district’s white students. After years of determined effort by the school administration to close the achievement gap, the statistics from their Report Card were presented demonstrating that, not only did the scores of black and Hispanic students rise, white students’ scores also improved. This board member wrote a letter of gratitude to the administration acknowledging the data changed his belief.
 
Q Who is responsible for educational equity?
Educational equity is laid on the doorsteps of the school districts and schools these days. We are reminded of one of the testimonial statements from our recent book, Restoring the Soul to Education: Equity Closes the Achievement Gap, which responds to this question of responsibility, from Arne Duncan, former United States Secretary of Education:

The fight for educational opportunity is the fight for equity. You can’t get to the first without a courageous commitment to the second. But when you actually live those values, the difference you can make in the lives of students is extraordinary.

Furthermore, each child has a family/guardians, a personality, a community, group identification(s), and a history. All these factors play roles in their development as a whole person. This is a huge question; and while school districts are now the primary focus, there is growing attention being given to integrating family and community needs with schooling.
 
Q What are the priorities for most school districts embarking on an equity path? How do we make change happen?
After several decades of guiding major corporations through a systemic approach using cultural change as a business priority, we became passionately aware of the needed change in our educational systems and Bea Young developed the model below which we call “The Educational Equity Journey.”

BYA Educational Equity Journey
This model illustrates the systemic change process that a school district needs to transform into a culturally equitable organization. It’s a journey, and the sequential stages build on one another and create a solid foundation for each following stage. In a school district, the success of the system change is linked with the overall commitment of the board of education and leadership to execute every stage with integrity until systemic change is achieved.

The first step is conducting a needs assessment that we call the Cultural/Equity Audit, which will gain open and honest feedback from a cross-section of district stakeholders. The audit uses confidential and anonymous interviews with board of education members and top administrators, and racially/ethnically homogeneous focus groups including building administrators, teachers, support staff, students, parents, and community leaders. This process shows the connects and disconnects between stated values and how they are actually experienced day-to-day by students and staff. The Cultural Audit Report, which includes key themes organized by “Strengths” and “Opportunities for Improvement” and “Recommendations for Ways Forward,” is given directly to the superintendent who will decide the most effective ways to share with stakeholders.

One primary focus of our approach — at this time of urgency to achieve equity — is to enable more districts to utilize this needs assessment or Cultural Audit process. Thus, we now offer certification to regional educational organizations to assist their staff to conduct the needs assessment. The audit will report the priorities which will be different for each school district. Knowing what changes are needed and where to begin is the key to answering this question, “how do we make change happen?”
 
Q Why might school leaders fail to address educational inequity?
Our research demonstrates that most university or college educational leadership programs, teacher training or education undergraduate and graduate degree programs do not typically include educational equity in their curriculum. Some are now moving in this direction because of its educational urgency.

Further, there is fear, a reluctance to examine our own cultural beliefs and biases and how those beliefs impact the policies and practices of the schools and, ultimately, impact the experiences of students within the schools.

We have been invited to districts where the school board or key administrator are committed to moving forward but face a major barrier when just one or two leaders are unwilling to support the effort, despite the extremely low achievement scores and the growing number of students and families of color within and moving into the district. These leaders often claim lack of time, lack of resources, or lack of funding. They insist the district, “treats everyone the same.” In the terminology of educational equity, this statement is called being “colorblind.” Being colorblind does not address equity.
 
Q What are the role(s) of school and community leaders in developing educational equity for their districts?
Leaders within the school district — board members, administrators, principals, teacher and staff leaders — have the central role of creating a Vision for Educational Equity. School board members are policymakers. A school board with a strong commitment to equity uses an equity lens when approving policy decisions that affect the educational environment. These decisions include how students learn, how students are taught, how learning is measured, how teachers are supported with professional development, and how funds are allocated based on district priorities. Board members are responsible for moving equity from theory to practice. They also must dismantle any policies that support inequities.

Equally important are the actions and behaviors of the leaders. Their role is to model inclusive and culturally responsive behaviors in day-to-day activities. What happens in staff meetings, teacher interactions, supervision training, professional development, mentoring, student disciplinary proceedings, and parent meetings is indicative of the school environment. Regardless of what’s written, behaviors are what create the reality of educational equity.

As elected community leaders, it’s the board of education, along with the superintendent, who bear the fundamental and decisive responsibility for a district’s culture. Budgetary and policy decisions impacting staffing, policy rollouts, resources needed, school activities, and facilities are within their jurisdiction. How board members work together in making these critical decisions is the mirror of the district’s environment and can determine its direction.

School board members must know the demographics of the district — staff, students, and community demographic data. Data can help school board members discuss and ask questions about achievement patterns, which student groups participate in various programs, the make-up of classes, who is in special education, graduation rates, and discipline data in order to identify trends that run through a school district and community.

Board members can be a conduit to all of the community — or communities — within the boundaries of the district. In that regard, board members and the superintendent identify resources that can further the aims of enriching educational equity, including tapping diverse cultural organizations to enrich learning opportunities. Building bridges to the entire community is an important role for the board of education.
 
Q What is the process or timeline for creating an inclusive, culturally responsive and equitable school environment?
The cultural change required to create an environment of educational equity is often outside the comfort zone of some school leaders and stakeholders. In some instances, we have seen great resistance to cultural change by some leaders, which has created divisiveness and negativity at all levels: staff, students, and parents. Consequently, leaders, board members and staff alike, need to be prepared for the impacts of the change process prior to embarking on the journey.

If we may be bold, the new IASB workshop, entitled “Equity: An Educational Imperative,” will be facilitated at minimal cost by IASB staff we have certified. This experience will greatly help school leaders become “comfortable with the discomfort” of cultural change.

Educational equity is not the quick fix of a workshop or training event. It’s a journey. Such training events, however, can pave the way to understand the need for cultural change. A needs assessment or Cultural Audit can be conducted in as little as one or two weeks followed by the writing of the Report and Recommendations and the review with the superintendent. Key to an effective change process is that the actions chosen are integrated within existing processes, especially the district’s existing strategic plan or one to be developed.

The time required to achieve educational equity, as demonstrated in math and reading scores, can take up to three to five years. These outcomes only result from leaders’ decisions to implement needed changes.
 
Q Can we achieve educational equity?
Yes, absolutely.
 
Q If we achieve educational equity, what does it look like?
We want to answer this question by referring you to our book in Chapter 6, Components of a Culturally Responsive Curriculum. This chapter was written by our colleague, Susan O’Halloran, who is also co-author of the new Equity Workshop we developed for IASB. Her perspective can be summarized as:

An equitable school environment is one in which all students can learn and develop to the best of their abilities. It’s a place where skills develop, doors open, and horizons stretch out. It’s a place where each student can affirm, “Yes! I love this school. It’s about me, my culture, my family and my future.” It’s a place of achievement and hope.
 
Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of the Illinois School Board Journal. More about Bea Young Associates, LLC: Collaboration for Educational Equity and ordering Restoring the Soul to Education: Equity Closes the Achievement Gap is available at www.restoringthesoultoeducation.com and at www.beayoung.com. Additional resources for this article, including information on the workshops can be found at this resources link http://bit.ly/ND19Jres