UW College of Education e-news
November 2010  |  Return to issue home

When Equal Is Not Equitable

Equity graphic

Students may cry "Unfair!" when a principal cuts a popular music program and invests the resources in special English language learning classes. Parents are likely to protest when the district reduces class size for struggling students in low-performing schools and increases them for everyone else.
"When the number of high-needs students is increasing and budgets are dwindling, education leaders face tough allocation choices, uncomfortable conversations, and formidable resistance," says College of Education Associate Professor Marge Plecki. Her research examines equity and the economics of education. She notes, "We are not dealing with level playing fields."

With jobs tied to high-stakes accountability, leaders are in the hot seat. Under state and local requirements, they are charged with a two-fold responsibility: 1) raising the overall academic performance of every student; and 2) closing stark achievement gaps. Unless hard issues are addressed, raising the bar will likely increase those gaps. There can be no compromising on either of the two goals. This means that expectations must be high for everyone.

The slippery notions of "equal" and "equitable" then come into play," says Plecki. As part of the Study of Leadership for Learning Improvement, she led an investigation that examined the investment of staff resources for learning improvement in urban districts. Typically, students in these districts have more diverse and more pronounced educational needs than their suburban peers.

"Some people hold the construct that 'fair' means everybody's treated the same. Some may say that that itself is woefully unfair. Fairness doesn't always mean doing everything the same," Plecki observes.

While spreading resources equally across schools may be a safe route, such uniformity can also be a tip-off that leaders, swamped by what Plecki calls the "tyranny of current urgencies" and reluctant to make waves, are not adequately serving the needs of disadvantaged schools and students. Fairness doesn't always mean doing everything the same," asserts Plecki. "In fact, the leadership challenge is to acknowledge when differentiated approaches are necessary. Some students need greater support and additional resources to ensure that they are provided with an "equal" opportunity to succeed."

We have to address the historic under-funding and inattention to particular kids who are not learning because the system's not working for them.

Current budget crises exacerbate the problem. Funding levels are flat-lining, and stimulus dollars are simply filling budget holes, reports the American Association of School Administrators. A joint report by the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures showed 20 states had already cut $7.6 billion from their 2009 fiscal year budgets by mid-year.

Plecki suggests even when leaders face tight budgets, they can rethink, reconsider, and reallocate. "This is an opportune time for them to take stock, examine their organization, and identify fundamental ways to move quickly toward a more effective way of doing business."

Plecki worked alongside other College of Education faculty and graduate students in the Wallace Foundation-funded investigation, examining resource allocation in two Oregon district—Lane County District 4J in Eugene, and the Portland Public Schools—as well as in the New York City Department of Education/Empowerment Schools Organization and Atlanta Public Schools. Researchers focused on 14 schools, most serving students living in poverty, students of color, and students learning English as a second language.

UW team members conducted interviews with district leaders, principals, parents, school board members, community members, and others focused on learning improvement. They observed in classrooms, attended district meetings, and analyzed fiscal, personnel, and achievement data. "We looked at the themes that cut across the districts and schools and tried to determine what factors affected resource allocation that made a difference for learning outcomes," says UW graduate student Robin LaSota, part of the research team. "We always had in mind the Wallace Foundation goal of using research-based understandings to inform practice and create actionable strategies that schools can use to better allocate resources."

In one high school, a principal used resources intended for assistant principals to create academy leader positions, extending instructional support into small groups of teachers working to improve student learning. In a middle school, a principal created five instructional coach positions by revising student-teacher ratios. Learning-focused leaders also adjusted staff instructional time to create after-school and Saturday programs for struggling learners and subject-based intervention periods during the day. One district increased kindergarten from half-day to full-day in schools serving students from low-income families.

Leaders in the study worked hard to devise evidence-based strategies that focused resources on improving equitable learning—often with no additional funding, and frequently with positive results. "We studied specific schools where students were making academic progress and investigated the leadership practices that were contributing to those gains," says Plecki. "We found that these leaders engaged in continual reflection and analysis of data that helped formulate their leadership strategies." says Plecki. "What we saw among these leaders was a constant reflection on: What's our practice? What does the data show us on how well we're doing? How are we going to shift and change?"

In Portland—a district suffering from a state tax-limitation measure, continuing enrollment decline, and new budgetary woes—leaders cut positions in the central office to create three funding streams targeted at schools with traditionally underserved populations. In New York, leaders redesigned school allocations to provide "Contract for Excellence" money to high-poverty schools. District 4J in Eugene created a special literacy fund for schools with large numbers of English language learners, special education students, and students from low income families.

Leaders in the study identified areas needing intensive work, then assessed whether they had the right people in place to do the work—and if not, strategized how to recruit, track, and support these people. This could mean providing professional development for existing staff or using incentives to attract high-quality teachers into hard-to-staff schools. It also meant altering staffing arrangements and addressing the needs of struggling teachers.

Leaders had three main resources to work with: people, money, and time. By readjusting time schedules, they created professional development opportunities that included weekly team meetings for school staff to work together on pressing problems of learning improvement, "protecting certain chunks of time for certain things" to "protecting time allocations for the most critical improvement tasks" says College of Education professor Mike Knapp, who helped guide the resource investment study.

Whether they were adjusting staff ratios, rearranging schedules, or redirecting resources from high-performing schools to low-performing schools, leaders backed resource decisions with compelling data—data from state and school assessments, classroom observations, student interviews, lesson plans, surveys of staff, and other sources. "These multiple forms of data are critical for determining the most effective use of resources," says Plecki.

Leaders need to combine effective use of data with innovative budgeting strategies that focus on sustainable gains over time. The case of a New York City principal illustrates how leaders might invest resources differently. The principal rearranged his budget to put two full-time certified team teachers in his first- and second-grade classrooms. He could have used the resources to reduce class sizes in all grades. He could have established a remedial program for struggling students in the upper grades. He could have created special classes to prepare students for testing. But he was looking into the future.

"A lot of people think I'm crazy and ask 'How can you possibly afford it?'" said the principal. "It's a long-term investment. By making an investment in the early grades, I'm making an investment that's going to pay off in the long run and I think I'll see it on the other end."

Tenacity, consistency, and political will are essential to the business of differential resource allocation based on equity goals. It requires ingenuity, backbone, and the presence of leaders who can build community support for their resource strategies.

"These leaders had to make tough decisions, and make a public case in support of those decisions. They had to back these decisions up with data, and then deal with the political pushback," says Plecki.

"Both technically and politically, this is a daunting task."

In a nation where students from low-income families are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school than their high-income peers, it is work that must be done.

For more information:
Plecki, M., Knapp, M., Castañeda, T., Halverson, T., LaSota, R., & Lochmiller, C. (2009). How Leaders Invest Staffing Resources for Learning Improvement. Seattle: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.

Plecki, M., & Castañeda, T. (2009). Whether and how money matters in K-12 education. In Sykes,
G. & Plank, D. (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Education Policy. Washington, D.C.: American Education Research Association: 453-463.

Portin, B., Knapp, M., Plecki, M., & Copland, M. (2008). Supporting and guiding learning-focused leadership in US schools.  In Macbeath, J. & Cheng, YC (Eds.), Leadership for Learning: International Perspectives. Rotterdam: Sense Publications: 189-203.

Plecki, M. (2006, Summer). Reflections on the field of school finance: Enduring questions and
future directions
. Education Finance and Policy ,1 (2), 167-175.

Plecki, M., Alejano, C., Knapp, M., & Lochmiller, C. (2006, October). Allocating resources and
creating incentives to improve teaching and learning
. Paper commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. Seattle, WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington. Available at http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/

Plecki, M., McCleery, J., & Knapp, M. (2006, October). Redefining and improving school district governance. Paper commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. Seattle: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington. Available at http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/

November 2010  |  Return to issue home

UW College of Education, Campus Box 353600, Seattle, WA 98195-3600
© 2008-2010 University of Washington  | Contact Us  | Privacy Policy