When most educators hear the word “equity,” they usually think of issues related to race. Unfortunately, many also think that when you address equity, it means that someone will have to relinquish some rights, services, power or privileges so that members of under-served groups can benefit.
Equity is so much more than either of those notions, and the truth is that everyone wants equity.
So, what is equity? Equity in schools is ensuring that each student benefits from the practices, policies, resources and instruction at the school. It means that each student has access to the full curriculum, is able to participate meaningfully in course work – including advanced courses and gifted and talented classes – and has positive outcomes as a result of that participation. It also means that each student has access to experienced and effective classroom teachers and school leaders whose actions help the student grow and learn in ways that prepares her or him for life.
In other words, equity is doing what is right by and for each and every student regardless of the student’s personal traits or group membership.
Equity in schools is important because without equity, many students do not have access to the teaching and learning commensurate with their peers. It is important because in the process of daily activities at schools, sometimes under-served students do not get the attention, instruction or opportunity to learn and achieve at rates commensurate with that of their white, middle class peers. Though many believe equity is about African American or low-income students, it also can be about gifted students not having access to the advanced coursework that keeps them challenged and learning. Equity is ensuring that each and every student gets what she or he needs in order to be successful.
In order to begin examining equity issues, school and district educators must ask themselves this question: Who is not benefiting from the way things are in our school or district?
While certain groups may demonstrate academic growth and achievement, most schools have groups of under-served students – such as students of color, English learners, special needs students and students experiencing poverty – who are not performing at the same levels or rates as their peers. That difference in the performance rates of student groups creates achievement gaps. If a school has any achievement gaps, there are equity issues, because not all students are benefitting from the teaching and learning opportunities that exist at the school. Inequities in schools manifest themselves in the form of an achievement gap.
What does equity look like in schools? Educators who embrace equitable practices make sure that each and every student has access to highly effective classroom teachers, is actively participating the entire curriculum in meaningful ways (i.e., actively engaged, participates fully and has a voice) and has high-quality learning experiences. Establishing these practices means that schools and districts must evaluate their current student performance data with a lens toward uncovering inequitable practices and policies that have perpetuated less-than-ideal achievement rates for some students. These issues must be addressed systemically.
Equity in schools also means that the most experienced teachers are not always privileged to teach only the advanced/honors courses and students, while new and inexperienced teachers teach the most challenging groups of students. It means putting the most effective and experienced teachers with the students who need the most support so that those students benefit from the expertise of a veteran teacher. It also means supporting new teachers as they learn their craft and grow as educators by having a range of experiences with a variety of students.
Schools and districts need to take stock of their learning environments and determine which students are not benefitting from the ways in which students and teachers are assigned, who has access to a rigorous curriculum, and student outcomes based on class and teacher assignments. If schools truly want to close the achievement gap and are willing to put forth the effort to do so, they must understand that school transformation requires systemic change on many levels and in multiple arenas. The focus has to be on fixing the school system instead of just trying to fix students.
As educators disaggregate student performance data, they also must look at systemic inequities within their buildings that perpetuate the achievement gaps and begin to intentionally and strategically address the inequities they uncover. This work is rarely easy and takes time, but it can be done. The first step, however, is to acknowledge the inequities and determine what can be done to correct them. The next step is to act on making changes in inequitable practices that are within the power of the school to change. This is the beginning of ensuring that each and every student benefits from the way things are in a school.
At the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), we are beginning to challenge schools and districts to examine the issue of equity. We launched the first of several Equity Labs late last year that challenged attendees to think about and uncover potential inequities that exist in their schools and districts. Using their own data, participants were exposed to different ways of looking at teacher assignments to courses and student assignments to both classes and teachers. They were also asked to examine the practices in their schools that could potentially cause inequities. School leaders left with materials to help them start the conversation about systemic changes they can make.
A second series of Equity Labs will begin March 5. These labs will focus on teacher recruitment and retention and will be held at regional education cooperatives. Schools and districts are encouraged to bring teams of leaders who influence hiring decisions to this day-long event. Attendees will participate in small group activities that explore topics such as equity in recruitment and retention and equitable practices in school climate and culture.
All equity labs will be 9 a.m.-3 p.m. local time. Attendees are responsible for their own travel and meals. The dates and locations for the labs are as follows:
- March 5 – London, G.C. Garland Administration Building
- March 8 – Hazard, Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative
- March 9 – Ashland, Kentucky Educational Development Corporation
- March 15 – Shelbyville, Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative
- March 19 – Lexington, Central Kentucky Educational Cooperative
- March 22 – Eddyville, West Kentucky Educational Cooperative
- March 29 – Alexandria, Alexandria Educational Center
- April 23 – Bowling Green, Holiday Inn University Plaza
For more information on these Equity Labs, visit the KDE equity website.
Veda Pendleton is the equity lead for KDE in the Office of Teaching and Learning.