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Advancing Educational Equity in Times of Political Crisis

By: Salimah Jasani-Nelson on September 26th, 2023

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Advancing Educational Equity in Times of Political Crisis

District Leadership  |  School Leadership

The Polarization of Education:

As consultants at Education Elements, my teammates and I have the incredible opportunity to support districts around the country as they solve some of their toughest challenges. These challenges range from “How do we change our practices to increase students’ agency over their own learning?” to “How do we use quantitative and qualitative data to determine our priority areas over the next five years?” Within each of those challenges, we encourage districts to use their resources strategically to advance educational equity, providing each child with what they need to develop to their fullest potential, regardless of their identity. Equity is a choice–a choice that individuals and collective communities make to put students’ individual and unique needs first.

Recently, while helping districts think through how to address these challenges, another question emerged - and it’s a little different. Across the country, school district leaders are forced to grapple with the question, “How do we keep implementing this important work when almost everything we do in education is so politically charged?”

Indeed, districts are facing polarizing debates about the role of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in schools; how to talk about gender identity and sexuality; and whether there are some historical topics where attempting to teach “both sides” may actually be harmful. This polarization can pose challenges to districts seeking to create a more inclusive, student-centered educational experience. In particular, many district initiatives are designed to dismantle barriers that disproportionately impact specific groups, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students; students with disabilities; immigrants and emerging bilinguals; and students experiencing poverty. It is difficult to take measures to advance educational equity when the word equity itself is politically fraught.

Big Hairy Audacious Goals

One tool that districts can use to advance educational equity in times of political crisis is setting a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal,” or BHAG. This term was coined by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras in the book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. It refers to a goal that is clear, compelling, and motivational enough to inspire an entire organization to work untiringly in an effort to reach that goal over a number of years. The classic example of a BHAG is when the United States said that it was going to put a human being on the moon - a goal which, despite seeming ambitious and potentially impossible at the time it was set, was eventually achieved.

In our school strategic planning work at Education Elements, we often ask constituents in our districts to set a BHAG  they hope will be true for their students and community 20 years from now. Examples of BHAGs we  heard are:

  • We will have a 100% graduation rate.
  • Our students will be able to personalize their K-12 education and have an experience that feels like it was designed for them.
  • All of our 3rd graders will be reading at grade level.
  • All of our students will have careers that keep them financially secure.

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These BHAGs are clear, compelling, and unifying. Unification is key in a time when debates are raging about which strategies, frameworks, and instructional practices should be used day-to-day. Most people can unify behind a shared vision that includes all students experiencing academic, professional, and personal success 20 years into the future. Developing a shared long-term vision is a critical tool district leaders can use to align students, staff, family members, community members, Board of Education members, and other constituents. From there, teams can work backward and establish short term metrics tied to evidence-based practices, fostering additional buy-in to strategies that drive toward achieving longer-term objectives.

The development and sharing of a BHAG can be particularly useful in the context of a political climate where talking about differences in educational opportunity based on identity is increasingly polarized. This is because most BHAGs include a reference to “all students.” The strategies that help school districts achieve their BHAGs can be framed as a way to make sure that all really does mean all. If disparities currently exist between subgroups of students and their educational outcomes, those disparities must be eliminated in order for the district BHAG to become a reality.

Targeted Universalism

A useful framework that districts can use to connect their BHAG to targeted strategies designed to promote equity is targeted universalism. Developed by john a. powell, Stephen Menendian, and Wendy Ake, “Targeted universalism means setting universal goals pursued by targeted processes to achieve those goals.” 

To provide a simple example of targeted universalism in practice, a school may have a BHAG of all students graduating with a high school diploma. Let’s say an analysis of the data shows that a certain subgroup, for example emergent bilinguals (i.e., students for whom English is not one of their primary languages), has a lower graduation rate than English speakers. This data point is a sign that targeted strategies are needed to support multilingual students. Spending time or resources on supports for this group does not mean that the English speakers are being ignored or harmed in some way. It simply means that targeted strategies are being used to achieve a universal goal – a 100% graduation rate. District leaders may find this framework helpful to guide conversations around why certain strategies are being implemented the way they are.

Our Kids Can't Wait

In a recent design session with high school students, we asked the students to reflect on the district’s priorities against their own experiences. They wrote their answers on sticky notes and stuck them to the wall. One answer stuck with me so much that I kept the sticky note: “When will there be urgency about the suffering of students?”

This question is a haunting reminder that while adults debate about what phrases to ban and what curriculum to use, our students go to school 180 days a year. Each of those days is an opportunity to provide the love, support, and resources that every student needs to thrive. Missing those opportunities cannot be an option. We must choose to continuously center students and their needs to advance the work of educational equity. Setting Big Hairy Audacious Goals and using targeted universalism to help achieve those goals are strategies districts can use to do this important work, even in the face of extreme political polarization. 


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