Posted January 10, 2024
Not too long ago, the idea of equity was placed front and center, becoming a priority for organizations and schools. We saw large investments of resources, with many organizations across all industries creating roles such as Chief Diversity Officer and supporting the development of their employees to learn ways that they too can foster equity in their workplaces and in the spaces they occupy. Briefly, it felt to some as if they were finally being seen and heard and the broader population was learning how equity contributes to better outcomes for everyone.
Oddly, equity—which comprises the concepts of fairness and inclusion—became synonymous with “wokeness” and critical race theory, taking on fabricated meanings and instilling fear in educators and contributing to political divisiveness. As a result, many district and school leaders and youth-serving organizations have become increasingly reluctant to address head-on the root causes of opportunity gaps that disproportionately impact socially, culturally, and economically diverse students.
Unfortunately, some of these root causes include perpetuating existing harmful and discriminatory policies and practices that further disadvantage already marginalized groups through, for example, uneven student discipline practices or lowered expectations that result in less exposure to rigorous curriculum.
While some voices continue to remain loud and eager to move forward to address issues of racial inequity, there is also a growing, vocal opposition to equity strategies, with challengers arguing that race-based policies and practices are unfair or even undermine the education received by White and Asian students. This pushback has accelerated recently, driven by local parent advocacy, state political leaders, and the June 2023 Supreme Court case ending affirmative action in higher education.
The national debate between those who believe that fostering equity requires race-based solutions and those who believe that such solutions are themselves racist is landing at the table of local school boards across the country. Board members, superintendents, and other district leaders are caught in a quandary about how to effectively address real concerns with how our schools are educating all children, including and especially those of socially, culturally, and economically diverse backgrounds who have traditionally and systemically been denied access and opportunity.
So here’s the question: In this era of political divisiveness, how do we continue to promote equity in education? How do we address barriers to student learning caused in part by structural racism baked into our current education system? How do we ensure that schools are welcoming places for all students when some adults do not see or understand how current policies and practices are disadvantaging some while helping others?
Our belief is that a focus on equity actually improves outcomes for all students because equitable policies and practices promote high-quality schooling and instruction for all students.
As a way forward, we are suggesting that all schools adopt an “Effectiveness Framework” that aims to improve outcomes for all students and eliminate gaps in achievement for students of color, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities. This Effectiveness Framework includes overarching indicators for improvement (Figure 1) and high-impact policies and practices focused on the three levels of public school systems: classroom, school, and central office and board of education (Figure 2).
Figure 1. Effectiveness Framework’s Overarching Indicators of Improvement
Figure 2. Effectiveness Framework’s High-Impact Policies and Practices
This effectiveness framework addresses both sides of the political divide over equity. First, it acknowledges that schools and school systems currently implement policies and practices that discriminate against children of color and that these policies and practices limit student learning. Research and our own consulting practices confirm this point repeatedly. For example, children of color in general and Black and African American boys in particular are routinely handed down harsher discipline than their white peers for similar infractions. In one district that is a FourPoint client, Black students were much more likely and Hispanic students were somewhat more likely than White students to be cited for infractions (see Figure 3). At the elementary level in this same district, Black students also received harsher discipline for the same type of infraction. For each of the most common types of infraction – harassment, disruption, fighting, disrespect, and insubordination – Black students at the elementary level were more likely to receive out-of-school suspension while White students were more likely to receive a student conference or parent contact.
Figure 3. Data from a Recent FourPoint Client
But the Effectiveness Framework also builds on research finding that most good policies and practices for students of color are good policies and practices for all students. For example, effective instruction aligned to a guaranteed and viable curriculum—a look-for in the Effectiveness Framework (Figure 2)—is perhaps the single biggest driver for ensuring that all students succeed to high standards. Similarly, effective implementation of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) provide behavioral and academic interventions to all students, especially those who are struggling to master grade-level standards (Figure 2).
Acknowledging that the underperformance of Black and Brown students in the U.S. is a moral concern for all Americans is the first step in bridging the political divide in the U.S. over equity. The next step is understanding that addressing this underperformance requires effective policies and practices that—implemented effectively—will benefit all students, regardless of race, disability, or language of origin. Our country and communities need educators, administrators, policy makers, and families move beyond politically divisive terminology and advocacy to focus on the needs of our students.