Advancing Racial Equity: Year One Review

As we approach the one-year mark since the release of EdSystems’ Advancing Racial Equity statement, we recognize that, individually and collectively, the EdSystems team is not the same as we were one year ago. Yet, the challenges that we sought to address in our original statement remain and, in some cases, have been exacerbated by global, national, and local events. 

Notably, we are focusing on the racial divide in postsecondary attainment rates, which translates to disparities in earnings, quality of life, and more. Current data indicates we are likely to barely make the statewide postsecondary attainment rate of 60% by 2025, a target established in 2008. However, this overarching goal hides unacceptable equity gaps in attainment between our Black and Latinx adult population and the white population. Although 2020-2021 school year data is not yet available, early indicators suggest the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately, negatively impacted the lives and educational experiences of Black and Latinx students, further exacerbating the pre-existing gaps.

So, what is the EdSystems team doing to change the tide? This past year, we regularly incorporated a “mirrors and windows” approach described in our statement in staff meetings and retreats to self-reflect on our progress and look externally to determine how we can better advance racial equity within our community-level and state policy work. This dual focus has generated deep insight, and we will continue to apply it moving forward.

Looking in the Mirror: How Are We Organizing and Operating to Advance Racial Equity?

We recognize that advancing racial equity is not just about our externally-facing practices but about our individual and team mindsets and how we process issues about racial equity as a team. Through coaching from partners at ConnectED and the National Equity Project, we are using the Liberatory Design Mindsets to create more iterative design processes and co-design initiatives with communities. 

We continuously revisit our Advancing Racial Equity Statement and the Liberatory Design Principles to reflect on how our operations and areas of emphasis relate to those frameworks, and how our individual and collective practices help us live out those values. We established shared norms to guide deeper internal discussions, including acknowledging that while we hold respect for one another, it is essential for us to engage honestly in conversations around intent vs. impact, how our identities show up in our work, and much more.

Further, our journey has led us to hire staff to broaden our collective professional and personal experiences, including consistent hiring of high school and college interns through Urban Alliance. Our interns’ questions, insights, and personal experiences regularly teach us new things as we go about our daily work. Carolyne Rivera, one former intern, has now joined our staff as a Junior Policy Associate while pursuing her postsecondary goals. Carolyne is helping us contemplate how we can continue expanding our engagement with young adults in meaningful ways. Our most recent intern, Edith Lizardo-Medina, shared her insights and expertise on a work-based learning experience she participated in both virtually and in person through a blog post and presentation to our Illinois Work-Based Learning Innovation Network (I-WIN).

We are committed to being transparent about our equity journey, as shared in our April 2021 update, and invite you to review our continued efforts below.

Looking Through the Window: Advancing Racial Equity Through Our External Work

As the EdSystems team spends intentional, regular time planning for and reflecting on how our external-facing efforts can help advance racial equity, we organize our efforts into three categories: (1) work within our community networks, (2) State policy priorities and efforts, and (3) modeling and leading by amplifying locally developed, innovative approaches and the voices of those directly impacted by the systems we seek to influence. (Read more about the three categories and goals for each in our statement.)

What has advancing racial equity tangibly meant in year one? While we are still listening, learning, and reflecting on how best to serve Black and Latinx students in Illinois, below is an overview of our nascent efforts: 

1) Advancing Racial Equity Within Our Community Networks

We take a bi-directional approach to systems change: supporting local implementation in a broad spectrum of communities across the State helps better inform our policy strategy, while having a seat at policy tables helps us better support local communities with implementation efforts. As we design and lead community networks such as the Illinois 60 by 25 Network, Scaling Education Pathways Initiative (SEPI), and I-WIN, our team members learn firsthand from educators and community leaders about their experiences implementing State policy, as well as opportunities to enhance State policy based on local best practices.

We mapped Illinois school districts by the percentage of Black and Latinx student enrollment, community college remediation rates, and low-income enrollment using Illinois Report Card data. We are beginning to use these maps to target invitations for communities to join our community networks and mini-grant funding and, where we were already engaged in these communities, identifying strategies to deepen that work. In doing so, we hope to support improving postsecondary attainment rates and closing the economic gap across racial and ethnic groups in Illinois. 

We are also working with our partners at NIU to redesign the Illinois 60 by 25 Network’s Cradle to Career Data Dashboard and enhance disaggregated data supports with a focus on flexibility and sustainability. To date, we have engaged with the Network’s Leadership Communities to understand their priorities for metrics and functionality. From that feedback, we have developed plans to embed data visualizations within each community profile on the 60 by 25 Network website that will enable them to more effectively utilize disaggregated data to inform their local efforts. Design and development of new visualizations are ongoing, with implementation planned for 2022. Broadly, we designed the process to be iterative and participatory.

Students are some of the most impacted stakeholders by our work, and we have begun to incorporate their voices more intentionally in our community networks. For the Illinois 60 by 25 Network, this included launching a Student Advisory Council (SAC) with our partner Network Organizers last fall. The work of the SAC surpassed expectations and reinforced to the EdSystems team the power of student voices. In this next year, we will continue to engage the SAC to help us better understand what barriers students face and what resources could directly support them, as well as to serve as ambassadors in their schools for existing resources.

We are also utilizing focus groups and interviews across an array of projects to understand end users’ goals and needs. To date, this has included one project with education pathway teachers and administrators at districts participating in SEPI and a second project with dual credit instructors and administrators at Chicago Public Schools and faculty and administrators at City Colleges of Chicago to understand dual credit supports. In both instances, we heard remarkable stories of educators working to advance the interests of their students. Focus groups brought to light assets to build on and challenges of which administrators were unaware. Through focus groups, we made connections between instructors who currently don’t have a space to collaborate but are looking to engage with others to enhance the experience for students. For SEPI, we included students in our initial analysis and are now working with researchers at NIU to better understand and document student perspectives on and experiences in the education pathway.

2) More Strongly Emphasizing Racial Equity in Our State Policy Work & Supports for Local Implementation

As we engage with policymakers and statewide initiatives, we are shifting our discussions to center on racial equity. The policy work includes staffing the P-20 Council work to develop equity targets for Illinois’ postsecondary attainment goals, emphasizing racial equity issues in the core framing and the importance of equitable access to transitional supports and early college credit. We are also engaged in the ongoing Illinois Workforce Innovation Board Equity Task Force and facilitated the development of the WIOA Demand Occupations Training List policy, emphasizing the quality of occupations our workforce system should target in training. 

One key lever to creating equitable change at the state level is examining disaggregated data to identify disparate outcomes across demographic groups. We believe that the most critical questions of State government are cross-agency questions. For example, questions such as “How can we increase postsecondary attainment?” or “How can we increase career readiness for high-demand, high-paying occupations?” can only be answered if we look comprehensively from early childhood through adulthood, paying particular attention to underserved populations. Data-informed policies should holistically address the needs of historically underserved Illinoisians. To that end, our work this past year on the Illinois Longitudinal Data System (ILDS) has coalesced around supporting equity reporting. The ILDS has the potential to bring together state agencies’ disaggregated data to help researchers and policymakers ask meaningful, holistic questions intended to advance equity while protecting the privacy of Illinois citizens. At the local level, we also need to ensure the community leaders driving policy implementation understand how to gather, analyze, and utilize data to achieve the State’s goals. 

As we support policy implementation statewide—particularly in pathways, work-based learning, bridges to postsecondary, and innovative practices—the EdSystems team is reflecting on how our frameworks and practices can best advance equity. In the pathways space, this has included building out robust Model Programs of Study Guides in eight sectors that have significant potential to create more equitable career opportunities for Illinois students. These guides focus on pathways that can increase future earnings for students and their families rather than lead to low-paying jobs with no clear advancement. The curriculum maps include transitional instruction courses designed to reduce postsecondary enrollment in remedial English and math courses, which disproportionately enroll Black and Latinx students, and work-based learning, which can help strengthen students’ social capital. We are now working with the Illinois Community College Board to launch professional development webinars for each Guide to help ensure community colleges implement the Guides in their programs. We are also providing individualized technical assistance to the Chicago, South Suburbs, Elgin, and Rockford regions—areas with significant populations of Black and Latinx residents—around building equitable pathways with a focus on increasing student access to dual credit courses, reviewing community college-level policies for possible barriers to access, and ensuring scalability over multiple sites and campuses. We anticipate that the outcomes from these regions, which we consider to be sector influencers, will have considerable policy implications statewide.

To support equity-focused work-based learning models, we released a draft of the new Career Development Experience Toolkit Companion Piece in June 2021, which focuses on developing opportunities for stakeholders outside of traditional high school settings. The piece intentionally lifts up locally developed, holistic models. Through I-WIN and our work with ISBE, we are engaging more teachers and work-based learning coordinators in professional development sessions that intentionally incorporate equity-centered models and frameworks. At the local level, we are collaborating with North Chicago Community High School, an innovative leader in piloting virtual work-based learning, to build connections between students and develop a customized template that more communities will be able to utilize.

Our burgeoning work to elevate innovative education practices includes leveraging the recommendations developed in the Middle Skills Pathways in Chicago project, specifically enabling adults with prior credentials and learning to move more seamlessly into pathways leading to living-wage occupations. We are also assisting ICCB in implementing competency-based education in an intentionally equity-focused way. In partnership with Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Equity-Centered Innovation Forum (CEIF), launched in May 2021, explicitly focuses on innovative instructional models as strategies for dismantling systemic inequities in traditional educational approaches.

3) Modeling and Leading for Racial Equity

As we engage in our externally-facing strategies, we recognize that we are often privileged to serve in statewide leadership roles and need to transparently model behaviors and practices that advance racial equity in all our work. This modeling includes publicly communicating our racial equity journey and highlighting the work of leading communities and their equity lens, such as our recent blog post featuring lessons from Benito Juarez Community Academy and the SEPI Analysis, which documents leading practices from participating communities.

To model and lead well, we must also listen and reflect. In meetings with the Illinois 60 by 25 Network Organizers, we now intentionally provide space for each organization to share their equity-related efforts and identify connections across our work. In I-WIN, workshops are designed with more time for breakouts to discuss probing questions about work-based learning recruitment and supports, i.e., how are experiences made available and communicated to students, how do they know who hasn’t accessed WBL yet, etc.

Ultimately, our modeling and leading for equity builds from the deep internal “mirrors” work that is ongoing for our team that scaffolds our external action. We recognize that unless we continuously focus on advancing racial equity in the context of our internal operations, we won’t be positioned to model racial equity leadership for the field. 

Continuing on Our Journey 

We recognize that we have not yet arrived; we are still on a journey to advancing racial equity. As we consider how best to build upon our efforts and keep our focus centered on racial equity, we must set targets while continuing to employ our mirrors and windows approach to strengthen our “equity muscle.” In this next year, our goals include:

  • Fully launching a new learning collaborative to identify racial equity barriers in college and career pathways and co-design solutions with participating community teams.
  • Finalizing recommendations and advocating for the adoption by the Illinois P-20 Council of targets to close racial and socioeconomic gaps in postsecondary attainment.
  • Engaging the Illinois 60 by 25 Network Leadership Communities in supporting statewide efforts related to equity-focused postsecondary attainment targets, including broadening peer-to-peer sharing of strategies on reaching adult learners—a population critical to the goals but which the Network has not historically focused on—and collecting and analyzing disaggregated data to measure progress.

As we continue to take time to internally reflect on our advancing racial equity journey in the next year, we will continue to provide periodic updates on our learnings as we move forward.

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