Equity & Diversity

Oregon’s ‘Equity Lens’ Frames Schools’ Take on Bias

By Denisa R. Superville — May 31, 2016 8 min read
Students Rafael Silva-Miranda, Francisco Castillo, Francisco Martinez, and Cristopher Huerta, left to right, greet one another at Woodburn High School in Woodburn, Ore. The district has the highest Hispanic graduation rate in the state.

With children of color making up a growing share of Oregon students, state education officials five years ago took another hard, long look at how those students were doing.

What they saw was sobering but not surprising: Despite attempts to close achievement gaps between students of color, immigrant students, and low-income students and their more affluent white peers, wide disparities persisted in student performance on state tests, graduation rates, school attendance, and college-going rates. So Oregon tried a different approach. In 2011, education agencies adopted an “equity lens,” a public policy statement explicitly acknowledging the salience of race and ethnicity in contributing to disparate student outcomes and committing to narrow achievement and opportunity gaps from cradle to career through a focus on race and ethnicity.

Envisioned as a kind of “guiding document” to focus discussion and action on achievement gaps within the state and between Oregon and other states, the equity lens was unusual for its time. It lays out a set of beliefs that sees students’ second language as an “asset” to be celebrated and advocates culturally responsive supports for English-language learners and embracing students’ history.

The lens also calls for addressing the overrepresentation of children of color in special education and their underrepresentation in Advanced Placement and gifted and talented programs. Recognizing that achievement gaps begin early in life, the policy also emphasizes access to high-quality prekindergarten. It seeks to ensure that teachers are focused on equity and it expects educators to think deeply before making major decisions about who will be disadvantaged by those decisions, whether those stakeholders were included in the process, and if not, why.

Chuck Ransom, the superintendent of Woodburn, Ore., public schools, said the district’s educational equity efforts were not always popular with the community, which had to be convinced that schools were not serving all students equally.

“We needed to make sure that we had diverse opinions and thinking that would advantage all kids, not just my kids,” said Robert Saxton, a former deputy superintendent of public instruction at the Oregon education department when the “equity lens” was adopted.

Now, the state is still struggling to close achievement gaps and the equity lens is seen as a very-much alive educational equity tool in that state, say those involved in its creation.

Expanding Infrastructure

The new lens built on other state equity initiatives that were already underway, said Pat Burk, an education professor at Portland State University, who has also held leadership positions in the Portland public schools and the state education department.

Those efforts included:

  • Development of tests aimed at providing fine-grained data on how students were doing on specific test items.
  • A review of state educator-licensing standards that led to changes to integrate cultural competency and equitable practices into teacher- and administrator-preparation programs.
  • Partnering with the state’s four largest districts to work on their equity and diversity challenges.

Because of those actions, an infrastructure was already in place in some districts by 2011 to put the policies into practice. As a result, some districts were able to continue to focus on equity even as state financial contributions toward district-level equity work diminished during the Great Recession, Burk said.

At the state level, education officials use the equity lens as a criteria for disbursing grants. Districts seeking grants must show that their programs would address achievement gaps. The state education agency also uses the lens to seek additional funding for programs for traditionally underserved populations, including for the creation of education plans for African-American and American Indian/Native Alaskan students, Saxton said.

Oregon Schools: A Demographic Profile

As the state’s student population grows more diverse, the teaching force remains largely white, despite state and school district efforts to put more teachers of color in schools.


Source: Oregon Department of Education

But the achievement gaps are proving difficult to eradicate. In the 2014-15 school year, for example, only 33.1 percent of Hispanic students and 32.4 percent of African-Americans in grades 3-5 were at Levels 3 or 4—the top two levels—on the state’s English/language arts exams. That compares with 67.6 percent for Asian students and 57.6 percent for white students.

“I think we will see some differences in outcomes over time, but it’s going to take a while,” Saxton said. “We know what the results are going to be if we don’t do anything. ... We don’t know what the results are going to be when we do something different.”

Burk said tackling the policy first was the right step.

Persistent Gaps

Change will not happen by “leaving something to the goodwill or personal motivation of a particular leader, or principal, or classroom teacher,” he said. Some districts adopted the equity lens in whole or in part. Some use it in making hiring decisions.

Even so, the state has made less progress than it expected in creating a more-diverse educator workforce to serve its increasingly diverse student population. In a 2015 report to the state legislature, the state education department conceded that while it had increased the number of culturally and linguistically diverse teachers in the system, the state needed to do more. In the 2014-15 school year, students of color made up 36 percent of the state’s K-12 student enrollment, yet only 8.5 percent of teachers were nonwhite. Latinos—the largest minority group—accounted for 22.4 percent of state K-12 enrollment that year but only 3.9 of teachers.

Students Leslie Lopez, center, and Yaritsa Velasco take a Spanish language and literature class geared to native speakers at the Academy of International Studies at Woodburn High School in Oregon. The classes are one of several strategies the district uses to boost the graduation rate of its Hispanic students.

Eugene Superintendent Gustavo Balderas, a former English-language learner himself, said it’s important that students of color have both high-quality teachers and teachers who look like them and understand their language and culture. “There is a strong need for modeling—it’s not just me saying that, the research backs this up,” said Balderas, whose district is working with universities to build a more-diverse pipeline of teachers from its current students.

As signs of progress, Oregon officials point to individual districts, schools, and programs that have narrowed gaps in specific areas. State officials hope to learn from them and scale up their successes. Districts like Forest Grove, which is part of the district network already working on equity and diversity challenges, have ingrained the equity lens into their hiring practices. They now ask specific scenario-based questions of potential employees to ascertain whether they are committed to working with students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Others have hired equity coaches to work with teachers.

And while the lens started out focused on race and ethnicity, districts such as Eugene use it to guide questions about gender identity as well.

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The Woodburn district, about 35 miles from Portland, has one of the state’s highest Latino graduation rate. Eighty percent of its 5,729 students are Hispanic.

Chuck Ransom, the district’s superintendent, said the outcome resulted from strategies pushed in the mid-2000s that were not always popular with the community, which had to be convinced that the district was not serving all its students equally.

“We had a lot of conversations about equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes, and helping people to understand that it’s not enough to say that everybody has the same shot,” he said.

Those initiatives included the development of a K-12 dual-language program that allows students to receive instruction in their best language and graduate as fully bilingual. He also credits the district’s decision to break up the comprehensive high school into four smaller schools, which allowed teachers to provide more individualized attention to students. The small-schools model provided “a structure that supported the strategies that worked,” he said.

Lindsey Capps, the state’s chief education officer, who serves an education policy advisor to Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, said the governor is committed to continuing an equity agenda. Brown has requested a total of $138.8 million in early-education intervention over two years and signed the Oregon Promise bill, which provides grants that cover the bulk of community college tuition.

Addressing Native American Students

The development process for the state’s American Indian/Alaska Native Education State Plan also reflects efforts to address the needs of specific populations while involving them in the decisionmaking, state officials said.

2015 NAEP Results

African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students in Oregon continue to trail their state peers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.


Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Representatives from all nine federally recognized Native American tribes in the state were invited to meet with state education officials to provide input on the plan. In those discussions, the tribes asked the education department to appoint a liaison between the department and the tribes, said Modesta Minthorn, the education director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The state appointed April Campbell, a former education director for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, to that position.

“That, in and of itself, was a big accomplishment— getting a seat at the table and getting the tribal voices included,” Minthorn said.

The plan centers around increasing attendance and graduation rates, providing culturally relevant professional development for school district staff, increasing and retaining Native American teachers, and “implementing historically accurate and culturally embedded” Native American curricula in schools.

The state now plans to work with districts to change policies so that students who are absent for cultural ceremonies can get credit for their absences. Native Americans have the highest absenteeism rates in the state, in part because districts do not recognize time off for cultural celebrations and ceremonies, Minthorn said.

“If we were perfect, we wouldn’t have these gaps,” she added. But “together, with the state, and the local school districts, and the tribes, we are all on the same page saying, ‘We can do better, we have to do better.’”

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2016 edition of Education Week as Oregon Creates a ‘Lens’ for Viewing Educational Equity


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