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The Equitable School System

April 15, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

Whether you call it the achievement gap, the opportunity gap, or the educational debt, what you have in mind is some form of educational equity. It’s an idea advocates and policymakers have been grappling with for years. For those who find the prevailing technocratic and market-based approach to reform problematic, it is important to have an alternative concept of an equitable school system.

For schools to be at their most effective addressing educational inequity, they need the tools to counteract some of the effects of broader social and economic inequity. Helping meet the wide range of student and family needs makes it easier for teachers to do their jobs in the classroom by removing key barriers to learning.

The full-service community schools model brings together a variety of important social services on the school site. These services—such as clinics or housing/job search support—are then available to students, families, and community members as appropriate to meet some of the most critical needs affecting students and their neighborhoods. Extending the hours during which the school is open increases access to these services and allows other community groups to offer helpful before and after school activities.

Helping students and families meet their physical and economic needs is a start, but schools can and should also play a role in explicitly challenging the more insidious effects of structural racism and other forms of institutional oppression. Schools are one of the major institutions that shape society, which means their default role will be to perpetuate institutional racism (and sexism, homophobia, etc.). Just as “neutrality” about sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in Anoka-Hennepin helped sustain an environment of terrible bullying, silence about racism helps sustain the racism that pervades our social world.

This does not have to be the case, provided we are intentional about helping our schools name and challenge the oppression that is often invisible to the privileged and all too visible (and hurtful) to the rest of society.

While the preceding two characteristics—the community schools model and anti-racism -- should be widespread, not everything about schools can or should be universal. When it comes to pedagogy, for example, we should do more to promote a range of approaches that can meet the range of student needs.

In doing so, we should strive for consistency of pedagogy within schools at the same time we strive for diversity of pedagogy between schools. To take an extreme example, a middle school student moving from a highly regimented English class directed by a strict, “no excuses” teacher to a project-based, student-driven math class supported by a nurturing coach of a teacher may struggle with the transition. Both teachers may be effective in their chosen pedagogical approach, but the dissonance between the two undermines both.

This also means helping the student who needs the regimented environment land in a school entirely run along those lines, while helping a different student who needs the freedom and experience with self-direction get to a project-based school. This can be achieved within the context of a school district, but it will require support and flexibility.

Another place for flexibility, but certainly more variety than we have right now, is in the degree to which individual schools are democratically governed. Democratic governance of schools can include, in various ways, teachers, students, families, and the community at large. Whether we’re talking self-governed schools run by teacher collectives or an empowered site council drawn from the students, families, and teachers at a school, there is room for much more democracy in our current schools. While the market approach to education empowers families to leave, a democratic approach to education can empower many stakeholders to cooperate in making productive change.

In many districts, schools, and classrooms, several of the above ideas will be new, even though they’ve all been around in some form or another for a long time. Moving towards this approach to educational equity requires working with teachers who have been conditioned by years of scripted curriculum (especially newer teachers who have never taught outside that context), families who have found schools unwelcoming or even hostile, and policymakers who reflexively respond to public outcry by trying to tighten their control over schools.

Still, the state can support this work by expanding their Q-COMP funding model to topics beyond teacher compensation and by beefing up the support for their regional Centers for Excellence, which have the potential to foster helpful collaboration and provide change-minded schools with support. District and school leaders can work with teachers and unions to increase the number of full-service community schools, to make the anti-racist work of schools explicit, to increase both the cohesion of pedagogy within schools and the diversity of pedagogy between schools, and to incorporate more democratic practices into schooling.

This will require sustained effort, flexibility, and creativity. The end result of all that work, though, may very well be the school system today’s students really need.

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