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Ensuring Equity of Opportunity in the Baltimore County Public Schools

Key Learnings from BCPS: Closing the Achievement Gap

Districts are increasingly tasked with providing options for at-risk and underserved student populations to address persistent achievement gaps. While nationwide gains in closing achievement gaps have been made, research shows that underserved student populations still achieve at lower rates than their peers in many areas.

In this web seminar, the executive director of the Office of Equity and Cultural Proficiency discussed how the Baltimore County Public Schools is fulfilling its commitment to support equal opportunities for all students, and is seeing results in closing achievement gaps. From training and professional development, to establishing consistent policies and using high-quality digital curriculum to transform the classroom, BCPS is realizing its vision to create instructional environments that support academic rigor and cultural relevance, while igniting the potential of each and every student.

Lisa Williams

Executive Director of the Office of Equity and Cultural Proficiency

Baltimore County Public Schools 

The Baltimore County Public Schools of 1984 was a system where the majority of students were white, the majority of students were middle class. In the years since 1984, that has completely shifted. Our student population is majority students of color, with African-American students being the greatest percentage of the population among our groups of students of color.

Part of our equity work had to deal with that significant change. What does it mean organizationally to have such a very important shift in the composition of who we serve—in terms of how we’re thinking about curriculum, how we’re thinking about teaching and learning, how we’re thinking about the provision of transportation services? What does this change in population have to do with how we do our work?

It became very clear to us a number of years ago that we had to grapple with the differences that serving a diverse population of students should make in terms of our orientation as a school system. Instead of problematizing children, or problematizing communities, one of the things we ask in our district is whether we are responding to the needs of our learners. Certainly the use of technology and being more nimble in terms of our engagements at the classroom level have been a huge focus of our work.

When you look at our teaching population, when you look at the population of school leaders, when you look at the population of folks who are leading offices, the diversity in those spaces is not similar to schools. Like many school districts across the country, most of our teaching force is white and female. How do we create structures so that there are learning opportunities for teachers who may be culturally or racially different than the students? If the work that 

 we are doing is highly adaptive, and the levers to actually move that work forward—such as the use of technologies, or such as the use of curricula that can be modified quickly in response to the demographics of the students that you serve—all of those things make your job easier.

The only way you know to do those things, the only way you know to make those modifications, is if the professionals servicing the students are actually learning themselves—actually asking themselves different questions about the policies, practices and procedures they use. The window to begin to understand issues around treatment is when you have disproportionalities in the application of discipline. That data point in and of itself doesn’t tell you what’s going on, but it gives you a flashlight to begin to delve into the construct of what it means to think through an equity lens about how we treat or engage our students.

There is this dance between equity and equality. There are times when you have to make decisions where the actual end of the deliberation is every student needs to have x, but equity asks the question about accessibility. For example, if I give every student a pair of shoes, that doesn’t deal with the question of the accessibility of those shoes. Everybody has to have access to curriculum, everybody has to have access to texts, and if your districts are using technology, everybody has to have access to that technology. What makes any of those things accessible? That’s the equity question.

We started our equity training with our school board, with our superintendent and with his staff—with people who are leaders of schools. We used a top-down model, because leadership creates conditions that allow permission. Then, we built our policy. The policy did not come before the training, because we had to do some work around building our own competency.

One of the learnings that came out of the year-one engagement for us is that we needed to have an environment where we said very clearly to people who are serving students that it is permissible for us to begin to have those hard conversations that are about predictive historical patterns. Consider how to begin to broach the conversation that this is not theoretical. This question of how we create equitable access has bodies of students associated with it. There is discomfort in accepting a reality that all things are not equal for all students, and people push against that, and they hear it in a whole variety of ways.

Data is critically important in moving these conversations forward. Capturing data from incidents tells you about climate, tells you about safety, and inclusion, and things that individual student groups might be feeling based on different things that are happening around campus. We are using data to tell us where the gaps exist. It is almost impossible to move an equity agenda without having quantitative and qualitative data, so I would challenge you to consider how you develop robust means of collecting qualitative data as you move your work forward. 

After five years of this work, there are two trends we are noticing. First, graduation rates are increasing for every group of students, and our gaps are closing—we do not have a graduation gap between black and white students. Both of those student groups are graduating at a level higher close to 90 percent. Second, GPAs are increasing, as are the rates of AP participation and SAT performance and participation. 

Moving forward, we’re going to continue our equity training. We’re going to focus very deeply on literacy and leadership looking through an equity lens, and thinking about the issue of climate through an equity lens. And we’ll continue to deal with the issue of customization and personalization of learning, as that is the fruit of the application of an equity lens through our school progress plans and our office performance management plans.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit: www.districtadministration.com/ws101917