Equity, as defined by Matthew R. Kay in Not Light, but Fire, is “raising the achievement of all students while narrowing the gap between the highest and lowest performing students and eliminating the racial predictability and disproportionality of which student groups occupy the highest and lowest achievement categories.” Some people may think equity is not “for them” because they have little racial diversity in their school or serve “high-performing” student populations from upper-middle class families. But dig into the data and gaps emerge.

Last week the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released the 2019 National Report Cards for fourth and eighth-grade math and reading. This year’s report saw average scores generally stagnant with a small uptick in fourth-grade math scores. At the state level, 13 states saw gains at the fourth-grade level, and a dismal five states saw gains for eighth-graders.

Upon closer investigation, these numbers mask a growing divide between the top and bottom students. Between 2003 and 2009, average scores increased for all students in math and those in the bottom 10% in reading. However, over the past decade (2009-2019), math and reading scores have only increased for students in the top 90%. Scores for students in the bottom 10% declined. Such disparate outcomes add to the mounting evidence that the current approach to K-12 education is not working. If all students, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, location, or other differences, are to have the same opportunity to succeed, equity needs to be at the center of any solution.

Last week, leaders from some of the largest districts in the country came together at the Council of Great City Schools Fall Conference to share initiatives designed to drive equitable outcomes for all students. Here are some key takeaways from those conversations that have implications in rural Montana, the DMV suburbs, the city of Los Angeles, and anywhere in between.

1. Equity work is people work.

Educators know how to make plans: lesson plans, IEP plans, 5-year strategic plans, there’s always a plan. Driving equitable outcomes for students needs a good policy, but more importantly, it requires adequate time and support for adults to change their mindsets and practice.

Educator perceptions of student potential have an impact on a student’s academic success. Whether related to special ed referrals, who is identified as gifted, or overall academic performance, adult attitudes can have positive or negative implications for students. Adults need to be ready to do the heart work, addressing implicit and overt biases about their students and school community. Districts and leaders need, in turn, to create space and support for these be courageous conversations.  Bias training is just the first step in helping adults in their journey to cultural competence.

On the practice side, district such and Portland and Miami-Dade are using coaching to support teachers to refine their instructional approach to better suit the needs of students. The support is targeted to address the specific needs of teachers, shifting professional development from knowledge acquisition to skill application.

2. What gets measured gets done.

Education is already oversaturated with tests and metrics, but without clear goals and a vision around equity, it can take a back seat to other priorities. Several districts have begun to explicitly write equity into their strategic plans and created corresponding metrics and systems to support implementation across the district; some have created a Chief Equity Officer position or entire departments committed to identifying gaps and holding stakeholders accountable for advancing key initiatives.

Jefferson County developed an Equity Monitoring Progress Tool for schools. School leaders develop a plan and collect evidence around efforts to eliminate inequitable practices within a school. Members of the district’s equity team then assess the progress of each component of the plan, rating efforts from “no change” to “organic.”

While your school or district may not have an equity office yet, creating tools and systems can provide useful data points for assessing progress. Without accountability, equity efforts can become charity goals that feel good but don’t close the gaps or increase student achievement.

3. Strong school leadership is key.

One of the prominent themes across all sessions was the importance of skilled principals in driving success for students. While most principals do not deliver direct instruction to students, they create the conditions for positive school culture. If principals don’t wholeheartedly believe in the importance of pursuing equity and have the skill to support others, no equity plan will be successful.

In districts like Hillsborough and Orange County, principals receive intensive, ongoing coaching. Leader coaches are on the ground, providing feedback and resources, then checking in to see how feedback is being implemented. Other districts have leadership academies and cohorts. Regardless of what for it takes, architecture for supporting principals is a top priority.

4. Include ALL stakeholders, specifically students and the community.

In his keynote address, National Teacher of the Year, Rodney Robinson said students are already doing this work. They experience school every day and have valuable insights and ideas for improving the learning experience for them. They know what isn’t working and can articulate solutions that would enhance their engagement and overall effort in schools.

The same can be said for parents and community members. Creating space for their voices when developing an equity plan is more than just getting buy-in for district ideas but uncovering blind spots and preventing future stumbling blocks that are obscured without their input. It’s not just listening to the majority, but looking to those most marginalized by the current approach and developing solutions specifically to address their needs. While adult politics and preferences may obscure the path forward, always look to what is right for kids.

5. Prepare to reflect and refine.

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” This was said multiple times over the course of the weekend, by the Superintendent of Clark County Schools, Portland’s Senior Director of Professional Learning & Leadership, and other. The current education system took over a century to create, but it doesn’t have to take a century to change course. Adopting a posture of learning and reflection as individuals and institutions will accelerate the ability to use past mistakes to inform future solutions.

There is no right starting place for taking on inequity, and the path is not always logical or sequential. But if educators,” listen, act, assess, and revise” their approach along the way, all students can engage in meaningful learning experiences that equip them to succeed. Creating new opportunities to convene, share, and reflect on successes and failures within and across districts will be an essential part of the solution.