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Howard County school board approves new equity policy as blueprint for diversity, ‘accountability’

Howard County Public School System officials have long talked about how equity is driving their processes and decision-making.

From the contentious redistricting process last year to the addition of diversity, equity and inclusion positions, since Superintendent Michael Martirano took over as the head of the school system in 2017, he has talked about the importance of equity.

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After the Board of Education approved the school system’s first equity policy on Sept. 24, the tenets of equity are now established in a blueprint.

“My whole tenure, my whole life as an educator, has been predicated on equity,” Martirano said. “What this truly does is an assurance policy that it guarantees this work will occur. It doesn’t leave it to chance."

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In December 2018, the Maryland State Board of Education approved a new regulation that required all school systems to adopt or revise equity policies that met specific standards. The deadline for school systems to implement the policy is later this month.

Howard school system officials — including director of assessments and reporting Timothy Guy and diversity, equity and inclusion facilitator Razia Kosi, as well as a wide-ranging community committee — developed the policy, which was first presented to the board in February.

“This is really important,” said school board member Jen Mallo, who is the chairperson of the policy committee. “When you take all of the components and you look at it in the context of what’s going on in our nation, this is a critical step in addressing previous injustices and inadequacies and do it in a really positive way. This is a framework. But you have to have frameworks and accountability before you can have real, meaningful progress.”

A look back

The word “equity,” especially in educational settings, has become a buzzword for many different ideas. For the Howard County school system, the difference between “equity” and its cousin, “equality,” Martirano said, is in the support given to each individual student.

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Under an equal school system, every student would receive the same amount and type of learning or help. Under an equitable school system, Martirano said, each student — or group of students — is looked at specific to their needs as a way to try to tighten the achievement gap — the difference between the achievements of one group of students to another.

“If I distributed the same level of instruction to every student … it’s a detriment to all students in a nonequity-based approach,” Martirano said. “If you just do equal, we all suffer.”

While that framework sounds simple, it’s different from what public schooling was in most of the country until recently, especially before the turn of the century and before the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. To give different groups of students — like English to Speakers of Other Languages, special education or low-income students — different support means the school system would have to acknowledge that some groups of students achieve at different rates than others. Up until about 20 years ago, Martirano said, that wasn’t something most school systems recognized.

“It wasn’t too long ago in my career that we weren’t allowed to discuss [the breaking down] of data,” Martirano said. “It wasn’t endorsed to recognize there were differences between student groups. We don’t need to take a full history lesson of No Child Left Behind, but one of the major components I fully embraced with it was the full focus on disaggregation of data and analyzing data in terms of gender, race, socioeconomic status, ESOL students, special education and to notice there are achievement gaps. It wasn’t too long ago when that didn’t occur."

Martirano said he believes school systems across the country — and state legislatures like Maryland’s — are buying into educational equity because of the quality of research that recognizes the achievement gap and ways to close it.

Martirano said education “isn’t a zero-sum game.” Helping a group of students doesn’t take away from other students, he said. This isn’t a redistribution of education from the top students to students on the other end of the achievement gap because, in Martirano’s mind, the school system can both help students with bigger needs while also challenging the school system’s highest-achieving students.

“People sometimes only think this is for students in poverty,” Martirano said. “No, it’s for all students across the continuum.”

Policy pillars

While the policy is a framework and doesn’t include any specific or immediate changes, there are multiple pillars that are listed throughout.

Five of the most important areas that will have equity as a guiding principle are: curriculum, hiring, school population, professional development and the annual budget process.

For curriculum, Martirano said the school system will continue to acknowledge the fact that Howard County is a diverse school system. In the 2018-19 academic year, the demographic breakdown of the school system’s approximately 58,000 students was approximately 38% white, 24% Black, 22% Asian, 10% Hispanic and 6% of two or more races.

For staffing, Martirano wants the school system’s teachers to mirror the breakdown of the student population. That’s a difficult goal, though, as approximately 27% of the school system’s staff is minority, compared to 64% of the system’s students. However, almost 35% of new hires are minority, and Martirano said including staff diversity in the equity policy will ensure the school system expands on its efforts in diverse hiring.

“I want every child in our school system [to see someone] who looks like them through the educational experience, as opposed to one gender, one race, one background,” Martirano said. “We are a very diverse school system, becoming more diverse every day, and it’s important for us to value the diversity of our workforce. There’s research that states if a child of color has one teacher of color during their experience, the impact that has on academic achievement and the ability to go to college is large.”

Last year, the redistricting process — the plan to move about 5,400 students to new schools to balance the level of poverty across the county’s schools — in Howard County was a controversial topic in the community. Early construction is underway for a 13th high school, and the board will have to decide in 2022 how to populate that school. The equity policy states the requirement for an “establishment of a diverse, equitable and inclusive student population at all schools.”

Lastly, the policy requires the budgeting office to include information and analysis on how each program in the district furthers the school system’s equity goals. The addition will mean more work for the system’s budget staff, but school board member Sabina Taj said during the meeting that it’s vital to have equity be a part of the budget process.

“Unless we actually prioritize it in our budget, it’s not a thing,” Taj said. “It’s just talk and not something we do. If we don’t dedicate resources to it, it’s not really real.”

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Defining terms

During recent school board meetings, a large focus was placed on the definitions portion of the policy document. Terms like “anti-racism,” “explicit and implicit bias,” “marginalized groups” and “racial equity” are used throughout the policy and required definitions.

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“I think there was a lot of talk about definitions because we wanted to get it right,” Mallo said. “The rest of the framework was evaluated, and I don’t think the members of the board had much issue with the critical components of it. ... For those members of our community that are focused on this, those definitions become important so we can come at this from the same perspective.”

Some in the community objected to the use of some of the terms at all. Others, including a few board members, raised concerns about the definitions of some of them, specifically anti-racism. An earlier version of the policy partially defined anti-racism as “acknowledging racism and the dominance of white, middle-class norms in education which have resulted in inequities for students.” The definition was changed prior to the approval on Sept. 24 to remove the “white, middle-class” phrase and replace it with “educating oneself on the history of race, racism and the current institutional and structural impact on communities of color.”

“I have concern that a great deal of the public hasn’t been able to weigh in on these changes, and they are substantive,” board member Kirsten Coombs said. “But I am happier with the definition of ‘anti-racism.’ I think it’s less divisive language.”

Any other future proposed changes to the equity policy will be brought up at the school board’s next meeting for review and approval. The policy is also required by state law to be reviewed every three years.

“This is not a static document,” Martirano said. “This is a fluid process.”

Overall, the equity policy doesn’t change anything in the school system — for now. The policy is an official framework to guide the school system moving forward, Martirano said.

“When it’s not in policy, does it really exist for a school system?” Martirano said. “We have to do the work. If not, this is just platitudes. When we think about a whole host of topics, this is our north star.”

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