How to Map a Path to Your Equity Goals Tomorrow by Understanding Where Your District Stands Today
By Peter Solar and Mike Geers
As educators everywhere place an increasing focus and emphasis on achieving equity and equality in education—working to address historical inequities and increase opportunities for all students—a new challenge has emerged to present an even greater hurdle: not knowing what we don’t know. This is especially critical as stakeholders work together to specifically address the equity piece of equity and equality, as equity should be regarded as a destination, or something demonstrably achievable, as opposed to a mere goal of ambiguous “improvement.”
As the trope goes, there are things that we know, things that we don’t know, and things we don’t know that we don’t know—and it’s in that last category where lies a danger that, gone unaddressed, could result in well-meaning intentions causing purpose-defeating ends.
With so much at stake, at a time in which so many are uniting in common purpose and resolve, it’s critical to get this initiative right, for current students and for future generations to come.
Our secret weapon in this cause is something districts have at their ready disposal, but which has historically presented difficulty harnessing: data. It’s not that districts and educators don’t have access to data—quite the contrary. Data is everywhere: public databases, district-owned systems, spreadsheets, census bureaus, government entities…even desk drawers and computer hard drives!
Yes, districts are data-rich. But they’re knowledge-poor.
Start with a Clear Picture
It’s one thing to set generalized standards for what a better future might look like—greater equity, more equitable access, etc.—but quite another to set definitive metrics for what improvement looks like, and what the final destination might be. The latter are hard numbers, and they’re specific, measurable milestones.
But to achieve progress toward a goal, you must have a clear picture of where your district stands today. What, precisely, is the current reality when it comes to existing equity gaps—social, emotional, educational and financial? The only way to truly understand the disparities (and the degree/extent of disparity) is to look at hard data. Numbers don’t lie, and there are numbers everywhere.
If there were ever a critical time and clear justification for the modernization of school districts’ data management systems, this is it. No longer is it enough to have data storage systems. We must get the numbers off of the paper, out of the spreadsheets, unlocked and out of disparate systems that house our data, and get them all into one system, where they can be analyzed and cross-analyzed, aggregated and disaggregated, compared, contrasted and shared.
“Using data to inform all of our practices in K12 education—from budget management to student instruction—is more important than ever,” says Paul Liabenow, Executive Director with The Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association (MEMSPA). “We must analyze the data that we find at our fingertips to make timely course corrections if our desired outcomes are not being met. Most importantly, we must use data to expose and correct inequities in our systems and immediately make changes for the benefit of our marginalized students.”
Making the Invisible Visible
As districts and educators, and as the cornerstones of the communities we serve, we should be cross-pollinating and overlaying publicly available census data, district financial and modeling data, student achievement and educator evaluation data, population demographics and economic data, student migration and graduation data, grant and budget-forecasting data…all of it. And more. We should be working with our partners (public and private) in the communities we serve to harness as much information as possible.
Only then will we truly understand the equity gaps that exist in our buildings and in our communities. And only then will we be able to conceive of and implement data-driven strategies, plans and programs to overcome them. Anything less, and we risk applying a well-meaning solution to the wrong problem, thereby missing the opportunity to achieve the end itself, or worse, exacerbating the problem.
A complete data set has the effect of “making the invisible, visible.” That danger of not knowing what we don’t know is very real. What if a root cause of a given inequity is presumed to be financial in nature, but in reality, is socio-political? Will throwing more money at this particular situation address root causes, or will it merely present the illusion of effort? And can you even measure progress toward a goal if you’re addressing the wrong underlying cause? Given that scenario, will your efforts be rewarded and applauded, or be met with cynicism and demands for greater transparency or compliance, when reporting demonstrates lack of progress?
If we truly want to address the drivers of inequity, we must first see them, later make sure we understand them, and finally show our work in overcoming them. By tapping into all available data sources, and enabling the data points to talk to each other, we can determine if a particular gap is driven by economics, demographics, geography, educator experience, or geopolitics.
You simply can’t see the invisible by looking at spreadsheets, one at a time.
Create a Culture of Data Literacy to Measure Everything—Even the Invisible
The challenges that educators face when it comes to equity—as well as equality—in education are similar in nature to all of the other myriad challenges confronting district personnel:
- Understanding the issue, problem, challenge or opportunity;
- Understanding what steps to take to overcome the shortcoming or achieve the aspiration; and
- Reporting out to the various stakeholders and compliance officers that action is being taken, and to what effect.
Achieving a district-wide commitment to what we call a “culture of data literacy” is a district’s best opportunity to check all three boxes, including for today’s equity and equality initiatives. This means having a very real, very consistent commitment to optimal data-use practices in order to facilitate better data-driven decisions. Enough of the invisible; enough of not knowing what we don’t know. There are easily implemented and easily understood systems that take all of the time and labor we used to devote to the administrative headaches of keeping data systems current and execute it all for us…way better and faster than we humans ever could.
Take these actions as a district, and yours will be well on its way to achieving this culture of data literacy, and making measurable, demonstrable progress toward greater equity and equality:
Understand the whole community. Know the district you serve, and not just its students and parents. What portion of the population rents versus owns? What is the size and nature of its homeless population? What about its percentage of single-parent households? What is the district’s complete demographics picture, from ethnicity to income, and everything in between? What are the geographic boundaries, anomalies and trends? All of these data points are potential contributors to inequality. But until you see them all, overlaid against one another, it’s difficult to discern which are the drivers, and which are the resultant outcomes.
Follow the money. Do you truly and completely know your financial spend at a district level, and at a building-to-building level? Do you know which schools have more active and more successful grant writing initiatives, and do those (or lack thereof) have an impact on financial gaps or inequities? What are the tax revenues, as well as state and federal funding sources, relative to your neighboring districts and statewide peers? “More money” is one solution, yes. But if a district doesn’t know how the money is spent now, how can it make a better plan to more efficiently allocate resources to greater effect, equity and equality, so that the new good money doesn’t go out with the old, bad?
Evaluate personnel. Consider cross-referencing student achievement data with financial data sets and educator evaluations. Are the higher-income areas of the district being served by teachers with more experience, and is that contributing to (or working against) student achievement metrics and educator outcome inequities?
Quantify the gaps and articulate the needs. With some $54 billion coming to schools in the second federal stimulus, a significant portion of that will be earmarked to address learning loss and student well-being (social, emotional and learning deficiencies). If you can’t quantify your district’s needs with hard numbers, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to demonstrate measurable progress toward closing the gaps, which will be a reporting requirement to be eligible for those funds. For example, can you demonstrate that your Title-I population experienced greater learning loss than the general population? Start this analysis now so you can expedite access to much needed federal funding and assistance to come as it becomes available.
Make it a team effort. Collaborate with district leaders, local office holders and city councils, police departments, and other entities that share your commitment to addressing community-wide inequities, and invite these stakeholders into the tent. Ask them to share their available data. Consider forming a task force with each entity represented at the table, and create a project workflow with assignable tasks and accountability, so that the entire community can share in the progress the district makes.
Get it together. Most importantly, get all available data sets into one, centralized, intelligent system, so that you can start with a clear picture of today, conceive of a measured plan for demonstrable progress, and implement that plan with purpose. With all of the data in one place, and with all stakeholders working together, reporting out to state and federal agencies will be easier, more transparent, and more accurate than ever before.
As with any important initiative, one cannot address such a critical goal of achieving equity in education by “going a mile wide and an inch deep.” There are so many interdependent forces at work—both historical and current, both plainly visible and subtly latent— that to make presumptions based on limited information or intuition does a disservice not only to the challenge before us, but to the requisite remedies as well.
Peter Solar is Director of Client Partnerships with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mike Geers is Client Partnership Manager with Munetrix, and he can be reached at email@example.com. Learn more at munetrix.com.