WHAT DOES EQUITY MEAN?
by Corey Ford
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district is closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.
In 1995, right before he began his job as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg
Schools, Eric Smith and his wife visited East Mecklenburg High School. They dropped
by an Advanced Placement class. It was great – extremely challenging material being
taught by a talented teacher to a room packed with bright students. But Smith hardly
“My wife and I just looked at each other,” recalls Smith. “There was a complete
absence of minority students. What was the problem here?”
The problem, Smith would soon find, was inequity – a dangerous combination
of low expectations and inadequate resources.
Smith knew that to get minority students to succeed he would have to sell Charlotte
on a simple idea – demand high expectations and high performance from all students,
no matter what their social background or circumstances. “The success of a school
isn't dependent on the children we serve,” he asserted. “We are the ones who
will compensate for any deficiencies or additional needs children bring to us.”
With that, Charlotte's pursuit of equity was born.
Eric Smith, a business-like educator who sought objective truth through data
analysis, had his team run the numbers. The data revealed the problem: despite
having similar or better scores on fifth grade and PSAT ability assessments,
many black students were consistently being put in basic-level classes while
their white peers were consistently selected for high-level ones. Placement decisions
were made on subjective recommendations.
“It was totally based on assumptions… We'd made assumptions about expectations
of kids' levels, and those expectations were too low,” says Smith. “Call it racism,
bias, low expectations, whatever. The impact is huge.”
It was huge – on the scale of a 39 percentage point achievement gap in reading.
That meant that across the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, while 78% of
white, mostly middle- to upper-income students performed at or above grade level
on reading assessments, only 39% of black, mostly low-income students did. In
math, the achievement gap was 40 percentage points. Charlotte, the birthplace
of school integration by busing, had failed to educate its minority students
on par with whites.
“I saw huge discrepancies,” says Smith. “We found that the expectations were
different for inner city kids versus the suburban. We found that the pace of
instruction, the speed with which content was being delivered was different.
Totally different expectations.”
Charlotte essentially had two distinct school systems. One system had experienced teachers
supported by adequate resources teaching challenging courses
in new facilities to students who were pushed to graduate
and excel in college. The other system had inexperienced teachers with inadequate resources
trying to teach basic courses to students who were hardly expected to
graduate, much less go to college. One system was for suburban kids; the other
for inner city kids. And this was the case despite more than three decades of
busing meant to forcibly prevent this problem.
Smith was determined to fix this inequity, but he didn't have much time. A
looming federal lawsuit threatened to end busing. Schools could be re-segregated,
ripping the achievement gap wide open. It was Smith's worst nightmare.
“We could not go through the struggle that Charlotte had gone through and come
out the other side and not have students performing at a comparable level. To
me that was unthinkable,” says Smith. “We had to solve this problem once and
for all… We had to get dead serious about the business that we're in.”
To Smith, it was all about clarity: reestablish the mission of Charlotte-Mecklenburg
Schools and then redesign the school system around it.
“Our job is to educate children to a comparable level, to a competitive level,” says
Smith. “ If we're doing our job, then we should be able to get kids to play in
the big game before they leave us. ”
Getting minority students to play in “the big game” – to get them into college – required
that they be prepared with that specific goal in mind. It required that students
have access to the educational practice field, with the appropriate “coaching” and “training” to
raise their skills to the level needed for “the big game.”
“Equity wasn't making sure that everyone had numerically the same number of
test tubes in every chemistry lab,” concluded Smith. “We had to make sure that
equity was more defined by the outcome.”
Equity would require two things – high expectations for all students and a
targeted distribution of district resources.
Smith needed to redesign the entire Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system around
the core value of high expectations for all students. He started with the end
goal – college – and focused on the key hurdles Charlotte's students would need
to clear to get there.
“I first drafted out where I wanted kids to be at the end and specifically
by what time frame and what measure of performance,” explains Smith. “I didn't
want to simply meet the requirements under state accountability. I wanted to
see the cross section of children from all backgrounds perform at an extraordinarily
high level as defined by some outside body. And so I looked at advanced placement,
I looked at international baccalaureate and I looked at the SAT as three ways
that we could measure our performance.”
With the end goal set, Smith worked backwards. He looked for the key moments
during a student's educational development that would indicate whether or not
that child was on track to succeed on the AP, the International Baccalaureate
(IB) and the SAT.
“I wanted a kind of dipstick. I wanted to have points of measure over the course
of a child's kindergarten through twelfth grade experience, and I wanted to see
whether or not we were on target for that achievement,” says Smith. “So I moved
from SAT, IB and AP performance and then I wrote specific goals for algebra one
performance in middle school, for third grade reading and third grade mathematics.”
Smith calls these key moments “gateways.” They're the hurdles that line the
racetrack of public education. If a child can't clear each increasingly difficult
hurdle on time, he'll never make it to the finish line.
The district developed a stopwatch to set students' educational pace. Pacing
Guides clearly set out for teachers what students needed to learn and by when.
Now all students would be taught all the material they needed to know to succeed.
But students would inevitably trip up on some hurdles, so Charlotte developed
a scheduling system that allows teachers to re-teach concepts to kids without
slowing down normal class time. Struggling kids get the one-on-one attention
they need while the whole class stays on pace. Students would no longer be stuck
in remedial tracks for the rest of their education.
Having put in place a structure that pushed every child in the district towards
achievement, Smith had to target the district's resources to where they were
most needed – in schools that serve the children who are the furthest behind
when they walk in the schoolhouse door. These were the inner city schools, long
neglected and under-served, with children whose parents had not prepared them
to succeed academically.
Children from poverty are usually behind when the starting gun goes off. “We
had to find a way to compensate for that,” says Smith. “That's what we meant
If the district used its resources wisely and focused them on students in need,
Smith reasoned, it could make up for what the children lacked at home.
“In order to achieve equity, we put a significant amount of resources…into
low-income schools that wouldn't have been there normally,” says Smith. “We had
to increase the funding level. We had to increase the staffing level. We invested
in their performance, in strategic ways, at a rate that was higher than we would
Charlotte set up the Equity Plus Program, providing schools in high poverty
areas with the resources they needed to bring their students up to speed: reduced
teacher-student ratios, additional instructional supplies and materials, added
incentives for teachers, summer enrichment programs, Saturday school and more
district guidance and attention.
Some in the Charlotte community questioned the fairness of this practice: if
the inner city schools were getting extra district funding, didn't that mean
they were taking money away from the suburban schools?
To respond, Smith ran the numbers. The data said, “No.” Even with all this
new funding for inner city schools, suburban schools still received more taxpayer
money per student.
“The difference was that the leading cost of running a school is personnel,” says
Smith. Inner city schools were churning first- and second-year teachers who were
at the bottom of the pay scale, while suburban schools carried the high salaries
of teachers with 20 to 25 years of experience.
“We looked at our total operating costs,” says Smith. “Even with the supplemental
additional teachers, the additional materials, the supplies… all these things
to bring about equity – we still found that we were not running at a higher rate
of cost to the district than the cost factor at the suburban schools.”
Even though suburban schools still received more taxpayer money, the inner
city schools had won a big victory. The resources were in place, extra attention
and support was available and high expectations were ingrained.
By the time Eric Smith left Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2002, the school
district was on the verge of national acclaim. In seven years, the percentage
of black students scoring at or above grade level in reading increased from 39%
to 62% and in math increased from 42% to 70%. The achievement gap between minority
students and white students closed in reading from 39 percentage points to 29
points and in math from 40 points to 24 points. And on the 2004 NAEP nationwide
assessment tests, “The Nation's Report Card,” Charlotte's white and minority
students outperformed their peer groups in nine other major urban school districts
in reading and math.
Since 2002, the achievement gaps have continued to close because the
equity-driven system Smith designed remains in force. By the end of the 2004-2005
school year, the gap in reading had been cut by an additional 9 percentage points
and in math by an additional 6 points. Black students are now
performing at nearly the same level where white students were performing when
Smith first arrived in Charlotte.