Research from The Educational Forum: Orienting Schools Toward Equity

Today’s blogger is Rachel Garver, a doctoral candidate in Teaching and Learning at New York University. She writes here about her research on racial and economic inequality, school segregation, and policy implementation recently published in The Educational Forum.

For the last two decades, the United States has pursued educational equity by holding schools accountable for the comparative outcomes of student subgroups.  

Subgroup accountability, part of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) since its 2001 reauthorization, requires states to identify and intervene in schools where the progress of student subgroups based on race, economic disadvantage, or English proficiency is lagging. Cited schools must show improvement for the subgroups identified by the state or they will face a series of increasingly severe sanctions.

Research on subgroup accountability pressure is mixed. In some cases, the subgroups cited by the state show progress in subsequent years and in other cases there was no effect.

The promise of subgroup accountability pressure to promote equity relies on the process of policy implementation in schools. How school-based actors interpret and enact mandates determines the form in which policy interventions reach students and thereby impacts outcomes.

I utilize an ethnographic case study of Germaine Middle School (pseudonym) to explore the means through which subgroup accountability pressure oriented the school toward equity and, more specifically, toward the student subgroups cited by the state—if at all.

I find that subgroup accountability pressure encouraged Germaine to focus on their achievement gaps in general, but did not lead to targeted interventions for the state-identified student subgroups.

Why did the school’s citation hold little weight in the day-to-day practices at Germaine? A lack of transparency in the state’s calculations, a lack of faith in the state exams and test scores used to identify cited schools, and ethical concerns with using accountability data to inform instructional and curricular reforms delegitimized the state’s determinations in the eyes of Germaine’s staff members. School-based understandings of which student subgroups were most in need drove Germaine’s equity work, instead of subgroup accountability pressure. However, district administrators insisted that Germaine align its compliance practices with the state findings and measures, even if they were symbolic and irrelevant to classroom practice.

Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, federal policy has played an important role in equalizing educational opportunity for marginalized student groups across the wide variance in state politics and practices. The promise of subgroup accountability to promote equity in schools is dependent on how it is received and implemented by state, district, and school actors. For subgroup accountability to fulfill its intentions, citations need to be delivered to schools with greater transparency. Moreover, districts, as intermediaries between the state and schools, must support schools in responding to citations in ways that prioritize equity over state compliance pressures.

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