Lighting Candles: Finding and Studying Schools that are Achieving Equity

Guest Author: Eric Toshalis, Senior Director, Impact & Improvement, KnowledgeWorks

There’s a maxim I like a lot these days: “I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness.” I like it because it underscores the need for illumination and resourcefulness when bad news can sometimes obscure the good. It suggests that when we’re faced with a challenge, we can start to move past it when we use existing resources to investigate our current situation. The lit candle reminds me that sure, problems exist — but solutions do too. Rather than sitting in the gloom and yelling about how bad things are, we’re better served when we gather information then find a way out.

And that’s what the REMIQS project — and the website we’re launching — are designed to do! We’re using better data to find our better schools, to learn what those schools do to produce better outcomes among our traditionally least served students. We will use what we learn to engage in practice and policy conversations about what we need to do to spread the best approaches. We are doing this with a clear understanding of the systemic challenges we need to overcome in public secondary education, not the least of which is the persistent inequities the system is designed to produce. But while we continue to tackle those larger issues, we also focus on what’s working now and how we might scale it up. We think this is way better than going down in a “blame of glory.”

That’s why we’ve built this website. We’re taking what we discover in the REMIQS project to illuminate where equity is being achieved. Not where it might be, not where it should be, but where it actually is being achieved. Then, through this website and other means, we’re communicating what we find so that parents, educators, policymakers, school system leaders, employers, university officials, researchers, and students themselves can learn from it.

At this very moment, our team is working with states to access data that will allow us to find schools that promote disproportionately positive outcomes among our least served populations. Those populations include:

  • Black and Brown students
  • students from low income families
  • students who qualify for special education services
  • English Learners

We’re interested in “disproportionately positive outcomes” because we believe that to reduce opportunity gaps, we must see greater rates of positive change in traditionally underserved populations than the rates evident in more privileged groups. We’re looking for schools that are eliminating that gap — not by bringing the top performing students down — but by lifting marginalized students up at an accelerated rate. This is equity. This is what we think good schools do.

In designing this project and communicating its developments on this website, we want to be clear that we’re not moving the goalposts in how we evaluate schools. Test scores still matter, as do graduation rates and attendance. Those items just aren’t enough anymore, especially when there are such rich data currently being ignored. Furthermore, we are not seeking to crowd an already stuffed field with a new school quality measure. And we’re definitely not using data to tell states and districts where their worst schools are so officials can “hold accountable” what are (sometimes erroneously) understood to be underperforming sites. Nope, we’re not doing these things. Why curse the darkness, right?

The REMIQS project is unique because it’s using a more robust set of outcomes to find a representative national sample of schools that are already achieving equity. Essentially, we’re finding the bright spots and illuminating what they do so we can do those awesome things elsewhere. The more candles, the better!

This post originally appeared on the REMIQS site.