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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Changing definition of success in education system a way for S’pore to stay relevant: Chan Chun Sing – Mothership.SG

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Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing gave the opening speech of the Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) flagship Singapore Perspectives 2023 conference on Jan. 5.

Chan highlighted five key shifts needed to ensure that Singapore’s education system can remain relevant in an increasingly “connected, yet fragmented world”.

A changing society

Chan opened by talking about the challenging and constantly changing environment that Singapore and Singaporeans find themselves in.

Going forward, society will be shaped by various forces.

As Singapore faces a slowing birth rate, Chan pointed out the growing challenge to integrate non-local citizens born to sustain the country’s economic vibrance and social cohesion.

“For Singapore, managing diversity and being able to connect and collaborate are essentials, not options,” he said.

Singapore will also face increasing competitive pressures as it becomes more integrated with the rest of the world, and will need to “counter the tendencies to turn insular, nativist, and retreat into our own echo-chambers”.

Additionally, Chan acknowledged that there is a greater risk of “us seeing the world as we want it, rather than as it is”, which would threaten Singapore’s ability to connect and remain relevant with the world.

To meet these challenges, Chan said Singapore’s education system needs to “evolve at speed”.

He said Singapore’s education system needs to deliver curiosity, collaboration, and confidence at the individual level.

At the industry level, it needs to help companies connect better across geographies, geopolitics, and culture, and to remain competitive.

At the societal level, Singapore’s education system will also need to be cohesive enough to move “against the forces that threaten to fragment us”.

Five key shifts

In order to achieve this, Chan highlighted five “key shifts” to deliver these outcomes.

  • Moving beyond mass access to education to mass customization
  • Defining success beyond the first 15 years of education, but also in the next 50 years
  • More closely intertwining the Academia-Industry partnership into a relationship
  • Going beyond the efforts of the Ministry of Education (MOE) to the efforts of society as a whole
  • Investing in lifelong learning and innovation for the teaching fraternity

1. Mass access to quality education

Lauding Singapore’s strong basic system that allowed mass access to quality education, Chan noted three things that the education system needed to improve on in this area.

Firstly, stronger investments in early year education, especially for less privileged children of families with higher needs.

Chan cited evidence which showed that it was important not to let the learning and developmental gap to grow too wide in young children, as it would be difficult to rectify, and remediation required in the future would be extremely high.

While celebrating the progress made in closing the gap over the past 15 years, he said there is still more to do, and shared that the government will examine news ways to provide support for these less privileged children.

Second, the government will use more adaptive learning technologies and pedagogies to “stretch the top, while freeing up resources to uplift the disadvantaged”.

New technologies such as artificial intelligence would allow Singapore to relook its pedagogies to enable even better mass customization of the education system.

Thirdly, Singapore will continue to diversify its success pathways for students, through programs like Full Subject Based Appeal, and customization of degree programs, among other things.

Chan said a more diverse education system would better serve Singapore, but would require a mindset shift away from constant comparison and benchmarking of students and institutions.

There is also a need to keep Singapore’s meritocracy broad and continuous, and not allow the “system to degenerate into credentialism”.

2. Beyond schooling years

Chan said that success cannot be defined by the 15 years spent in formal education, but would have to shift to be defined by the 50 years beyond that.

Disruptions and uncertainty meant that it would not be possible to frontload education, and the first 15 years of education would be to build learning foundations.

Instead, the new benchmarks for success will be “the spirit of inquiry, the desire to create new knowledge and value, the ability to discover, discern and distill”.

Chan said industry would have a part to play in achieving lifelong learning — industry cannot wait for the “perfect worker”, but must be an active partner in shaping students’ interests and skillsets before they even enter the workforce.

Industry will also need to work with academia to keep training workers after joining the workforce.

The government would also review funding and support for lifelong learning, to better guide those in the middle of their careers through challenges and opportunities, to defray costs, help smooth transitions in and out of jobs, and skills acquisition.

Chan said that more ideas would be put forward during the Forward Singapore deliberations.

3. Academia-industry relations

Chan said the third shift would be in the relationship between academia and industry in Singapore.

Singapore cannot outcompete other countries in scale, but can be a pioneer at intersections of disciplines, and thus create new value, he added.

This means being adequate at forming interdisciplinary teams across students, faculty, and alumni, and collaboration between institutions and faculties.

Chan spoke about the Research-Innovation-Enterprise cycle, saying Singapore had done well in research, but needed to improve in the latter two aspects.

Other than universities, Chan also highlighted the connection between industry and polytechnics/Institute of Technical Education.

He said that they would need to work together to help students and lifelong learners to better integrate work and study, and allow a better flow of research and practices between learners and industry.

4. Beyond the efforts of MOE to the whole of society

Chan said that the MOE never believed it alone could change society or develop future generations.

To broaden the definition of success, MOE needs to work closely with parents, community partners and industries, or its efforts would ultimately be “undone”, and Singapore’s speed of change would be measured in generations, not years.

To that end, he said that only by rallying together could Singapore build a culture that appreciates diverse learners.

Industry also has to close the remuneration gap, compensating according to skills and contributions, not credentials.

Success, he said, was “everyone doing justice to their blessings, rather than everyone chasing the same yardstick.”

5. Teaching the teachers

The final shift to improve the education system will be how Singapore equips and organizes the teaching faculty.

Teachers are not just academics, transmitters of information, or only engaging mainstream students with established pedagogies.

They need to be facilitators of discovery and learning, to support “higher needs” children and families, reaching and nurturing students with special education needs, by exploring and developing new pedagogies.

As new skillsets cannot be frontloaded, teachers would also need to upskill and reskill continuously.

Educators would need to understand the world beyond the education system, understand its changes, and bring back new perspectives to teaching.

Chan cited the Teacher Work Attachment Plus program as a way to facilitate that.

In a similar way, Singapore needs to ensure teaching ability and pedagogical practices of teaching faculties in institutes of higher or continuous learning.

Chan said that the Institute of Adult Learning would join the National Institute of Education and National Institute of Early Childhood Development; providing investment, research, and training to the teaching faculties at all levels.

For Institutes of Higher Learning, there is also a need to define success beyond research.

Chan said that there should be complementary pathways to success in teaching as well as leadership, in addition to research.

In closing, Chan highlighted the need for Singapore universities and education system to reach their fullest potential. He spoke about a conceptual “Education 4.0”.

Where the first three versions of education moved from catering to the privileged, then to industry, then to universal access, “Education 4.0” would need to equip Singaporeans to thrive in an uncertain, fragmented, diverse and competitive, yet more connected world.

The mentioned five key shifts are required for this, but Chan also noted the importance of the government remaining committed to “build the best system possible to enable future generations of Singaporeans to do even better than this generation”.

“What will also not change is our goal to distinguish ourselves as a nation that defines success not just by our achievements, but by our contributions,” he concluded.

Top image via Jacky Ho, for the Institute of Policy Studies, NUS

Nicola Sturgeon’s ambition on education defines her leadership

Nicola Sturgeon set out her stall right from the start of her tenure as Scotland’s first minister or, if you’re being less generous, she built a rod for her own back.

Education was to be her number-one priority. It never felt like it had been for her predecessor, Alex Salmond, but when Sturgeon took power unchallenged late in 2014, surf and fuelling the surging popularity of the SNP after the independence referendum, she was bold in her ambition for education.

In a defining speech of her early days as FM, in August 2015, Sturgeon said she would put her “neck on the line” by asking that her record ultimately be judged on whether Scotland eliminated the disadvantage-related attainment gap that had blighted education since anyone could remember.

In the months and years that followed, there was some semantic jiggery-pokery: the message seemed to morph so that the government was seeking to “close” the attainment gap as in narrowing it, rather than eliminating it altogether.

Regardless, that speech, delivered at Wester Hailes Education Center in Edinburgh, became a weapon that opponents regularly used to attack the FM and her government. Scottish education was failing, they said, and was an indelible stain on the record of the leader who had made it his priority.

Of course, the truth about Scottish education during Sturgeon’s time as leader was more nuanced than it is often portrayed and where there was progress, much of it was reversed by the Covid pandemic. But she had left herself wide open to such attacks.

With hindsight, Sturgeon’s decision in 2015 to set out such an audacious some might say unachievable ambition to eliminate the attainment gap has to be understood in the context of the time. Her popularity ratings were through the roof even now they remain relatively high – and the No vote in the referendum, far from cowing the SNP, had persuaded tens of thousands of people to join its ranks in the aftermath of the September 2014 plebiscite.

Anything seemed possible, so what now appears hubristic must have looked to Sturgeon’s supporters like the sort of self-fulfilling prophesy that popular new leaders like to shoot for when playing the long game of legacy. “We choose to go to the Moon,” said JFK; Nicola Sturgeon was now choosing to eliminate the attainment gap, unperturbed that many previous generations of political leaders of all stripes had singularly failed to do so.

Sturgeon puts the spotlight on education

What Sturgeon certainly achieved was to put education front and center in the Scottish Parliament. And, for better or worse, her focus on education paved the way for the Scottish Attainment Challenge, the Pupil Equity Fund, the near-doubling of free early years hours, the Scottish National Standardized Assessments and much else besides that is part of the furniture of Scottish education in 2023.

Are we now heading towards an era where education is on the sidelines again? Maybe things are already going that way. Certainly, the Scottish government has never given the impression over the past year that a quick end to the teachers’ pay dispute is a priority. On the other hand, if Sturgeon’s departure means education is less of a political football, many will see upsides to that.

Today, as Sturgeon reflected on her record after eight years as first minister, mentions of education were conspicuous by their absence. She ticked off achievements in making university more accessible to students from poorer areas and in offering 1,140 free early years and childcare hours, and underlined that her commitment to care-experienced young people will endure beyond her time as first minister.

But that was it. Judge me on my education record, Sturgeon said in 2015. Today, she barely talks about it.

Henry Hepburn is Scotland editor at Test. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn