There is a Zulu greeting that recognizes people’s worth and dignity: “Sawubona.” It means “I see you, I hear you, I value you, and you are important to me.”
Thinking about equity in an educational organization is about ensuring that all students feel seen, heard, and valued. However, in the current educational system, inequities may occur under the best of circumstances, even in organizations filled with the most well-intentioned people. As the director of Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports and Innovation for my school district, I help marry the work of looking honestly at inequities in our system with building a multitiered system of support for all students. It’s sometimes hard to look at data honestly; and our brains are wired to flee from hard things, so developing structures for those conversations can be important.
If we don’t look in the mirror and examine the reality of what each student is experiencing, we can’t help support them and may even cause inadvertent harm. Therefore, it’s important to ask questions like these: Which groups are benefiting from the way things are? Which groups aren’t? One way an organization can think more deeply about the gaps that exist for some students in their care is to consider conducting a systemic equity audit.
A systemic equity audit is a multistep process to identify pain points throughout the organization and analyze next steps intended to support all students. “Systemic” is important here. This isn’t about a “gotcha” for a school or an individual. It’s about identifying what may be baked into the functions of the organization that runs counter to its heart. It’s about creating a snapshot of an entire system and what might be contributing to inequities experienced by any number of students.
An audit typically takes place in two parts: the report and the plan.
STEP 1: CREATING AN EQUITY REPORT
The equity report is an objective, deep dive into the data as it exists, both qualitative and quantitative. This step includes forming a committee that collects and categorizes data from public-facing dashboards and websites, as well as through methods like conducting focus groups and interviews, observing classrooms, and more. This committee may also want to conduct some kind of preassessment using a rubric like the one created by Alliance for Resource Equity.
The committee first examines publicly available data like those found on the state dashboard. They zoom in on data focused on each individual student group. Then, the committee breaks into research teams of two to three people that are sent onto sites and into offices to collect more qualitative data. On each campus, they interview focus groups of students, teachers, classified staff, administrators, and parents. A research team also interviews administrators in the district office using vetted questions.
These questions ask participants to evaluate the organization’s equity practices through their own lens. The research teams assigned to sites also go into classrooms for brief, two-to-five-minute observations, taking notes to give an overall impression of environments and practices used throughout the organization. The teams return from their field studies with copious information that is then disseminated into different key findings. With so much that comes up, there are criteria to establish what makes it into the final report:
- Key findings must be actionable by the organization. (For instance, the report does not speak to poverty or family education level because those are out of the district’s control.)
- They must have been brought up at least three times in different data points. (Perhaps a graph from the district dashboard also highlighted something observed in a classroom as well as a comment made in an interview. Remember, this process is systemic.)
The report presents the data objectively with no commentary or assumptions.
This step can take a while. Ensure that you’re communicating with all partners so they understand the scope of what you’re doing. Avoid “solution-itis.” Spend the time to curate data and categorize it without jumping to causes or solutions quite yet.
STEP 2: CREATING AN EQUITY PLAN
The equity plan communicates the analysis of the curated data, identifies problem statements, begins to explore root causes, and eventually develops recommendations to improve students’ experiences. This can be accomplished by a whole new committee or by opening up the original committee to any who want to do the hard work of creating an action plan to address the key findings. This group should be a diverse community of teachers, administrators, and classified staff at least.
Spend time in this committee building community, as equity work can be really messy and nonlinear. You need to trust those in the room even while debating and challenging each other. It’s important to also spend some time deepening the committee’s understanding of equity to help the group calibrate their mindsets.
It’s OK if the team is made up of individuals who are new to this journey and those already passionate about it. Provide them common learning experiences to help align them with each other, like providing a mini-lesson on the history of the educational system and where some prior inequities may have originated in our industry or even in your local area. You can choose to look at cases like Mendez v. Westminster just to set the tone that these issues have been long-standing.
Then spend time in the development of the plan using protocols and activities that create structure in the discussion. For instance, try gallery walks for feedback on drafted language, or try the 5 Whys protocol to explore root causes. Spend time researching solutions that other organizations have used, and explore what did and didn’t work before creating recommendations for each of the key findings.
Schedule feedback meetings to ensure that drafts of the plan are looked at by others outside of the committee, like groups of staff, parents, and even students. Be transparent about the work that is going on and the input you are receiving. Structure these meetings so that the feedback is constructive and deepens the work.
Implementing YOur PLan
How will you take those recommendations from the equity plan and roll them out—putting theory into action? Communication with all partners ensures that everyone understands the why and the how of the process.
If you claim to be a data-driven organization, you’ll end up sleeping, dreaming, and living equity data. It’s as if you can’t unsee it. Once you realize that a particular demographic may not be reflected in a meaningful way in your associate student body, or that only one group of parents show up to give input in your budgeting meetings, or that a particular demographic doesn’t have the graduation or college and career readiness rate that you thought, you can’t not do something about it.
There are many open educational resources available to help you think through creating these structures, but you may want to start with your local county office of education. Bringing in outside experts to help may bring an objective lens that’s needed in what can be an uncomfortable process.
By looking at data honestly and engaging in a process where you examine the institution as a whole, you’ll become an organization whose actions reflect your hearts and whose intentions will one day be shown in even better outcomes for all students.