Over nearly two years, School Board Member Tracine Asberry was persistent in raising questions about the use of equity assessments. Credit: File photo

Over nearly two years, School Board Member Tracine Asberry was persistent in raising questions about the use of equity assessments. Credit: File photo

A tool to promote equity might finally get some use

Updated: August 27, 2015 - 10:33 am

Minneapolis district leaders recommit to using equity and diversity impact assessments

After months and months of asking, it may be that Tracine Asberry finally got the answer she was waiting for on Aug. 11.

Asberry wasn’t the only member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education who realized the district wasn’t living up to a policy it passed unanimously nearly two years ago, one requiring the use of equity and diversity impact assessments. But she was the one board member who, more than any other, consistently raised the issue in meeting after meeting.

Minneapolis is a district with wide socio-economic and racial disparities, and the board saw the use of the assessments as one way to keep those gaps from growing. They described the EDIA as a “tool,” a method to test district mandates before they were put into action, to root out the unanticipated consequences of a decision by the board or superintendent before it could cause disproportionate harm to students who were already struggling.

“We’re looking for a set of questions that will inform our board work,” is how Board Member Carla Bates put it in August. “We want an assessment of the impact of our policies and practices on equity.”

But EDIAs weren’t always completed before important board votes, and when they were the assessments were often so shallow that they were essentially meaningless, several current and former board members said. At the August board meeting, after listening to an update from high-level staffers on the district’s multi-front push to increase equity, Asberry once again asked Interim Superintendent Michael Goar when that would change.

“Every decision you make, prospectively, you will have EDIA,” Goar replied.

Asberry asked if that meant as soon as next month.

“Absolutely,” Goar responded. “I don’t think we ever walked away from EDIA, Director Asberry.”

Asberry said she wasn’t accusing the district of walking away.

“What I’m saying is it’s going on year two, and maybe we haven’t walked way from equity and diversity impact assessment, but it has not been done in a way that benefits our students,” she said.

“We need to get going”

A week after that exchange, Goar said his office would lead the push to use EDIAs and use them effectively. That could require additional training for staff in how to complete the EDIA form, and it may also require tweaks to the assessments themselves, he said, adding that an internal equity committee was meeting with district stakeholder groups to discuss changes.

“My view is, hey, we need to get going on this,” Goar said.

What the EDIA boils down to is basically a worksheet — six pages of questions that cover the potential impacts of a district decision, the desired outcome and whether there’s been an appropriate level of community engagement. According to language approved by the board back in October 2013, an EDIA was to be applied to “all future policies, rules, practices and programs that have a significant impact on student learning and resource allocation.”

Alberto Monserrate, a former school board chair, said he voted for the policy exactly because those impacts so often went overlooked.

“There have been a lot of policies in past where communities of color have felt that those policies have negatively impacted them and there never was studies or research to find out how policies were going to negatively impact communities of color,” Monserrate said. “… The idea (behind the EDIA) was: Make us aware.”

Still, the phrase “significant impact” was vague enough that it wasn’t always clear to staff when an EDIA was required. Defining “significant” with some specific examples may be one change made by the district equity committee, Goar said.

Goar described the use of equity assessments as just one piece of a larger district “equity framework” that is under development. The goal is to make cultural awareness and inclusion the norm at all levels, from the classroom to district headquarters.

Board Member Rebecca Gagnon said the use of EDIAs was supposed to lead, rather than follow, that culture change.

“Having this equity impact assessment was supposed to change the thinking over time, and I think from the board perspective we just haven’t seen it used,” Gagnon said.

Trade-offs

Board Member Josh Reimnitz said he hoped the use of EDIAs would lead to more robust community engagement, “but it was pretty surface-level and shallow, and the discussions that informed (proposed policies) were what was really missing.”

Reimnitz chairs the board’s Policy Committee, and in August he told his colleagues they will have to get used to a slower pace of policy development and adoption if they want to see the EDIA process carried out with fidelity.

“We need to be OK that things are going to take multiple years — and that’s not an exaggeration — to move things forward,” he said.

Reimnitz also drew attention to the mixed messages the School Board was sending. On the one hand, they’re supporting Goar’s efforts to shrink the central office and send more resources to schools; on the other, they’re demanding an EDIA process that requires the time and resources of central office staff.

“If we’re moving toward right-sizing the district, who’s going to fill out those EDIAs and who’s going to do the research and who’s going to make that happen with a staff that’s already stretched?” he asked.

There’s broad agreement among board members that the district should continue to use and improve the EDIA process. But none of them imagines an EDIA is the silver bullet for the district’s equity problem, either, Asberry said.

She said the board and the district were simply following a maxim taught in math classes everywhere: “Show your work.”

“We need to create a process that recognizes we have a system that is not serving our kids, and this policy is one tool to get us to do better,” she said.