Equity In KCPS: Giving Every Student A Chance

Superintendent Mark Bedell shares reflections on why equity is important for the school system and how to make it work

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Equity became a top priority for Kansas City Public Schools when Dr. Mark Bedell became Superintendent in 2016. Since then, the KCPS Board of Directors has adopted an Equity Policy (0.0), and a strategic plan was developed to ensure that all operations and planning are conducted with the goal of promoting equitable outcomes for all students. KCPS has become a national leader around equity in public education. On March 6, 2019, Dr. Bedell will participate in a panel discussion about the issue during the SXSW EDU Conference in Austin, TX. In the lead-up to the conference, he reflected on why equity is important for public schools and how to make it work.

Dr. Mark T. Bedell

How are equity and equality different?
Equity is about making sure students get what they need. It’s not about getting the same as others. It really is dependent upon the circumstances under which a kid arrives at school. When you talk about equity, it’s looking at being able to close the achievement gap by providing more resources. Our students show up with a tremendous amount of needs that are above and beyond a regular student. Equality is about how the state says that every student should be in a classroom with a student-teacher ratio of 25 to 1. So that’s an equal way of looking at how you conduct staffing. Every student is worth $5,500 in funding, regardless of socio-economic status or any of those other variables. So that’s equality. But the equity piece requires that we have to create some level of imbalance when it comes to how you fund the initiatives that can provide support for students who have significant social, emotional or academic gaps.

What are some of the common misconceptions about equity and equality? 
People do tend to get those two things mixed up. I think both of them are equally important. You need to have equity because equity levels the playing field. But you also need equality, because there are things that everybody should get. But if you put it in the context of needing to close gaps, equity is extremely critical. It really does allow for a differentiated level of support.

Is it important for educators and the larger community to understand the difference? Why or why not?
It definitely is important. You’re talking about a tremendous amount of resources that may have to go to a population of students that some people don’t think deserve to have those resources. They are born into situations that create an unfair amount of obstacles that they have to overcome. Some of those obstacles can be simple factors like race, gender, language and poverty. The reality is, some students will need more. I think that there’s always this perceived amount of loss if one school gets more than another. We have to be able to educate people that you’re not getting less; you’re just not going to get any of the additional resources, because the kids that are in Tier I type schools are already in pretty good shape. They have a tremendous amount of support from their parents and the community at large, versus students who may be in a Tier III school, where this is their only option. Life circumstances have put them in a position where there is no other way out of it. We have to be the ones who educate the community on the “why” behind how we are going to budget from an equity standpoint.

How can leaders help their staff understand the difference?
You need to be able to provide professional development and articulate why you are doing what you’re doing. This school year, we moved into a tiered model with an equity lens for our school budgets. When we did that, we clearly utilized 13 different variables to categorize where our schools would fall. We educated our principals, who then, in turn, educated our staff members. Not only did that happen at the school level, but we also educated our central office employees around the difference between equity and equality. We showed them the formula that we used. As we went through our budget with an equity lens, I think it was very easy for people to understand.

What advice would you give to a new teacher and/or new leader interested in advocating for equitable student outcomes?
My advice is to take a close look at your data from several different perspectives. You need to look at the environment that students come from so that you can articulate that the students you are trying to fight for need more. You need to take a research-based approach to it. Don’t just say you need equity for the sake of equity, but you don’t have any type of data to support it or analysis that you ran that would show how the equity would benefit these particular students. If you do those types of things, it’s easier for you to push your agenda around advocating for equitable student outcomes. It has to be very objective. That’s how we had to approach our Board of Directors. We showed them the formula and explained to them why this was important. The most beautiful part of it was that our Board moved on and adopted an equity policy that really guides our work. So now we have no choice but to adhere to applying an equity lens in everything that we do.

Are there any specific lessons about equity that you’ve learned throughout your career that you wish you knew when starting out?
I wish that I would have had a better understanding of the budget planning process when I first started. I wasn’t well versed in that when I became a high school principal. So in many cases I was applying an equality lens in how we were moving money into various departments, making sure that everyone got their equal share. Fortunately, that worked because I was in a school district where we had a decentralized budget. So based on how enrollment stacked up, that really allowed for me to give people a nice sum of money. Now, could we have made much more progress had we applied an equity lens and said, “These are the areas right now where we need to provide a lot more resources,”? Perhaps. But it has allowed for me now as a superintendent over a massive budget to do this equity piece in a very objective, research-based way.

What would you consider to be one of your greatest success when working to provide equitable student outcomes? What would you consider your greatest challenge?
Our greatest success was simply the fact that we were able to pull it off in KCPS last year with our new team on board, including our research and accountability department and our school leadership division. We were able to look at many different variables that we believe often contribute to students not being able to succeed academically. We ran all of that data together and it gave us a percent of where different schools fell in the calculation of those 13 different variables. We were able to tier our schools: Tier I, Tier II, Tier III. We took this to the Board of Directors to ask to apply an equity lens to how we budget and support our schools. We know that we have significant gaps at these Tier III schools. Historically, they have underperformed. We understand why, but we’ve never really done much about it. Not in a very intentional way. I think we’ve given them some additional things, but they weren’t really making any progress because it just wasn’t intentional and it wasn’t aligned to a strategic plan. We were able to generate a budget that applied an equity lens that aligned with the strategic plan and the Board’s global ends. We feel really good about where we are with that. The greatest challenge is simple for me: not having enough resources to really make equitable student outcomes a reality to the extent that I want. Have we gone as far as we could go with our resources? And the answer is, “no.” If we could give these schools everything that they need – Tier I, Tier II, Tier III – and money wasn’t a variable, then we truly believe that every single one of our kids would get the full complement of social, emotional and academic growth and progress in this school district. So that’s the greatest challenge for me right now.

What would you say is the most important take away for attendees of your upcoming SXSW EDU panel session?
Make sure that you have an equity policy in place. That’s number one. If you don’t have an equity policy in place, it’s going to be very difficult to get everybody in support of how you’re going to get equitable outcomes for students. Number two, make sure that you’re very intentional with how you decide what equity actually looks like for students in your school system. Be intentional, use data and eliminate as much subjectivity as you can. There will always be critics. If you do this and it’s research-based, it stands up to a lot of frivolous arguments around why you shouldn’t be providing students with equitable outcomes.

How can educators continue the conversation around equality v equity in their own districts and lives?
Keeping it at the forefront of your conversations is very important. It’s also critical that the leader of the organization constantly revisits equity, making everybody understand that this is going to be a norm, it’s going to be a way that we are going to do business. Don’t be afraid to push back on people who don’t think that this is a good thing to do. I’ve seen superintendents who have run into many issues while trying to push equity. I think we have to be careful about how we roll it out. Every organization is different in terms of being ready for this equity process. Sometimes they’re ready for it and sometimes you have to work at a slower pace towards some type of solution. As we have these conversations around equity, we have to take those things into account.

Is this your first time at SXSW EDU? What are you most looking forward to? If you’ve been before, what stands out from past experiences (e.g., impactful sessions, memorable events, etc.)?
I’ve presented at SXSW EDU two times over the last three years. I’m looking forward to adding value to the conference by serving as a panelist on this topic, equity versus equality. It’s a very important topic, especially if you’re working in school systems that serve students who live in poverty and are dealing with barriers that are beyond their control.

1 COMMENT

  1. It is very important to meet individual needs of our students. When we assess their needs and gear our instruction toward those needs, is when we begin to see progress. Children have different needs, therefore, individualized instruction is vital. Some children have similar needs and those can be grouped. I am so proud of the good things that are taking place in this district.

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