Educational equity: The great equalizer?

By Deborah L. Keys Write

Horace Mann, a pioneer of American public schools in the 19th century, famously called education the “great equalizer of the conditions of men.” But the reverse is also true. Students who receive a poor education, or who drop out of school before graduating, can end up on the wrong side of a lifelong gap in employment, earnings, even life expectancy.

Too often, the difference between a life of promise and a life in peril hinges not on a student’s potential but on the quality of the local public school. School board members have a choice to make — will you allow education to be a wedge that widens inequality or will you use its power as Horace Mann envisioned it, to create opportunity for all?

There are predictors that currently contribute to gaps in opportunity and achievement. According to a study by Emma García and Elaine Weiss, extensive research has conclusively demonstrated that children’s social class is one of the most significant predictors — if not the single most significant predictor — of their educational success. The report was produced as part of the initiative, A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, that states on its homepage:

“Education policy in this nation has typically been crafted around the expectation that schools alone can offset the full impact of low socioeconomic status on learning. Schools can—and have—ameliorated some of the impact of social and economic disadvantage on achievement. Improving our schools, therefore, continues to be a vitally important strategy for promoting upward mobility and for working toward equal opportunity and overall educational excellence. Evidence demonstrates, however, that achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status are present before children even begin formal schooling. Despite the impressive academic gains registered by some schools serving disadvantaged students, there is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can close these gaps in a substantial, consistent, and sustainable manner.”

This is a clear indicator that focusing on educational equity early in a student’s academic journey is imperative. As school board leaders, I think it’s safe to assume that we can agree that ALL students, regardless of their race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, ethnicity or ZIP code deserve access to the best education this nation provides. In order to provide an exceptional education, school boards must create adequate policies that address opportunities gaps; support a budget that provides the tools necessary to address the gaps; and work collaboratively with the superintendent (and their administration team) to create the best education system for students in their respective districts. This work, in turn, will support the goal everyone wants — academic success for all children.

In the pursuit of equity, school leaders must assess their actions locally to overcome institutional barriers and create opportunities so that each and every child has the tools and supports necessary to achieve his or her highest potential. Achieving equity ensures that students’ identities will not predetermine their success in schools. School leaders have an obligation to ensure that every child has access to a high-quality education by addressing the individual needs and concerns of students. This is essential if we’re going to eliminate achievement and opportunity gaps, especially for historically underserved students.

We know it’s important to have a clear working definition about equity. Anytime there is a group of individuals in a room and the question is posed, “what does equity mean to you?” — there will be several definitions. It is difficult to come to some resolve about what equity means and how it will be addressed if there is not a working definition for it. This is a great place to start your equity journey.

Leading for educational equity means filtering decisions through an equity lens. Equity is the manner in which you lead from the board room. Is educational equity the great equalizer after all?

Deborah L. Keys Write is an Equity Network Facilitator/Consultant for CSBA. She is the former equity director at the National School Boards Association and currently works extensively with governance teams around the country.