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How States Are Leading for Equity

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

What can states do to ensure that every student receives an effective education? What does a real commitment to equity look like?

To answer these questions, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program teamed up with America’s Promise to release States Leading for Equity: Promising Practices Advancing the Equity Commitments. A follow-up to an earlier report that CCSSO and The Aspen Institute released last year, this year’s update renews the initial report’s 10 commitments to educational equity and highlights promising practices from states to advance that vision.

“Educational equity means that every student has access to the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education across race, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, sexual orientation, family background and/ or family income,” the report says.

States Leading for Equity

To celebrate the release of the report, an event was hosted at Aspen last Friday, “States Leading for Equity One Year Later: How States Are Leading for Equity.”

Experts in the field discussed lessons learned since the first publication and offered strategies and practices for tackling the challenges that remain. Here are a few key takeaways:

Bring All Stakeholders to the Table. Multiple panelists stressed the importance of seeking input broadly and including all parties in the discussion: teachers, staff, superintendents, employers, parents, communities, and especially the students themselves.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera explained that it’s all too easy for policymakers to lead on equity issues without engaging other parties. But when teachers, parents, superintendents, and others “know they have a voice…policy reflects actual need in the classroom.”

Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, agreed on the importance of including diverse perspectives. “Every time we talk, it builds trust, whether we agree or disagree,” she said.

Use Data to Tell the Whole Story. When asked about progress that states are making on equity issues by Education Week’s Daarel Burnette II, participants discussed the importance of rethinking the indicators traditionally used to measure success.

“We tend to get myopic, to focus on certain key indicators,” said Kirsten Baesler, the state superintendent of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

Tanya Tucker leads a discussion on Pennsylvania’s efforts to advance educational equity.

While things like graduation rates and test scores do matter, panelists encouraged taking a wider perspective on possible metrics. For instance, Elizabeth Olsson of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund discussed a recent push to measure school climates on matters of race, and to look at indicators like disciplinary rates when thinking about equity. (Recent research shows how suspension and expulsion can disproportionately affect youth of color.)

Similarly, Lillian Lowery of The Education Trust pointed out the importance of disaggregating data. For instance, when looking at significant gains in graduation rates, focusing on the overall statistic can obscure the real situation of different subgroups. An equitable approach, Lowery argued, would focus on different subgroups within that larger statistic to ensure that the state’s education system served all its students.

Acknowledge the Past, Keep an Eye Toward the Future. Experts discussed the long history of educational equity work in the United States and how that progress hasn’t ever been straightforward.

“We need to recognize that this is not a new conversation,” said Illinois Superintendent Tony Smith.

For Smith and others, progress towards equity must start with an understanding of how the education system developed such drastic disparities in outcome, which might mean grappling with uncomfortable truths.

“In this work, if you’re doing it and there are no uncomfortable moments,” said Tanya Tucker, Chief of Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships at America’s Promise. “You’re doing it wrong.”

With this sense of history in mind, panelists said that today’s policies will impact generations of young people to come. Smith added, “How we think about our actions today will matter for the next 50 years.”

Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

Join the GradNation Learning Community

To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to [email protected] with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.