How can state chiefs take the lead on improving equity for all students? The Council of Chief State School Officers and the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program released a list of recommendations Thursday—included in a report called “Leading for Equity: Opportunities for State Education Chiefs”—to address that question.
The recommendations—which include tangible ideas like collecting better data on student outcomes, improving access to early childhood education, and seeking to reorganize and diversify state education agencies—come at a time when a lot is changing in K-12 education.
The nation’s public schools now serve more students who are considered “minorities” than white students, and the majority of public school kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. At the same time, states and school districts are poised to get far more control over accountability, testing, school turnarounds, and more, thanks in large part to the Every Student Succeeds Act. Some advocates are deeply worried that the federal government may also take a step back when it comes to civil rights enforcement.
The recommendations are the culmination of months of work by state chiefs, district leaders, civil rights advocates, and others. They outline 10 areas state leaders can focus on to champion equity, including more specific steps within each of those buckets. State leaders may not decide to push on all 10 of these areas at once—instead they may decide to pick two or three to focus on initially.
Here’s a quick summary of some of the ideas outlined in the report:
1) “Prioritize equity: set and communicate an equity vision and measurable targets”
- Use the bully pulpit of their offices to shine a spotlight on the need for equity and make the case that it benefits all kids, not just poor and minority students
- Help spur dialogue between local leaders, educators, parents, and the civil rights community
- Make sure the policymakers, educators, and the general public have access to data showing outcomes for different groups of students well after graduation, including housing and health
2) “Start from within: Focus on the State Education Agency”
- State chiefs can lead conversations about the impact of poverty on educational outcomes
- Leaders change the structure of the state education agencies to better address equity challenges—for instance, some systems have a chief equity officer, or an office of Hispanic education
- Aim to create a state education agency staff that is representative of the student population in the state
3) “Measure what matters: Create accountability for equity”
- Consider both proficiency and growth for accountability
- Set long-term and interim goals to make sure English-language learners are reaching proficiency
- Collect and report data on school climate, chronic absenteeism, and access to advanced coursework. (ESSA really opens the door to this.)
4) “Go local: Engage districts and provide tailored and differentiated support”
- Encourage districts to select culturally relevant instructional material
- Shine a spotlight on districts that are making progress on equity
- Allocate grants for promising local programs that address the needs of specific populations
5) “Follow the money": Allocate resources for fiscal equity”
- Use the political power of the state chief’s office to make sure needy kids get access to their fair share of funding, including through things like a weighted-student funding formulas
- Offer guidance on how districts can make the best use of existing resources, such as investing in school counselors instead of school security guards
- Help improve coordination between K-12 dollars and money for other services for kids, such as health and nutrition funding
6) “Start early: Invest in the youngest learners":
- Push for more funding for pre-K programs, including for disadvantaged kids and English language learners
- Align early learning standards with what kids need to do and be able to do in kindergarten through third grade
- Take a close look at suspension and expulsion policies for kids in early childhood education and work to improve them
7) “Engage more deeply: Monitor equitable implementation of standards and assessments:
- Examine district practices to make sure low-income and minorities kids are given a fair shot at taking advanced courses
- Make sure money doesn’t become an object to college-readiness, through things like subsidizing AP exam fees for low-income kids
- Make sure all kids—not just some—are getting rich and rigorous assignments
8) “Value people: Focus on teachers and leaders”
- Create programs to help diversify the teaching force
- Take a look at data regarding how long teachers from different racial and ethnic groups, or who serve particular groups of students stay in the profession
- Create leadership programs to prepare principals to work in urban, rural, and other hard-to-staff schools
9) “Improve conditions for learning: Focus on school culture, climate, and socio-emotional development":
- Work with districts to address chronic absenteeism
- Rethink discipline practices, like suspensions, that take kids out of the classroom, and consider alternatives, like restorative justice
- Help principals make social and emotional learning a priority
10) “Empower student outcomes: Ensure families have access to high-quality educational outcomes that align to community needs and contribute to equity
- Make it easier for all parents to take advantage of open-enrollment options
- Use inter-district choice as a way to create more diverse student populations
- Support successful charters and make sure they are serving students in special education, English-language learners, and other special populations
Even though these equity recommendations may be especially timely, they have been in the works for months, well before the 2016 election.
Tony Evers, the state chief in Wisconsin who served as CCSSO president in 2016, decided to make a push for equity a theme of his year leading the association, which represents Republican, Democratic, and nonpartisan state chiefs. He was inspired, he told me, in part because of feedback he heard from civil rights leaders in his state in the wake of ESSA’s passage. Those civil rights advocates were concerned that now that state leaders had been given more authority, they would drop the ball when it came to ensuring equity for poor and minority kids.