Equity is Empathy in Action
Tuesday, July 7, 2020
by: Jonathan Raymond

Section: From our Executive Director


Jonathan Raymond, NASS Executive Director

Equity is Empathy in Action

As a first-time author, I’ve been surprised and grateful to discover how people are experiencing my book. I wrote “Wildflowers, A School Superintendent’s Challenge to America” to share the urgent lessons I learned about public education during my four-and-a-half years as school superintendent in Sacramento, California.

As a first-time author, I’ve been surprised and grateful to discover how people are experiencing my book. I wrote “Wildflowers, A School Superintendent’s Challenge to America” to share the urgent lessons I learned about public education during my four-and-a-half years as school superintendent in Sacramento, California. I felt the need to reach everyone: parents, educators, voters, policy experts and legislators. Now, I’m hearing from everyone. And learning a lot.

One pre-publication reader urged me to talk more about the concept of equity in “Wildflowers.” I’ll admit it: I am wary of terminology that goes “viral” from one day to the next. Suddenly, equity is on everyone’s tongue — but do we even know what equity really means? (I feel the same way about the term “achievement gap.” We’ll get to that in a minute.) Wildflowers actually explores the meaning of equity. People tend to confuse equity with the concept of “equal treatment,” which means treating everyone the same. In fact, the two couldn’t be more different. It’s easy to treat everybody equally. In the case of promoting an innovative program, you send out a flyer to every family in the district inviting parents to an open house.

But what if some parents can’t read? What if the open house is scheduled in the evening, and some parents work nights? Equal treatment doesn’t require empathy or compassion — all it takes is a Xerox machine pumping out as many copies of the flyer as there are addresses on your mailing list. Equity, on the other hand, requires a deep understanding of the community you hope to reach. It can mean unequal levels of effort aimed at the most disadvantaged, and that’s okay. It’s more than okay — it’s equitable.

The book spends a page discussing equity, but not a chapter. And according to my reader, that wasn’t enough. Recently, however, my former colleague Monique Miles, a director at the Aspen Institute with an impressive track record of advocating for disadvantaged youth, shared a different opinion of “Wildflowers.” She called it a strategic outline for equity! Not because I talk about the concept a lot, but because my battles in Sacramento were all about achieving equity, by putting every child first. Not just the gifted child, or the child whose parents are good at working the system, but every child.

“Wildflowers” calls for applying the Whole Child philosophy to public education. What I learned in Sacramento is that our public education crisis has only one real, sustainable solution: having a clear and compelling vision that centers resources and priorities around our children. Such an approach cuts through the rhetorical and ideological debates about funding, policy, teacher training, professional development and other excuses for failing our country’s children. Inviting families in, partnering with neighborhoods and hiring from the community harnesses the voices, experiences and expertise of family and community members, and communicates what and whom the education system values. Whole Child, Whole Family, Whole Community. Such an approach also equalizes the playing field for low- income families, given the impact of family and community engagement on student achievement.

Monique saw “Wildflowers” as a roadmap for equity because engaging the community, focusing on the whole child and offering relevant enrichment programs like “Summer of Service” makes the system responsive and inclusive, matching needs with resources and recognizing the potential of every child. Perhaps most importantly, it sends our young people a critical message: We see you. You matter.
My first lesson in equity came early in my tenure. On day one as superintendent, I accompanied first-grade teacher Nancy Fong on a home visit to a family who, like 100 percent of her students, lived below the poverty line. The mother we went to see had put out fruit and refreshments and greeted us warmly, but I could see she was anxious. “There are days when Mohammed will be late for school,” she told us. “I want you to know it’s not because I don’t care. But I’m going through chemo right now, and some days it’s hard for me. I need a little help from my kids in the morning. Please don’t blame Mohammed.

Wow. Imagine punishing a first grader for helping his sick mom. Well, it happens every day, because not all schools engage and build trust with families and children. Not all schools seek equity. Equal treatment just means punishing each kid who shows up late. Equity means finding out why they’re late and helping them get there on time. Putting every child first means putting Mohammed first. And Whole Child education means building an authentic relationship with his family. 

In Sacramento, the equity lessons never stopped. During a visit to Hiram Johnson, a high school serving low-income children of color, the boys’ locker room shocked me. Half the lockers were smashed in, and the toilets were filthy and lacked seats. The gym hadn’t been painted in 40 years, and its only weightlifting equipment consisted of a decrepit Universal gym and a couple of cracked, peeling medicine balls. I saw feces and a chicken bone in the shower, and imagined my son, my little Joey, having to change his clothes there. Someone’s little Joey had no choice but to use that locker room and get the message that came with it: you don’t matter.

The image of that locker room was still with me several months later, when one day I got a phone call. “Hey, Jon? It’s Jake!” Nobody calls me Jon, and who was Jake? I recognized the voice. It was Jake from “Body by Jake.” Governor Schwarzenegger had enlisted Jake Steinfeld to head up his fitness counsel, and Jake had an exciting offer — a chance to win a fully-equipped, brand-new gym if our school district met the Governor’s Fitness Challenge. Immediately I thought of Hiram Johnson.

With the help of two fantastic PE teachers — Heather Deckard (who once helped break a jump rope world record) and Dan Bunz (who played pro football in the 1980’s) — we put a plan together to get our students exercising every day, and we won the gym. Hiram Johnson students had done their best, but technically, the school with the highest fitness score in the district was in a far more affluent neighborhood — a small, newly-built STEM academy with a large shiny gym. So, I made the hard call: the gym was going to Hiram Johnson, and the STEM school got the equivalent value — $60,000 — in robotics equipment.
You know what happened next. The STEM academy parents swarmed the next school board meeting. “You’re giving our gym to those kids?” My response: “They’re all our kids, and they need the gym more.”

Fortunately, I’d given the school board a heads-up, reminding them what the Hiram Johnson students were enduring, and how many decades of neglect by adults in the community had set the stage for this show-down. So, the board backed me up. When the new gym was installed, we invited student leaders and a few parents from the STEM school to the ribbon-cutting. Whole Child, Whole Family, Whole Community. 

I never asked the student leaders from the STEM school what they felt as they looked around and saw Hiram Johnson’s students using the new equipment, but from the looks on their faces, my guess was they could appreciate the decision. When I think back on that moment, I still remember one parent at the school board meeting who was so mad, he threatened to have me fired. Did he change his mind? I don’t know. But he didn’t change mine. If the school board hadn’t backed me, I would have quit. Maybe the hardest lesson I learned in Sacramento is that if you truly care about children, you need to have values and beliefs, and sometimes you have to draw a line. We, as adults, are the ones in charge — the responsibility is ours. 

That brings me back to the achievement gap, and why I try to avoid that term.
It’s not because I don’t buy the data showing differences in academic performance by race and class. I object to the terminology because it shifts the blame to children instead of demanding accountability from the adults who call the shots on how inequities are replicated in our schools. As long as gyms like Hiram Johnson’s are tolerated by the grown-ups who decide where resources go, I’m going to reject the notion of an “achievement gap.” The failure to achieve is not the children’s, it’s ours.
In Sacramento, I had the honor of serving children from deeply disadvantaged backgrounds who embraced education and rose to the top despite all the barriers in their way. Too often, those barriers include rigid school bureaucracies, punitive testing regimens, outdated curricula, burned-out teachers and administrators and a disengaged community. When education is an obstacle course instead of a smooth, sunlit path, who pays the greatest price? The students who start with the least, whose parents lack the language skills and resources to complain, file lawsuits or move.

That’s why putting every child first is the only path to equitable education. When we strive to give each child what they need, when we show them they matter and have a voice, when we position learning differences as normal, promote creativity and reward collaboration and continuous improvement, outcomes for children improve. I know, because I witnessed it firsthand. Because we drew a line in the sand (and yes, got sued for it), bringing Whole Child education to Sacramento’s worst-performing schools, and saw test scores rise, attendance rates increase and student behavior improve.

What was the winning formula? I could make a long list: Great leadership, engaging and empowering families, a supportive and collaborative environment for teachers, music education, etc. Or, I could narrow it down to one word: empathy. Whole Child education is about empathy — understanding what children need, what teachers need, what families and communities need. And you don’t get to empathy if you aren’t intentional about listening, going out into schools and communities to actively seek and encourage input from the people least likely to be heard. I guess you could say equity is empathy in action — a shorter definition than the one in “Wildflowers,” but a useful one all the same.

I never wanted to talk about equity for a whole page, or a whole chapter, or a whole book. Back then, and now, I wanted to make it happen. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote “Wildflowers” — to show people what is possible, and what it takes to get started. But no matter where or how you start, start with empathy and then add action. Before you know it, you’ll be practicing equity too.

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