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All humans deserve to thrive—socially, emotionally, cognitively, physically, economically, and spiritually. Equity in thriving has been contested and denied in the U.S. since the first Europeans arrived. Not only has opportunity been limited, but so has the conceptualization of what equity is and how it can be supported. While this was frequently justified by genetic determinism (see Science of Learning and Development) and beliefs that people can’t change, our best research shows that with the right supports, everyone can thrive, and people can change (e.g., Drivers of Human Development, Concerns-Based Adoption Model).
Definitions and applications of equity can often be inconsistent or even conflicting. In William Ryan’s book Equality, he distinguished between two contrasting mindsets: (a) fair play, where everyone has the same starting point and the rules are the same, and (b) fair shares, where outcomes are fair. This distinction needs to be extended when applied to equity: a fair share of what? And what processes support people who start at unequal places to realize fairness? Our work and discussions with researcher, practitioner, and organizer colleagues suggest that we should develop a more robust conceptualization of equity – one that incorporates thriving and addresses human learning and development across all life spaces and over the life course.
Robust equity is multi-dimensional. It is not only mindful of thriving but sets thriving as the goal for young people. It recognizes that well-being in one domain contributes to well-being in others. Robust equity addresses individual and collective dimensions of thriving. Within educational settings, this means addressing students’ academic needs through culturally responsive after-school tutoring or small-group sessions in multiple languages that also support students’ emotional well-being during moments of local or global crisis. This might include, small-group sessions with bilingual staff in an after school setting and collaborating community-based organizations and public agencies (see for example Creating Safe, Equitable, Engaging Schools).
Robust equity is cumulative. It is rooted in historical awareness and commits to long-term, systemic change. While we may make decisions about equity that focus on one outcome, domain, or system at a moment in time, the results of those decisions have broader consequences on individual and collective equity. Consequences of equity-related decisions affect individual and collective equity status in other outcomes, domains, and systems over time. It is important for decisions about equity to consider the long-term, cross-domain and cross-system effects, and consequences. Efforts to achieve equity in a single domain or to reduce disparities between populations do not go far enough because these domains interact at individual, collective, and system levels.
Robust equity involves intentionally countering inequality and institutionalized privilege and prejudice, addressing contextual deficits, and creating conditions that support overall well-being. For example, providing equal access to Advanced Placement (AP) classes is not enough. We must also provide social and emotional support and mental health services to address challenges that limit meaningful participation in AP and International Baccalaureate, including identity, stereotype threat, implicit bias, unmet mental health needs, and unequal opportunities to learn (see for example Creating Safe, Equitable, Engaging Schools).
Conditions for Realizing Robust Equity
Realizing robust equity is possible (see Implications for Educational Practice of the Science of Learning and Development). We can design and support conditions that focus on opportunities for learning and development, school and organizational climate and conditions for learning and development, and support for young people. Opportunities to learn and develop include the quality of instruction, the quality of content, and the amount of learning time. Young people benefit from development-rich environments that are culturally responsive and provide opportunities to wonder, think critically and deeply, develop their identity, express themselves, develop their social and emotional skills, and experience meaning and spiritual engagement. Environments such as these can help youth realize their full potential as intelligent, creative, socially responsible, critical thinking whole persons.
We can also realize equity by improving school and organizational climate and conditions for learning and development, such as physical, emotional, and identity safety (e.g., Creating Safe, Equitable, Engaging Schools, National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments), connectedness and belonging, challenge and adult engagement, peer and adult social and emotional competence, restorative approaches to discipline, and cultural competence and responsiveness.
Additionally, we can realize equity by supporting young people and learning from and with them. Many youth of color as well as other economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and students who are GLBTQ face barriers to learning that limit their opportunities to learn in general, or in particular areas, or to realize their full potential. Support needs may be physical, financial, social, emotional, and psychological. These needs can best be addressed in a coordinated and aligned multi-tiered approach that focuses on student agency, student-staff relationships, learning, and well-being – support of robust equity. This includes mental health services that should be provided when needed and which avoid stigma, labeling, and segregation. These services should be (1) culturally competent, responsive, and humble; (2) child-centered and youth-, consumer-, and family-driven; (3) individualized (4) strengths-based and building (5) contribute to thriving, and (6) family, school, and community-based. Effective wraparound approaches provide a useful framework.
Bread and Roses Too
Some may say robust equity was nice before COVID-19, but now we can’t afford it, or that some people won’t benefit--we have to focus on basics and behavioral compliance (see Back to Basics Through the Years) and can’t spend scarce resources on soft things or focus on the soft skills and mental health supports. Thinking this way is not new – it has been applied in different ways to segmenting opportunities and underfunding support programs, while focusing on basics and harsh discipline since slavery was formally abolished (see for example, The Impact of Slavery on 20th and 21st Century Black Progress).
The War on Poverty, in spite of its achievements, provides an example. Its achievements were limited by an individualistic conceptualization of poverty and a deficit approach to the solutions (William Ryan wrote about this in 1972 in Blaming the Victim). Its accomplishments were undercut by increasing funding and program cutbacks in and after the 1980s, which complemented more regressive taxation. Economic inequality started to rise, and the conceptualizations of educational equity became narrower (see for example A Nation at Risk which operationalized equity as “expect[ing] and assist[ing] all students to work to the limits of their capabilities” (1983, p. 9, emphasis added). While we now know that the zone of capability (i.e., proximal development; see Let Learners Get in Their Zone of Proximal Development) can be stretched by talent development and social support (see Implications for Educational Practice of the Science of Learning and Development). A Nation at Risk, standards-based reform, and zero tolerance policies that followed did not address the soft skills, mental health services and supports, or opportunity to learn standards (see Three Decades of Education Reform: Are We Still "A Nation at Risk?"). Talent development and student engagement were largely ignored, while a pipeline to prison and drop out was amplified (see Zero Tolerance and Bias Reinforce the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Using Chronic Absence Data to Improve Conditions for Learning).
Not only is the thinking old; it is irrelevant in this new era when mental health needs are likely to rise universally along with poverty. COVID-19 has also amplified inequities, and mental health needs are likely to have disproportionate effects on the individual and collective well-being of people and communities which, even before COVID-19, were disproportionately experiencing disparities in mental health services and the negative consequences of institutionalized racism, ethnocentrism, ableism, heterosexism, ageism, minoritization, marginalization and a lack of economic and sexual privilege. Triaging efforts away from well-being supports-- including trauma-sensitive mental health services--contribute to health ill-being. Triaging efforts away from deeper education and creativity undermine the ability to be entrepreneurial or to gain good jobs at a time when jobs will continue to be replaced by artificial intelligence and robotics. Triaging efforts away from support for identity development, critical thinking, and civic engagement will not provide the individual and collective skills to work for change that eliminates inequality and promotes equity. Triaging efforts away from experiencing wonder, cultural safety, and purpose undermines the ability to ground oneself and support each other’s grounding in both good and bad times.
During the multiethnic Lawrence textile strike against low wages in 1912 and poor housing and health conditions (see DPLA Exhibition: Bread and Roses Strike of 1912), some women strikers carried signs for “bread and roses too,” a language that was defined earlier by a women’s suffrage organizer who had been connected with Hull House: “Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books.” This metaphor is powerful. Bread is important, and triaging to basics will not equip people to have sufficient bread to bake or a secure place to bake. But roses are important too. They are heavy things that are seen as softer and not basic – but which are important if people are to enjoy the bread individually and collectively, and if they are to have an appreciation of the need to share it with others and the skills to make sure that they too have the bread and roses. In the words of the poem and song that kept this language alive:
“Hearts starve as well as bodies
Bread and roses, bread and roses!”
David Osher, Ph.D., is Vice President and Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research. His work focuses on school climate and the conditions for learning; social and emotional learning; supportive and community building approaches to school discipline and safety; cultural competence and responsiveness; implementation science; and the science of learning and development. He is Principal Investigator of AIR work regarding the Science of Learning and Development; AIR’s support for the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs; and of the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments and the National Technical Assistance Center the Education of Neglected or Delinquent Children and Youth. He leads impact, implementation and descriptive studies and evaluations, both within the U.S. and globally, that align qualitative and quantitative data. Dr. Osher has authored or co-authored over 300 books, monographs, chapters, articles, and reports and 200 peer reviewed papers, symposia, and invitational presentations, including a number of recent syntheses of the Science of Learning and Development, which indicate the potential for robust equity as well as the institutionalized social processes that undermine equity. Dr. Osher’s recent books include Creating Safe, Equitable, Engaging Schools: A Comprehensive, Evidence-Based Approach to Supporting Students (Harvard Education Press); Keeping Students Safe and Helping Them Thrive: A Collaborative Handbook on School Safety, Mental Health, and Wellness (Praeger); and the forthcoming The Science of Learning and Development: Realizing the Promise of Every Child (Taylor Francis). Dr. Osher received his A.B., A.M., and Ph.D. from Columbia University, and he has served as Dean of two professional schools of human services and of a liberal arts college. Dr. Osher was the 2018 recipient of The Juanita Cunningham Evans Memorial Award for Contributions in School Mental Health and the Joseph Zins Distinguished Scholar Award for Outstanding Contributions to Action Research in Social and Emotional Learning.
Jill Young, Ph.D., is a senior researcher who leads research, evaluation, and capacity-building initiatives focused on youth development and out-of-school time programming at the national, state, and local levels. Currently, she works closely with partners at the Forum for Youth Investment and the National Urban League to support the Readiness Projects, which bolster work that supports the readiness of youth, adults, systems, and community leaders by finding ways to test the utility of recent science findings and inform efforts to improve quality, to increase engagement, and to advance equity. She also leads quantitative activities on several projects, including the citywide study of the School’s Out New York City initiative and the Landscape of Quality Survey for the C.S. Mott Foundation’s Statewide Afterschool Networks. She currently serves as the research and evaluation studies section editor for the Journal of Youth Development. Prior to joining AIR, Dr. Young supported Chicago’s largest afterschool system, After School Matters where she served as the Senior Director of Research and Evaluation, leading research and evaluation efforts for afterschool and summer programs. She also worked as a statistical analyst at University of Chicago and as a research manager at Northwestern University. She graduated from Drake University with honors, earning her BA in journalism and mass communication. She earned her MA and PhD in research methodology from Loyola University Chicago. She received a distinguished alumna award in 2017 for professional achievement, service to society, and service and support to the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago. She also serves as an adjunct professor at the university, where she teaches statistics and research methodology.