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Making it Matter: A Systems Approach to Advancing Equity and Excellence for Students


When California released its most recent Smarter Balanced standardized test results in October 2022, the picture was not pretty: only 47% of students met state standards in English language arts, while a mere 33% performed at standard in math. Declines in test scores were widespread across all student groups. More troubling, disparities among racial and ethnic groups and English learners, which had existed prior to the pandemic, had widened, adding new evidence that the pandemic had impacted certain student groups more acutely than others. In light of these outcomes, the stakes are incredibly high in California to provide access to a high-quality education in a safe environment for all students. Reverting to business as usual will not work because the system was not working for historically neglected populations—students with disabilities, students from low-income households, foster youth, homeless youth, undocumented students, indigenous students, Black and Brown students, and students who identify as LGBTQ—prior to the pandemic.

As districts across the state resumed full-time instruction and began the task of pandemic recovery, members of the California Collaborative on District Reform convened three times in 2021–22 to continue and deepen their ongoing exploration of local strategies for meeting students’ academic, social and emotional, and mental health needs. Of particular concern in these gatherings was the need to address systemic contributors to the persistent inequities in both educational opportunities and outcomes that the pandemic had accentuated.

This brief summarizes key takeaways from discussions among meeting participants exploring ways in which school systems center equity in their work. Importantly, the districts sharing their work and strategies in these meetings vary significantly in the human capital and other resources available to them, and each is at a different place in its equity journey. Nevertheless, the core takeaway was clear: centering equity begins with an explicit and visible commitment on the part of district leaders. But words alone are not enough. Participants in these meetings stressed that this commitment must become systemic action and must be integrated into all aspects of a district’s work. This was both the message and the goal of the district leaders participating in these Collaborative convenings.