Creating an Equity Agenda: Cultivating an Ecosystem to Support the School Community

The pandemic has shed further light on the disparities within our education system. Insufficient access to virtual learning tools will strain academic performance and retention. Therefore, school leaders and districts must work together to create equitable learning environments. 

The American Federation of School Administrator’s “Summer of Learning” series included a course on achieving equity in education. Guest speakers were Dr. Nia Woods Haydel, the vice president of Complete College America, and Darryl Kilbert, M. Ed., former superintendent of the New Orleans Public School District.  

Haydel began the lesson highlighting the key distinctions between “equality” and “equity” in the educational space. 

“Equality is the idea that if you give everyone the same things they should be able to move forward. It is the concept of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ but it assumes that everybody has boots,” Haydel said. “Equity is retooling systems, organizations, schools, instructions [and] professional development to acknowledge that there is a group that has not been able to take advantage of resources.”

Equality in a district would require every school to have the same resources, funding and staff. However, this ignores the fact that every school has specialized needs. Some schools have limited honors course offerings, others have few after-school programs, and others have poor graduation rates. Equity is attained by finding solutions to disparities and distributing resources accordingly. 

Kilbert continued with tips for creating a strategy to narrow equity gaps in the coming year. 

  1. Plot clear strategy: Equity is not tenable unless you establish specific goals. Do you plan to offer more AP courses? If so, what funding is required? How many new teachers will you need? Make sure all objectives are clear and measurable.   
  2. Hold rigorous standards for classrooms: Educational programs often are built without input from the communities they serve. Reach out to families, teachers and school leaders about the improvements they want to see, and find ways to hold your schools to those standards. 
  3. Put a focus on teachers as the central force for change: It’s no secret educators aren’t paid what they deserve. A recent analysis from the Economic Policy Institute found that teachers are paid 21% less than comparable professions. Therefore, school leaders must lift up teachers so they may continue changing students’ lives. 
  4. Equalize share of resources: Schools with in-support communities and schools with high populations of students with disabilities will need more resources: fiscal, professional and institutional. 
  5. Monitor underserved schools and districts to ensure progress: We must change the language used to describe underserved schools from having “at-risk populations” to “at-promise populations." Administrators should pay extra attention to the retention rates, graduation rates and academic benchmarks for these schools. 
  6. Rigor, relevance and relationships: Educators should continuously challenge themselves and their students. Kilbert reminded us that “The goal of education is for young people to grow and develop and take care of themselves.” With this in mind, curricula should be designed with relevant information to set students up for success after graduation. Additionally, we must prioritize keeping passionate teachers and administrators in the educational profession. 
  7. Distinguish between equity and equality: It’s important to set goals based on outcomes. It’s not enough to provide all schools with the same funding and hope for the best. Some students may need services for disabilities, while others need greater capabilities for at-home learning. 
  8. Provide education for all: School leaders not only should consider the needs of students, but also the needs of parents. It’s imperative to keep parents engaged in their children’s education, which will require frequent and open communication on academic requirements and expectations.
  9. Direct resources for students in need: We must acknowledge the three Fs: funding, funding and funding. Districts can have severe financial barriers that keep students from succeeding, from a limited pool of qualified teachers to limited internet access at home. We need districtwide policies that improve spending efficiency.  
  10. Set targets for increased equity: The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 2.1 million young Americans drop out of school every year. Black students and Hispanic students are twice as likely to drop out than their white peers. We must examine why students aren’t completing school, and invest in higher retention and graduation. 

“If we follow this course, we can provide better opportunities for our young people, better schools and better communities,” Kilbert says. 

Haydel concluded the discussion with five essential steps needed to turn an equity discussion into action: 

  • Identify specific items needed to achieve equitable student achievements
  • Assess the environment’s capacity for change 
  • Set clear and measurable goals 
  • Identify resources required 
  • Pull up your sleeves and start to work

“Everyday tasks matter,” Haydel said. “This issue seems massive, but as we continue to communicate, share thoughts and strategize, we make the schools that our students need, and we will see change.”