In Chicago, listening is the first step toward equity

By Maurice Swinney
Categories: Collaboration, Equity, Leadership, Learning designs, System leadership
December 2021
When the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Equity was established in September 2018, our goal was to take a systemic approach to building equity so that every student would have access to a high-quality education, regardless of race, ZIP code, ability, or country of origin. We knew that this goal could not be achieved through a series of stand-alone initiatives. Equity must be the core value that informs every decision we make, from capital improvements to curriculum design, and it requires attention from every member of our staff, schools, and communities. When I was asked to share our district’s journey toward systemic equity in The Learning Professional, I initially thought I would focus on the rollout of the Chicago Public Schools’ Equity Framework, the backbone

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The equity curve in Chicago Public Schools

C = curious. Withhold judgment and be in a space of inquiry. Be curious to gain a better understanding of an issue.

U = urgency. Work with a sense of urgency when championing the success of our students. We have to respond in a timely manner.

R = resiliency. Acknowledge that this work can be difficult and requires resiliency.

V = vulnerable. Recognize that each of us may not know a solution, but we can be vulnerable to collectively learn and problem-solve together.

E = empathy. Build connection. Show empathy across differences, with someone you think may not share your experiences.

Targeted universalism in Chicago Public Schools

To build equity, we must avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Targeted universalism helps us establish common goals for all students with different pathways to help students with different needs reach those common goals.

For example, a high school that sets a universal goal of 95% graduation for all students examines how student groups (based on race, gender, gender expression, economic disadvantage, or diverse learning needs) are positioned to reach that goal. Here are sample questions that can help us better understand what all students need to reach that goal. We consider intersectionalities, such as race and gender, in addressing these questions:

What are the current graduation rates for each student group?

What are the factors internal and external to the school that affect the experiences of different groups?

What are the neighborhood assets and challenges where students live, and how might those affect their experiences inside or outside of school?

What are the different conditions and resources necessary for each student group to thrive?

What policies benefit or burden each student group?

Source: Chicago Public Schools. (n.d.) Chicago Public Schools Equity Framework.


powell, j., Menendian, S., & Ake, W. (2019). Targeted universalism: Policy & practice. Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. University of California, Berkeley.

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Maurice Swinney is chief equity officer in Chicago Public Schools and a member of The Learning Professional advisory board.

Categories: Collaboration, Equity, Leadership, Learning designs, System leadership

The Learning Professional

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