Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages
Many communities across the country are working to confront inequities that permeate all aspects of our systems, including education. These efforts often involve frank and challenging conversations about past violence and discrimination, ongoing inequities, and difficult actions needed to achieve equity.
In Ohio, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest has been working with schools through our Making Equitable Schools Audit (MESA) partnership to develop and refine an equity audit approach to advance data-informed equity conversations and ultimately, create safe and supportive school environments for all students. Over one full school year, MESA facilitators work with a school leadership team that intentionally brings together diverse members of the school community—including families, students, teachers, staff, and school leaders—to reflect on data and engage in school equity conversations. REL Midwest is currently piloting the approach with Akron Public Schools and is inviting new districts to join the partnership and consider implementing the approach during the 2024/25 school year.
Although equity conversations are necessary to help schools provide safe and supportive learning environments for all students, these conversations often surface uncomfortable feelings, tensions, presumptions, and stereotypes for participants. REL Midwest facilitators also have experienced discomfort when ensuring that conversations challenge participants’ perspectives while remaining respectful and focused on collaborative action. One strategy that our facilitators use with school leadership teams is to strengthen their resilience to engage in difficult equity conversations by focusing on systems change.
A school is a system—an interconnected web of people, policies, practices, programs, accountability mechanisms, hierarchies, and other factors that work together to achieve the shared goal of educating students.1,2 The persistence of educational inequities, such as disproportionalities in discipline across race, can reflect a system that is not serving all students and may be reinforcing disparities. Systems do not change by themselves; they require intentional improvement efforts designed to produce better outcomes for students.
REL Midwest facilitators use The Water of Systems Change as a framework to introduce and discuss systems change. The framework highlights that systems can be improved by changing the ways people think, interact with one another, and establish rules and structures.3 Further, the framework provides a way to understand how inequities often persist in systems through both explicit policies and the implicit assumptions of people. For example, racial disparities in school discipline may result from both explicit school policies and implicit mindsets of individuals with differing expectations of students.
The MESA approach leverages this framework to help facilitators and participants overcome challenges during equity conversations. In partnership with school communities, a REL Midwest team of facilitators and analysts works to change deficit mindsets; build communities rooted in safety, support, and respect; and use data to identify necessary changes to school policies and practices.
Each leader, teacher, student, and family member within a school community enters an equity conversation with preexisting ideas about how the school functions, why inequities emerge, and how improvements can be made. Although these perspectives are informed by lived experiences, they also can be shaped by biased and inaccurate assumptions about the interests and needs of other school community members. For example, when discussing disparities in discipline experienced by children of color, some school staff may rely on deficit frames that blame students themselves rather than weighing the impact of unwelcoming environments and biases that many students of color face in the classroom.
The MESA approach is designed to interrupt deficit-focused mindsets by bringing together diverse school community members to share their different experiences of education and how their perspectives influence their interpretations of data regarding discipline, sense of belonging, and access to high-quality instruction. This process creates an opportunity for individuals in the school community to hear and consider new viewpoints and collaboratively develop broader and more inclusive understandings of their school communities. Establishing a diverse and respectful space for equity conversations creates an opportunity for systems change in the school.
The MESA approach also recognizes that relationships often can be a source of inequity in a school community. For example, students of color who have had fewer opportunities to build trusting relationships in school may also experience disparities in discipline. Research suggests that students, teachers, and families feel more welcome in their schools when they have strong relationships with others in their school communities.4,5,6 Accordingly, the MESA approach is designed to foster safe and supportive environments for all school community members by helping schools build stronger relationships.
Equity conversations can be a space for creating relational change in a school. By convening diverse community members and encouraging respectful conversations rooted in shared norms, listening, and an acknowledgement of different experiences, the MESA approach helps schools directly practice relationship building. In this way, the conversation itself becomes one way schools can enact change toward a more equitable community.
Using the MESA approach, school community members review school data during equity conversations and consider specific ways that school activities may be reinforcing inequities. As such, the approach keeps equity conversations focused on explicit policies and practices connected to the data, rather than directing participants to point fingers or place blame.
For example, Ohio students of color and students receiving special education experience discipline at higher rates than other students.7 Instead of focusing on individual student proclivities toward misbehavior, a school may have more success in reducing inequitable discipline rates by looking at existing policies and practices. To reduce inequities, a school can focus on consistency in how discipline is assigned to students and increase investment in staff training and monitoring.8 Although a school’s code of conduct provides guidelines for discipline, students and staff may not know all of the rules and expectations. Further, the code of conduct may be implemented in ways that are inconsistent across the student population—especially for students of color and students with disabilities. As this example highlights, equity conversations that are grounded in data, policies, and practices enable participants to move past their perceptions and assumptions and instead focus on concrete changes they can make to improve equity.
By centering mindsets, building relationships, and targeting specific policies and practices, the REL Midwest team hopes to better support school communities in sustaining challenging equity conversations that lead to positive systems change. Throughout this work, Akron Public Schools and Ellet Community Learning Center have been thoughtful and committed partners in advancing the MESA approach and their staff, families, and students have engaged in successful equity conversations.
We are excited to build on this strong start and continue implementing, learning, and refining the MESA approach this school year alongside additional schools in Akron. Initial work has begun with school leaders, and we look forward to the upcoming equity conversations with other district partners and their school communities.
We are inviting districts to join the MESA partnership and expand community access to meaningful equity conversations. In this collaboration, we expect that districts and schools will be engaging in difficult conversations. We look forward to supporting districts and schools in leading these conversations and taking important steps toward systems change that can improve school experiences for students and all community members.
Browse the Data-Informed Leadership for Equity partnership and the Supporting Inclusive and Diverse Educator Environments partnership pages on our website to learn about other REL Midwest efforts to advance equity in our region.
1 Betts, F. (1992). How systems thinking applies to education. Educational Leadership, 50(1), 18–41. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/how-systems-thinking-applies-to-education
2 Wallace, D. (2009). Parts of the whole: Approaching education as a system. Numeracy, 2(2). http://dx.doi.org/10.5018/1916-4618.104.22.168
3 Kania, J., Kramer, M., & Senge, P. (2018). The water of systems change. FSG. https://www.fsg.org/resource/water_of_systems_change/
4 Chang, H. N., Osher, D., Schanfield, M., Sundius, J., & Bauer, L. (2019). Using chronic absence data to improve conditions for learning. Attendance Works and American Institutes for Research. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED602448
6 LaRocque, M., Kleiman, I., & Darling, S. M. (2011). Parental involvement: The missing link in school achievement. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 55(1), 115–122. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ921214
7 Licht, I. H. (2022). The Making Equitable Schools Audit: A partnership to reduce inequitable school discipline in Ohio. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/rel/Products/Region/midwest/Blog/100889
8 U.S. Department of Education. (2021). Guiding principles for creating safe, inclusive, supportive, and fair school climates. https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/guiding-principles.pdf
Iszy Hirschtritt Licht