Status Quo Disrupted

Apr 14, 2013 by

By Nora Carr

Standing opportunity and achievement gaps for students, often are a tough sell. Typically designed to better outcomes for disadvantaged or low-performing students, or to update deteriorating facilities and obsolete technology, such efforts rarely reduce opportunities for more affluent or high-performing students in meaningful or significant ways.

Sadly, middle- and upper middle-class parents often oppose equity initiatives, particularly if they perceive any threat to their offspring. Most simply don’t recognize the well-documented fact that their children already enjoy the majority of public school benefits. Since this parent group also represents many school boards’ most vocal, aggressive, and organized constituency, they can derail equity plans or minimize their impact by watering down the project scope — even in minority-majority school systems.

Fear of alienating this powerful constituency and driving more families to charters and other public school alternatives has put equity on the back burner in many communities, especially in today’s divisive political climate. Yet ethical leadership demands that school officials confront the historical as well as current social and educational inequities that continue to benefit some students at the expense of others.

Budget and policy decisions

Located at the intersection of race, class, power, and politics, equity initiatives disrupt the status quo. Schools and districts consistently make inequitable budget and policy decisions, favoring Advanced Placement (AP) classes for a few over academic interventions for the many, spending more on athletics than on the arts, allowing the most qualified and experienced teachers to choose only the most affluent schools, and allocating resources on a flat per-pupil basis rather than differentiating resources based on student needs and learning challenges.

Other common, albeit often unintentional, policy contributions to learning and achievement gaps include: exclusive enrollment criteria and multistep application processes for magnet and choice schools; uneven application of discipline policies; special education referrals; honor society application and selection processes; enrollment criteria; and screening tools for courses such as Algebra I and Honors English that often serve a gatekeeping function for AP, International Baccalaureate, and other college-prep curricula.

Courageously confronting social justice concerns without the backing of a sophisticated communications plan and a well-informed and ready-to-mobilize coalition is a bit like David taking on Goliath with only a rock and a sling shot, but without divine intervention. The end result likely won’t inspire much change, let alone motivate future generations.

New tactics and technologies

Grassroots organizing and coalition building have changed significantly in recent years, thanks primarily to more sophisticated technology and the need to reach more diverse groups and individuals.

Citizens today also are more educated and well-informed than were previous generations, and more suspicious of and sensitive to spin. These new challenges reflect the enduring legacy of Watergate as well as more recent high-profile debacles (think of the fiscal cliff, for example) that have shattered trust in government, institutions, corporations, and leaders in general.

As President Obama’s team aptly demonstrated in 2008 and again in 2012, public officials need to inspire action at the grassroots and the grasstops. State and local conservatives also won decisive victories in 2010 and in 2012 using many of the same strategies and tactics.

These strategies include online fundraising and issue education, greater reliance on social media and mobile phone outreach, and targeting messaging and images to each group’s values and emotions. Others include identifying and saturating true believers with a steady stream of bite-sized tastes of personal and personalized stories, videos, testimonials, news, photos, facts, and graphics.

Coalitions today are less about agreeing on all or even most points than about agreeing on how to move issues forward. Compromise is critical. When it comes to equity, school officials must bridge racial and ethnic divides, as well as socioeconomic gaps.

Most solutions to complex social issues and the most difficult ethical decisions are conflicts of right vs. right, not right vs. wrong. Every side has to give something, but those who historically have had the most power and the most clout likely will have to give more.

Engagement tools are available

To get more diverse voices in the room and engage more individuals and groups in important district discussions and decisions, you should become well versed in the processes and tools provided by the International Institute for Public Participation (IAP2), Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC), Public Agenda, and other similar groups.

IAP2, for example, offers a free online public participation toolbox that outlines various options for sharing information, seeking and compiling feedback, and bringing people together. Each option includes a brief summary called “Thinking It Through” that helps users select the right tool, as well as useful “What can go right?” and “What can go wrong?” highlights.

The DDC website offers a good overview of new technology tools that support public involvement as well as links to recent studies and resources. A report by Matt Leighninger, DDC’s executive director, offers 10 tactics for engaging a wired world in a chart format that outlines the most popular techniques for collaboration, surveying, and prioritizing ideas and solutions.

Leighninger outlines possible responses to five typical scenarios, which range from gathering opinions and educating citizens about an issue to making decisions, creating consensus, and encouraging citizens to take more ownership of shared problems — and potential solutions.

Many resources referenced by Leighninger are free and available online. These include tools such as Google Docs, Google Groups, and Dropbox; others are fee-based services such as Ning, BigTent, and Civic Evolution. For participatory budget making, see Budget Allocator, Demos-Budget, and Budget Simulator.

SeeClickFix, which is free at the basic level, offers real possibilities for improving district response times for repairing and replacing broken drinking faucets, window latches, water leaks, and other common facility issues. It helps to identify and address facilities issues, technology repairs, textbook deliveries, late buses, and other operational concerns that can create equity issues over time, especially in larger school districts.

Since these new tools are designed to fit mobile devices like smart phones and work well with existing social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, these technologies are more accessible to a wider range of constituents. As studies from Pew Research Centers show, less-affluent families are more likely to connect digitally via smart phone, texts, and social media than through traditional websites.

Fee-based services like MindMixer, which seeks out local social media conversations and inserts school and district engagement opportunities into the equation, also hold promise for breaking down online participation barriers. Free services like Google Translator, while not perfect, are user-directed and offer a more cost-effective approach for school systems faced with communicating in a dozen or more languages.

Dismantling structural racism

School officials must face and deconstruct their own prejudices and cherished values to combat deeply rooted myths about the undeserving poor, or the racism of public school districts that collectively and consistently sort poor black and brown children, particularly males, into lower-level classes and special education.

This is not easy work. While workshops on dismantling racism, work-group design “charrettes” to address facility concerns, and study groups on barriers impacting children and youth of color all may help move districts and communities forward, tackling often-hidden systems and structures requires moral courage, good data, and attention to detail.

Disaggregated data on AP exam participation, even in minority-majority districts, for example, typically shows that white, middle-, and upper-class students are overrepresented while poor children of color are underrepresented. In some cases, something as seemingly color-blind and innocuous as scheduling, or the district’s selection of predictor tools, may be to blame.

Do middle schools in poor neighborhoods offer as many opportunities as more affluent schools do for students to take gateway courses like Algebra I? Is every student performing at grade level (or above) given the opportunity to try honors-level courses, despite lackluster performance on screening tools and predictor exams?

Given the well-documented, middle-class biases inherent in many of these tools, relying on them as the primary ticket to entry will inevitably sort out many bright and talented students from nondominant cultures and groups. This is one reason why getting more voices to the decision-making table is a key part of successful coalition building, and of successful equity initiatives.

Stop the blame game

Well-meaning principals, teachers, and school counselors will quickly point to poor results on AP aptitude tests, or to a lack of rigor at the middle school level. Middle school teachers may point the finger at elementary school instruction, while elementary school personnel often note school readiness and language differences that already are present when children enroll in prekindergarten, or kindergarten.

Parents, depending on their own circumstances and experiences, may point to the so-called “culture of poverty,” or mistakenly blame individual educator racism rather than systems-oriented barriers like inadequate professional preparation and development, screening procedures for gifted and talented students, inequitable allocations of resources, and chronic funding shortages.

Most school board members, administrators, and educators are mission-driven individuals who believe passionately that all children can learn and achieve at high levels. Belief, while helpful, isn’t enough, however. And hope is not a strategy.

Stopping the blame game, whether it’s “blame the victim” or “blame the victim’s teachers,” requires courageous conversations about history, race, class, gender, and power that few school systems nationally have been willing to tackle. It also requires a shared language and shared experiences, so individuals can listen and learn from each other in more honest, open, and authentic ways.

Facilitating this kind of discussion, and then moving from awareness and analysis to thoughtful and productive action represents a deeper and more skillful understanding of public engagement, strategic planning, and coalition building than many leaders currently possess. Simply hosting a series of informational meetings is likely to make matters worse, while putting more programs in place without first doing a thorough root-cause analysis may waste time, money, and hard-won political capital.

Public education leaders should contribute clearly to civil debate and community building and refuse to engage in the politics of division that characterize and limit so many important policy debates and decisions. At the same time, they can learn a few things from the nation’s recent electoral history.

Ranking among the nation’s hardest-working public servants, school boards, superintendents, principals, and teacher leaders can help their communities, if not the nation, once again find more common ground in support of common schools. Nothing less than the future of public education hangs in the balance.

Nora Carr (ncarr@carolina.rr.com) is chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools and an ASBJ contributing editor.

Resources

• Deliberative Democracy Consortium (www.deliberative-democracy.net)

• International Institute for Public Participation, “Public Participation Toolbox” (www.iap2.org)

• Public Agenda (www.publicagenda.org)

Equity Strategies

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) offers the following strategies for achieving greater educational equity worldwide:

Design

1. Limit early tracking and streaming and postpone academic selection.

2. Manage school choice so as to contain the risks to equity.

3. In upper secondary education, provide attractive alternatives, remove dead ends, and prevent dropouts.

4. Offer second chances to gain from education.

Practices

5. Identify and provide systematic help to those who fall behind at school and reduce being held back a grade.

6. Strengthen the links between school and home to assist disadvantaged parents in helping their children to learn.

7. Respond to diversity and provide for the successful inclusion of migrants and minorities within mainstream education.

Resourcing

8. Provide strong education for all, giving priority to early childhood provision and basic schooling.

9. Direct resources to the students with the greatest needs.

10. Set concrete targets for more equity, particularly related to low school attainment and dropouts.

Source: OECD, 2008 Policy Brief, Ten Steps to Equity in Education, www.oecd.org.

Status Quo Disrupted.

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