Before the State Board of Education recently approved its new five-year strategic plan , SBE member and former North Carolina teacher of the year James E. Ford was asked to clarify the meaning of the word “equity,” which is a recurring theme throughout the document.
That proved easy work for Ford, who co-chaired the SBE Strategic Planning Committee. He’s also a professional consultant on issues of equity in education who just released a major report on the subject.
Here’s how Ford explained the concept of equity to his colleagues:
I’ll borrow a phrase from one of my mentors and longtime CMS [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools] board member and chair Arthur Griffin when he said the reason we talk about fairness not being equal or equity not being equality is because when you treat unequally situated people equally, what you get in the end are unequals.”
In school districts throughout the state and across the nation the concept of equity has spread like wildfire in recent years among school leaders and others looking for strategies to close seemingly intractable achievement gaps between children of color and their white counterparts.
The hard truth is that in North Carolina, and in many other states, children of color lag behind their white peers academically.
They’re also more likely to receive suspensions, expulsion and to become involved in the juvenile justice system, even when the offending behavior is minor. And the achievement gap widens when children of color miss tens of thousands of days of school to serve those suspensions and expulsions or to make a court date.
Several statistics shared by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley during a press conference last week  to promote a program designed break the school-to-prison pipeline served to emphasize the challenge confronting the public schools.
- Children of color are 1.5 times more likely to be placed in secure confinement than white youth.
- African-American students make up 26 percent of the overall student population but receive 57 percent of suspensions.
- Students with disabilities are 13 percent of the overall student population but receive 24 percent of short-term suspensions and 22.5 percent of long-term suspensions.
- Male students are roughly half of the overall student population but receive 73 percent of short-term suspensions and 80 percent of long-term suspensions.
As Ford explained in an interview with Policy Watch, equity means a commitment to provide each student with the resources she or he needs to achieve academic success. Put even more simply, students from disadvantaged backgrounds often require more resources to achieve the same level of academic success as better-heeled classmates.
Parents with more than one child know that children are different and often require different supports and tools to succeed, Ford said.
“They can look alike and come from the same lineage but they’re really, really different,” Ford said. “Some things you do for one, it may not resonate, for whatever reason, with the other, but God knows that we love them all the same and we’re willing to treat them fairly and justly. We think that captures the spirit of what we mean when we say equity.”
Ford says that a “Groundwater” presentation by the Racial Equity Institute  that was designed to help the group learn to better understand and address racism helped spur it to action.
“If we’re [SBE] not talking about closing opportunity gaps, if we’re not leading as a board, then what are we doing?” Ford asked. “If we’re not leading that [effort], making it a priority for the rest of the LEA’s, are we really trying to offer a sound basic education for our children?”
A new approach to decision-making
By adopting a strategic plan that focuses on equity, the SBE has pledged to use the concept as a guiding principle in its decision-making.
“I see this plan as a way to guide decisions, to guide implementation of policy into state law as well as to influence policy in state law,” said SBE Chairman Eric Davis.
Equity and the “whole-child” approach (the practice of addressing students’ safety, health and social and emotional concerns along with academics needs) to educating students are anchors of the strategic plan.
The plan has three broad goals: Elimination of opportunity gaps; improving school and district performance and increasing educator preparedness to meet the needs of every student.
So what exactly is an opportunity gap? The Strategic Planning Committee defines it as the disparity in access to quality schools and resources need for a child to be successful.
Davis noted that such gaps were forged over the course of 400 years during a time when African Americans and other minority groups were denied access to educational opportunities and reaped limited benefits as the nation prospered and grew wealthy.
“This is our intentional effort to push back on those forces and to do things to create a necessary change so that every student in North Carolina gets the education we need them to have and they deserve,” Davis said of the strategic plan.
He noted the similarities between some elements in a one-year update given by leaders of the state’s “renewal school district,”  Rowan-Salisbury School System.
The district was granted renewal school district status a year ago because it had the highest percentage of “restart” schools in the state. Such districts are given “charter-like” flexibility as part of a strategy to improve student outcomes.
“When Rowan-Salisbury gave their report, they touched on the very elements of the [strategic] plan; access and opportunity across racial, economic and geographic [lines],” Davis said.
He said the plan’s success will be determined by whether North Carolina gets to the point “where there’s no discernible difference in the academic achievement of our students across racial, ethnic, geographic, economic or any other type of line.”
Matthew Bristow-Smith, the 2019 Principal of the Year from Edgecombe County, said the “clarity and salience” of the three goals will make it easy for local school districts to align their strategic plans with the state plan.
“I think all three of the goals speak to major initiatives in every LEA [Learning Education Agency or school district] in our state,” Bristow-Smith.
Other aspects of the plan
In addition to its embrace of equity an overarching principle, the plan sets some concrete goals as well. These include increasing the percentage of students proficient in math by subgroup, increasing the percentage of students proficient in reading by the end of the third-grade, increasing the number of schools meeting or exceeding growth measures by subgroup and increasing the number of charter schools meeting or exceeding academic, operational and financial goals.
It also focuses on better preparing teachers to meet the demands of a student population that’s becoming increasingly diverse. Slightly more than half of the state’s 1.5 million students are nonwhite.
The plan calls for increasing the number of culturally-relevant and equity-focused resources for teachers, increasing the number of mentors available to beginning teachers, strengthening relationships between colleges and universities that train educators and school districts and increasing opportunities for teacher engagement inside and outside of school.
Notably absent from the plan are any general statements about public school funding. Although the plan identifies some specific areas in which the board would increase funding (e.g. school mental health professionals, school meals, teacher training in “restorative justice,” and ACT preparation for 11th graders) the plan is essentially silent on high-profile funding issues like educator salaries, the state’s $8 billion facilities need  or the fact  that overall per pupil spending in the state remains below pre-Great Recession levels.