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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How Do We Define and Measure “Deeper Learning”?

“Students can’t learn in an absence of feedback,” Pellegrino said. “It’s not just assessing, but providing feedback that’s actionable on the part of students.”

HOW TO SUPPORT DEEPER LEARNING THROUGH POLICY

In order for deeper learning to become the norm rather than the exception, it has to be a priority for local, state, and national policymakers, said Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at the Stanford and advocate for education reform. Common Core State Standards, which began to push towards critical reasoning and problem solving and application of knowledge, are only being applied to math and literacy, she said. “What about other subjects?”

What’s more, social-emotional skills have to be taken into account anytime we address deeper learning, she said. Some states have developed standards for social emotional skills, and it could be a good strategy for others to follow as well.

The way to achieve deeper learning is through curriculum and instruction, in assessments, and teachers’ professional development, she said.

The curriculum schools use now was created by a 10-member committee of men in 1893, Darling-Hammond said.”We need a new committee,” she said. “Maybe with women and with people of color, and maybe even with 20 people.”

Curriculum should go deeper into application of skills, cover fewer topics that are more carefully selected and more deeply taught, and she said Common Core tries to do this. She repeated the mantra of many progressive educators: “Teach less, learn more.”

As for assessment, Darling-Hammond said our goals must be far more ambitious than they are now. Policymakers should follow the lead of schools that have used digital portfolios and projects as assessments, rather than relying on standardized tests. “Students are able to take feedback and revise their work,” she said. “Their conscientiousness is tested. We know that in contexts like that, we have evidence that students are making it through college in higher numbers.”

Our current standardized tests focus on recall of facts and procedures, the lowest levels of types of learning, Pellegrino added. “They’re easily scored and quantified for accountability procedures. They’re not optimal in measuring the kinds of competencies that represent deeper learning,” he said.

But in order to use assessments that are valuable to students, we need to invest more money and time. “The kinds of tasks we need to assess take kids more time to act and more time to score,” she said. Currently, the US spends $10 to $20 per child on assessments, but in other countries where children are doing deep inquiries and investigations, assessments cost about $200 per student.

“We need to rethink the way we make those investments, as part of our policy agenda,” she said, because, as Pellegrino put it, what gets tested governs what gets taught.

Another big component of deeper learning involves collaboration, she said, and “collaboration is not cheating… it’s part of problem-solving. Collaboration is a skill not a deficit.”

Professional development is another key part of bringing deeper learning to students. School principals, who play a big role in curriculum adoption, as well as educators, must learn about problem-solving, child development, and content pedagogy in order to understand how to set up collaborative and project-based learning.

But in order to do their jobs well, educators must be given enough time to create a thoughtful curriculum. In other countries, Darling-Hammond said, educators are allocated 15 to 20 hours a week just dedicated to curriculum creation.

For those interested in pursuing deeper learning strategies in class, she suggested pulling out the key ideas from current standards and going deep into those subjects, such as ratio and proportion in math. She also suggested reading books and learning more about complex instruction and how to develop collaborative group work, even in classes where there’s a wide range of student skills.

BYPRODUCT OF DEEPER LEARNING

From an Edweek article that reported on findings from the same study:

The committee pointed to a 2008 five-year longitudinal study of 700 California students in three high schools: one urban and one rural school, each with large proportions of minority and English-language learner students, and another overwhelmingly wealthy, white school. While at the start of the study, incoming 9th graders in the diverse urban school performed significantly below the students in the other schools in mathematics, the school designed its algebra and geometry courses to highlight multiple dimensions of mathematics concepts and approaches to problem-solving, self- and group-assessment and developing good questions. When tested at the end of the first year, the students exposed to the “deeper learning” mathematics had caught up with their peers in algebra, and they performed significantly better than students in the other schools in the following year. By the 4th year of the study, 41 percent of students at the urban diverse school were taking calculus, in comparison to only 27 percent at the other two schools.

The study was partially funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.