Board members and superintendents alike are focused on issues of equity like never before. Some of this has been brought about through racial tensions in our community, and other equity concerns are borne from the pandemic and our response to it. As we embark on the fall semester of 2022, how board members evaluate progress on equity issues within their district will be more important than ever before.
I remain disappointed when I hear public officials, board members, or school administrators talk about “COVID Slide,” “learning gaps,” or “falling behind.” I imagine myself as a teacher, a student, or a parent when I hear or read these words and imagine added pressure to an already difficult situation. Thinking in terms of a deficit gap leads one to frame education in a negative way, something none of us want. So if these words and phrases aren’t helpful, how can we talk about it? I suggest the phrase “unfinished learning.” Some students and some districts were able to pivot into remote learning over the two years between 2020 and 2022 with minimal effort and without technology hurdles to overcome. For many districts, access to the internet and remote learning devices proved to be a difficult, if not insurmountable, hurdle. The students who may have struggled did not do so of their own volition, so I advocate for recognizing that theirs was unfinished learning. We need to focus on finishing the learning they may have missed. It’s the only way we can ensure their success moving forward.
Throughout the summer, every district in the country is working to prepare for a strong (and safe) start to the 2022-2023 school year. A colleague shared this statement about summer preparations: “Although we are all facing the same storm, we are most definitely not in the same boat.” Over the course of the summer, COVID and the struggles in preparing for the start of fall 2022 have magnified the equity divide throughout the country. If we know there is an equity gap, how should we, as a team of 8, measure this gap? What are some “Look-fors” in our districts?
We must keep in mind that equity of opportunity leads to equality of outcome. One way to measure an equity gap is to ask the administration to report on equality of outcome measures. As an example, do students in remote Algebra 1 perform in a similar way to those students who are participating in Algebra 1 in person? A simple metric to measure outcomes. The purpose of measuring is not to punish the teachers, students, or administrators, of course. As responsible governors of a district, we recognize data is a flashlight and never a hammer. Should the board discover an equality of outcome concern, it should beg the question of how our policies may be creating a climate or culture of inequity. Specifically, to this example, which students are participating remotely and which are attending in-person? If there are policies or procedures in place that create a barrier to access for our students, we must act. A solid relationship between the superintendent and board members is key for these types of conversations. As the board oversees equity of opportunities, it is the superintendent who oversees the equality of outcome metrics. The relationship must be solid to facilitate fruitful and productive conversations throughout the district.
Further, we must commit to the belief that our classes cannot be defined by our classes. It is just this simple. Regardless of our strategies to address unfinished learning and the social needs of our students, as custodians of public trust, we must be willing to look at our classes and make sure they are not defined by our classes. I suspect many schools will falter in this area without a dutiful eye towards equity of opportunity for all. And for our students, it’s hard to be what you can’t see.
To be sure, equity work is some of the most difficult work we do together. It is also the work that pays the highest dividends within our communities both now and in the future. We must be vigilant to ensure that unfinished learning can be resolved for our students. Legacies are found in struggle that clings to hope … and are waiting to be remembered. This is our opportunity to remember we serve to make a difference, and the time is now.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd (email@example.com) is the superintendent of Texas’ Victoria Independent School District.