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Advocates, Educators Discuss ‘National Disgrace’ of Educational Inequity

Equity in education and the barriers to accomplishing it, from segregation to school funding to teacher quality, are the meat and potatoes of education reporting

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Education reporters and progressive Twitter denizens are probably familiar with the graphic. Three people of different heights are trying to look over a fence. In one frame, labeled “equality,” each is given a box of the same height, leaving the shortest still unable to see over the fence.

In the other, labeled “equity,” each is given a box of different sizes so they’re at equal heights.

Equity in education and the barriers to accomplishing it, from segregation to school funding to teacher quality, are the meat and potatoes of education reporting. Journalists gathered at a recent Education Writers Association conference in Providence, Rhode Island, to explore the topic.

During the kickoff session, the focus was on what, specifically, equity and inequity look like in education.

“Equity is a very polite word. The fact is, it’s a national disgrace. Poor kids, kids of color are getting the short end of the stick at every possible level, in every possible way,” said David Driscoll, who served as the Massachusetts education commissioner from 1999 to 2007.

The EWA event took place on the main campus of The Met School, a network of small public high schools of choice that states as its mission a “relentless commitment to student-centered learning and personal growth.”

Tequilla Brownie, the executive vice president of TNTP (previously called The New Teacher Project), discussed the organization’s recent report, “The Opportunity Myth.” It found that students of color, English-language learners, low-income students, and those with “mild to moderate” disabilities are less likely to receive the “four resources” that TNTP said help ensure success after high school.

Those resources are grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers with high expectations, according to TNTP, a research, teacher-training, and advocacy group.

Students were doing everything teachers asked of them — coming to school, doing their assigned work, getting good grades, and behaving appropriately — “but we’re seeing that they still aren’t ready,” Brownie said. And inequitable access to the four key resources, she said, “was not random.”

Students of color, for instance, were 25 percent less likely to get grade-appropriate assignments. TNTP researchers found variance not only among districts and schools, but within a school itself, with children in classrooms with a majority of white students “getting a totally different experience” than their peers in classrooms where most students were racial minorities, Brownie said.

As part of the project, TNTP partnered with five (unnamed) school systems serving diverse student populations. The group observed nearly 1,000 lessons, reviewed nearly 5,000 student assignments, analyzed more than 20,000 student work samples, and collected nearly 30,000 “real-time” student surveys, according to the report.

‘One Student at a Time’

At The Met (short for the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center), the focus is on personalization, according to Nancy Diaz Bain, the co-director. This is facilitated through a system in which students move through all four years of high school with one academic adviser to help ensure appropriate access to rigorous, engaging coursework.

Hallmarks of an education at The Met include “internships, individual learning plans, advisory, and a breakthrough college transition program,” the network explains on its website.

“When we talk about equity, equity doesn’t mean equal. And here at the Met … it’s really one student at a time, [providing] the access for every student to be challenged, to get excited, to learn how they need to learn,” said Diaz Bain.

Massachusetts is often at the top of the pack in state education rankings after a two-decade effort to mitigate educational disparities and achievement gaps.

Education officials there, driven by a 1993 law that set high standards and dramatically increased school spending, focused on new training for principals, teacher licensure exams, and an exit exam students must pass to receive a high school diploma, said Driscoll, who is considered a key driver in instituting and implementing the measure.

Driscoll, now a consultant, authored a 2017 book published by Harvard University Press, “Commitment and Common Sense: Leading Education Reform in Massachusetts.”

Some states have rolled back or delayed their own requirements to pass end-of-course exams, largely in the face of public pressure and concerns about students’ being unable to pass them. The pressure on legislators and the governor was “phenomenal,” Driscoll recalled, but “as soon as people understood that it was for real, and the results weren’t so bad and they could see that most kids were going to pass, everybody shifted.”

Money Matters

Funding, often the source of pitched legislative clashes and quixotic court battles, is an important remedy to inequities, but not the only one, Brownie said.

“The usual answer to the achievement gap is more, more, more. We’re not suggesting that schools don’t need more resources, but we’re suggesting that, as a first step, look differently at how you’re using those existing resources,” she said.

Some students may need additional, and more costly, help, if they come to school several grade levels behind, Diaz Bain said. Student needs for mental health and social-emotional learning are most often insufficiently funded, she added.

Part of the reforms that drove the changes in Massachusetts was an infusion of $2 billion in “foundation” funding to public schools so they would all reach at least a basic dollar level, Driscoll said.

More funding is likely needed for the state’s “gateway cities,” those other than Boston, where the rising costs of special education and health care have stripped away those additional state dollars, he said.

Going forward, Brownie suggested that rather than examine just test scores, education reporters look at other measures. Grade mismatch, where students are earning A’s and B’s in class but not passing standardized state exams or college entrance tests, is perhaps one better way to explain inequities in teaching and challenging curriculum to parents.

Reporters should also look at educator diversity, particularly in teacher preparation programs and how they are looking to attract diverse candidates, Brownie suggested.

“You roll that type of data up and you could identify some huge problems on the front end,” she said.