“Do you know what the trigger word down here is? ‘Equity,’” Joseph Cousins, a minister in Cherokee County, Ga., told me about a year ago. “To me, equity means fairness, compassion, goodness, honesty, decency.”
I had been reporting a story about school boards’ passing resolutions restricting how schools can teach about race, gender, and other topics. And, as Cousins predicted, hot on the heels of the “critical race theory” legislative wrecking ball, equity had suddenly become a code word for scary-sounding things: race-related trainings, quotas, “Marxist” theory.
A case in point: A school board member in Oregon told me a few days later that he understood equity as “trying to force the same set of outcomes for students,” which, he said, was different from giving them equal opportunities to succeed.
This story is part of a special project called Big Ideas in which EdWeek reporters ask hard questions about K-12 education’s biggest challenges and offer insights based on their extensive coverage and expertise.
As someone with many years’ experience writing about schools, I found this distinction puzzling, as it surely must be for anyone working in schools so far this century. That’s because the notion that schools should get students to reach a basic level of academic mastery is not at all a foreign one. It has actually been baked into federal education law for years.
Two decades ago, the No Child Left Behind law took effect. It required states to ensure that, within a 12-year period, all students in grades 3-8 would attain grade-level proficiency in math and reading. It put significant pressure on school boards and educators to reach those goals. The law was enacted with huge bipartisan support.
I feel confident in asserting that President George W. Bush, the Republican president who proposed the outline for the law, would reject the idea that his signature domestic achievement was part and parcel of race absolutism or a redistribution scheme. And the core idea was renewed in 2015, again with large bipartisan support, when Congress replaced the law with the Every Student Succeeds Act.
What does it mean that a commitment that was eagerly embraced is now so suspect?
How data help us to see inequality
The brilliant insight that equity is built into the most consequential piece of K-12 education legislation since the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act is not my own. I first heard it mentioned by Luvelle Brown, the superintendent of New York’s Ithaca City school district, on a podcast hosted by the Education Trust.
Brown, a Black man, grew up in a central Virginia school district. There, he told me in a later conversation, he often felt invisible. “I was a young person who felt marginalized and felt oppressed. I’m one of a few people who look like me [back when I was a student] who even survived school,” he said.
That’s why, as an administrator, he found the NCLB law—with its explicit requirement that schools do right by Black students, students with disabilities, and other underserved groups of students—so revolutionary.
“It was the first time, from my perspective, that the law required school districts to see us, just to see us. And to begin to hold schools accountable for seeing us,” he said.
The law had plenty of well-documented problems. It never had popular buy-in. It relied heavily on testing, put scores of fussy rules in place, distrusted educators, and underemphasized how to empower teachers and administrators to meet its exacting requirements. All that engendered a lot of rage—some of it from advocates for Black students, not just from harried administrators. Such problems often distracted from the law’s core equity promise.
But what the law did do was force a conversation about disparate achievement patterns that had been long ignored, even in supposedly integrated schools. Under the law, districts and principals were supposed to analyze and investigate these patterns and evolve solutions to fix them.
That remains a very powerful way of analyzing how schools are doing, and it’s one that school district equity officers say they follow today. They look at the budget, examine how resources are allocated, and investigate patterns of which teachers, schools, and special programs students have access to. Then, they brainstorm how to rejigger resources and patterns to help more students achieve.
This data-informed approach can be used to examine policies that rarely attract much attention—like student lunch debt and bus routes—all the way up to the hottest of hot-button issues, like student-discipline patterns and enrollment in selective programs and high schools.
The Ithaca district starts off its conversations about equity with the data. The district has an extensive dashboard that crunches the numbers on graduation rates, test scores, attendance, and many more granular factors. (At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it even calculated how many days each school was forced back into remote learning.)
Data orient the conversations that principals have with their teams—and that Brown has with the community, too.
“We say we’re committing to use our data to learn, not judge; that shifts the conversation,” Brown said."I know how to point to data to tell a story about how schools are failing kids—but I also know how to look at it to know how to be better for people the next day.”
How much does terminology matter?
Given that using data to ask questions about obstacles to educational attainment isn’t new, why has its use in the pursuit of equity suddenly become so suspect? For one thing, political actors and think tanks have recently sought to redefine the idea of equity as somehow inconsistent with American principles.
In a recent nationally representative survey, the EdWeek Research Center queried educators on whether they saw “equality” as distinct from the term “equity.” The responses were telling.
Almost 8 in 10 educators agreed with this definition: “Equality is about giving all students the same opportunities; equity is about outcomes and giving some students, who have tended to have lower performance or higher needs, additional resources.” About three-quarters of them said their districts had committed to one or both.
But the respondents were not as clear about what this meant in practice.
“Equity has turned into segregation and divides people,” one respondent said. Another offered this framing: “In my view, the right wing has created a false debate between equity and equality as a means to continue to deny the most needy the support and help they need.”
The definitional issue is part of the problem, one educator noted: “Districts need to define ‘equity’ and communicate this definition to our stakeholders, so that critics are not doing that.”
This is perhaps not surprising when you consider our culture’s larger problems trying to make these distinctions tangible. Internet memes trying to illustrate the difference between equality vs. equity usually feature kids standing on boxes or next to evergreens that look suspiciously like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree. But it’s much harder knowing what these concepts translate to when applied to real-world problems and policies.
This was always a problem with the NCLB law, too: In its focus on penalties, it set equity goals without defining equity—or without providing a language, vocabulary, or defined skill set on how educators were supposed to reach those goals.
Many years later, studies suggest the law did prompt some positive effects—especially on young students’ math scores. But the law didn’t fundamentally change the fact that we continue to fail to give students a “fair playing field”—whether we measure that on the front end or back end. Many of our state and local education funding formulas are regressive, for example. Districts’ boundary lines often exacerbate patterns of housing segregation. Low-income students continue to get more underprepared and out-of-field teachers.
In today’s political environment, system leaders who take on these challenges face not only the problem of designing new policies but also in trying to communicate them without setting off a firestorm.
Equity had suddenly become a code word for scary-sounding things: race-related trainings, quotas, 'Marxist' theory.
Fabienne Doucet, a New York University associate professor who studies urban education in the context of equity, said most district leaders who prioritize equity are upfront about the work they’re doing. Given the current climate of mistrust activist groups are fomenting—like the recent, dangerous accusation that educators who support LGBTQ-inclusive policies are in fact “groomers”—that’s a best practice.
“It’s part of a broader ethos of trust,” said Doucet, who is also the executive director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. “Smart leaders say, ‘I want you to know exactly what I mean, and what I’m talking about, and why I think it’s beneficial.’ They don’t want to be stealth.”
Superintendent Brown agrees. He doesn’t shy away from using the term “anti-racist.” But, he said, sometimes leaders do have to talk in what might be called different registers, so that people who aren’t familiar with the ideas have a starting place. For example, he said differentiating instruction—a concept most parents agree with—is actually one form of equity, of giving each student what they need to succeed.
Often, he said, his job also means meeting critics on their terms and showing them a different way of thinking.
He recounted how one parent, who objected to steps the district had taken to affirm gender-nonconforming students, marched into a public meeting quoting the Bible. Brown, who grew up attending Sunday services with his family like clockwork, met the challenge.
“So, I had to really value and affirm this person,” Brown said. “I had to say, ‘I see you and I, too, love that book. It was the first text that was ever given to me.’
“‘But I also know it was used to enslave people and my ancestors,’” he continued. “And this person looked at me, and he had a hard time debating that. I could see him starting to shift, to see that these young people are human, too, and want to be seen for who they are.”
The fears that drive pushback to equity
There’s one part of Rev. Cousin’s earlier quote that I haven’t yet mentioned. When I asked him why he thought people were afraid of equity, he said: “I think they have taken it to mean someone’s going to take something away.”
It’s a clear echo of what educators told EdWeek. And it’s born out of the idea that educating all students well is somehow a zero-sum game, in which some must fall behind so others can advance. Doucet told me those fears have deep roots in the U.S. racial and class structures that have dominated social organization.
“It’s one of those fundamental principles or tenets of the philosophy—there is scarcity and hierarchy, and order needs to be maintained for things to function as they should,” she said.
But I can see why such fears also occur among those who would otherwise consider themselves supportive of integration, fairness, and equity: Sometimes, doing so means discarding received wisdom about what “a good classroom” or “a good school” looks like.
Ithaca faced this when trying to rethink math classes a few years ago. The district decided to give all students access to a solid math sequence beginning in middle school, rather than splitting students into remedial and gifted tracks. (The difficult-to-pull-off idea hasn’t been empirically studied, and it has generated howls of criticism where it’s been tried—including in Ithaca, initially, though things have since settled down.) Embracing new ways of doing things, especially when they seem inconvenient or foreign, is uncomfortable and challenging.
There are ways to overcome this: Smart district leaders are clear about what the data mean, how they define equity, and how they build up supporters of the work in their school systems, creating a critical mass to counter the critics who will never buy in. Another strategy is more pragmatic: to make the case that the new policies benefit everyone, Doucet said.
“If your logic is there are winners and losers, then somehow, [as a leader], I have to compel you that you will be among the winners, still,” Doucet summarized. “I wish that weren’t the case, that we could just appeal to people’s better angels.”
Mixed feelings about equity’s place in federal law
As this suggests, the work of equity these days has largely fallen on the shoulders of committed and politically savvy leaders. The federal K-12 law was supposed to give them political cover to do hard things, but increasingly, it feels as though that shield is crumbling.
It’s not just the new state laws that seek to restrict conversations about race and gender and the chilling effect that will have on classrooms: It’s our federal commitment, too. The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, or ESSA, is much less heavy-handed about consequences than its predecessor, and its enforcement by the last two administrations, especially on data reporting and school improvement, has been uneven. It’s simply easier for districts and states to avoid the tough conversations.
What’s more, not many people appear to want to preserve the law’s equity features.
The EdWeek Research Center survey found that more than a quarter of educators said that there was nothing positive about the NCLB or ESSA—the most popular response of the possible choices. Thirty-eight percent of respondents cited the law’s annual testing requirement as its “most negative outcome.”
Interestingly, about 1 in 5 survey-takers cited the laws’ requirements to disaggregate student data as its most positive feature—and those data, of course, were only possible thanks to the annual testing. This dissonance is a clear sign for concern.
Perhaps the pandemic has exacerbated fatigue and dissatisfaction with our current federal accountability structure. Perhaps the explanation is simpler: an acknowledgement that the law was never enough to shore up the disparities in what kids bring to school. Perhaps, even in education, we truly are now less committed to equity.
Yet, we know that much of the work of equality or equity are things we can do now—things we still can control.
We can ensure that all students receive, for example, early reading instruction that aligns with what we know from scientific studies. We can give them a curriculum that affirms their backgrounds and traditions while also expanding their horizons. We can ensure that they receive an instructional program that avoids fads and instead reflects cognitive science about how kids learn. And we can take steps to make sure students are taught by well-prepared teachers who are ready to deliver that curriculum.
So, let’s get to work tackling those factors, one by one.
For now, after all, it’s the law.
Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2023 edition of Education Week as When Did Equity Become a ‘Trigger’ Word?