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September 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 1

Creating Clarity on Equity in Schools

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To respond to the backlash against equity efforts, schools need more coherent strategies that are grounded in schoolwide improvement.

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Credit: Brian Stauffer / TheiSpot

CHALLENGE: Equity work is being stalled or challenged in many schools.

The effort to advance equity in education is under threat throughout the country. Ironically, the threat comes from two competing sources: conservative activists who now equate equity with "woke politics" and perceive its pursuit as a threat to their political interests, and school and district leaders who are unable to devise strategies that lead to measurable advancements in equity. The combination of these factors makes this a particularly perilous time for equity efforts in education.
To many observers, these threats were not expected. From a rhetorical standpoint at least, the pursuit of equity in education had been widely embraced by red and blue states alike, as well as school districts throughout the nation, since the 2001 adoption of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Though NCLB has faced criticism from the outset, particularly from scholars like us who were skeptical about its promise of ensuring that all students receive an adequate education (Noguera & Syeed, 2021), it has nonetheless served as the basis for education policy for more than 20 years. Since its enactment, it has been common to find bold proclamations of commitments to equity and a promise to serve all students, regardless of background or need, in district mission statements and in catchy slogans on school building walls.
However, support for what equity work truly entails never ran deep, and it soon became clear that many policymakers and education leaders who espoused support for equity did not actually understand what was required to achieve it. Indeed, part of the appeal of equity as a policy goal can be explained by the vague nature of the concept and the way the term is often used in schools.
Exhortations made by education leaders on behalf of equity sound great, but too often they come off like the rhetoric of politicians who claim to support "freedom" or "equality," but do little to match their proclamations with action. After a while, their words seem meaningless because they are not combined with tangible results.

Distortions of what equity is and what the work entails are more likely when those in leadership lack a coherent plan or are ineffective in communicating it.

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Lack of progress combined with lack of clarity on equity has left schools open to backlash. In many conservative areas, school and district leaders find themselves unable to respond effectively to attacks from those who openly reject the notion that educational equity is a worthwhile goal because the leaders lack a deep understanding of equity and a clear plan for how to improve learning outcomes. The most vociferous opponents of equity now claim that schools are favoring students of color over white children and that schools have adopted a pro-LGBTQ agenda, and a "woke," anti-white curriculum. Distortions of what equity is and what the work entails are more likely when those in leadership lack a coherent plan or are ineffective in communicating it.
In other cases, district leaders who have failed to make progress in advancing equity have faced criticism and pressure from the parents of children who have historically been poorly treated and poorly served in schools. When leaders claim that the strategies they have designed and championed will eventually help such students, their inability to produce solid evidence of improvement makes them vulnerable to criticism. In some communities, Black and Latinx parents and parents whose children receive bilingual or special education services have grown increasingly frustrated.
Though the two threats to equity are different in origin, both stem in part from ambiguity in vision and the lack of a viable strategy for achieving progress. Based on our years of experience as researchers and thought partners with district and school leaders, we have found that leaders who have made the greatest progress in advancing equity, and who are best able to withstand political attacks, are those who are able to articulate a clear vision, devise concrete strategies, set measurable goals, and implement an action plan. Most of all, they are committed to developing more robust ways of knowing about and systemically responding to student and community needs.
Let's look at some of the basic components of effective equity efforts in schools.

Changing Everything, Everywhere, Almost All at Once

It is essential, first off, that district and school leaders clearly define equity and operationalize their vision into actionable plans. Without this kind of planning, they run the risk of frustrating their staff and having their efforts misconstrued. In education, equity has been defined as a commitment to serving all students, regardless of background or need, and a willingness to implement differentiated measures to address students' academic and social needs (Blankstein, Noguera, & Kelly, 2016). Differentiation is critical because it provides a means to recognize and respond to the diverse needs of students.
It is important to acknowledge that this cannot be a color-blind commitment. Throughout U.S. history, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous children have been denied equitable resources and learning experiences, and they have rarely received an education that affirms their identities and provides equal opportunity. Disaggregated data on achievement, which is required by federal and state laws, has consistently shown that in most school districts, racial disparities in outcomes persist despite equity promises.
At the same time, it is important for leaders to make clear that the pursuit of equity is not a rationale for mediocrity, for favoring some groups over others, or for lowering standards and expectations. In some districts, under the guise of pursuing equity, honors and advanced placement courses have been eliminated on the assumption that children of color, especially those who are from low-income or immigrant families, cannot perform at high levels. While it may be necessary to make changes to the way such courses are taught so that they are more responsive to students' learning needs, or to add additional supports to make rigorous preparation accessible, it is profoundly important that the commitment to equity not be interpreted as a retreat from the pursuit of academic excellence.
Additionally, in districts where children of color are overrepresented in special education and among those subjected to punitive discipline, there must be clear and consistent efforts to address the root causes of these disparities. For example, while it may be necessary to enact immediate measures that make suspensions or referrals to special ed less likely, it is equally important to address the causes of student misconduct, to implement interventions that respond to students' learning and emotional needs, and to utilize strategies like restorative practices that focus on problem solving and relationships.
Schools are microcosms of their communities, and challenges related to teaching and learning tend to be directly related to the ability of a school to respond to the unmet academic and social needs of children. Equity initiatives must therefore focus on closing the gap between the needs of students and the capabilities of schools and districts, including the skills and knowledge of teachers. Differentiated professional development for teachers—to ensure that they have a strong command over subject matter content, a range of pedagogical skills, and the ability to develop strong, positive relationships with students from a variety of backgrounds—can lead to greater responsiveness and deeper student engagement.
Similarly, social supports for students must be designed with an awareness of their needs, the cultural resources that they bring with them, and the challenges they face. When done thoughtfully and with input from individuals who know and/or live in the community, or in collaboration with them, schools can draw upon cultural funds of knowledge to create systems that are more responsive to student needs. Hiring a diverse staff can be central to such efforts.

Much of equity work is adaptive—a dynamic process of devising, implementing, and then revising strategies, to ensure that they meet the complex needs of students.

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To create internal accountability, meanwhile, leaders must utilize data to establish benchmarks and monitor progress. While this may seem like a technical approach to change, in practice, it provides a means to reflect on and refine the work being undertaken. Much of equity work is adaptive —a dynamic process of devising, implementing, and then revising strategies, to ensure that they meet the complex needs of students in classrooms and schools.
As is clear from this discussion, equity work is challenging because leaders must be able to advance it on a variety of fronts simultaneously. It requires in-depth understanding and support from staff and community for this work to manifest in curriculum and learning materials that reflect the cultural and linguistic needs of students; in approaches to teaching and learning that are challenging, supportive, culturally responsive, and engaging for all students; and most important, in the culture and climate of schools. In other words, change must happen in everything, everywhere, and almost all at once.
We have found that when equity efforts are implemented with clarity and carried out with sustained commitment to quality and fidelity, schools can become beacons of hope and opportunity. And while the opponents of equity are unlikely to be deterred by evidence of progress, education leaders are more likely to be able to counter attacks if they have communicated a clear plan of action and produced measurable gains.

Applying the Five Essentials

Given its far-reaching nature and its central goal of lifting student outcomes, equity work should also be grounded in research on school improvement. In creating a framework for equity efforts, we suggest that district and school leaders utilize the "Five Essentials of School Improvement" put forth by UChicago Consortium on School Research (Bryk et al., 2010). These qualities are based on extensive research on what schools that have made measurable academic progress have in common. They are:
  1. A coherent approach to learning and teaching.
  2. Ongoing development of professional capacity.
  3. Student-centered school culture.
  4. Strong parent and community engagement.
  5. Shared leadership that drives change.
These five areas of focus are critical to school-equity efforts because they can help leaders to think comprehensively about the conditions that are conducive to learning and opportunity. They also challenge the notion that only teaching and instructional leadership matter (Bryk et al., 2010). Weakness in any one of the five areas can undermine change efforts. The research shows that students in schools that are strong in three or more of the essential supports are 10 times more likely to experience significant gains in math and reading than students in schools that are weak in three or more of the supports (Hart et al., 2020).
Let's look more closely at what each of the five essentials entails in the context of advancing equity.
1. A coherent approach to learning and teaching. In his 2015 book, Coherence, Michael Fullan points out that when school systems are clear about what should be taught and provide teachers guidance on how to teach it, they are better able to provide support to schools and teachers. Coherence requires a clear instructional framework and a commitment to bringing teachers together on a regular basis to plan lessons, analyze student work, design common assessments, and ensure that they are learning and adapting in ways that remain equity-centered and vision-aligned. It also means that teachers have time and support to incorporate instructional strategies and practices that enable them to be responsive to student needs. Assessment data should be used to identify areas where growth is needed, and teachers should be supported to enact strategies to address these areas. By reducing teacher isolation and providing greater clarity on curriculum and instructional expectations, leaders can increase teacher quality throughout a school—a key starting point for equity.
2. Ongoing development of professional capacity. To ensure that teachers have sufficient subject matter knowledge, adequate pedagogical skill, and the ability to develop positive relationships with students rooted in trust and care, schools must provide differentiated support to teachers. Like students, teachers vary in their abilities and needs. They benefit from having structured programs to develop their skills and address their own gaps. They also need opportunities to create lessons together, receive high-quality and specific feedback, and observe their colleagues. When support for teachers is tailored and regular feedback is provided without threat or punishment, teachers can grow in their practice, and are better able to meet the diverse needs of students.

Working to ensure that there is alignment between the skills of teachers and the needs of students is at the heart of equity work.

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As mentioned, working to ensure that there is alignment between the skills of teachers and the needs of students is at the heart of equity work. We know that teachers cannot teach what they do not know. As a guiding principle, professional development experiences must foster cross-cultural understanding and deepen familiarity with and respect for cultural knowledge and identity. Given the demographic makeup of the nation's teacher workforce, it's likely that many teachers will need help in learning about and incorporating knowledge of and from communities of color. The field of ethnic studies provides a body of knowledge that can be used to enrich curricula and aid teachers to be more culturally responsive.
3. Student-centered school culture. School culture refers to the ethos, values, norms, and customs (both formal and informal)—including attitudes and perceptions of school practices—that are common to a school. All schools have a culture (Sarason, 1991), but some schools have adult-centered or dysfunctional cultures characterized by blame and fragmentation. The schools that make the greatest progress in meeting their equity goals work to create a culture that prioritizes students' needs. This means faculty and staff must be curious about students' needs and students' interests. They must work to become students of local culture and keepers of community knowledge. Both provide entry points for improved academic engagement.
Keep in mind: effective teaching builds upon what students already know. Therefore, schools that are serious about advancing equity must provide access to learning materials and curricula that affirm students' culture and heritage and that provide activities and experiences that address their developmental needs. Positive school cultures also affirm values and norms that promote trust and respect and lift staff morale.
4. Parent and community involvement. Research shows that when parents feel respected and valued, they are more likely to reinforce school learning objectives with their children (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1999; Valdés, 1996), and strains between parents and school staff are less likely. The key to bringing about what James Coleman (1987) called social closure is building relationships between parents (or caregivers) and school staff that are rooted in empathy and respect. Too often, parents, guardians, and family members are not valued as intellectual resources. When they are called upon to do more for schools and classrooms than make copies, sell cookies, or help clean up after events, parents can become a powerful resource for student learning and engagement. Targeted engagement with families from underserved and minoritized groups can allow those very groups to be brought in as thought partners, collaborators, co-designers, facilitators, and community leaders in equity-driven change. Similarly, schools must develop partnerships with local nonprofits, hospitals, universities, churches, and community-based organizations, so that they have greater access to the resources needed to support children in need.
5. Shared leadership that drives change. As we've emphasized, implementing an equity agenda is an iterative, complex, and dynamic process. While the commentary on effective schools has consistently identified the need for strong leadership, it has not sufficiently acknowledged the importance of shared leadership. When a school staff embraces a common vision of how things should be done, and when staff are able to take ownership of common goals, progress can grow exponentially. Leaders who understand this find ways to empower the people they work with, especially in addressing the complex and often deeply engrained issues that reinforce educational inequity. It is important for leaders to recognize that they can't go it alone in pursuing their equity efforts. Wise leaders know that to advance equity, they need to distribute decision making and responsibility and mobilize staff members to work together toward solutions.
The five essentials are not like a recipe in a cookbook that requires strict adherence to precise ingredients and steps outlined in the instructions. Rather than a recipe, the five essentials should be thought of as a guide for action. They can be used to first develop a plan that responds to the unique needs of schools and communities and, later, to assess equity efforts so that we are sure genuine progress is being made.

Countering Defeatism

We know from experience that there are many educators who genuinely want to achieve greater progress in their equity work but simply lack a clear sense of how to achieve greater progress. We have written this article largely for them. Seeing students fail and underachieve takes a toll on the idealism that motivates many educators, and it contributes to burnout and defeatism in the profession.
When school and district leaders are clear about what it takes to advance equity, when they focus on the essential elements of school improvement in a comprehensive and holistic manner, they will be more likely to produce clear evidence that their efforts are making a positive difference for students and to garner support from key stakeholders. While this may not be enough to deter the opponents of equity whose agendas are largely political rather than educational, by achieving progress, schools can generate support in the community to stand up to both criticism and cynicism—so they can continue to make a difference.
As the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling on affirmative action makes clear, the stakes for communicating and demonstrating the continued value of equity in education couldn't be higher.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Would you describe the equity plan in your school or district as clear and well-communicated? Why or why not?

➛ What are the greatest challenges in sustaining impactful equity work in schools? How can they be addressed?

➛ How closely is your equity work tied to the “Five Essentials” as the authors describe them?

An Equity Toolkit for School Boards

School board members hold significant decision-making responsibility for public school communities, including making choices about instruction, budgets, and policies. How can boards approach these decisions in tandem with the communities they serve and in ways that advance equity for students and educators? Earlier this year, HEAL Together, a national organizing initiative by the nonprofit Race Forward (in partnership with NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools and the Schott Foundation), released an Equity Policies Toolkit for School Boards to guide members in their day-to-day work on equity. The aim of the toolkit is to outline equity-building efforts backed by policy and implementation experience. Whether boards are looking to support learners with disabilities, advance racial justice, increase diversity in hiring practices, reorganize budgeting frameworks, or better serve immigrant students, the tool rounds up example policies and case studies from districts nationwide; relevant research to take into consideration; and recommendations from national advocacy groups. The toolkit also includes conversation starters school boards might use, including messaging to use in discussions when stakeholders strongly disagree vs. when opinions align.

—Kate Stoltzfus

References

Blankstein, A., Noguera, P., & Kelly, L. (2016). Excellence through equity: Five principles of courageous leadership to guide achievement for every student. ASCD.

Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Coleman, J. S. (1987). The relations between school and social structure. In Maureen T. Hallinan (Ed.), The social organization of schools: New conceptualizations of the learning process, 177–204. Springer.

Fullan, M., & Quinn, J. (2015). Coherence: The right drivers in action for schools, districts, and systems. Corwin Press.

Hart, H., Young, C., Chen, A., Zou, A., & Allensworth, E. M. (2020). Supporting school improvement: Early findings from a reexamination of the 5 Essentials survey. University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1999). Respect: An exploration (Vol. 1045). Perseus Books.

Noguera, P., & Syeed, E. (2021). City schools and the American dream 2: Still pursuing the dream. Teachers College Press.

Sarason, S. B. (1991). The predictable failure of educational reform: Can we change course before it's too late? (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Valdés, G. (1996). Con respeto: Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and schools: An ethnographic portrait. Teachers College Press.

Pedro Noguera is the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education. A leading scholar of urban public education, equity, and school reform, he has published over 250 articles in academic journals, book chapters, research reports, and newspaper editorials.

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