Equity Policies & The View From the Balcony

A team from the National Equity Project is currently working with a large urban school district with the typical concentration of poverty and students of color on a new equity policy they recently passed.  Such equity policies are increasingly common as the urgency to close racial achievement gaps grows.

As with many such policies, leaders seek to improve educational outcomes for ALL students while wrestling with the fact that the achievement gaps exist only for low-income, African American, and Latino students (and a few other demographics), not for all students.  This particular district is struggling with how to implement an equity policy that serves all students but specifically helps low-income, African American and Latino students dramatically improve achievement over the next few years.

When districts or cities pass equity policies like this, they often don’t have a very clear map for getting to those outcomes or ‘doing education’ in a new way.  They more or less pledge to do a better job overall.  They don’t necessarily envision new ways to serve particular students better or deeply examine their current system. That’s where we help.

The district created an equity office, staffed it with one director, and provided no budget with which to actually carry out the policy.  This is a common challenge.  The structure created to solve the equity challenges is insufficient.  In order to meet their ambitious goals, the work must be conceived as the responsibility of a larger community of leaders and constituents.

We began by gathering relevant leadership together for an intensive multi-day retreat where we coached the team to shift the conversation and put it on a new track. We encouraged them to be more collaborative and authentic through exercises that helped the leaders change the dialogue, listen deeply to each other, and become  aware of the interrelated technical and relational aspects of their work.  We also worked on making racial equity an explicit part of the conversation. When leaders are trying to achieve racial equity but don’t talk openly about race and racism, there is a risk of continuing the same practices that have caused or maintained the disparities.

We are continually developing new tools and processes for innovating new approaches to equity. One tool we used with this team is called The View from the Balcony. The district team’s thinking about how to solve longstanding equity problems was limited because they were so immersed in their daily work, and addressed inequity only as it manifested there.  We suggested that they think through their situation using the analogy of a dance floor and a balcony. The dance floor is their day to day work, where it’s chaotic and crowded with people and movement, as it is in schools every day.  You can only see so far outside your immediate range and you are working hard just to keep up with the music. There is an understandable tunnel vision, and it’s very hard to see the larger patterns and make systemic changes from this perspective.

view from the dance floorFor instance, when on the ‘dance floor’ of unequal education, you can’t see all the factors that contribute to the problem.  You can’t see hunger, or food availability in the neighborhood or transportation, or whether homes have good study spaces or books, or the alienation of students from school… you only see the results or symptoms of these challenges.

The ‘achievement gap’ itself is a symptom, the result of a complicated mix of inequities.  If you just treat the symptom (as is often done) you’re not likely to achieve equity or justice.

The View from the Balcony is a problem-solving thought exercise. “What do you see when you move to the balcony? How do you see the problem differently when viewing it from above?” We took them out of their usual perspective and enabled them to consider some critical elements that had not been on their radar before.

For instance, they had implemented many ‘diversity initiatives’: professional development of teachers, community meetings with parents, awareness building with leaders.  But these activities were not tied to a specific, larger systemic outcome, not aligned towards an agreed upon equity goal, and therefore the multitude of activities were heading in many different directions – a result of ‘on-the-dance-floor strategizing.’  From the balcony, they suddenly realized why their initiatives had not been reaching their gap-closing goals, and that a new policy enacted with their usual methods would get no better results.  Moving them to the balcony helped them to envision new approaches to systemic change.
Staying on the ‘balcony’ is a lot harder than it sounds.   It’s a facilitation challenge.  Once we got into problem solving, people tended to default right back into their dance floor work space with its limited view. We had to keep pushing back, “Is that the view from the balcony, really?” which would help them pull back out to a big picture, systems view.  The View From the Balcony has entered their vocabulary and as they continue perform that check on each other, their leadership capacity to do systems thinking has increased.  An ongoing shift in perception will support their district’s equity policy goals.

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