On the Road to Equity

If I have to drive a car (an activity I avoid whenever possible), let it be on Interstate Route 89 through central Vermont in August.  This is one of New England’s loveliest highways, usually free of traffic, permanently free of billboards. In the final month of summer, drifts of Queen Anne’s lace border its route through woods and farmland.  Of course, since summer is also prime time for highway repair, there can be delays and tangles around work zones. That’s what I expected on a recent day when I rounded a curve and spotted one of those mobile message boards ahead.  I braced myself for “ROAD WORK NEXT 30 MILES” displayed in orange-on-black digital dots. Instead, as I drew closer, I read this:

SCHOOLS OPENING SOON

WATCH OUT FOR ALL CHILDREN

There was no road work, just a public service announcement posted in an available space for the edification of the motoring public.  Half an hour later, I passed another electronic board with the same words. It was a standard reminder, appropriate to the season, safety-themed, and familiar.  Standard, that is, except for a single word: ALL.

Don’t regular roadside signs say simply “Watch for Children,” in a generic sort of way?  The emphasis here seemed noteworthy (especially with no billboards to distract from my meditative mood).  Was there an implication that some people would look out for certain children, but not others? Was the Vermont Agency of Transportation taking a stand on recent Homeland Security policy?  It seemed unlikely, however welcome that might be.

Musing now on possible interpretations, I imagined another: perhaps this was a message designed for subtle reinforcement of recent education policy.   In that realm, there’s a new emphasis on ALL children. Both major pieces of education legislation in the last five years, the Act 46 district merger bill and the Act 77 high school reform bill, cite “equity” as a primary aim.   The State Board of Education’s current strategic plan makes this plain with its first goal: “Ensure that Vermont’s public education system operates within the framework of high expectations for every learner and ensure that there is equity in opportunity for all.”

This might just  be the usual aspirational rhetoric, common in school mission statements and policy-makers’  promises. Vermont, after all, has a well-regarded system of public education; as the State Board plan notes, our state is a national leader, “found on virtually every top 10 list dealing with education or social well being.”  The statement continues, though, with a refusal to rest on those laurels, citing concern with persistent “achievement gaps” in Vermont’s performance data. That means differences in academic achievement related to non-academic influences such as family income.  It’s a disturbing pattern if we want to believe that our system of education rewards merit; success in school should result from intellectual potential, motivation, and effort, not the economic circumstances of a child’s life or other factors such as race or gender or national origin.  

Achieving genuine equity—a fair chance for everyone to make the most of their learning opportunities—requires addressing the very real barriers some students face.  It means providing the best conditions for high quality learning in schools, such as the personalized support and flexible learning pathways mandated in Act 77. Beyond that, though, it requires recognizing that the achievement gap is rooted in increasingly stark economic and social divides, problems in our communities that call for sustained hard work and collaborative solutions.   

The State Board of Education plan declares its intent to take on this work: “It is time we commit across all agencies and at all levels, to attacking the underlying challenges of poverty, despair, addiction and inequity that undermine school performance, rather than blaming the schools that strive to overcome these very manifestations of our greater social troubles….We believe that equity is a mutual responsibility of local districts along with the state and federal governments and sister agencies and partners.”

This call to action, issued two years ago and officially in effect for two more, is worth our renewed attention as the new school year approaches.   WATCH OUT FOR ALL CHILDREN is certainly a useful reminder to drivers, but it can serve as a rallying cry for educational excellence as well. Our schools and communities won’t be truly great until they ensure that all young people have the opportunities and support they need to be engaged, successful learners.  Working toward that goal should be everyone’s lookout: not just teachers, students, parents, and school board members, but also local business and community leaders, social service agencies, and just plain neighbors. Equity will take ALL of us.

(The Vermont Board of Education’s Strategic Plan can be found at http://education.vermont.gov/sites/aoe/files/documents/edu-state-board-strategic-plan-2015-2019.pdf)

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