Board of Education begins formulating a definition of “equity” to bring change to the system

November 21, 2014

“Equity” is a term that is commonly used, but is ill-defined. Each person using the term seems to have their own definition and there is no common definition that drives a plan of action to achieve it. The Board of Education has considered several definitions and is now focused on the following definition of equity in APS:

Equity is strategic decision-making, with the goal of remedying opportunity and learning gaps and creating a barrier-free environment, which enables all students to graduate ready for college and career.

If we break the definition above into its component parts, we start with the following:

…strategic decision-making…which enables all students to graduate ready for college and career.

There is nothing new here as this is in many ways a restatement of the Vision recently adopted for APS. So really the core of the new definition is the middle phrase, as follows:

…remedying opportunity and learning gaps and creating a barrier-free environment…

I will agree that this sounds good, but the reason for defining the term “equity” is to use it as a call to action to remedy inequities in the system. However, other than to specify “strategic decision making”, the definition under consideration does little to establish a basis for developing a clear, specific and measurable action plan for addressing the inequities within APS.

As I look at the key phrase in the definition, I have to ask the following questions:

  1. What is the “opportunity” that is being remedied? And what action steps will be taken to remedy it?
  2. What are the “learning gaps” and what steps does the definition put in place to remedy them as well?
  3. What barriers are in place and how will the barriers be torn down?

As a rule, a definition is supposed to assist in creating more certainty around actions that will be taken, but the current definition under consideration raises more questions than it answers.

I would suggest that a careful reading of the recently published Equity Audit points in one direction – there is a disparity in the allocation of resources. I use the term “resources” broadly, but in reality it must be broken down into two separate components – financial resources and quality of teacher and in-school administrative resources. These two components often get conflated, but they are very different and require separate treatment.

The first component is the allocation of financial resources. The Equity Audit did not address this issue in a substantive way, but this is a critical component that has to be dealt with. As the term “equity” is addressed in Atlanta, the distribution of financial resources often comes up as a topic, but there currently there is no mechanism that provides a consistent and “equitable” distribution of financial resources in the district. Theoretically, a school budget is based on enrollment – for each X number of students Y teachers will be provided. However, this methodology does not fully take into consideration the student’s educational needs (Early Intervention, Special Education, Gifted, etc.). As such, the resource allocation is often non-transparent and in many instances baffling.

The equitable allocation of financial resources is a threshold issue that must be satisfied first and only then can the schools focus on the more important issues that follow. And the definition of equity must include the concept that financial resources shall be allocated based on the student profiles and education needs.

Is this difficult to do? In reality, the State currently allocates funding to all districts based on the 19 categories of students in the QBE funding formula. The 19 categories include Kindergarten, Grades 1-3, Grades 4-5, Grades 6-8 and high school. In addition, the formula provides for incremental funding for Early Intervention Programs, Remedial Education, Gifted Students and Special Education Students. Simply adopting this type of allocation methodology would go far to address the “equity” of distributing financial resources based on student needs.

And it would also take what is often a contentious (but never fully defined) issue off the table so that the community can then focus on what is truly important – the equitable distribution of high quality teaching and in-school administrative resources. However, the current “equity” definition does not directly address this. Maybe this is what the definition is trying to allude to with the phrase “remedying opportunity and learning gaps”. If so, why not address it head-on. “Opportunity and learning gaps” can only be remedied by making sure that adequate financial resources have been provided and then for the financial resources to be used to improve the quality of the delivery of education in the classroom.

Additionally, by breaking the term resource into two distinct components, it allows for a higher level of accountability where it belongs – in the hands of the in-school leaders. The school principals are closest to and the most knowledgeable about what their student bodies need. First give them the financial resources based on their student body characteristics and then let them decide how to best allocate the resources to the programs that will have the greatest impact on improving educational outcomes. They should be held accountable for the level of quality of the teachers in place and for improving student academic success.

My suggestion to the Board of Education is that they reconsider their current definition of equity and revise it in a way that drives a plan of action that is measurable and addresses the inequities that actually exist within APS. And leaving the resource components – both of them – out of the definition just simply misses the point of the exercise in the first place – which is to create a clear and concise statement that drives positive action for improving educational outcomes across the district.

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