Dr. Pamela Baldwin is Superintendent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in Chapel Hill, NC.
The word equity gives me pause. Once again in education we have utilized an otherwise common term to define an initiative or program. The American educational system was designed to sort and classify—hard stop. And, to our discredit, the system continues to work just fine in service of this goal. Now is not the time to rally around the latest pop verbiage. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of addressing an inequitable system. Underlying this work must be the clear understanding that equity is not a separate layer to add to the current system. Instead, we must create an equitable system.
There are several great myths about equity. The first is the belief that those with the advantage must sacrifice it for those without; like something out of Robin Hood—steal from the rich to give to the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. No child should ever relinquish what he or she needs in order to provide for another child. Yes, resources are finite, that is why our allocations must be strategic, communicated, and well-informed. Equity is about investing in the needs of each individual child, to achieve a win for all children. Equity has to be a winning proposition for all students: for high-achievers as well as those who struggle, for athletes and artists, for those who have the luck of coming from privileged families and those who must work two jobs after school to chip in.
A second myth is that equity is dependent upon resources. Money is important, no doubt about it, and I—along with many parents and teachers—strongly believe that we should invest more of it in public schools. But equity must first and foremost be a mindset, a system of seeing the world, not a program ascribed value by a column of numbers. If we think equitably, then we will find equitable solutions regardless of resource availability.
Children are all unique and when we attempt to provide them with the same resources and support–which is actually equality—they don’t all benefit. But, when we provide each child with the specific resources and support they need, based on their individual situations, every child can win. That is the goal of an equitable system and worth hard work to achieve.
We have an obligation to take advantage of resources already strategically targeted for specific populations. Federal funds designated for programs like AIG or exceptional children are, in theory, meant to support educators in achieving equity. Securing and utilizing these funds effectively allows us to focus on pursuing additional supports for student needs.
The third myth is that equity drags high-achieving children down, and it’s simply not true. In fact, a growing body of research shows that when children of diverse academic abilities, family incomes and ethnicities learn together in the same classroom, with the individual supports they need in place, the experience is richer and more rewarding for all of them. Striving learners are more likely to improve, and higher achievers gain more from the depth of discussion and variety of perspectives they glean from their fellow classmates.
Excellence and equity are inseparable. One cannot exist without the other. We must understand that true achievement requires us to serve each child according to his or her individual needs. Only then can we truly elevate every child. As a society, we speak frequently of equity but we rarely—if ever—achieve it. If we are to ever fully achieve equity in America we must start by creating an equitable education system because it the key to creating equitable opportunities for all.
That is why I, for one, commit to pursuing it relentlessly. It is simply the right thing to do for our children.