Tipping Point or Temporary Uptick: Observations on District Equity Efforts in CT and Across the US

On November 16, 2019, I had the honor to co-present at the annual CABE/CAPSS Convention with three remarkable educators on the topic of equity efforts in Naugatuck, CT.  Superintendent Sharon Locke, Naugatuck Board Vice Chairperson Ethel Grant, and partner/consultant Kathy Turner told a compelling story of the intentional efforts to create a culture of equity.  It is a remarkable tale, and I hope they continue to share this important story so that others can benefit from the lessons learned.   These co-presenters provided me a distinct role—to put Naugatuck’s efforts in a larger context across Connecticut and the nation.  Below are the thoughts I shared with the session attendees.

As I travel across Connecticut and the United States, I see a range of approaches to disrupting equity and bringing about equitable experiences and outcomes for students.  Over time, I’ve come to hold a rather crude taxonomy that summarizes the four most prominent equity approaches among school districts.  Note that my descriptors are focused predominantly on the stance of formal leaders and the focus of improvement strategies.   I’ve come to see four prototypical approaches to equity.

Think of the following categories as the four slices of a pie chart—just note I make no claims about the relative size of the slices.  The four approaches (the four slices) are:

  • “Equity is not an issue for us.”
  • Mind the gaps!
  • Diversity, an inch deep.
  • Deeper and more systemic equity efforts.

“Equity is not an issue for us.”  The first group of districts is not working on equity, and when pushed, leaders of these systems will say, “We don’t have a problem with equity.  That is a problem for ‘those’ districts.”  In my experience, the districts in this slice of the pie have, on average, a student population that is middle class/upper-middle class white and/or Asian-American.   In their minds, the absence of black, brown and poor students makes equity not their problem.

Mind the gaps!  A significant group of districts are focused on the relative performance between demographic categories of students, as measured by standardized assessments and reinforced within state-designed accountability systems.   These districts do not regularly talk about “equity,” but their efforts are equity-adjacent and focused on outcomes of children.  On average, these districts are focused on new programming, technology, and curricula in hopes of accelerating student outcomes for groups of students furthest behind.  They do not, however, tend to examine the ways their structures, systems, and policies collude in the inequity of the gaps.

Diversity, an inch deep. Yet another category of districts I see, both in Connecticut and across the nation, includes those beginning to recognize that schools contribute to the differential outcomes students experience.  Many are at the beginning of a journey, and they have begun by embracing diversity—the recognition that individuals bring different assets and experiences that should be honored and embraced.  These districts have cultural appreciation programming and are beginning to shift the curriculum so that it is more representative of student experiences and backgrounds.  Many of these districts tend to offer occasional training—perhaps one-stop professional development sessions on topics ranging from restorative justice to implicit bias.  This is not frivolous or unimportant work; however, these efforts are often decoupled from the core improvement efforts of the district.  For example, there may be a diversity and inclusion office, but the director of that team may not sit on the cabinet or help set the strategic vision of the district.  There may be discussions of a culturally-responsive reading curriculum, but those discussions are divorced from efforts to strengthen the reader’s workshop pedagogical model.  In these districts, equity work is often episodic and fragmented.

Deeper and more systemic equity efforts.  There is also a fourth set of districts, one where educators come to realize that groups of students may very well experience schools in significant and meaningfully different ways.  They acknowledge that inequities permeate the institutions of American society, and that schools are no different. Yet instead of technical training and “drive-thru” equity professional development, they embark on an extended journey of individual and organizational capacity building to wrestle with issues of race and class.  They see equity as central to everything the district does, from discipline policy to curricular choices to talent management strategies.  These districts tend to conduct fearless audits of their current structures, systems and culture, identifying the myriad of ways the decisions adults make differentially impact the learning outcomes of students.  Moreover, these districts tend to more actively involve student voice in their efforts, working to understand how young people experience schooling while creating the conditions for students to lead.

In one sense, this crude taxonomy is simply descriptive.  I, in fact, do experience these kinds of districts on a regular basis.  While the descriptors are blunt and mask subtle variation, they do seem to capture how districts, their leaders, and their educators talk about and approach equity efforts.

In another sense, this taxonomy is normative.  At the CT Center for School Change, our work with districts and other partner organizations reminds us that dismantling equity is complex, nuanced, and systemic work—it has to be woven into the fabric of your improvement efforts because there is no such thing as an equity-neutral strategy.

It also appears, at least in my mind, that I am seeing an increasing number of districts that are falling into this final category of districts.    Whether we are approaching a tipping point—a critical mass of educators and school systems stepping up to address equity in deeper, more systemic ways—or simply a temporary uptick in energy and effort is yet to be seen.

Feel free to share your own observations and reactions.  I am eager to hear what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling.

Richard W. Lemons, EdD
Executive Director, CT Center for School Change