With data lighting the way, strong leadership can deliver equity
Educational equity is a hot topic as we recognize the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, as the country examines the progress—or lack of progress—in desegregating public schools.
Other related issues include lingering achievement gaps among demographic groups, equal access to quality educational programs and special education services, and fairness in school funding.
In an age of digital technology and artificial intelligence, it is tempting to expect technical solutions to educational inequities. Indeed, technology can do many things, but solving problems of educational inequities will be up to school district administrators and school board members. Leadership skills must be blended with data analysis and a clear focus on the issues to steer communities toward equity in education.
As an example, think about the very common situation in which enrollment patterns shift within a district. As neighborhoods age, district administrators find themselves with at least one under-enrolled and aging facility that serves a concentrated population of one race or ethnicity group, many times in a pocket of poverty. However, on the other side of the district, schools are over capacity, and parents are unhappy with options to ease overcrowding such as portable classrooms.
District administrators must lead the community to prioritize goals and find a consensus solution.
Solving the problem of shifting enrollment is likely to generate heated debate in the community, and issues of equity will feature in that debate. Some community members will want to close the under-enrolled school and open a new school closer to where students live. This plan will keep transportation costs lower but it will also place the burden of change on the poorer families of the district.
Others may prefer a district-wide boundary change with multiple goals, such as demographically balancing enrollment, keeping transportation costs low, and reducing student transitions between schools. A third group may see their aging school as the glue holding the community together and may advocate to keep it open as the heart of a new magnet program to attract enrollment from throughout the district.
There is no single technical solution to this very real type of situation. District administrators must lead the community to prioritize goals and find a consensus solution. The following tips offer leaders ways to use data analysis to shed light on inequities and build trust in proposed solutions.
- Collaborate with your community. Convene a task force, town hall meetings, or online forum to develop and quantify goals and track progress. Be specific: how will the community know whether goals are met? Expect collaboration to be an ongoing process in which you draw attention to issues of equity and present indicators for community members to discuss and evaluate. People might be unaware of challenges faced in some parts of the district or they may have misconceptions about problems and solutions.
- Lead with data. Build communication processes that allow you to lead with data analysis rather than react to crisis situations.
- Communicate changes continually. Minimize surprises for community members by presenting graphics that show how year-to-year changes fit into longer-term trends. Provide as much information as possible about school capacities, enrollment trends, where educational programs are offered relative to where students live, and the expected effects of change on the budget.
- Present data-rich scenarios for solutions. These can include evidence that community concerns are heard and accommodated to the extent possible. Sometimes goals conflict. For example desegregation and keeping transportation times low may not both be possible.
Clear presentation of data will help the community understand that multiple options have been considered, even if all objectives cannot be achieved at one time. School district leaders can choose technical tools that help collect, analyze, and present data as they build their case for educational equity. Administrators and school board members must demonstrate leadership skills such as communication and collaboration to enact equitable solutions to local challenges.
Caroline Fahmy is president and CEO of Educational Data Systems.