CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
Standing at the Intersection of Innovation and Equity
At a recent convening led by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, I had the opportunity to hear their staff share their learnings from a year-long equity assessment examining the way the foundation operates, structures its grantmaking, and organizes its strategy. Results of the study inspired a monumental shift in the foundation’s funding priorities, ensuring that they are supporting the development of equity work in schools that results in real impact. In this same space, I was deeply encouraged by the productive struggle of many districts throughout New England - funded by Nellie Mae - as they grappled with current work uncovering and dismantling the barriers to equity that exist in their school systems.
My coaching with one such district has underscored the difficult balance between equity-minded ideals and the myriad demands facing educators and school leaders. Equity-minded school reform is difficult. Gaining wide buy-in is usually the first barrier: leaders often fear that their community lacks the collective energy to sustain change. A labored process that excavates the root causes of existing inequities, in particular, requires intense commitment from often-overburdened educators. It becomes all too tempting to presume that by becoming more innovative and student-centered, schools will also achieve equity by trickle-down effect.
A common claim is that we are too ambitious in our goals for school change. The stubborn problems some of our schools face often seem to have little to do with schools themselves. Research continually supports the conclusion that poverty, for example, is the single greatest barrier to academic success for students, suggesting that schools will not lead to fair outcomes until we eliminate poverty in society at large. But poverty cannot be the scapegoat when race and culture are also culprits; even when poverty is removed from the equation, students of color face unequal outcomes. School segregation reinforced the correlations among low academic achievement, poverty, and race that remain to this day. Meanwhile, inequitable accountability structures focused primarily on high stakes testing have reified the racial achievement gap; and biased, classist, racist curriculum too often dampens engagement and accessibility for our most underserved students. And despite the revolutionary changes that have happened to our world since the 1930s, our schools have, for the most part, stubbornly retained the structures that were designed in that decade to rank, sort, and even oppress young people.
Perhaps it’s not that our aims are too ambitious in our school transformations: perhaps we have not been ambitious enough. We can’t settle for school improvement by incremental growth that barely meets the threshold of statistical significance. We can’t ignore a legacy of segregation, oppression, marginalization as we work - however earnestly. And we can’t respond to the nuanced diversity of our students in our school designs with a simple stated emphasis on cultural relevance. To put it bluntly: we can’t pigeonhole equity as we move to be transformative: we must, instead, work at the very nexus of equity and innovation.
This nexus occurs when equity is a fundamental factor in the way in which we innovate. The process of innovating must ensure a strong, diverse representation, community-driven decisions, and equitable learning that includes an exploration of identity and bias. The new school designs must feature culturally-responsive curriculum, just policies, and broad community engagement. Moreover, the outcomes must be regularly monitored to ensure that the school does not stagnate in closing gaps in opportunity and achievement.
For the past few years in particular, we at CCE have worked at this nexus in all of our work supporting school design and redesign. We have accumulated a robust toolkit to support our coaches as they collaborate with schools and districts. Yet we have come to realize that even our own practice has lacked a formal framework that would calibrate our respective coaching, bind all of our work together, and help us establish proof points so that we can help scale the most promising innovative and culturally-responsive school design elements. As a result, we were inspired to convert our tools, practices, and processes into a sequence of steps that can be used by practitioners and change agents alike. Innovating for Equity was born, serving as a practical resource for school change, even as it strives to avoid quick fixes and easy answers.
This toolkit, which will officially launch later this year, provides educators with a process for driving equity-focused, innovative school change—along with the tools they need to bring this to life in their own school settings. Our Equitable Redesign Cycle (above) walks educators through the five phases of equitable and innovative school redesign. At every step of the way, we share examples from real schools, supplemental tools, helpful videos, websites to bring the concepts to life, and clear guidance to support effective planning and implementation.
The time is ripe for a practical toolkit for equity-focused school innovation. A renewed commitment to equity in our schools, both among those doing the work and those supporting it, requires effective resources and proven strategies to bring culturally-responsive teaching, social justice, and critical pedagogy to the fore, so that we are not only talking about equity - we’re making it.