Written by: Nidhi Arun, PPI CRISP Research Assistant, O’Neill MPA Student
As a student research assistant for the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy, I have had the opportunity to work directly with community organizations trying to address interconnected issues that lead to societal disparities.
I wanted to take the research skills from my MPA courses and put them to work. The CRISP staff has provided me with mentoring and new opportunities as I develop my skills, build a network, and make an impact before I earn my degree in May 2022.
In 2021, my work predominately focused on projects involving inclusive growth, homelessness, and crime. However, CRISP has expanded its work in the past year to include issues such as equitable education. Working in this new space allows the CRISP team to help leaders better understand the challenges educators, schools, and students face in order to develop solutions.
After all, education is one of the greatest equalizers in society. It opens economic doors and can change a family’s social trajectory for generations. In fact, Americans who have a college degree earn higher salaries, are less likely to live in poverty, and are more civically engaged.
Yet racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in education often block certain groups from reaping these benefits. This is where CRISP’s work comes in. We can help decision makers understand the differences in policy approaches and the outcomes each approach can have.
Much comes down to understanding equality versus equity. Past policies aimed at closing educational opportunity gaps have historically focused on equality. While these approaches provide the same services and opportunities to all students, an equity-based approach puts systems into place to ensure every child receives the specific support they need to be successful.
But before leaders can develop an appropriate approach to address an issue, they must first understand the unique challenges various student groups face. To do this, CRISP researchers and analysts take a deep dive into the current educational landscape to identify where gaps exist and what may contribute to them.
Some of the most glaring gaps appear in standardized testing in K-12 schools. Average reading and math scores for Black students are consistently lower at every level compared to white students. In 2019’s National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), only 15% of Black Hoosier 8th graders tested proficient or above in math and only 16% were proficient or above in reading. These disparities often extend beyond graduation and follow students into higher education as well.
Next, the CRISP team can help organizations understand the factors that play into those gaps. In addition to examining a student’s life outside the classroom, we must look closely at their life inside the classroom. One study of equality in educational opportunity found that attending a high-minority and high-poverty school has a bigger impact on students’ progress than the students’ individual characteristics do.
Schools in high-poverty and high-minority areas are often underfunded, part of a legacy of discriminatory housing policies and school district boundaries. School funding is one of the clearest indicators of educational inequity between districts. In Indiana—where property taxes play a critical role in school funding formulas—home values directly impact public funding for education. The lower the assessed value of properties in the district, the less money its schools will receive.
Yet achieving educational equity demands more than just distributing funds fairly. Students must also have access to a high-level curriculum and high-quality teachers. Nationally, only 52% of teachers in high-poverty high schools were fully certified compared to 61% in other schools.
Furthermore, disciplinary policies emphasizing out-of-school suspensions disproportionately affect students of color and those with disabilities. In fact, a recent CRISP report about Indianapolis Public Schools Police Department found that even student arrests had declined in the past four years, Black students were still seven times more likely to be arrested than white students. This places them at a greater risk of academic failure.
When leaders work to address these many disparities by using an equity-based approach to education, they can strengthen students’ academic achievement, health, and social-emotional development.
For example, a study out of Southern California found that children who had more diverse classrooms also felt safer, less lonely, and reported less bullying. These types of diverse environments promote empathy and emotional regulation in students while also creating stronger social cohesion and long-term economic growth in the community.
Many districts around the country provide comprehensive health, nutrition, and emotional support for children throughout their academic years. These services have been shown to positively influence educational outcomes for minority groups.
In addition, studies show that when schools provide academic resources tailored to individual student needs, the entire classroom improves. Schools that have smaller achievement gaps are turning out higher overall test scores. This supports the idea that when the most disadvantaged students’ scores improve, all students’ scores follow suite.
Equitable classrooms improve academic achievement for all and, more importantly, benefit the development of students and communities.
There are many factors that contribute to the challenges students face at school. These issues are often intertwined and difficult to disentangle. By taking a research-driven approach, the CRISP team is well-positioned to help those in power make informed decisions that will change lives and communities. Working toward educational equity is an effective starting point to unpack the systemic disparities that have trapped generations of minorities in all aspects of their socio-economic lives. And I am proud to be part of the effort to address those disparities through my work as a student research assistant at CRISP.