SMART’s Equity Q&A
Q: What do you mean by equity?
A: When we use the word equity, we mean the prioritization of resources to most effectively support the needs of students in the program. The children we serve are from many different backgrounds, some of which are associated with advantages and disadvantages in the education system. Our Equity Initiative addresses the fact that deep social, economic and racial inequities in our country and state make it harder for some children to succeed compared to others; therefore, children need different inputs to reach the same outcome.
Some examples of what this looks like in practice include:
- Research tells us that children of color will have increased comprehension and engagement with books that reflect their culture and identities. Many of these high quality culturally specific books are more expensive than the price point of many of our giveaway titles. By prioritizing equity, we will be allocating resources for these more expensive and high quality titles because we know that it’s the most effective way to support students of color.
- Students of color and low-income students are disproportionately impacted by the education gap. Prioritizing equity means focusing our program growth in a way that reaches these populations first and foremost, investing our resources in sites and students who face the greatest challenges to academic success because of a system that limits their opportunities and access.
Q: Why is SMART doing this now?
A: Oregon’s education gap persists throughout all key milestones that determine our students’ academic and life success, including third-grade reading levels and high school graduation rates. (Click here to see where Oregon ranks in the Nation’s Report Card on reading and math outcomes by state.) We can do better for our kids, and SMART has a role to play in the solution.
Q: I hear the phrases “opportunity gap,” “achievement gap” and “education gap” used frequently in conversations about educational equity. What do these phrases mean and how are they similar and/or different?
A: The Opportunity Gap is the disparity in access to quality schools and the resources needed for academic success, such as early childhood education, highly prepared and effective teachers, college preparatory curricula, and equitable instructional resources. Think of it as the broadest, most encompassing term for describing the inequities communities of color face when it comes to resources, access and opportunities. For a toolkit on the Opportunity Gap, click here.
The Achievement Gap occurs when one group of students (such as, students grouped by race/ethnicity, gender) outperforms another group and the difference in average scores for the two groups is statistically significant (that is, larger than the margin of error). The phrase “achievement gap” is widely used; however, it’s inherently problematic because it addresses only academic outcomes superficially without regard to the deep, underlying and inherently racist systems that led to the outcomes. The phrase inaccurately implies that students of color aren’t capable of achieving the same outcomes as their white peers. Click here to read more about the problematic nature of the “achievement gap” term.
In light of this, SMART has made a decision to instead use the term Education Gap to refer to the inequities students of color face in educational outcomes.
Q: Why is it important for SMART to address equity?
A: SMART’s vision is an Oregon in which every child can read and is empowered to succeed. Gaps in access to housing, employment, health care and a myriad of other racial and economic disparities mean that children are not starting with the same access to opportunities. We have a responsibility to address and dismantle systemic and institutional bias within our program and organization, and to proactively support the communities we serve. With the scope and scale of our program, mobilizing 5,000 volunteers annually, we have a tremendous opportunity to create better, more equitable outcomes for kids.
Q: How can books and reading contribute to equity?
A: In the span of children’s lives, there are countless experiences and interactions along the way that shape their identities and beliefs about their own intelligence and abilities. A growing body of research is showing that appropriate cultural content in reading materials can have a significant impact on literacy and comprehension results. We are committed to providing children in SMART with a positive, affirming experience that honors their cultural identity and background and builds their reading skills, self-confidence, and enthusiasm for reading.
Q: Why are you talking about race and not about other factors that influence a kid’s success, like poverty?
A: Since our founding, SMART has been focused on serving our state’s lowest income schools because we know that educational outcomes are directly correlated with economic status. While we continue that commitment to serving children in low income communities, we also know that disparities related to poverty, race and ethnicity are intricately linked, and compound one another. Our Equity Initiative is focused primarily on race and ethnicity, initially, as research proves that race is an even greater determinant than economic status in predicting academic success because of systemic and institutionalized inequalities.
Q: What role do books play in a child’s identity?
A: Research suggests that multicultural books play an important role in building self-esteem (mirror books) as well as promoting understanding of cultures different from one’s own (window books).
Mirror books allow readers to see images and reflections of their own lives. Finding their own cultures and values in books helps children to develop a positive sense of cultural identity and can be a powerful tool in building self-esteem. When they are familiar with the scenes portrayed, they experience a sense of belonging. Beyond the social-emotional benefits, research shows that comprehension is positively impacted when students have access to diverse books that reflect their cultural identities.
Window books allow readers to see the lives of others. Books that uniquely represent a culture can build bridges of cultural understanding, and present unfamiliar groups and their customs and everyday life in ways that show them to be natural and understandable. Books can play an important role in developing attitudes of open-mindedness about diversity.
Q: Will this mean SMART’s policy on not allowing holiday books will change?
A: Maybe. Our Equity Initiative will be an ongoing and long-term journey, and we don’t yet know all the ways in which it will change and influence our work. As we learn more about the power of books to shape children’s identities and beliefs about themselves, we may reevaluate longstanding policies like disallowing holiday books in our program.
Q: What does this mean for me as a SMART volunteer?
A: As a volunteer, you can expect to start hearing us talk about issues of equity and race openly and frequently. You’ll see new books in your SMART site that represent a more diverse array of topics, characters and authors. Our Equity Initiative presents an exciting opportunity for our volunteers to jump in and learn along with us as we create better outcomes for the kids we serve.
Q: I don’t see racial diversity in my community. Why does SMART think this is important statewide?
A: While you may not think of Oregon as a particularly diverse state, our population continues to grow in size and racial and cultural diversity. Census data from 2014 reflects that nearly a quarter of Oregon’s population identifies as nonwhite – nearly 900,000 individuals. Among the student population, over one-third of the kids in Oregon public schools – over 200,000 – are nonwhite. (Click here to view Oregon Department of Education enrollment reports.) Regardless of whether Oregon’s diversity shows up in your community, children and adults alike benefit from being exposed to cultures different from their own, fostering understanding and a respect for different perspectives. Our children are members of an increasingly global economy and world, and the extent to which they can learn about and understand people from different backgrounds from their own, the better equipped they’ll be to succeed.
Q: How is this important to our school partners?
A: The Oregon Department of Education has mandated that all schools adopt an “equity lens” – that is, to incorporate racial equity into decision-making and how education is administered to students. (Click here to read the ODE statement on equity.) Oregon schools are keenly aware of the education gap that exists between students of color, immigrants, migrants, and low income rural students when compared to more affluent white students. As a result, schools are actively reviewing policies and practices through their equity lens to identify where there may be disparities and bias. Our efforts to prioritize equity at SMART have received positive feedback from our school partners, and we’re poised to work alongside them to address inequities to ensure all children have an equal chance at success.
Q: Will the results of SMART’s Equity Initiative influence other parts of the organization?
A: Yes. We are committed to examining our organization at all levels: our program and services, our hiring practices and human resources policies, our governance structure, and our partnerships and collaborations with others. We know that providing services and programming that is equitable can’t be done without also examining and focusing on our overall organizational policies and practices. We don’t know yet how this initiative will show itself in all aspects of our organization. We anticipate it will eventually be reflected in the hires we make, the Board members we choose, and the partnerships we forge.