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Beware Junk Equity Audits/Plans

There is much talk about organizations conducting equity audits / creating equity plans as a strategy for ascertaining and addressing an organization's role in perpetuating systemic oppression. Unfortunately, there's a lot of junk out there right now with many people and companies claiming to offer these services without having a rigorous framework for actually evaluating inequities across an entire organizational system. But it doesn't have to be that way.

For equity audits/plans to be useful, they should differentiate between user segments (in the case of the school system example below, this means identifying which students have the greatest need). They should also address at least three key elements of the system's logic model: the inputs the system deploys, the outputs the system creates from the implementation of inputs, and the realized outcomes measurable at the end of each cycle. Be suspicious of any equity audit/plan that doesn't address all three.

Student Need
The first thing to be clear about is what is meant by equity. Equal means all treated the same or similarly. Equity means all treated differently in relation to need. For school systems, equity requires identifying the varying degrees of need of the students -- from least to greatest -- and then examining each element of the system to ensure that the neediest students are being disproportionately advantaged in a manner that is commensurate with their higher level of need. Most school systems behave this way in small pieces (e.g., due to categorical federal funding like Title 1), but not system-wide and rarely with a rigorous analysis of relative levels of student need (e.g., free/reduced-price lunch is a weak indicator). If an equity audit/plan doesn't help elevate this conversation, it is of minimal utility.

For school systems seeking to be more equitable, I recommend that they focus purely on student characteristics. Most school systems make resource allocation decisions by balancing three competing considerations: 1) student characteristics (family income, English learners,), 2) adult preferences (favored programs, favored activities), and 3) school characteristics (school enrollment, building size). If a school system wants to focus on equity, this decision-making behavior is taking them in the opposite direction. If the goal is equity, student need as determined by a comprehensive and rigorous analysis of student characteristics should drive every decision.

Inputs are the resources used by an organization and that are generally known at the beginning of a system's cycle -- the school year in the context of education. In school systems, the highest leverage inputs related to equity include highly effective teachers, high quality instructional materials, and the school system's annual budget. Each of these resources is under the control of system leadership and decisions about their deployment are typically finalized prior to the beginning of the school year.

An equity audit/plan that doesn't evaluate the distribution of key inputs -- human resources, instructional resources, and financial resources -- relative to the level of need of students is of almost no value to students. Since the single most influential factor to improving student outcomes that school systems control is the quality of instruction, if the distribution of educator effectiveness -- are our most effective educators working daily with our neediest students? -- isn't a key focus, equity isn't either.

One additional area of caution: pay close attention to how educator effectiveness is defined. If the conversation is only about the educator's level of education or years of experience, the data may not be telling you what you think it's telling you. Look for multiple measures of educator quality that include student growth (not student proficiency; that's not helpful either). As a starting point, if an analysis of educators doesn't reveal a bell curve distribution of effectiveness, then it also won't provide actionable information regarding distribution to our neediest students.

Outputs are the results created by the system doing the work to deploy the inputs. Outputs can be thought of as a measure of how effectively the organization deployed the inputs and, as such, are generally knowable in the midst of the system's cycle. For school systems, equity-related outputs include data such as student participation in advanced courses/gifted & talented programming, hiring/retaining educators of color, student disciplinary disparities, percentage of board members/senior administrators who are people of color, and staff participation in implicit bias training.

These are the areas where equity audits/plans traditionally focus so most will include nods to, at minimum, the least controversial of these topics for a given community. One argument for inclusion of a large number of these outputs is that it provides data for an analysis of the extent to which a relationship exists between related inputs and outcomes. In general, inputs and their resulting outputs that have  a stronger correlation with improvements in student outcomes are useful for informing future board policy decisions and managerial strategy prioritization.

One area that many equity audits/plans miss is governance. When vetting equity audit/plan providers, look for methodologies that include an evaluation of how boards invest their time. What percentage of the board´s time each month is focused on monitoring student progress relative to goals? What percentage is monitoring equity-specific goals? With what frequency throughout the year are goals monitored? To what extent are agendas designed in a manner that prioritizes equity and/or student performance conversations? A meaningful equity audit/plan will speak truth to power, even if this risks future business/employment.

School systems only exist to improve student outcomes, so any equity audit/plan that doesn't examine variability in rates of growth and proficiency regarding what students know and are able to do misses the entire point. The key here is a focus on what students know and are able to do: what measurable goals has the school board set that describe the outcomes they expect for their students. If the board hasn't adopted SMART goals for student outcomes and a system for monitoring progress toward the goals, that should be finding #1.

If the school board has adopted SMART student outcome goals, then we can use the goal to look at student group A and student group B. Do we see converging or diverging levels of growth and proficiency relative to the goals?

Sadly, many school boards lack SMART goals, lack goals that are exclusively focused on student outcomes, or -- in many cases -- lack goals altogether. In these situations the lack of board-adopted and board-monitored goals needs to be called out because the community's voice in securing equity over time is not being used. Governance malpractice can be a source of inequity and should be highlighted if this is the case. In the absence of board goals, it is reasonable for equity audits/plans to rely on broadly used data such as scores from state/national assessments, scores from college entrance exams, and dual/AP/IB credit earned [ Note: student participation data is an output, not an outcome ].

Next Steps
In the end, a great equity audit/plan provides an organization with self awareness regarding the specific areas in which inputs, outputs, and outcomes do or don't honor the organization's expectations regarding service to its users. This awareness provides leaders with the first step to improving equity. The next steps -- what leaders do or don't do with the information -- are even more critical.

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