What We're Not Talking About When We Talk About Equity

The term equity is being used a lot these days in education circles, certainly more than when i began teaching in 2006. On the surface, that seems like a good thing. A lot of us would like to prioritize equity. But, the more it gets thrown around, the more it seems like it's being used in ways that are so superficial that they actually perpetuate inequity.

Understandably, some folks, having seen this happen over and over again, are beginning to lose hope for the possibility of equity to move us in the direction we want to go, namely the direction of justice.

In this blog post, I'd like to attempt a somewhat complex but extremely important argument concerning the way school districts and educators are approaching the concept of educational equity in 2019. I believe that in order to understand what's required for educational equity, we have to a) significantly broaden the way we talk and think about what equity truly demands, and b) we must identify and understand the roots of equity.

Let's begin by looking at a common definition for equity. This one comes from an EdWeek article on equitable education funding from 2014 written by Marin Gjaja, J. Puckett, and Matt Ryder. They write:

"Equity should require that every student receives sufficient resources to have the same chance to succeed, rather than that every child gets the same level of funding."

This is pretty typical of the way i think equity is being discussed in school districts across our country, the idea being that equitable treatment of students and families is different than equal treatment. And this doesn't just go for dollars. Educational equity is also about culturally responsive curriculum and instructional practices, proper and appropriate special education evaluation and services, socially and emotionally supportive learning environments, and much more.

In other words, the basic premise of our current equity conversation encourages us to understand that students come with different needs and abilities. Because our students come with different needs, giving them all the exact same supports would only perpetuate the unequal educational outcomes we've seen our systems produce for as long as we can remember. It's only when we treat students equitably, by offering each of them what they need (even when that looks different or costs more than for other students) that we will begin to see parity in outcomes.

To be sure, actualizing this definition of equity is an enormous task. And i value tremendously the willingness to attempt such a large undertaking. But i'm afraid something extremely important is missing from this definition, which is that it really only addresses one side of the equity equation.

What's not often fleshed out in our equity conversation is that, in striving for equitable practices, we're trying to create something. Depending on the vocabulary used, that something is usually either described as "equal outcomes," "parity of outcomes," or, most often, "success."
Let's take a look at that definition from the EdWeek article once more:

"Equity should require that every student receives sufficient resources to have the same chance to succeed, rather than that every child gets the same level of funding."

Notice how equitable funding is defined as a level of funding that every child needs for a chance to "succeed."

What we're not doing nearly as often in talking about equity is unearthing what's beneath the other side of the equity equation. In other words, what are we talking about when we talk about success? And this is absolutely crucial, because the second half of the equity equation has literally everything to do with what we think equitable processes are.

Consider, for example, a school that weighed heavily the number of proficient swimmers it managed to graduate in comparison to a school that, instead, considered the number of students who could produce extraordinary graphic design as their most significant metric. What if we put educators from the different schools in the same room for a conversation about equity? I suspect they might have a hard time agreeing on equitable practices that work for both schools. The sort of supports a school would use for each of its students to create excellent swimmers would be quite different from the graphic design school. Funding, facilities, and educator qualifications would also be naturally very different.

What if the swimming school created excellent graphic designers but mediocre swimmers? What if the graphic design school graduated fantastic swimmers? How would those outcomes impact the way they thought of equity for their students?

Clearly, the outcomes we seek to create - i.e. what we call success - have everything to do with what we think equitable practice is.

So what should count as success in a public school in the United States? What are the outcomes we're seeking to create? And how are we measuring them? Surprisingly, these questions are rarely seriously considered in the formal conversations we're having about educational equity in professional development, at school board meetings, or in articles from outlets like EdWeek. How could we possibly have any sense for what we think equitable practices are if we don't have deeper conversations about the outcomes we're trying to create, or what counts as "success?"

Now, i could offer an informed guess as to why we don't wade into these conversations more often. Behind the question of what counts as "success" is a very messy question that people have been arguing about in the United States since public schooling began: What is the purpose of school? That's a question few school district administrators are equipped to dive into with communities or educators in a meaningful way.

Moreover, the outcomes we're tying to create, at least in public schools, have, in many ways, been defined for us by policymakers who tie school funding and the career trajectories of administrators and educators to standardized testing and curricula. Whether students are capable of demonstrating proficiency on the extraordinarily narrow sliver of possible human competencies described by standards has come to define the second part of the equity equation for us. And we don't even seem to realize we've been cut out of this absolutely essential part of the conversation. This means that conversations about equity within districts and schools are bound by these very narrow, and frankly violent, definitions of success. To my mind, this is what allows the term equity to be used in a way that actually perpetuates inequity.

(There are, of course, other metrics of success that districts often use, including graduation rates and college admissions rates. However, these metrics almost always relate back in some way to students' abilities to show proficiency on standards, either through passing classes or taking tests.)

In my mind, equity work is also a critical component in creating justice. It means working against racism, sexism, ableism, classism, all other forms of oppression, and healing the violence we continue to do to ourselves and our earth. Creativity, imagination, artistic ability, intuitive capacities, empathy, social-emotional competencies, problem-solving skills, collaborative, and in-depth analytical and critical thinking capacities are absolutely urgent in this work. Unfortunately, our currently limited approach to tackling equity in schools largely ignores focusing on the development of these competencies in students, primarily because we haven't been able to push these outcomes into the common conversation around the second half of the equity equation.

We will not begin to delve into the depths of what equity demands until we can open up the conversation in the second half of the equity equation with students, families, communities, and the educators who serve them. This will not be easy work, but i believe it is utterly essential.

But beyond the equity equation, what else is required for creating real equity in our schools? I believe the other massive piece of creating equity is understanding its roots.

I don't think that the roots of equity exist in academic, abstract, analytical conversations about equity (like the one in this post). The possibility of creating real equity actually grows from within each of us, particularly those of us who are parents and educators. It grows out of our willingness to fundamentally shift the way we think about schools, young people, and learning.

The way equity is currently being discussed seems to come from a deficit perspective. We act as if students are missing something that we have, and we believe that if we invest the right amount of energy and teaching in them, they'll finally be made whole and capable of success. There will be parity in outcomes, and more marginalized students will graduate ready for the real world. This mindset imagines that our students and families don't come to our schools with extraordinary wisdom and a capacity to be successful without anything being "added" to them. It imagines that our youth aren't already exactly what the world needs. In fact, they are.

I'm not implying that schools don't have tremendous responsibility for fostering student learning. They absolutely do. My point is that schools won't be able to fulfill that responsibility as long as they seek to correct students rather than curating space for them to unfold. And most schools have virtually no idea how to do that. They've been in the habit of correcting students for far too long.

I once heard Pasi Sahlberg say that Finland sees its schools' purpose as helping every child become themselves. This is my favorite definition of equity. Equity is not about making students into something they are not. The roots of equity grow out of our capacity - i.e. educators, adults, parents, citizens - to see the exquisite beauty and unique set of talents and skills that each student brings, and then to support their growth.

When we realize this, we realize that the work is perhaps significantly larger than the conversations we're currently having imply. That may seem overwhelming. The good news is that equity has become a pretty regular part of the discourse around policy and practice in education. That gives us leverage. It gives us a foothold for demanding more. But first, we need to get extremely clear with the folks who use the term about what it means, and who we're all accountable when we use it. I believe that fleshing out the entirety of the equity equation is essential for this. But more importantly, how do we, as people invested in creating equity, change ourselves?


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