What is Equity?
It is important to realize the exact nature of what it means to be working on and reforming equity in K-12 schools in America. An example of equity and the policy implications of using it can be found in a ten-year district reform effort in Oakland, CA. A new research book (McLaughlin, M. et al., 2020) on this effort has been written to help explain and document how regular school policies that seem equal have actually just been added to other polices and the resulting policy in-coherence creates un-equal outcomes for school children.
All school reforms are not the same and may actually limit public education through control issues, or even incoherence in policymaking. This seems counter to why school systems were invented—in order to create a common, public education. But the underlying inequity that we see in schools and across districts has been intentionally put into law through federal, state and local policy-making. The current school system cannot possibly fulfill its mission of full-service, public education due to these overlapping and non-coherent policies.
Assets, Policy, and Hoarding
Let’s take a simple example from Boston. The process of making local policy on commonly held goods, or assets, in the old days of colonial Boston was to purchase and maintain a place where local cows could be kept in the city, called the “common.”
“Considered the oldest public park in the United States, Boston Common played an important role in the history of conservation, landscape architecture, military and political history, and recreation in Massachusetts. The Common and the adjoining Public Garden are among the greatest amenities and most visited outdoor public spaces in Boston. The history of the Common’s use by the city illuminates the conservation movement in Massachusetts and mirrors similar models carried out by American conservationists throughout the nation. In 1634, the townspeople of Boston voted to tax each household six shillings for the purchase of William Blackstone’s farm to be used as a community common. The newly established Common served a combination of public, military, agricultural, and recreational purposes.”National Park Service website accessed June 29, 2020.
How has the use of Boston Common kept up with the changes in the purposes for which it was intended? It has been used for many different purposes, but who controls that now? All of us? Anyone can have an event there today, but the rules have evolved since the old days of sharing the Common for cows. As you can imagine, you can’t just walk onto the common with more than 20 people for your own event without jumping through some policy hoops that over the years were designed to “protect the asset” called the “Common.” Under the policy of protecting the Common, as new policy controls begin to much more narrowly define who gets access to the Common, the problem of policy control turns into a “hoarding of public assets” and the parallel policy lessons for education are just as evident.
What are “Full-Service Community Schools?”
The reform in Oakland is designed to keep up with the purposes for which public education was originally defined by making coherent policy decisions for all children, so all will thrive. Full-service community schools get their founding ideas from John Dewey and Jane Addams: “the hub of the neighborhood, uniting educators, community partners, and families to provide all student with opportunities to succeed in school and life” (Jacobson, R. 2018). In three typical characteristics, their mission can be described as:
1. provide expanded learning opportunities that are motivating and engaging during the school day, after school, and in the summer.
2. Offer essential health and social supports and services.
3. Engage families and communities as assets in the lives of their children and youth.
Oakland’s Pro-Equity Stance
The whole idea of equity is to help every child thrive! The experiment of full-service community schools in Oakland, CA can, “foster community well-being in ways that almost no other institution can” (McLaughlin, et al., 2020, page 244). As examples of what this means in Oakland, putting health clinics in schools, inviting farmer’s markets to join schools, and linking up with other non-profits are just three. The most important idea from this work connects back to what equity really means, and might be best understood by— “If the purpose isn’t explicitly to improve life outcomes for all children, and specifically those who have been least well served, then the policy and practice to ensure that inequity is perpetually preserved” (McLaughlin, et al., 2020, page 245).
Coalition of Community Schools, “What is a Community School: FAQ” (Washington, DC: Coalition of Community Schools, 2019), 1.
Jacobson, R. et al. “It Takes A Community: Community Schools Provide Opportunities for All,” Phi Delta Kappan, January 1, 2018. https://kappanonline.org/reuben-jacobson-it-takes-community-schools/
McLaughlin, M., Fehrer, K., & Leos-Urbel, J. (2020). The Way We Do School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press