Montana educators and officials debate educational ‘equity’

In today’s hot-button debates about public education, even the definition of a single word carries considerable weight.

Last year, California’s public school system became embroiled in controversy over proposed revisions to the state’s guidelines for math education. Advocates defended the changes as an attempt to remedy ongoing achievement gaps for minority and low-income students and to foster more inclusive classrooms for K-12 students. But critics decried the revisions as an effort to infuse math lessons with political rhetoric, and their concerns primarily revolved around one word: equity.

An early draft of the revisions rejected the idea that some students are more naturally gifted than others, and also suggested that teachers could use math lessons to explore social justice issues. Backlash over those proposals drew national media attention, tying California’s debate to broader political divisions over educational practices and race-based instruction. It also drew the eye of Gov. Greg Gianforte, who this month cited the debate as evidence that adding the phrase “demonstrates an understanding of educational equity and inclusion” to the Professional Educators of Montana Code of Ethics could have “dire consequences” for Montana students.

“I don’t wish to see Montana’s public schools fall into the traps of promoting a political agenda, in the name of equity, that jeopardizes our students’ opportunities,” Gianforte wrote in a letter to the Certification Standards and Practices Advisory Council (CSPAC), a group of seven state educators appointed by the Board of Public Education and tasked with revising the code of ethics every five years.

Gianforte advocated instead for promoting educational equality, which he defined as “the idea that every student should enjoy equal opportunity to learn, thrive, and reach his or her full, outstanding potential.”

The debate, at least in Montana, highlighted a fundamental disagreement over the definition of the word “equity.” Critics of the word’s addition to the code, including Gianforte and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, alleged that the new language would lower student performance standards by encouraging equal student outcomes at a lowered common denominator and expose K-12 schools to a damaging political agenda. Some citizens testifying before CSPAC on Feb. 9 characterized the change as a Trojan horse for sneaking critical race theory into Montana curricula. But as they have since the change was first proposed in July 2021, members of CSPAC repeatedly emphasized that “equity” has a narrow and specific meaning in the education world.

“In our mind, educational equity is not about standards or lowering standards,” CSPAC member and Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson said during the Feb. 9 meeting. “It’s about getting all students up to a higher standard and closing the achievement gaps.”

Watson elaborated on that point in an interview with Montana Free Press this week. He explained that while “equality” aims to ensure that all students have access to the same opportunities, “equity” — in educational vernacular — recognizes that the tools necessary to realize those opportunities can vary widely from student to student. Educators can and should have high standards for student performance, he said, but some students require more resources and support to meet those standards.

“In our minds as educators, ‘equal’ would just mean everybody gets the same thing,” Watson said. “But we know that doesn’t work for all kids. Some kids need a little bit more, not only kids with learning disabilities but also kids that are gifted.”

Watson recognizes that equity has been defined and interpreted differently outside the realm of education. In the context of racial justice, organizations such as the nonprofit Race Forward define equity as a process of eliminating racial disparities and improving outcomes for all people. On the social justice front, the National Academy of Public Administration views equity as a matter of fairness and justice being reflected in public policy. Some private groups, like the consulting firm Pacific Educational Group, straddle these worlds, advocating for racial equity while engaging on educational issues.

The tailored application of equity in educational settings is hardly a new phenomenon, though. Adrea Lawrence, an education historian and dean of the University of Montana’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education, told MTFP the notion of “educational equity” traces its origins to a movement in the late 1960s to halt the historic exclusion of special needs students from mainstream classroom environments. That push culminated in 1975 when Congress passed the landmark Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

“In some cases, for some pretty profound disabilities, the least restrictive environment might be a separate facility, depending on what the child needs,” Lawrence said. “But in many cases, it was making sure that children could be in general classroom settings and have the services that they need in those classroom settings. This is why we talk about equity as making sure that children have the support, the tools, the resources they need for a fair outcome.”

As educators have identified the different challenges faced by individual students over time, approaches to educational equity have evolved accordingly. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, schools nationwide were required to report student performance data using numerous metrics measuring English proficiency, race and socioeconomic status, giving educators their first detailed look at achievement gaps among particular groups of students. The Every Student Succeeds Act that followed in 2016 sought to rectify perceived shortcomings in the previous law and better define the particular resources and strategies needed to enhance educational equity.

Lawrence said equity can manifest in myriad ways in the classroom. Some strategies are widespread and familiar, such as speech therapy, counseling, specialized reading programs and in-school behavioral support. Other localized initiatives focus on non-instructional resources. Lawrence said she’s heard of schools operating thrift stores to give students access to clothing or providing students with crockpots and lessons on at-home cooking. During her years teaching high school social studies in Colorado, Lawrence recalled seeing a high degree of comradery among her special needs students, who were tracked together through middle and high school classes and knew each other’s strengths and accommodations well.

“They had worked with special educators in the school for a number of years, so they were intimately familiar with the tools that they had at their disposal,” Lawrence said, adding that she credits their success and engagement with peers to the individual resources they were able to access.

Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent and CSPAC member Rob Watson, who served on the subcommittee that drafted revisions to the Professional Educators of Montana Code of Ethics. Credit: Alex Sakariassen, MTFP

Kate Eisele, a middle and high school science teacher in Big Sky who serves on CSPAC, noted several examples of steps she’s taken toward equity and “inclusion” — a related term also added to Montana’s new code of ethics — in her classrooms. Eisele said she typically prints notes in larger text for her visually impaired students and might seat them closer to the front of the class. She also allows students to edit answers on their homework in a different color before turning in assignments, giving them a chance to learn from mistakes, and uses popsicle sticks with her students’ names to randomize participation when calling on them during lessons.

“There’s this perception that equitable education means everybody finishes in the same place, and I don’t think that’s true at all,” Eisele said. “In education, equity really means trying to give students the support and the resources they need so they can live up to their potential and have access to all of the opportunities that a public education is supposed to provide.”

On a broader scale, Watson pointed to the federal Title I program as a prime example of educational equity. The program allocates federal funds to districts based on the number of free and reduced-cost lunches they serve — a metric directly tied to how many low-income students are enrolled in a district. Montana’s state education budget formula is aligned with equality in that it calculates funding based on a district’s total student enrollment, Watson said. Title I supplements those funds to ensure that schools with a greater demand for specialized services have the resources necessary to provide them — an equity-seeking strategy. If a school has a higher percentage of students needing those services, Watson continued, “you’re going to get a bigger slice of the Title I pie.”

“That’s a notion of equity that works well, because there’s a recognition that those kids need more resources to close that achievement gap,” he said.

Members of CSPAC attempted to articulate this long-held conception of equity over the past nine months. And in response to criticism of an earlier draft last summer, the council further clarified its intent by modifying the proposed code of ethics change to “educational equity.” 

That revision wasn’t enough to drive the distinction home. In a letter to CSPAC on Feb. 9, Arntzen said she seconded Gianforte’s concerns and accused the council of following “the failed policies from other parts of the country.” Brian O’Leary, deputy communications director at the Office of Public Instruction, reiterated Arntzen’s stance in an email to MTFP this week, stating that “teachers should not be subjected to politically charged language.” O’Leary added that “equality is the constitutional standard our state sets for education, not equity.”

The state constitution, under the heading “Educational Goals and Duties,” says “Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of the state.” 

While Arntzen stands opposed to the code’s new language, the OPI website promotes several organizations and instructional resources that explicitly embrace educational equity. At the top of a page dedicated to inter-agency and external instruction resources for educators, OPI states that “educational equity for all Montana students is essential. All resources have been selected because of their attention to equitable access to a high-quality education.” 

Asked why, in light of the citations on her agency’s website, Arntzen is concerned about the addition of “educational equity” to the teacher code of ethics, O’Leary provided the follow response: 

“The changes in the code of ethics from the phrase ‘understands and respects diversity’ is vastly different from ‘demonstrates an understanding.’ Understanding is internal and demonstrating is external.”

Equity is also mentioned six times in agency regulations governing educator preparation programs in the state, which are currently up for review by OPI. Among those references are a requirement that candidates in reading specialist programs develop strategies that “advocate for equity” and that candidates in school administrator programs “safeguard the values of democracy, equity, and diversity.” 

Arntzen will deliver her recommended changes to the Board of Public Education in March. Her office declined to comment on whether those changes would address the use of the word “equity.”

 “There’s this perception that equitable education means everybody finishes in the same place, and I don’t think that’s true at all. In education, equity really means trying to give students the support and the resources they need so they can live up to their potential and have access to all of the opportunities that a public education is supposed to provide.”

Kate Eisele, CSPAC member and Lone Peak High School science teacher

Looking back on the past nine months of debate over the code of ethics, Watson said, it’s critical to keep in mind the document’s intended audience: educators. By virtue of their training, he continued, the people the code of ethics is directed at already have some familiarity with what equity means in their professional sphere. And while Arntzen and Gianforte have repeatedly characterized CSPAC’s revision as a policy decision the council had no authority to execute, Watson and others maintain that the document is strictly aspirational and fully within the council’s purview. The code of ethics isn’t a list of enforced requirements for teachers, Watson said, but rather a set of professional qualities and goals to work toward. Eisele echoed that assessment.

“I think it really succinctly outlines the norms and responsibilities of what it means to be an educator,” Eisele said.

Lawrence suspects the controversy over CSPAC’s changes has highlighted a lack of public understanding about the history of equity in education and the moral obligation many educators feel to provide students the resources they need to become full-fledged adults. A word like “equity” is shorthand for teachers for a very specific set of practices, Lawrence said, and perhaps educators need to do a better job of contextualizing that. When debates like this turn into political flashpoints, they become the sort of thing that “wakes me up at night and keeps me awake,” she added.

“People want the best for their kids,” Lawrence said, “and we have a thing called the social contract. And I worry about that coming apart at the seams right now because we’ve forgotten how to deliberate together in ways that aren’t reactionary and just offensive to somebody.”

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