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What are the levers for more equitable school systems

Making the margins our central focus
29 October 2010
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I left this week’s CEA/SCOPE public forum, Achieving Equity in Education: What Can Schools Do? thinking about levers. If you think back to your elementary science classes, you’ll remember that levers are a type of simple machine that, when added to a system, will multiply the effort used in order to lift a load.

As SCOPE’s Prudence L. Carter, one of the panelists at the forum, began her opening remarks about equity in education, she posed the question, “What are the levers that allow us to move towards greater equity?” She went on to explore the question by suggesting four: standards, reliable data systems, teacher quality, and effective strategies for low performers.

The idea is that, if we continue to integrate appropriate sources of leverage into our school systems, then all students, especially those marginalized by virtue of race, gender, socio-economic status, and special learning needs will be raised to new and acceptable levels of success.

When you begin to explore the metaphor of leverage a little deeper, a few important details begin to emerge—details that could have a great impact on how we view the role of the school in the achievement of equity.

First, a lever is necessarily a very rigid object. In fact, its value comes from its inherent lack of flexibility.

Implication: Whatever levers we decide are going to allow us to do the work of public schooling more effectively and efficiently must have a certain rigorous quality to them. They need to be well-considered, well-researched, and very well-implemented. Once we decide to use a lever within the system, we have to commit to using it!

Second, a fulcrum is a point around which the whole system turns. Without a fulcrum, your lever is really just a big stick. Oh, you can still use it within your system, but it is likely to become more of a disciplinary tool to keep things in line, then it is for any mechanical advantage.

Implication: I’m not convinced that current public school systems are centrally focused on the marginalized. We’ve done a good job of writing policies, programs and protocols that talk about our fundamental commitment to all students, but those who are immersed in equity issues know that equity policy does not easily translate into equitable practice. There is still a huge gap in what we write and how we think and act when it comes to those who have been traditionally disadvantaged by schooling.

Finally, in a physical system it matters a great deal where the fulcrum is placed. Greater advantage will be gained if the fulcrum is closer to that which is to be elevated than it is to the source of effort.

Implication: If we are going to really get serious about our  success for all mantras, we must ensure that the majority of our resources remain close to those whom we serve. Spending too much time and money on things unconnected with the day-to-day lives of our students will always result in loss of energy throughout the entire system.

In her latest blog entry on this topic, Penny Milton made a very poignant observation:

While more affluent children may be successful in spite of their school experience children from poorer homes or neighbourhoods are more likely to depend on schools for their academic success. (emphasis added)

It’s time to ensure that our fulcrum is well-defined—that point around which our entire school system revolves. If we get it right for the young people who depend on schools for their academic success, then we are most certainly going to get it right for everyone.

So, some questions that might further this part of the conversation:

What do you see as the levers that will help us do the necessary work needed to elevate the success of all students? Do you believe that the four identified by Prudence L. Carter are sufficient?

Is it your experience that public schools are really focused on the needs of all students, or do we rest on the laurels of those who may be successful in spite of their school experience?

Do you have comments on the use of the leverage metaphor when talking about equity?

We’re walking on important ground here. Your ideas, observations and input are always appreciated.

Next entry: I think that it’s important to look at the some of the non-school levers that might be able to help us create a more integrated, “wrap-around” system of learning for entire communities. What might some of those levers be? Your advance thinking on this question is welcome!