So here’s a question: If the No Child Left Behind law really does go away, and if we really do adopt a whole new set of tests, are we still “closing the achievement gap”?
For years now, if someone said their goal was “equity,” it was a fair bet that their work was to close the gap on the California Standards Tests. Of course, there have been skeptics who argued that the test was too narrow and pointed out that the test is not sufficiently tied to the real-world goals of “college and career readiness.” But most of the equity work of the past decade has focused on strategies to boost the test scores of chronically low-performing students, increase enrollment and success in “gatekeeper” courses like algebra, and increase the number of students who are “college and career ready” – for example through policies about enrollment in “A-G” courses or the adoption of what are now called “Linked Learning” approaches.
All of these strategies seem important. All appear to yield gains on the specific metrics to which they are aligned. Yet after a decade or more of work, do we have a more equitable system of schools in this nation? I think most observers would say no.
We have some schools and even more classrooms that are more equitable; a few of these dramatically so. This is progress and worth celebrating, especially since this work is an uphill battle in a society in which the distribution of income and opportunity is becoming less and less equitable. But despite hard work by many people, we do not yet have a dramatically more equitable system of schools, and such a system is badly needed. And it is only by creating a far more equitable system of schools that the public education system can be what this nation needs it to be: not just the engine of our economy but also the backbone of our democracy and the route for individuals to achieve their own American dream.
What would we accept as evidence that education systems were becoming more equitable? This is actually an important practical question as California embarks on the task of revising the Public Schools Accountability Act, which established the API. If we imagine a new-and-improved accountability system for California, test scores still matter, as do leading indicators of student learning like student attendance and engagement. But a narrow focus on these seems to have led us to pockets of excellence but not to a more equitable system of schools. Where else might we look? Once we start looking, we find achievement gaps – or perhaps we should call them equity gaps – in all sorts of places. If we were to build an “equity meter” that would be very sensitive to equity trends in an education system, what might we include? Here are some possibilities:
- Resource allocation: Do poor students and students learning English receive more resources than others? Do struggling students, struggling teachers, and struggling schools receive extra support?
- Community engagement: Do parents and community members feel connected to and engaged with the schools that serve them? Are schools able to respond to parent needs and concerns? Are parents living in poverty, parents with limited English, and parents of color equally engaged?
- Social capital for students: Are students supported by the kind of web or network of supportive adults that will help keep them in school and make them resilient in the face of life’s challenges? Are students living in poverty, students learning English, and students of color equally supported? Are they engaged in school?
- Professional community for adults: Do all the adults in the system feel a sense of personal and professional efficacy, that they can bring their whole selves – hearts and minds – to work every day? Do adults feel accountable to students and parents, including those who don’t look like them? Do they feel accountable for educational outcomes for all of their students and for helping to build a more equitable school system?
- Customer satisfaction and system responsiveness: Do parents and students feel satisfied with their schools?
It is easy to argue that these things might be important, but they aren’t easily measurable. That’s a problem. But if in the past we’ve settled for accurate measures of some of the wrong things, should we experiment with some less accurate measures of things that matter more, or at least that matter differently? As we move into a world in which the simple definition of equity as “closing the achievement gap” on a test no longer seems sufficient, we need to think differently about the goal of equity work: a far more equitable system of public schools in this nation.
Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.