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 work 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. 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 students from low-income households 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 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: 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: SMART has made a decision to instead use the term Education Gap to refer to the inequities students of color face in educational outcomes. 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.
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.
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 access to appropriate cultural content in reading materials, as well as reading materials in a child’s first language, 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: What role do books play in a child’s identity?
A: Research suggests that diverse 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: Also known as culturally relevant books, mirrors allow readers to see images that reflect their own lives. Finding their own cultures and experiences in books helps children develop a positive sense of identity and self-esteem, and also improve their reading comprehension and language skills.
Window books: Windows allow readers to see the lives of people with experiences different from their own. A variety of books representing diverse cultures helps children to develop attitudes of openness around difference. A book can be both a mirror for one child, and a window for another.
Q: Does 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: 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 most economically disadvantaged 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. We began our equity work with an intentional focus on racial equity because inequities of a racial nature rise to the highest level of severity and negative impact on the educational outcomes of the students we serve. While we began with racial equity as our guiding framework, we also keep sight of other inequities and discrimination that exist for our children.
Q: What does this mean for me as a SMART volunteer?
A: As a volunteer, you’ll hear about our commitment to equity and inclusion from the first moment you fill out our volunteer application and throughout the training process. You can expect to hear us talk about issues of equity, inclusion 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 work 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 2017 reflects that nearly a quarter of Oregon’s population identifies as nonwhite – that’s over 1 million 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, those in rural communities, and those from low-income households, 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 continue to work alongside them to address inequities to help 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, it already has. We have been 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. This will include diversifying our staff, recruiting a more diverse array of volunteers to work with our students, including greater diversity to reflect a wider variety of experiences in our materials, and more.