August 23, 2017

Equity is Everything (and Nothing)

By Bellwether

Share this article

The post below is by guest blogger Celine Coggins.

I have a chapter in my new book called: Equity is Everything (And Nothing).  When I talk with groups of teachers who haven’t yet read the book, they are universally puzzled by the And Nothing part of the headline. Of course, they are immediately onboard with Equity is Everything. Yes, the goal of public education is to serve all kids. The Everything part is easy. Then how could it also be nothing? I’ve had more than a few teachers tell me I’m just wrong about the Nothing part. Equity is Everything in education. Kumbaya. Everyone from teachers to policy makers should agree.

When President Trump made his vile comments about the incidents in Charlottesville having “many sides” he did untold damage to race relations in this country, but he also created a powerful teachable moment. In his use of “many sides”, he was invoking his own personal definition of fairness and equal treatment.  He was co-opting equity to mean the opposite of equity.  Equity is nothing because we have no shared agreement on what it is. “Many sides” is the most stark example I’ve ever seen of my chapter title. It is possible to say (and believe) something that is the very definition of unjust, but do so in the name of fairness and pursuing equitable treatment for different groups of people.

What does that mean for those of us who may be advocates in the education space? When I coach teachers on preparing to meet with leaders who make decisions about their classrooms, I suggest three questions to ensure a productive start as an advocate:

1. Are you too biased toward finding agreement? Most educators’ natural instinct is to keep the peace. Your average local politician won’t be as impolitic as the President. They’ll say they care about equity, meaning a great education for all kids. You need to get beneath the hood on that. Do they see equity as equality of inputs or on doing what it takes to ensure that students from different starting points have equitable opportunities for success? Your goal for that meeting as an advocate should be to emerge with some understanding of how that person sees you issue. Are they an ally, adversary are somewhere in the middle? Don’t make it too easy for them to give lip service to equity.

2. What specifics can you probe? Many aspects of leaders’ beliefs about equity are codified for public viewing in budgets, laws, contracts. Use those to ask concrete questions. One of my favorite things is seeing teachers on Facebook who have been through our Policy Fellowship post the link when the first draft of their district budget becomes public, tag other teachers, and draw their attention to certain issues to raise at the next school committee meeting. That’s the way to go deeper on how those in power define equity.

3. Which are the policy problems and which are the relationship problems? The battle for greater equity for disadvantaged students is a war on two fronts. Some parts of the problem are best solved at the individual-level through relationships (i.e. influencing a leader’s thinking, getting invited to the decision-making table). Some parts of the problem are best solved at the system-level through formal policies (i.e. who has access to certain support services and programming; how funding gets allocated across schools). Separating the two types of problems, will help you get clear on the issues you can tackle next on each front.

The President opened our eyes to how far we have to go to make equity a meaningful word in our society.  There are “many sides” to how we organize and fund schools, but viewing the problem that way is a sure-fire path to preserving the achievement gaps and racial segregation of today far into the future.

Celine Coggins is the founder of Teach Plus, a teacher leadership organization that operates in ten states across the US. This month she is transitioning from Teach Plus to become a Lecturer and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

More from this topic

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.