In Search of Equity

Sheila Strain Clark

Resident P.S. 314 Sheila Strain Clark offers insight into creating equity in the classroom through the strategic use of data. Highlighting the successes of the nonprofit Empower K-12, Ms. Strain’s article, entitled “In Search of Equity”, addresses the issues surrounding achieving equity in education.

Equity: “A great educational experience for every student”

How can we use data to identify and create greater equity in education? And what are the right data points to help us do this? This is the sweet spot of EmpowerK12, a nonprofit that helps education organizations use data to promote continuous improvement, particularly to address equity in our education system.

Josh Boots, executive director of EmpowerK12, defines equity as “A great educational experience for every student.” But Mr. Boots knows quite well that the needs of students and schools are varied and therefore, so are the resources needed. Before he established EmpowerK12, he served in different capacities: as a seventh-grade math teacher, a trained classroom observer, and KIPP DC’s first data manager. He states, “Inequity in education and the ‘achievement gap’ are century-old issues. It won’t take one year, three years, or five years to overcome. Rather, realistically, I’d like to see the achievement gap closed in one generation. But even that is a significant challenge.

Most public school systems are grappling with getting children “college and career ready.” The “best” schools are often characterized as those with most children testing proficient or highly proficient. However, this is an inequitable view of “high and low performing” schools. Schools and families are not equally resourced. In fact, many students are several grade levels behind at the start of each school year. A more equitable measure of “a top-performing school” would also reward schools that are closing disparities in achievement between students, better known as the “achievement gap.”

EmpowerK12’s Bold Performance Awards celebrate schools that are closing the achievement gap. Bold Performance schools are open enrollment schools that serve a high percentage of the “at-risk” student population and have combined math and English language arts proficiency rates dramatically higher than similar schools. EmpowerK12 created the Bold Performance Awards to help recognize the good work of these schools that have demonstrated that socioeconomic hardships do not predetermine how much growth students can accomplish from one spring to the next. The awards acknowledged 10 DC schools with achievement rates far exceeding expectations and growth metrics that demonstrated they are closing the socioeconomic achievement gap.

The EmpowerK12 team hopes that this recognition will encourage teachers and school leaders to continue to push toward the goal of closing the socioeconomic achievement gap and to share lessons learned on best practices.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which looks squarely at the issue of equity, requires that school districts have report cards for schools that receive public funding. For Washington, DC, this is significant; public and charter schools previously used different metrics, which often resulted in confusion for parents and an inability to compare across sectors.

Many community stakeholders are concerned about the report card and its “star rating” framework; it, too, touches on the equity conversation. How will schools be ranked? Will the STAR Framework unfairly compare schools and children with inequitable resources and access? Will test scores of proficiency be the full marking of success? The EmpowerK12 team does not think so; rather, it believes that the STAR Framework is a move in the right direction. The STAR Framework will use growth as a metric versus just achievement. In fact, growth metrics, including the achievement gap closure and attendance, will be heavily weighted. Mr. Boots says, “Everyone is worried that schools in the poorest sections of town will be rated low because proficiency is a challenge. Yet, I believe that by incorporating the growth metrics, a more equitable rating will result. We may see schools in the poorest neighborhoods that are “kicking butt” on closing the achievement gap being rated four and five stars, which may surprise and please their community advocates, families, and students. Conversely, some schools that have been touted as “the best” may realize they’ve made little progress in growth measures. I hope this ‘star rating” will be a call to action to address areas that they’ve been complacent about.”

To get closer to greater equity, we should collaboratively share and analyze the data. Data transparency in the DC education environment has been a challenge, primarily due to systemic structures in place (i.e., political interests, normed school ratings, MySchoolDC student lottery) that promote the competition that exists between charter versus public schools, or even the competition between schools within each sector. Instead of creating more avenues for collecting data that sorts schools into winners and losers, Mr. Boots encourages us to build networks of trust where schools voluntarily share data as an opportunity to “get more information and shine a flashlight on what’s working.”

The quest for greater equity in education is a tireless, but worthwhile, endeavor. If we want all children to be college and career ready, we must view data from an equitable lens. Sharing data, being open about our successes and failures, and being ready to tackle tough questions will promote the continuous improvement in our education system that our children need and deserve.

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