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


“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.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon & Facebook]

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

  1. tom says:

    Bob,

    Thanks for an excellent article on a very important issue. “Equity” is a dangerous term because its meaning depends on the political agenda of the person using it, and all too often that agenda is driven by race.

    As an initial matter, “equity” is a noun, not a verb, so the APS definition – “Equity is strategic decision making” – is nonsensical. APS can engage in strategic decision making with the goal of obtaining equity, but APS cannot “equity” anything. The Board cannot meet and decide to “equity” or “equitize” lower-performing schools. Such misuse of the English language from those who should be educating our children is concerning, but I won’t get on my soapbox about elementary school teachers who send parents memos that are grammatically incorrect.

    The issue about remedying opportunity and learning gaps is very important, but as you note, what exactly does this mean? Is this a different way of saying the achievement gap needs to be addressed? The achievement gap starts before children ever step into an APS school. There is not much APS can do to prevent that issue – its beyond their legal mandate and beyond their financial resources. Is APS really talking about reducing the gap once students enter APS? or is the goal to prevent the gap from growing larger?

    With regard to allocating resources in an “equitable” manner, I do not support a student-based allocation formula similar to QBE. That falls too neatly into the one-size -fits-all mentality. Students are not widgets, and therefore the cost of production, i.e. the cost of “producing” an educated student, is not uniform. Some children will excel with minimal oversight and some need constant attention and extra help. In order to have a successful school-based budget, the schools need to determine what they need/want to properly educate their children. There is no way this can be done from central office (it didn’t work well for USSR). Of course, this presupposes a workable definition of what it means to “educate” each student. Should we have different definitions based on the student. Can we really expect children who don’t speak English to learn at the same level as English-speaking students? What about children with learning disabilities or special needs?

    Once we know what the schools need to “educate” their particular students, then APS can decide how to allocate its scarce resources to obtain the greatest benefit for the greatest amount of children. While we all want a “world class education system” where every child has everything s/he needs to be successful, this is Atlanta, not Utopia. The reality is that APS is currently unable to properly educate every child in the system, but its not for lack of resources. APS can start moving in that direction but progress will be slow and incremental. K-12 education is a 13-year process. It is unreasonable to think that a 13-year process can be magically fixed overnight, or even within a few years. While it is difficult to acknowledge, both morally and politically, the fact is that allocation of resources at APS is highly inefficient. APS spends millions in high school trying to remedy its failures in elementary school. Those resources could be directed to K-3 with much higher returns. If done correctly, in 8 years there should be little need for remedial reading and math classes in high school. This poses a moral dilemma because no one wants to give up on today’s high school students who are struggling. I don’t have the answers, but I think its important that we at least ask the right questions and make an informed choice.

    • Beverly Fraud says:

      At the core of their collective being, the APS school board, like the one that preceded it, is FUNDAMENTALLY dishonest.

      You cannot BEGIN to talk about a “barrier-free environment” in terms of education, unless you are willing to have an HONEST talk about discipline, the 800 lb elephant in the room.

      This board is more willing to engage in verbiage, yet COMPLETELY unwilling to engage in honest discussion on discipline.

      Since voters don’t hold them to account on the FUNDAMENTAL issues hindering learning, at the end of the day you can only conclude that Atlanta is getting the dysfunctional, substandard school system it FULLY and RICHLY deserves.

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