Equity Principles and School Reform: What it Takes to Ensure that “All Means All,”

Adela Solís, Ph.D.

School districts across the country are beginning the new century – as they spent the last half of the 1990s – engaged in rigorous efforts to reform their practices, hoping to radically reverse a persistent downward trend in student achievement, a characteristic of many schools in many states. Educators at all levels have developed performance standards for student achievement and assessment schemes to monitor and measure student learning.

Districts have also searched for and are adopting a variety of educational models that promise to positively impact all aspects of school operations and in turn cause dramatic change in student outcomes. These reform efforts, to a large extent, are advocated and financially supported through federal legislation, particularly the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) of 1994 and the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (CSRD) program, begun in 1997. Both of these fund programs target minority and disadvantaged students.

An official government statement in support of these programs makes clear the focus on such students:

Building upon and leveraging efforts to connect higher standards with school improvement… will help expand the quality and quantity of schoolwide reform efforts that enable all children, particularly low achieving children, to meet challenging academic standards (CPRE, 1998).

It is clear to educators that the aim of school reform is to help all students achieve to the highest possible standards. Those attending U.S. Department of Education conferences and meetings undoubtedly have heard officials over and over promote the motto, “All means all.”

School reform is comprehensive. Publications and technical assistance materials are available to schools, especially through technical assistance and research organizations and the federal government (see box below). These publications delineate processes, procedures and criteria for successful school reform gleaned from extensive literature on school effectiveness and restructuring. Schoolwide planning emphasizes, as reform strategies, the importance of “good planning,” including the conduct of assessments to determine programmatic needs and especially student needs. Recommended practices include crafting specific needs statements that define low performance, targeting specific curriculum to specific student needs, and disaggregating student data to better understand the performance of different groups of learners.

Comprehensive school reform assistance publications present leadership and systemic change principles as prerequisites for successful reform. For instance, the US Department of Education advises schools to avoid “ad hoc” innovations and focus instead on coordination and integration. The department directs them to five “requirements” to implementing comprehensive reform:

  • Articulate a vision for reform;
  • Provide instructional guidance toward vision realization;
  • Restructure governance and organizational structures to facilitate learning and effective service delivery;
  • Provide needed resources; and
  • Establish evaluation and accountability mechanisms that provide incentives while addressing barriers.

The CSRD program further promotes the practices of coordination and integration and pushes reform by financially supporting the adoption of “whole school, research-based” education models (NCREL, 1998). The CSRD posts nine key components that models and programs must possess:

  • Effective research-based methods and strategies;
  • A comprehensive design with aligned components;
  • Professional development;
  • Measurable goals and benchmarks linked to state standards;
  • Support within the school;
  • Parent and community involvement;
  • External support and technical assistance;
  • Evaluation strategies; and
  • Coordination of federal, state and local resources.

Many more no-nonsense, promising strategies for changing schools are available to school districts.

What this Reform Guidance is Missing

The approach to improving schools outlined by the numerous strategies, some of which are cited above, is powerful and thoughtful for many reasons. It advocates systemic changes (change in all aspects of school operations). It embraces a process approach to change (including planning and comprehensive needs assessments). It is rigorous in its demand that schools focus only on practices (models) for which there is evidence of success. It calls for accountability (through evaluation) of student outcomes.

These recipes for success, however, have a shortcoming when it comes to directing the goal to reach all students. Certainly, the theme of inclusiveness has been addressed within accountability strategies, and the need to study outcomes of discrete groups has also been stated. However, an important step that this literature on reform has not taken is to clearly articulate the relationship between reform initiatives and the effort to eliminate discriminatory action in the schools. To tackle the goal of “all means all” it is necessary to clarify for all educators that the universe of nondiscriminatory practices entails, to a large extent, the cutting-edge strategies embodied in the reform initiatives. To engage in reform in this fashion is to address the all-important principle of equity.

The Goals and Conditions of Educational Equity

The Intercultural Development Research Association’s (IDRA) South Central Collaborative for Equity (SCCE) exists to promote equity in schools and classrooms through its technical assistance services. A key issue for the SCCE has been to spread the message that meaningful school reform can only be achieved through educational practice that adheres loyally to principles of equity. Most recently, the SCCE has worked diligently (along with other equity technical assistance centers across the country) to promote clearer goals of equity and help client educators link their reform and equity efforts.

The attempt has been not only to reach schools undertaking mandated desegregation, but also to reach all schools engaged in reform, as nearly all of them enroll diverse learners who are minority, linguistically different and disadvantaged and, for many, whose achievement is not up to par with that of other students. The director of the SCCE, Bradley Scott, says the following about the motto of “All means all”:

We have evidence of programs that, either in part or in their entirety, are working for diverse learners. The greater challenge, however, is to reproduce these successes in a nation full of millions of learners, on hundreds of thousands of school campuses, in thousands of school districts (Scott, 1998).

In further discussions, he explains that the concept of educational equity entails consideration of how the differentiated characteristics of students – how students access curriculum, programs, supports and other opportunities in educational settings – must be taken into account (Scott, 1999). The message here is that working with the principle of equity – the cornerstone of the civil rights approach within schools and other institutions – involves understanding the more complex concept of integration. This concept embraces not just breadth of access (access to programs, opportunities, etc., to all students) but the depth of inclusion, the nature of involvement of all types of learners in all kinds of curricular offerings (Scott, 1999). Understanding this concept is key to ensuring that the lofty goal of serving all students is met. Equity advocates believe that the set of equity goals established recently by the SCCE, aid this understanding and prompt not just reform, but equitable reform.

The goals of equity specifically define key concepts of equity and enumerate specific actions and opportunities that should occur within schools and classrooms so that the notion that all diverse learners must achieve to high standards becomes possible. There are five prominent equity goals: (1) comparably high academic achievement and other student outcomes; (2) equitable access and inclusion; (3) equitable treatment; (4) equitable opportunity to learn; and (5) equitable resources. These are discussed in detail on Page 1. The overall articulation of equity through the five goals expresses that what is crucial in the pursuit for educational equity is the achievement of desired results.

The first goal – comparably high achievement and other student outcomes – is the most important. It overlaps with the overarching reform objective of high standards for all. Within this context, the goal conveys that equity cannot be claimed unless it can be ascertained that children in the protected classes (specified in civil rights statutes) achieve academically at comparably high levels as other students and, subsequently, enjoy the benefits in life brought about by an excellent education. This expectation follows from the widely accepted, well established assumption that all children can learn and be successful when given a chance to do so (Cárdenas, 1995).

Linking Equity to Comprehensive School Reform Models and Programs

Another way IDRA has linked comprehensive school reform efforts to equity is to offer a framework that can help determine if models or programs for “whole school” reform (which are being promoted so intensely by national leaders as the answer to current school problems) are aligned with needs of minority disadvantaged students. This framework includes a set of questions that helps adopters examine a model’s history of implementation with diverse learners and the relevance of its strategies to these learners.

Evidence must be provided longitudinally and in a disaggregated manner to demonstrate success with the specific student populations. This approach supports the first equity goal and is central to linking equity and school reform. Educators reforming their schools through the implementation of one or more such whole school models would benefit from applying this framework to assess their model’s alignment with this most critical equity principle (see box below).

The concept of educational equity must be the driving force to protect the rights of children in public schools. The five educational equity goals hold the most promise in ensuring that minority disadvantaged children are included in efforts to assist all students learn to the highest possible standards. The way to equity is for all schools to follow the equity goals presented here. It is especially crucial to realize that the research-based promising strategies in reform programs are what equity advocates expect to better serve diverse students’ special needs. Equally important is that educators work knowing that for these students results also matter. In order to claim success, reform programs must first provide evidence that offerings have significantly touched every single child in its schools.

Resources

Cárdenas, J.A. Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon and Schuster, 1995) pp. 20-34; pp. 99-105.

Consortium for Policy Research in Education. “States and Districts and Comprehensive School Reform,” CPRE Policy Briefs (Philadelphia, Penn.: CPRE, May 1998) RB-24, pg. 8.

North Central Regional Education Laboratory. Changing by Design – Comprehensive School Reform: An Introduction to Implementation (One Brook, Ill.: NCREL, 1998).

Scott, B. “Who’s at the Table? Or Is there Room Enough for All?” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 1998) pp. 13-14.

Scott, B. “From ‘DAC? to ‘EAC? – The Expanding Role of the Equity Assistance Center,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 1999) pp. 5, 8.

Adela Solís, Ph.D. is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

Equity and School Reform Resources

Comprehensive School Reform – Making Good Choices: A Guide for Schools and Districts (One Brook, Ill.: North Central Regional Laboratory, 1998).

Focus on School Improvement: A Planning Guide (San Francisco, Calif.: WestED Regional Educational Laboratory, 1996).

“From ‘DAC? to ‘EAC? – The Expanding Role of the Equity Assistance Center,” by B. Scott, IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 1999).

Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy, by JA Cárdenas (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

Noteworthy Perspectives on School Reform (Aurora, Colo.: Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, 1999).

Schoolwide Reform: A New Outlook (resource guide) (San Francisco, Calif.: WestED Regional Educational Laboratory, 1996).

Systemic Reform: Studies in Education Reform (Washington, D.C.: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, US Department of Education, 1996).

A Toolkit for Assessing and Revising the Integrated Campus Improvement and Title I Schoolwide Plan (San Antonio, Texas: STAR Center, Intercultural Development Research Association, 1997).

“Who’s at the Table? Or Is there Room Enough for All?” by B. Scott, IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 1998).

Applying Equity Principles to School Reform Programs

Equity Principle

Indicators of model and program responsiveness to the needs of the diverse student populations

Evidence needed to demonstrate responsiveness

Comparably high academic achievement and other student outcomes.

As data on academic achievement and other student outcomes are disaggregated and analyzed, one sees high comparable performance for all identifiable groups of learners, and achievement and performance gaps are virtually non-existent.

Has the model been implemented in settings with different student groups?

Describe these settings and elaborate on campus profiles with different student groups where the model has been implemented.

Is the model’s research base inclusive of research or studies of effectiveness with different student groups?

Discuss findings as they relate to other student groups addressed in this survey that form the research base for your model.

Do school reform planning processes facilitate or include needs assessment based on disaggregated data for each of these student groups?

Describe the different student groups are addressed in the model’s needs assessment processes.

Does the training and technical assistance address the cultural and linguistic diversity of the students?

Discuss training and technical assistance activities designed to address the cultural and linguistic diversity of students.

Does the training and technical assistance address specific characteristics and needs (in addition to linguistic and cultural) of these student populations?

Discuss these other specific student characteristics and needs addressed by the training and technical assistance in your model.

Are assessment procedures for monitoring growth and progress modified to address the different student populations?

Describe procedures or instrumentation; also types of modifications suggested or guidance for modifications for monitoring growth and progress.

Does the model have evaluation data or evidence of the impact that it had on the different student groups?

Describe the evaluation data or evidence and the impact that it had on the different student groups.

Do the evaluation results show achievement gains for the different student groups that have been sustained for at least three years?

Describe the evaluation results that show these sustained achievement gains for the different student groups.

Has the model been used successfully with significant numbers of these student groups?

Identify (name, address and contact person) schools with significant numbers of these student groups where the model has been used.

Does the model integrate an accountability system to ensure that achievement standards and other indicators of success are met?

Describe the accountability system and how the system ensures that the different student groups achieve to high standards.

[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]

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