I was pleased to see Laura Pitone share information in her blog post last week on the equity policy the school district and school committee have been drafting. I have been wondering when the proposed policy would be shared more widely.  

Communication between the schools and the community, and the school committee and the community are issues people often raise these days when I’m at their door or meeting with them one-on-one. Sometimes people talk about the controversy surrounding the recent homework policy, but the issue has also come up when someone has talked about needing to more equitably allocate resources across schools and I mention that the school committee is working on a policy addressing that very issue right now. 

I can only speculate about the reasons why the school district and committee haven’t shared the broad outlines of the policy more widely, but I’m glad they’re public now. Overall, I think the proposed policy is pretty great. A high quality education shouldn’t be a privilege of the rich, White, U.S.-born, heterosexual, cisgender, and able-bodied; and this policy lays out some concrete steps Somerville can take to level the playing field for all our kids.

That said, I find the definition of equity offered in the policy incomplete. I’m glad this version points out that equity and equality are different things. But I don’t think that we, as a community, can really address inequities in our public schools without also acknowledging that they’re a consequence of massive structural inequality in our society. True, the policy makes a similar point later on, but I would prefer for it to be front and center in the definition. 

I am also not clear if this is a policy designed to address equity with a wide or narrow lens. The purpose section starts by stating that “equity demands intensive focus and attention to eliminate all gaps in student achievement correlated with demographic characteristics” but then goes on to indicate that, “This policy exists to confront a legacy of institutional racism that results in achievement and opportunity gaps.” So, are we working to address all kinds inequity at the same time or are we starting with race? Since so much of the meat of the policy is about reallocating resources more equitably, it seems to me like it would be helpful to be clearer about the kind of equity we’re hoping to foster (or at least where we plan to start) before this policy gets passed. 

In terms of the meat of the policy—the “levers of change,” I think the policy identifies some great opportunities: 1) more equitably assigning students to schools and 2) allocating resources, 3) improving access to culturally responsive curriculum and advanced coursework in high school, 4) investing in social and emotional learning, 5) developing a diverse, culturally competent, high-quality, stable and equity focused staff, and 5) valuing family and community as equal partners. 

I’m interested in learning more about the strategies the district is thinking about regarding student assignment.  When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter and writing my dissertation proposal, I did a project for the school committee on a similar topic—strategies to socioeconomically integrate the schools. I found that while efforts to control choice, especially when paired with transportation, have worked well in cities like Cambridge, incentivizing integration works too and is often more politically feasible—e.g. establishing magnet or theme schools. I think these ideas might work well here and could be a way to incorporate the best elements of the Powderhouse Studios proposal, but I think the district also needs to identify strategies that eliminate the within-school segregation that already exists between students attending special programs embedded within our neighborhood schools (e.g. the ELL, ASD, and Unidos programs).

While I want to learn more about the strategies being considered to more equitably assign students to schools, I really like the way this policy speaks to improving access to culturally responsive curriculum and advanced coursework. Because people often use words like culturally competent, culturally responsive, and culturally relevant interchangeably, I want to know more about the district’s definition of culturally responsive curriculum. I’m also particularly interested in the strategies they’re thinking about to improve access to advanced coursework in high school. We know that taking advanced classes in high school predicts all sorts of good things later in life—college attendance, college persistence, and college graduation to name a few. But I want to know more about how the district hopes to improve advanced course taking among students of color as well as low-income, immigrant, LGBTQ, non-binary, and differently-abled students. 

If it were my call, I would argue in favor of a comprehensive strategy that includes opportunities for more differentiation in our elementary schools. We know that that there are lots of students of color as well as low-income, immigrant, LGBTQ, non-binary, and differently-abled students in Somerville with the skills to succeed in advanced coursework. But, as far as I can tell, the district has no program for these students until at least high school. We also know that the diversity of our district means that there’s a lot of heterogeneity in our classrooms, which can make it difficult for one teacher to meet every students’ needs. I would love to see us invest in more push-in teachers who can give our hard-working classroom teachers the support they need to differentiate instruction for a broader set of kids, and I can envision lots of ways we might equitably allocate these teachers or their services.  

Lastly, I want to raise a point about accountability.  As it is written, the policy requires the Superintendent to report her progress by sharing a number of statistics—e.g. academic achievement, suspensions, etc. But I want to know more about how the school committee plans to hold the Superintendent accountable for fulfilling this policy. Pittsburgh, one of the school districts I’ve worked most closely with on equity issues, has also made improving equity a central district goal. They have written progress on many of the same metrics listed in our policy into their evaluation rubrics for district leaders and principals. I would encourage the school committee to incorporate something similar into their formal evaluation of our Superintendent.

In short, I fully support this policy. I think it would be helpful to center structural inequality as the problem greater equity is designed to solve and to clarify exactly where we’re going to start. I have some ideas about how we might improve integration, better prepare students for advanced academics, and hold the public schools accountable. But I know the district’s plans are developing, and I’m excited to see where they go. 

For those of you who are interested: 

Here’s the draft equity policy Laura Pitone shared: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/laurapitone/pages/85/attachments/original/1558029576/Equity_Policy_Draft_3.0_04_22_2019.pdf?1558029576

Here’s a copy of Pittsburgh’s equity plan: https://www.pghschools.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=1413&dataid=1331&FileName=EQUITY_Plan.pdf