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Talking About Equity in Schools: Tools for Difficult Conversations

By Dr. Karen Baptiste, Consultant, CT3 Education and ASCD Board Member, Thinking Maps Per Diem Consultant With COVID-19 disrupting schools across the country and racial tensions at the highest level in recent decades, it has never been more important to address equity issues in education. But before we can create more equitable spaces, we have to ask and answer some difficult questions. What does equity look like? Where do we have gaps between our ideals and our practice? Which groups are currently marginalized in our schools, and what can we do about it? Addressing equity starts with having tough conversations at both the district and school levels. These discussions are likely to be uncomfortable. They require honesty, openness, and an unflinching look at the differences between what we say we value and what we actually do, both as individuals and as a school community. It's not always easy to get these conversations started. I've created a Thinking Maps exercise to help guide these tough conversations.

What Does Equity Look Like?

There are many different ways of looking at equity in education. My definition of equity is creating a space where all children have their perspectives seen and honored and have equal access to opportunities. Achieving equity requires special care and focus on children from traditionally underrepresented or marginalized groups to ensure that they have equal access to educational resources and opportunities enjoyed and expected by children from dominant groups. What does equity look like in your idealized school or district? Where does equity fall among your values, goals, and priorities? Start by defining your goals and creating a clear picture of what equity should look like in your school or district.

Aspects of Equity: Identifying Marginalized Groups

When we think about equity, we often think about race- and this is certainly an area where we see large differences in educational access, opportunity, and outcomes. Black and brown children are still impacted by the effects of structural racism dating back to the founding of our country. The lingering impact of slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and other policies continuing to this day have resulted in a world where Black and brown children are roughly five times as likely to be living in high-poverty neighborhoods as children from white families. As a result, many Black and brown children are concentrated into schools that are under-resourced and not able to offer the same educational opportunities parents in wealthier communities have come to expect. Children from historically marginalized groups are also more likely to have their opportunities curtailed by overt racism or unconscious bias on the part of teachers and administrators. Compared to white children, Black and brown children with similar abilities and behaviors are less likely to be recommended for advanced classes or gifted and talented programs and more likely to be subjected to harsh disciplinary measures such as suspensions or expulsions. With these headwinds acting against them, we should not wonder why children of color are less likely to take higher-level courses, graduate from high school, attain a college education, or enter high-income career fields than their white peers. But race is only one aspect of equity. Underrepresentation may be based on many different student characteristics, including gender, socioeconomic status (regardless of race), disability status, culture, language background, or immigration status.

The next step to addressing equity issues is to get a clear picture of what inequity looks like at your school. Which groups are marginalized or underrepresented? Which groups are struggling or underperforming? What do you know about these groups and the reasons they may be struggling? Where are you falling short of the ideals you identified? Create a Circle Map to define what inequity looks like at your school.

Measuring Equity

Next, we have to determine what metrics we are going to use to measure inequity at our school. These may include a combination of metrics such as high-stakes test scores, GPA, graduation rates, participation in higher-level classes, representation in student leadership, rates of placement in Special Education (SPED), disciplinary and behavioral outcomes, and other indicators specific to your school.

Take a close look at the performance of students in your potentially marginalized groups compared to the school as a whole. If you are a “majority minority” school or whole-school Title I with a majority of students coming from low-income/marginalized groups, also compare to district and state averages—how is your school performing overall? This exercise will help you identify where you have gaps in performance and outcomes, both academic and otherwise.

Identifying Barriers to Equity

Now that you’ve identified the equity gaps in your school, it’s time to take a closer look at the causes of those gaps. What are the systemic (school or community) barriers that may be causing some groups (or your school as a whole) to underperform? How do access to resources and opportunities both within and beyond the traditional school day impact outcomes for different groups of students? As you complete this exercise, be sure to get input from multiple voices, including school leadership, teachers, student representatives, parents, and community representatives. As you look for barriers, be sure to examine all of the potential aspects of inequity in your school.

  • What is the role of racism or cultural bias (overt, covert, or unconscious) on the part of teachers and staff? What assumptions are teachers and administrators making about certain groups of students? Are they looking at students from some groups with a “deficit mentality” instead of looking for their strengths?
  • How does resource inequality impact educational outcomes at your school? Are some students locked out of educational opportunities because their families don’t have enough money or transportation options to enable students to participate? Do some students lack basic resources (food, housing, safety, healthcare) necessary for effective learning? Is your school or community under-resourced as a whole?
  • Is the curriculum culturally appropriate for your community of learners? Does it connect to the lived experience of your students? Is it more relevant and appropriate for some groups of students than for others?
  • Do all students feel safe and supported in your school? Are some groups socially marginalized or bullied?

What other causes of inequity have you discovered in your community? Are there additional barriers that prevent certain groups of students from performing at their top capacity? Complete a Multi-Flow Map for each subgroup to identify barriers to achievement.

Building an Equitable Learning Community

Next, it’s time to use the information we have gathered to create an action plan. Go back to the vision of equity you created in step one. How close or far are you from that vision? What are the barriers standing in the way of equity for your student body as a whole or for certain subgroups of students? What steps can you take to dismantle those barriers and create a more equitable learning environment for your students? Remember that you can’t dismantle a system of inequality without putting something in its place. You must deliberately work to define your vision of equity and build it at your school. Getting there will require breaking down the barriers to equity that you identified in the last exercise. Your action plan will be specific to your school, your student body, and the barriers that exist in your school and community. Depending on your findings, your equity action plan might include:

  • Applying for grants or developing community partnerships to address resource inequality issues
  • Anti-racism or cultural sensitivity training for teachers and staff
  • Targeted outreach and recruiting efforts to build participation among under-represented groups in higher-level classes, extracurricular programs, or student leadership opportunities
  • Community outreach to build stronger relationships with families
  • Implementing a more culturally responsive and appropriate curriculum
  • Translation and second-language programs for families whose first language is not English
  • Social-emotional learning or behavioral programs to reduce bullying and create a safe, sensitive learning environment for all students

Create a Tree Map with your equity action plan. For each action step, determine the specific outcomes you are trying to achieve and the roles and responsibilities of people in your school community

How Will We Know When We Have Achieved an Equitable Learning Environment?

How will you recognize equity if you achieve it? Make sure you have clearly defined outcomes that you can measure to see if you are getting closer to your vision of equity. Use this Multi-Flow Map to think about the big-picture results you are hoping to see. You can come back to this Map after putting your action plan in place to determine whether you are seeing the outcomes you had envisioned.

Addressing equity in our schools is hard and necessary work—and it is an ongoing process, not a one-time fix. It begins with the adults in the school modeling equity and building positive relationships with students and families. Above all, it requires us to be honest about the current causes of inequity and take conscious, concrete steps towards addressing them. These Thinking Maps exercises are designed to help school leaders start those hard conversations and develop an effective and equitable way forward that addresses the needs of all students in our communities. TMLC subscribers can find the Map exercise here. About Dr. Karen Baptiste Dr. Karen Baptiste is a national consultant providing Executive Coaching to district and school leaders across the nation in anti-racist practices to transform their school culture and experiences for scholars and families. She currently serves on the International Board of Directors for ASCD and is passionate about juvenile justice reform. As the Founder and Director of Pre-school to Prison, LLC, she is working on her first documentary about the school to prison pipeline. She is aneducational policy expert, and serves on the LegislativeCommittee to advocate, propose and develop national educational policy initiatives. She also works as a per-diem Thinking Maps consultant.

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