From awareness to action: Tackling education’s inequities

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Aug 19, 2020

Since the death of George Floyd, American society has faced a reckoning with issues of racism and racial inequity. In K–12 education, this reckoning has spurred increased scrutiny of long-standing inequities in opportunity between groups of students from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

With these issues at the forefront of mainstream dialogue, I’ve found myself hungry for ways to translate awareness into action. Recently, I came across a set of ideas that can help education leaders do just that: targeted universalism and continuous improvement. Adam Carter, executive director of Marshall Street Initiatives at Summit Public Schools, introduced me to these ideas while describing Summit’s strategic work to address the learning needs of its English language learners. Summit’s story points to concrete ways for schools and educators to make meaningful and measurable progress against long-standing inequities. 

Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Thomas Arnett: What does equity mean to you, and why is equity something people should care about in K–12 education?

Adam Carter: When I was in high school, I was one of those kids who was always looking for ways to get out of doing classwork. I found the best way to not do classwork and still get credit in school was to be a runner for the office, so I would go around and deliver slips in my off period. I remember this one time in my senior year going into an English classroom with primarily White students and seeing a pretty rigorous learning environment where the teacher was holding high expectations and it was pretty well managed. Then I went in the next period—same teacher, same classroom, same stuff on the walls—and the teacher was just hanging out. The class was made up of primarily Black students and it was utter chaos. And I remember thinking, “There is something pretty messed up about this.”

Later on, I came to understand that I was a product of a deeply tracked system. In the lowest track in my South Carolina schools—in which students don’t even get access to college-ready courses—students were almost entirely Black and from the housing projects and foster care. Then the upper track is almost all middle-income, mostly White students. In between those two tracks was a spectrum of four or five others. Those early experiences were my entry point into the systematic racism and classism of our schools. 

So when you ask “What does equity mean?”, it means giving each kid what they need to be successful and understanding that kids are different, people are different, and our needs are different. So we can’t just say “Here’s our program offerings. If you aren’t successful, then it’s on you.” It’s on us as leaders and educators to create and improve a system that adapts to the needs of each student. That’s the definition of equity that really animates our work: understanding students’ needs and how best to meet those needs within a system in which we see diversity as an asset as opposed to what I think a traditional education system treats diversity as, which is a liability.

TA: What istargeted universalism and how did it come across your radar as a way to address inequities?

AC: The idea of targeted universalism is really best illustrated through this example: Sidewalks today have these curb cuts that allow the street and the curb to gradually merge. They were explicitly called out in the Americans with Disability Act for people in wheelchairs to use. But anyone who has ever had kids and pushed a stroller has benefited from the curb cuts. Curb cuts were not meant to serve people who do not use wheelchairs, but universally, they are helpful.

Targeted universalism was introduced to me through two men who certainly know the principles of it much better than I do. One is Jeff Duncan-Andrade who is a researcher and school leader of Roses In Concrete in Oakland. The other is Chris Chatmon who works in Oakland Unified and at an organization called Kingmakers of Oakland. Targeted universalism is a theory that comes from john powell at what was the Haas Institute at UC Berkeley [now the Othering & Belonging Institute]. 

TA: How did Summit put targeted universalism into practice?

AC: I don’t want these ideas to come across as some sort of magical elixir or silver bullet. Our organization has a lot of work to do to become a more anti-racist organization. I have work to do to better understand the lived experiences of the kids we serve in the communities we serve. All that work is important and ongoing. 

I think what targeted universalism is able to do is offer a roadmap of actions leading to more equitable learning environments and outcomes for students. 

We started this work using the tools of improvement science—which are pretty complicated and wonky at first glance—with a group organized by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. [Note: “Continuous improvement” or “improvement science” refers to a set of principles that can help educators diagnose the systemic causes of school outcomes and then iterate on solutions for improving those outcomes.] Initially, continuous improvement didn’t have much real traction in our schools. But I remember just asking the question, “Before we give up on this process, which students are we least well serving?” 

As we looked at our data, the one group that seemed to be—as an average across the group—off trajectory to college readiness were English language learners (ELL). Every other group for whom we had data was, on average, on trajectory for college readiness by graduation. But this one group really bothered us as a network. We knew we could do better; we knew that we had a systemic failing. Teachers were working hard, it wasn’t anybody’s fault—it was just that baked into our own system was this inequity for our English learners. 

As we studied our system, we understood that we can’t just read a book and apply a framework in order to better serve our English learners. We can’t just paint by numbers here. We need to name the group we want to serve better: our English learners. We need to call it what it is: a systemic failure. And we need to recruit a broad base of people across the network—teachers, school leaders, parents, students themselves—to solve the problem. And the students are not the problem. The system is the problem. 

Working with a broad and diverse group of teachers and school leaders, we developed tiered literacy programs, identified “positive deviants”—teachers who were already making outsized gains for English learners—and elevated best practices across the network. We used the tools of continuous improvement to monitor these changes within our system to understand, on rapid cycles, whether our English learners were benefiting from our efforts. Where we saw improvement, we redoubled our efforts; where we didn’t, we shifted our approach. We listened to our teachers, principals, network leaders, and—most importantly—our students in order to find ways to improve the experience and outcomes of English learners. 

So the universal strategy we’ve long used at Summit is personalized learning—designing education to meet students’ unique needs and interests. But in figuring out how to allocate our resources to personalize learning, we targeted the needs of our ELL students.

Over the course of about 13 months, we drove a 50% decrease in the achievement gap between our English learners and non-English learners. At the same time, we saw a 25% improvement overall for both ELL and non-ELL students. So even if you were a non-English learner in the 2017-18 school year, you benefited greatly, and we’ve sustained those gains over time. 

To explore these ideas in greater depth, Carter recommends the following resources:

Carter also invites those who are interested in these ideas to reach out to him at [email protected].

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on identifying strategies to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education through Disruptive Innovation. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.