Equity and Excellence – Is There a Conflict?

I believe that economic equity and academic excellence are two concepts that educators almost universally support. In a world seemingly awash with inequity–especially racial and economic—equity sounds like just the right tonic.

At the same time, academic excellence is education’s gold standard in our classrooms and buildings. We all want to produce excellent students.

How do you define excellence?

For us at the International Center for Leadership, excellence means preparing students to become financially self-sufficient and responsible citizens in a fast-changing world.

Equity Is Expensive
As the son of a 97-year-old father who lives primarily on Social Security, and as a father of a severely disabled daughter, I am thankful for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. I am also grateful that my wife, Bonnie, and I can help support them.

But this has taught me an important lesson: Equity is expensive—really expensive!

Relevant Academic Success
Which leads me back to education. This country simply cannot support economic equity unless we also experience economic success–and we cannot experience economic success unless we have relevant academic success. We’re falling short.

Rapidly changing technology, combined with a changing workplace, has redefined what relevant academic success means. What worked in the 20th century doesn’t work 16 years into the 21st century. But as many of us know, most schools still operate on a 20th century model.

As I note in my new book, Making Schools Work: When CollegeReady Isn’t Ready Enough, new technologies have displaced tens of thousands of factory-basedjobs. Half the jobs lost in the Great Recession paid between $38,000 and $68,000 a year. Today, only about 2 percent of the jobs we’ve regained since 2009 pay in that range; about 70 percent pay below that range and about 28 percent pay above it.

The Rigor/Relevance Framework
Whether you support economic equity or academic excellence, you probably realize that both begin with relevant academic skills.

Welcome to the Rigor/Relevance Framework:

The framework has four quadrants:

  • Quadrant A represents simple recall and basic understanding of knowledge for its own sake.
  • Quadrant C embraces higher levels of knowledge.
  • Quadrant B is the application of basic knowledge found in Quadrant A.
  • Quadrant D is the application of higher-order knowledge found in Quadrant C.

Moving To B/D
To develop a 21st- century education model, we must start by moving our schools from the A/C quadrant to the B/D quadrant. That means getting students ready to be able to work and effectively function in our changing world. It means we must shift away from teaching and a move towards learning. It means educators should start asking this crucial question: What can students actually do? Specifically, we must prepare students to apply increasingly sophisticated knowledge which technology cannot do.

This won’t be easy. It will require a fundamental shift in how we organize our schools, deliver instruction and evaluate our students. But it will be worth the effort.
I want equity and excellence for ALL! 

Learning for All: Leadership is Courage in Action

The following is a guest post by Dr. Chris Weber, expert in instruction and intervention systems and Senior Fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).

The demands of educational leadership have never been more challenging and the stakes have never been higher. Ensuring high levels of learning—particularly for our most vulnerable students—is the most critical task education leaders face today. Of all the characteristics of leadership, the most crucial and difficult is courage—courage to have progressive conversations with stakeholders and courage to challenge the status quo and transform the way teachers teach and students learn.

Fortunately, there is a research-based set of principles and practices that will ensure that we deliver on this mission: Response to Intervention (RTI), also known as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS).

Serving ALL Students
We can predict that students will bring different learning styles, interests, and readiness levels to core learning environments. We can predict that some students will need more time to master core priorities and that other students will benefit from enrichment. We can predict that some students will have significant deficits in foundational skills. If we can predict it, we can prepare for it. Delivering on the promise of RTI requires the courage to proactively and systematically prepare supports for students.

We must also courageously challenge the traditional practice of grouping students based on ability and label. Students aren’t in tiers; needs and supports are in tiers. We must support students based on their needs, not a label. Equally important, we must have the courage to insist that staff support students based on their availability and expertise, not their job title or funding source.

It also takes courage—and a leap of faith—for leaders and staff to prove to themselves that students will learn more (and perform better on end-of-course tests) when we teach less. And yet, it’s true. The quantity of content threatens the mastery of critical skills and concepts.

Delivering on the moral imperative of high levels of learning for all requires courage. All means all; if a student will be expected to live a happy and productive adult life without accommodations and modifications (which is the case for 99% of students, including the majority of students with IEPs), then they are in the ALL category.

The actions of school leaders speak louder than words. Leaders that talk about their professional respect for teachers, but then micromanage teaching and learning with rigid pacing guides quickly lose credibility. High expectations for all combined with tracking and the marginalization of students with IEPs violates the verbally expressed moral imperative of a growth mindset and high levels of learning for all. Leaders’ actions must match their words; a school’s actions must match its mission statement.

Courage in Action
The first way that leaders can behave in courageous ways is to embrace continuous improvement and change. Change frightens many. Leaders must manage the change process respectfully and sensitively. They must also positively and willingly model the reality that learning organizations accept constant, evidence-informed revisions to practice as a professional obligation.

When initiatives are selected and commitments are made, school leaders must lead from the front. It takes courage for leaders to roll up their sleeves and do the work, often because the leader may not imminently qualified. If a new pedagogy is determined to be necessary, school leaders must practice new lessons with students. If the school commits to monitoring student progress more frequently, then leaders must administer the assessments one-on-one with students. Vulnerability and humility require courage; leaders never ask students or staff to do something that they are not willing and ready to do first.

Just as school leaders must monitor how much they say, and place a priority on listening, they also must avoid the temptation to do too much, or to ask their staffs to do too much. Trying to push too hard too quickly will not result in more rapid gains of staff performance or student achievement. The key is patient persistence—and patience requires its own special brand of courage. There is a temptation to engage in many simultaneous projects, and there is often external pressure to do so.

There is no more appropriate or important “project” on which to focus than RTI/MTSS. By modeling necessary transformative actions, leaders can and must exercise the courage to ensure that all students learn at high levels.

RTI Health Check

Are you and your staff proactively and systematically preparing supports for students? Take our RTI Health Check to see where you are, and where you need to go. 

School Boards Are More Important Than Ever

School boards used to be low-key, somewhat mysterious, “what-do-they-do anyway?” boards. Thank goodness, that’s changing! And here’s why.

Public education is at a crossroads, I believe, and a major reason for that is the shifting demographics of the country:
n  Fewer people are working.
n  Baby boomers are leaving the job market.
n  Technology is vaporizing entry-level and middle-class jobs.
n  Today’s late-blooming 30-year-olds are just launching their careers.
n  Today’s students are more technologically savvy than any previous generation.
n  Financial resources at the state and federal levels continue to shrink.

It’s not a rosy picture out there.

Today’s Boards Are Different

Last August, I had the opportunity to address the National School Boards Association Summer Leadership Seminar. I came away impressed: Many of today’s school boards are different from the boards of yesterday. First and foremost, they are focused on policy. These boards try and balance all of public education’s conflicting demands. They represent the electorate and parents. They represent schools and teachers.

A Future-Focused Approach

The best boards also put students first. They take a future-focused look at what our students need, not what’s comfortable for our institutions, or even taxpayers. They know clearly and unmistakably what their mission is – namely to put in place a superintendent who will focus on what students need – and then support that person 110 percent.

Aligning the System

Some of you know this story, but I mention it again because it illustrates a point.

On Sept. 16, 1985, our son Paul, who was 11 at the time, was hit by a car in front of our house. Rescue workers rushed Paul to the hospital, where he underwent several hours of surgery. My wife Bonnie and I felt helpless. Would he pull through? What would his life be like?

Paul survived, but struggled for years. Today, I’m happy to report he has a successful career and a wonderful family. I’ve often thought about that day in September, and also this question: Who were the most important people at the hospital? The CEO? The president? The chairman of the board? Of course not! The most important people were the doctors treating Paul. I came to realize the entire hospital system – from the CEO to the accounting and janitorial departments – was aligned to let those doctors do what they do best.

Support Our Teachers

Which brings us back to schools.

Who are the most important people in your school? Teachers, of course! And that’s another essential role of a school board: Making sure teachers are supported. Their mission is not about the principal or other staff members, or even parents. Rather, their mission is to make sure the district is aligned to make teachers successful – so students ultimately will succeed, not only today but also tomorrow.