New Leader Aims to Promote Equity In Chicago Schools Without ‘Losers And Winners’

Chief equity office
Chicago Public Schools Chief Equity Officer Maurice Swinney says he knows making the school district more equitable could be controversial but he thinks it can be done in a way that helps all students. Provided by CPS
Chief equity office
Chicago Public Schools Chief Equity Officer Maurice Swinney says he knows making the school district more equitable could be controversial but he thinks it can be done in a way that helps all students. Provided by CPS

New Leader Aims to Promote Equity In Chicago Schools Without ‘Losers And Winners’

The idea of promoting equity in schools has become so popular that some are calling it the “coconut water of education.” And in Chicago Public Schools, it has moved to the forefront, with school district leadership saying they are integrating it into everything they do.

CPS’ first equity officer is tasked with the hard part: making sure it is not just a buzzword, but a shift in the way the school district does business. Maurice Swinney has been in the job for year, but only now says he’s ready to talk publicly about his plans.

Swinney came to the job after serving as principal of Tilden High School on the Southwest Side for seven years. His new office has a $1.3 million budget for seven positions, including a data strategist, a policy strategist and an achievement specialist.

In an interview with WBEZ, Swinney said making the school district more equitable could be controversial, especially when it comes to how dollars are handed out. But he believes it can be done in a way that helps all students.

“We have to make sure that equity is not a zero-sum game, that you have to have losers and winners,” he said.

Swinney said the key is figuring out what all students need to reach the school district’s goals, and then making sure they can have the right tools to get there.

That, he acknowledges, isn’t easy in a district with limited resources and varying definitions of what constitutes a need.

After all, for years, critics have complained that resources have been weighted toward serving the needs of white, middle-class families — sometimes, they charge, at the expense of poor students of color. The last two mayors made no secret of their desire to keep these families happy so they would not abandon the public school system.

Meanwhile, those parents have figured out how to work the system to get what they want.

Changing these dynamics could cause an uproar.

Swinney said he hopes the equity framework he is rolling out will help the district make decisions methodically and minimize disputes. He thinks providing data so the public can understand where disparities exist will help them accept decisions driven by equity.

“Difficult conversations”

But those already trying this say Swinney and his team have their work cut out for them.

Over the last decade, most big city schools districts have identified someone to address these issues, said Raymond Hart, director of research for the Council of the Great City Schools, a member organization for urban school districts, including Chicago.

Hart said administrators in these equity roles do all sorts of things, from cultural competency training for teachers, to working with principals on interview questions, to developing mentoring programs.

But he said they all have to confront hard topics, such as how different racial groups are impacted by decisions or where bias is present.

“The real challenge is actually being upfront and honest and encouraging the community and members of the school district to have those difficult conversations,” Hart said.

Tiffany Young, the equity and diversity director for the school district that includes Reno, Nev., said confrontations come when people are forced to reexamine long-standing beliefs and ways of doing things.

“We still have a long way to go, and the work that we do is constant, so it is not like ‘Oh, we have solved that and let’s move on.’ Sometimes we have to go back and revisit some things,” said Young, who has been in the role for six years.

Young and Hart also said creating an equitable school system can’t rest on one person’s shoulders, and that all leaders need to be held accountable for inequities.

Going into the work, Swinney has some advantages. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and school district leadership say they are committed to equity and have already made some changes that are shifting dynamics. For example, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson has doled out extra money to schools that would otherwise lose funding because of a loss of enrollment.

They also agreed in October to a teachers contract that provides an extra position to the neediest 120 schools. And they committed to making sure new social workers and nurses go to needy schools first.

Also, school district leadership is spending the next year reexamining whether the ways in which schools are funded and rated are fair.

Swinney said these undertakings will be the first big test for his equity framework.

Below is an edited transcript of Swinney’s interview with WBEZ where he lays out his plans.

How do you define equity?

What we cannot do is just say ‘Everybody gets this’ and hoping for the best. For example, I can give every student a bike but it might not be the bike that supports what their needs are.

At a high level, it is about how do we make sure that we are actually concerned about everyone, while not forgetting or neglecting any particular student group. Also, how do we make sure that this work is about opportunities for justice and fairness, especially for those traditionally underserved?

What we really need [is] to ask the question: What do students need and how do we get clear on what the actual need is for every particular student group? That could require shifting resources. It could require sharing resources across networks and across schools. But until we get clear on what we actually need, I don't know if we can actually get to equity.

Describe the equity framework you are rolling out?

Equity is everybody’s work. So it is not just about what teachers are doing or principals are doing. But what are networks and districts doing? What are community-based organizations or nonprofits or philanthropists who do work in service of schools [doing]? How do we start to level set everybody’s thinking around equity?

What we landed on were on two really big ideas that are laid out in the framework. One, is [to] target universalism, which says you have to have the same high goal for all students, and you have to figure out what are the right strategies for those different student groups in order to meet that goal, which is pivoting from closing opportunity gaps, or achievement gaps as people have called them. How do we not only think about closing gaps, but how do we actually get young people to a goal? That takes a sort of rebranding of what we think about when we think about achievement.

And then the second piece is we have to have an equity lens and we have to demystify what that means. Everybody says you have to have an equity lens or an equity mindset, but it was never really defined and so we did a few things to define it.

What if people have different perspectives of how to define a need?

Need is partly based on perspective, but it can also be based on the right set of data to help us recognize what a student who is living in a temporary living situation needs versus a student who has stable housing.

We landed on the equity lens in order to get the shifts in practice to the needs. Resource equity is one part of the lens. Another part is inclusive partnership: How do we get the right people at the table to help us figure out what the needs are. Then, it is liberatory thing: How are we pushing our thinking on what we believe on what people deserve and why they deserve it.

We have to look at resource equity, inclusive partnerships, liberatory thinking and fair practices and systems. All of these four dimensions of the equity lens have to be working together at the same time. That is what makes equity so complex.

You are also working on a literacy initiative. Say more about that?

I went to school to be an English teacher, but when I learned 20 years ago my best friend couldn't read, I recognized the need to become a reading teacher and that for me is a part of why this literacy piece is important. And we did have students who came to Tilden not knowing how to read and I wasn’t able to figure out how that happened. That is also the impetus of why this is important.

I think what you will find is that we are addressing systemic literacy issues and providing supports for all schools. We have to ensure that people can read signs and read texts and fill out job applications. Not only can a person read, but how well can you read, how well can you decode, how well can you read complex things and make your own meaning and not have to wait for someone else to do an interpretation for you.

We have to be clear across the board on the value of literacy and what it means for us as a city. We cannot make assumptions about what people know how to do, but support people in ensuring that they are equipped with the right resources in order to do their job very well.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.