Advocacy organizations offer expanded perspectives on equity

Feedback shows that challenges exist between educators and advocacy groups that may produce missed opportunities

By Eupha Daramola, Akua Nkansah-Amankra, Patricia Burch and Susan McKibben | March | April 2020
Issues of equity, such as addressing the student achievement gap and resource distribution, are areas that most involved in education can support. However, defining equity, let alone achieving it, can be extremely challenging. In 2018-2019, the Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance, an education research center housed at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, convened groups of district leaders and advocacy organizations to hear their perspectives and best practices for advancing equity. The goal of the work was to advance the policy, practice, and research on equity initiatives in the state of California.  One of the key findings of our work was the alignment between district leaders and leaders of advocacy organizations. For instance, school/district leaders and advocacy organizations often agreed about equity priorities and challenges. We also found that advocacy organizations brought unique perspectives to discussions of equity in schools, which could be helpful for schools and school districts to incorporate. However, despite the overwhelming similarities in the views of district leaders and advocacy groups, participants reported that at times school districts and advocacy groups struggled to work together in fruitful ways. The feedback from participants suggests that there may be missed opportunities for school leaders and advocacy organizations alike to collaborate toward equitable outcomes for students. In this article, we discuss the alignment between district leaders’ and leaders of advocacy organizations’ definitions of equity and solutions for existing inequities. We also highlight the additional perspectives that advocacy organizations bring to the table. We hope that our work illuminates areas where the two groups could better work together to build equity movements in school districts around California. Important areas of synergy between school/district leaders and advocacy groups Equity as a goal  We heard from both leaders of districts and advocacy organizations that working towards equity was essential. However, both sets of leaders struggled to produce an exact definition of equity. Many leaders in both groups were clear that equity and equality were distinct. Leaders indicated that all students should receive what they personally need to succeed (equity), rather than all students receiving the same treatment (equality). One former teacher and a current leader of an advocacy organization argued, “Equity means meeting students where they’re at ... We don’t lower the standards, but we figure out how to get all students there.” Biases among teachers, staff, and administrators influence equity work  Both school/district leaders and advocacy organization leaders acknowledged that biases among teachers, staff, and administrators sometimes hindered equity work. As one district leader observed, “Without a culture of belief that you can and will close the [achievement] gap, nothing is ever going to happen, no matter what strategies you try.” Both groups shared that it was essential for districts to build teachers’ and administrators’ capacity to engage in equity work. For instance, participants articulated that school staff needed training in areas such as trauma-informed approaches and equitable approaches to discipline. District leaders saw advocacy organizations as potential partners in this effort. Promisingly, one advocacy organization was working with a school district to deliver student-led professional development to staff around biases.  The need for important modifications in data Both sets of leaders argued that the types of data available to school systems and the public required modifications. District leaders called for more locally relevant data, such as data on gender, race, and poverty levels. Advocacy organizations articulated a need for data that was more digestible for non-educators such as parents. Advocacy organization leaders also called for wholly new indicators, such as data on student well-being and better measurements for student supports. It seems that there are some school districts making efforts to fulfill the data requests of advocacy organizations. For instance, Los Angeles Unified School District is currently implementing the “equity index,” a research-based system that measures the level of student needs at each school (Kohli, 2018).
Calls for more appropriate timelines for policy evaluation Several individuals noted that timelines for policy evaluation are too short and lead to a “whack-a-mole” mentality, where leaders are constantly working to address a new equity issue, with little time to concentrate on any one initiative fully. In particular, participants articulated that both research and funding tend to focus on the initial implementation and the short-term progress of initiatives. Advocacy organization leaders noted that there was a need for a long-term view and that it was unrealistic to expect equity interventions to fix problems in a few short years, as the problems had developed over decades. District/school leaders agreed, with one district leader stating that with equity work, “sustainability is the issue; it can’t be flavor of the month.”  Expanded perspectives of advocacy group leaders  Advocacy organizations take a transformational view of root problems and solutions to inequality. Leaders of advocacy organizations were more likely to discuss the root issues that lead to inequality in school systems. Advocacy organization saw these issues as stemming from systemic injustices and power asymmetries, such as historic racism. For instance, one advocacy leader stated, “We’re not looking at an achievement gap, we’re looking at an opportunity gap. We’re looking at decades of disinvestment and not supporting our people of color.” The advocacy organizations’ view of inequality as systemic led them to call for broad social movements to address inequality. On the other hand, school/district leaders often cited professional development, partnerships, and programs as potential solutions to the equity issues their communities faced. 

We heard from both leaders of districts and advocacy organizations that working towards equity was essential. However, both sets of leaders struggled to produce an exact definition of equity.
Advocacy leaders mentioned a variety of strategies focused on the broader communities in which schools, and the entire school system, are embedded. In particular, these leaders highlighted the importance of building community power and social movements to promote equity in schools. For instance, advocacy leaders suggested using media to reshape the narrative around public schools, moving toward a more positive view and portrayal of schools and teachers. Further, advocacy organization leaders highlighted the need for active civic involvement of non-public school parents and non-parents in public education movements. Lastly, advocates called for the development of students’ and parents’ capacity to form and maintain political movements. As an example, one advocacy organization leader stated:  “We engage families in advocating for high-quality public schools in their own neighborhood. We focus on the political/resource barriers in the way of families having high quality schools. We engage families to set up parent leadership teams so families can understand these barriers so they can drive the [advocacy for high-quality schools]. We’re talking about voter engagement and how to hold elected officials accountable in positive ways.”  Advocacy organizations also discussed highlighting positive narratives of schools and educators and shifting the conversation away from negative views of schools and school policies. Advocacy organizations emphasize the importance of informal leadership Leaders of advocacy organizations were more likely than leaders of schools/districts to highlight the importance of informal leadership, such as parents and students. One advocacy organization leader emphasized that the engagement of parents needed to be purposeful and not for the sake of compliance, stating:  “We need to ask parents for their input. Sometimes when we ask we’re just telling them to check off a box to say that’s ok with you. We need to do more about valuing families in ways that say that their contributions matter and we care about what they think. We’re talking about meaningful engagement, not compliance.” Others highlighted the value that students could bring to the school improvement process. As one advocacy leader notes, “The importance of youth voice/youth leadership is critical. We’re making decisions about high school students, so we need to have them at the table.”  Conclusion  Overall, we find that district leaders and advocacy organizations were aligned in their beliefs on equity. Our data indicates that advocacy organizations can be important partners for school districts attempting to: (a) promote equity, (b) address teacher, staff, and administrator bias, and (c) authentically engage parents and students to work toward district initiatives. Advocacy organizations could also urge for new forms of data and updated evaluation timelines, in partnership with school districts. Importantly, advocacy organizations often favored more expansive solutions to equity issues than district leaders. Therefore, advocacy organizations may provide district leaders with new and vital perspectives on the roots and solutions of inequality, as well as offer fresh views on leadership and leadership development.  In light of our findings, here are some questions for school administrators to consider:

  1. What is your current perspective on advocacy organizations? How have you worked with advocacy organizations in the past? 
  2. What are the local advocacy organizations in your community? 
  3. How does your school/district define equity? What are your school/district’s equity goals? How could partnering with local advocacy organizations help you meet those goals?
  4. Are there systemic issues in your community that are a root cause of performance/discipline gaps? How could working with advocacy groups start addressing these issues?
  5. How could you partner with advocacy groups to reach out to families, students, and communities in more in-depth ways?

References  Kohli, S. (April, 2018). School board approved a new formula for funding high-need schools. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from: https://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-me-edu-lausd-meeting-20180410-story.html

Eupha Jeanne Daramola, Akua Nkansah-Amankra, Patricia Burch and Susan McKibben are from the Rossier School of Education at The University of Southern California.

© 2020 Association of California School Administrators

Association of California School Administrators