Promoting equity in K-12 for school leaders

February 2, 2018 ACSA Writer

What is equity?

Though they sound like synonyms, equity and equality are not the same. While every student should have equal access to resources, communication outlets, and services, equity presents itself as a more complex goal.

As Edtrust puts it:

“Should per-student funding at every school be exactly the same? That’s a question of equality. But should students who come from less get more in order to ensure that they can catch up? That’s a question of equity.”

Edutopia adds,

“Equality means giving everyone the same resources, equity means giving each student access to the resources they need to learn and thrive.”

This popular graphic offers a somewhat fair representation of equity, though it is important to point out that the image implies that students in low-income and marginalized communities need more resources in their schools because they are inherently less academically capable.

“But that is not why the so-called “achievement gap” exists. As many have argued, it should actually be termed the ‘opportunity gap’ because the problem is not in the abilities of students, but in the disparate opportunities they are afforded. It is rooted in a history of oppression, from colonization and slavery to ‘separate but equal’ and redlining. It is sustained by systemic racism and the country’s ever-growing economic inequality. This metaphor is actually a great example of deficit thinking — an ideology that blames victims of oppression for their own situation.”

Equity focuses on closing achievement and opportunity gaps and fighting implicit bias. Equity means recognizing that power imbalances exist within both historical and modern contexts of race, ability, gender, sexual orientation, financial background, upbringing, etc., and accounting for these difference in order to improve the education and daily life of the maximum number of students. This means accounting for and better supporting individual differences because some students do need extra attention or allowances to overcome setbacks in their personal life and/or long-standing systems of oppression.

Rules such as a blanket punishment for tardiness or absence or equal one-on-one time with a teacher can be inequitable when taking into account students’ potential individual reasons for needing extra support. Meanwhile, practices like dress codes (including hairstyle) that present a double standard based on race, gender, or body type can, by definition, be discriminatory.

Let students and staff feel free to share

It is important to establish equity as a consistent annual goal and to hire teachers who come from diverse backgrounds and are able to relate to and work with all types of students. When equity is part of a school’s mission and strategic plan, it becomes easier to brainstorm, share, and unravel its many layers.

The best leaders value emotion, promote discussion, and treat everyone with respect. While this seems like obvious common courtesy, equity leaders know that they must truly hear, not just casually accept, other people's’ stories and work as allies to bring their neighbors into positions of power. Equity involves giving a voice to marginalized groups or individuals. This means allowing discussion, dissent, and even anger to be expressed. While one person may feel briefly uncomfortable when confronting their privilege, another has felt excluded, unheard, unsafe, judged, and/or objectified in minor or major ways, for years.

Fighting for equity does not mean just representing minority voices, but holding the door open for adults and students to advocate for themselves and relate their own experiences. It means diving into self-reflection and nuanced societal issues in order to offer solutions that outpace well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful statements such as “I don’t see race/gender,” “LGBTQIA students don’t need special treatment because gay marriage is legal/we are all the same,” or “we don’t need feminism because women have equal rights.”

Principals should serve as a model

Have an everyday commitment to equity, making sure to swiftly and responsibly address issues like bullying, racial and gender stereotypes, unique individual financial challenges, and housing instability, as well as the variety of personal backgrounds that staff and students bring with them to school, ranging from trauma and mental health concerns to unique immigrant experiences. Acknowledge that it may have taken a lot of courage for someone to speak up. Provide platforms such as town halls to encourage discussions with parents, stakeholders, students, and staff. Celebrate diversity while steering clear of sculpting a culture that demands assimilation.

TeachHub writes:

“At its foundation, school leadership for equity is grounded in efficacy, action, and reflection… Leaders for equity are educators who gracefully stand for others, demonstrate courage, and take risks to forge improvement. They are grounded by the confidence that they are doing the right thing. They participate in reflection on their practice in accord with others. Leaders for equity are focused on the significance of their work and are motivated by learning in action.”

Address differences and answer questions

Students and staff have a right to study and work in an environment free of discrimination and harassment, but equity goals might sometimes be misunderstood as striving for “political correctness.” Education leaders should know how to confront common and basic misconceptions.

For example, someone may argue that equity is divisive. You can answer that it creates an understanding, inclusive environment where people are encouraged to speak up about unique experiences, from which others can learn patience, understanding, and compassion. Honest discussion, especially for older students, allows participants to break long-held silences on unpleasant truths and systems of oppression that may be overlooked or ignored by those who do not experience their repercussions firsthand and/or seek to uphold a status quo. If disagreements arise, they should be treated as a learning tool; conflict is a natural part of the discourse.

It is also important to create support networks for students who have faced bullying and/or allow students to form groups like Black student unions or LGBTQ clubs, where students can more exclusively discuss shared concerns. This source points out that

“there is an important difference between being surrounded by people who share your experience and being surrounded by people who are simply open to, or accepting of it. The criticism of closed or designated spaces almost always ends up prioritizing privileged perspectives and feelings. Real allyship means accepting that sometimes you are not wanted or needed, and taking direction from the people you are committed to supporting rather than prioritizing your own interests or comfort.”

Foster a community where students and staff feel free to bring up nuanced histories and build solutions.  

What can ACSA regions do to support the work around equity and diversity?

  • Be familiar with the strategic plan as well as the equity action plan.
  • Ensure that equity is an ongoing agenda item through articles, data, and best practices.
  • Ensure an effective level of communication amongst all region members to share best practices.
  • Frequently review and discuss by-laws to ensure that equitable practices are being carried out for all members.
  • Create networking events that foster relevant PD and networking opportunities for leaders of color as well as leaders who serve students of color. Due to the barriers stemming from stereotypes and implicit bias, leaders of color often need allies to stand shoulder to shoulder in the trenches and be a voice to enlighten others about their experience.
  • Provide scholarships to members to attend ACSA PD and training sessions on equity topics.
  • Develop a strong student charter to enable a systematic process for future ACSA leaders.
  • Ensure legislative advocacy among region leadership to increase the involvement of members in order to influence “real” change in educational policy for students.
  • Encourage members’ involvement in committees and councils.
  • Bring acquaintances and peers to ACSA events for more new perspectives on equity issues.

Professional learning is essential

It is imperative for district leaders to provide staff with access to training that focuses on equity and on helping communities reach their full potential of becoming fully safe environments where personal and individual growth is valued, while injustice, discrimination, distrust, and violence are put down.

Some necessary initiatives:

  • Provide support for improving the capacity of teacher education programs. Teachers need to know how to provide rigorous, relevant, hands-on, and responsive instruction to low-income students of color and English Language Learners.
  • Provide funding for at least 10 days of professional development each year. As all high achieving nations do, the U.S. federal and state governments should fund learning time for teachers. Schools should have the flexibility to determine how to use this time.
  • Support high-quality professional development in the specific areas in which teachers need to be effective. This includes increasing support for sustained, curriculum-focused professional learning institutes as well as coaching models that help teachers put ideas into practice.
  • Support training for professional development providers and mentors to ensure they learn about successful methods of teaching students of color and English language learners. Such training should include teachers helping other teachers acquire these skills.
  • Provide time for planning and collaboration so that teachers can develop coherent, high-quality curriculum and learn from one another… Principals need to know how to plan PD, redesign school organizations, and manage a change process. In addition, they need to know how to organize staffing and teacher time to reduce class size, create teams, incorporate advisory systems, and provide time for collaboration and professional learning opportunities. Darling-Hammond, L., LaPointe, M., Meyerson, D., Orr, M. T. (2007).

       - TeachHub

There is more to discover about equity goals and issues that will not be solved overnight. Perhaps you agree that the role of education is to give children experiences that are within what they are able to accomplish with assistance, as opposed to without, thereby maximizing their individual learning; this is the Zone of Proximal Development theory. You can also read this article on competency education and equity, and this article for 6 ways teachers can promote equity in their classroom.

ACSA is dedicated to providing K-12 administrators with relevant content and building events that focus on today’s most important school administration issues. Become a member and join us for our world-class Leadership Summit, Every Child Counts Symposium, professional development events, one-on-one mentorship program, ongoing Equity Project, statewide advocacy efforts, members-only benefits, and much more.

You can find ACSA’s equity mission, services, and more on this webpage. On YouTube, you can watch ACSA video stories, keynote speaker interviews, and event recaps all about equity.

ACSA has recently partnered with Generation Ready to create monthly EdEquity Twitter chats. Join us by using #EdEquity to participate in real-time interviews with equity experts who will be answering relevant questions and sharing their knowledge.  

Previous Article
10 ways district and school leaders can better support young men of color
10 ways district and school leaders can better support young men of color

Many young men of color are successful when provided the supports to which all students should have access.

Next Article
Apps to watch as kids return to school
Apps to watch as kids return to school

Depending on their content and design, some apps can cause disruptions at school. Others can be downright d...