In Part I, we spilled the beans: no equity audit — or any audit — is empirically effective on its face. Effectiveness lies entirely in the quality of the recommendations and how faithfully they are implemented. Even the best recommendations grounded in hard research are useless if they sit gathering dust in a desk drawer somewhere. But — and this is important — there is plenty of data on what happens when districts do implement equity recommendations based on best practice.
We have to keep in mind that all recommendations in an equity audit should be grounded in research, but what gets published in research is typically the results of studies on specific aspects of policy or practice that impact equity rather than the before-and-after of an equity audit. This is because researchers are seeking to document specific cause and effect relationships and an equity audit resulting in lots of initiatives would present a lot of confounders — things which make isolating the various causes and effects more difficult. When researchers implement interventions and look for effects, it doesn’t mean those confounders aren’t present; it means they may not get reported as part of the study or the study may control for them statistically so they’re not a factor. I’m going to pull out a few aspects that often appear in recommendations that are evident in hard research.
Empirical research on vision is slippery; the word appears everywhere but hard data are more difficult to find. Harvard’s RIDES project identified shared vision as a critical component in improving equity in schools. Individual viewpoints on equity can vary pretty widely so establishing common definitions and working to build consensus becomes extremely important to ensure that everyone understands where the system is trying to go. New Leaders also identified vision as a critical attribute for principals trying to improve school performance in its 2016 study Ambitious Leadership: How Principals Lead Schools to College and Career Readiness (Cawn, B. , Ikemoto, G., and Grossman, J.). Principals with a vision for “ambitious instruction” were more effective at getting that instruction implemented in their schools. Equity audits frequently cite disparities in opportunities and expectations between subgroups and among schools — problems that are generally addressed by more rigorous (ambitious) instruction.
Policy is an area that directs a lot of equity practice and thus is an important area to analyze in equity audits. The National Association for State Boards of Education published an article in September of 2021 tracing a clear connection between policy and improved equity in school districts. This article, Designing for Equity (Smith, H.), focuses more on state school boards, but underscores the critical importance “that [both] striving for equity and upending inequity in a state education system are directly tied to the ways that state boards define the problem and consider the policy solutions before them.” One such policy example is how to address learning losses due to Covid 19; boards that codify remediation as the primary strategy will get different (and worse) results than those who opt for an acceleration policy to get kids — particularly low income kids — back up to grade level. Policy, though high level, matters a great deal in the day to day of the classroom.
School climate is another area that equity audits often examine because the learning environment has a demonstrable effect on attendance, retention of content, graduation rates, and access to higher education. This one is tricky, not because there’s no data but because there’s SO MUCH DATA it’s hard to know where to start. School climate data is rooted in brain research, particularly in the response of the human brain in the presence of threat (keeping in mind that threat is entirely subjective). The brain under threat experiences an amygdala hijack which throws the whole nervous system into fight-flight-freeze-appease mode and immediately shuts down cognition. A brain under threat can’t learn. Researchers have identified a number of school climate issues that affect learning: discrimination, a lack of connection, bullying, microaggressions, unjust punishment, hunger, distrust, environmental conditions such as heating and cooling or vermin in buildings, fear of gun violence, exclusion from activities and programs, and so on. Ensuring a safe, inclusive climate has a positive effect on learning, dropout rates, and attendance.
Discipline data is an important metric in equity audits, as is program enrollment. Both look at the proportion of groups being disciplined or being enrolled in special programs like SPED, GT, AP classes, etc.– by ethnicity and gender — to see if some are either over- or under-represented. If a particular ethnic group or gender is over represented in in- and out-of-school suspensions or expulsions, that’s a red flag. Similarly, if there are far more boys than girls in SPED or far more kids of color, that’s a red flag. All enrollment should be roughly proportional to the overall diversity of the district. If not, there may be a problem. One study found that discipline disparities can be an indicator of a lack of qualified personnel. They found a correlation between higher numbers of qualified teachers and lower rates of infractions (not discipline; infractions). We also know from large districts that have eliminated highly subjective categories of discipline (disrespect and defiance are two common ones) that rates of exclusionary discipline drop sharply. And we know that removing kids from class for discipline results in a vicious cycle in which they act out, get removed from class, miss the instruction, come back and are lost, act out and start all over again. Who is disciplined and how is critical to students’ ability to succeed. A common recommendation to districts is to adopt restorative justice practices, and there’s emerging data on how effective those are for students if they are carried out with a simultaneous emphasis on equity and educational access.
That’s just a sample of what an equity audit looks at — there’s far more than can be covered in a journal post. I can’t speak for every company doing equity audits, but for CMSi, every aspect we analyze has its roots in research and best practice, as does every recommendation we make to help districts start improving equity and learning for their students. And that’s the point: improved equity results in improved learning. Our goal, always, is to give districts the information they need to move forward with confidence that the steps they’re taking will have lasting, positive impact on their students’ ability to be successful in school.
More information on equity audits:
An interesting article that shows how equity audits unfolded in two different districts.