Race and Equity; Targeted Universalism (Part Two)

--> In part two of this thread, I want to analyze the theory around which the MTSS-B initiative seems to be based – targeted universalism.

I hadn’t heard of this theory before now and it’s always good to hear about what ideas are out there for better public education. I did some research and lots of reading and found several good articles including ones about the Oakland School District’s program.
Let’s start from the premise that if you see a problem that affects the population broadly, then you attempt to create a solution that will negate or end that problem. That premise, of course, supposes that all people are affected in the same way by both the problem and your solution.
Universalism – across all sectors, not just education – is discussed in a paper by Thandika Mkandawire called Targeting and Universalism in Poverty Reduction.

In my reading, I found it fascinating that this idea of targeted universalism is NOT just a topic for public education. What I found is that it mostly covers the issue of poverty, around the world, on whether targeting efforts for certain groups truly work. 

Another criticism levelled against universalism is derived from the post-modernist emphasis on difference and diversity. The charge is that universalism has been used to create a false sense of unity, which conceals the fact that it discriminated against certain social groups on grounds of gender and race and that, through tutelage, it imposed on new groups standards set by the dominant group.
Some good examples that I found to explain the problems with this notion of universalism were these:

From National Equity Project:

It is possible, even likely, that universal programs will exacerbate existing inequalities. Some universal programs were designed to benefit whites more than non-whites, but let us consider programs where this was not the clear design.

Defined as one of this country’s greatest accomplishments, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 used federal dollars to subsidize the creation of the suburbs. This was the largest public works project in American history at the time. It gave impetus to waves of migrating middle- and upper-class families to abandon the central cities for the suburbs.

At the same time, many downtown regions were surrounded or demolished by massive highway construction, and the revenue generated by these projects did not return to the communities that were losing their churches, schools, and homes. As one author put it, “highways made suburban housing available on one end while destroying urban housing on the other.”

The ensuing arrangement of racially isolated urban dwellers and equally racially isolated suburban residents, hastened by the white flight that followed Brown v. Board of Education’s integration mandate the same year, is a pattern we live with today.

Simply put, ostensibly universal programs have no less potential to exacerbate inequality than to ameliorate it. Treating people who are situated differently as if they were the same can result in much greater inequities.
From the leader in targeted universalism, John Powell, Director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and Professor of Law, African American and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley:
What if we want to raise everyone up, so we use the metaphor of the structure of a rising tide? It turns out that some folks may not have a boat and the rising tide does not raise them up but instead drowns them. Consider the universal goal of getting everyone out of New Orleans as the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. The strategy was: get in your vehicle and drive to safety. But as it turned out many people, a disproportionate many of whom were African American, did not have cars. The universal strategy -- safety for all -- turned out to not be attainable for many.

We can understand this idea if we think of individuals who are in a wheelchair trying to reach an upper floor. An escalator will not support those individuals in the same way as it would those who are able-bodied. It is not the disabled group that needs fixing, but the structure. The goal is to convey everyone to the upper floor and it is universal. But the strategy to achieve this goal must be targeted toward the disabled individuals to address their circumstances, which differ from those of other groups.
How do we define targeted universalism?

The term is generally credited to Theda Skocpol, a sociologist/political scientist at Harvard University. From her webpage: Skocpol’s research focuses on health reform, social policy, and civic engagement amidst the shifting inequalities in American democracy.

In the book, The Urban Underclass, she argues that there is a tension between groups over targeted programs, for example, for the poor.

This standoff certainly exists as long as we remain at the level of logical or highly speculative arguments. Yet three conclusions can be drawn by examining the history of public policies dealing with, or including, poor people in the U.S.

First, when U.S. antipoverty efforts have featured policies targeted on the poor alone, they have not been politically sustainable, and they have stigmatized and demeaned the poor.

Second, some kinds of relatively universal social policies have been politically very successful.

Third, room has been made within certain universal policy frameworks for extra benefits and services that disproportional help less privileged people without stigmatizing them. What I shall call “targeting within universalism” has delivered extra benefits and special services to certain poor people throughout the history of modern American social provision, and new versions of it could be devised today to revitalize and redirect U.S. public social provision.
This is interesting as Dr. Skocpol was talking about targeting WITHIN an initiative to aid sub-groups and not necessarily creating a whole other initiative. It’s a worthy consideration in terms of both cost and efficacy.

However, there is not a lot of variation in what people who use the term for public education understand it to mean. Here are a couple of definitions.

From the March/April 2009 issue of Poverty and Race at the Poverty and Race Research Action Council:

Targeting within universalism means identifying a problem, particularly one suffered by marginalized people, proposing a solution, and then broadening its scope to cover as many people as possible.
That turns the traditional route to a large-scale problem – to cover as many people as possible first – on its head, saying target the most needy and it will end up covering more people as you see positive outcomes.
An alternative to either a straight universal program or a solely particularistic program is to pursue what we call “targeted universalism.” This is an approach that supports the needs of the particular while reminding us that we are all part of the same social fabric. Targeted universalism rejects a blanket universal which is likely to be indifferent to the reality that different groups are situated differently relative to the institutions and resources of society. It also rejects the claim of formal equality that would treat all people the same as a way of denying difference.
From the National Equity Project:
A targeted universal strategy is one that is inclusive of the needs of both the dominant and the marginal groups, but pays particular attention to the situation of the marginal group.

Targeted universalism rejects a blanket universal which is likely to be indifferent to the reality that different groups are situated differently relative to the institutions and resources of society. It also rejects the claim of formal equality that would treat all people the same as a way of denying difference. Any proposal would be evaluated by the outcome, not just the intent. While the effort would be universal for the poor, it would be especially sensitive to the most marginal groups.
One thing that I believe is striking is that these definitions do not necessarily say that the targeting has to be to one group. They speak of “groups” repeatedly.

One good article I found that used targeted universalism (but for health care) was Making Health Equity Work: How to Implement Targeted Universalism Policies from the Leadership for Health Communities by Stephen Menendian, JD, Haas Institute for a Fair & Inclusive Society.

One slide had these easy-to-read/comprehend steps for implementing targeted universalism:

5 Steps: 
1. Articulate a particular goal based upon a robust understanding and analysis of the problem at hand
2. Assess difference of general population from universal goal
3. Assess particular geographies and population segments 
divergence from goal
4. Assess barriers to achieving the goal for each group/geography
5. Craft targeted processes to each group to reach universal goal
Interestingly, they DID have a section as it applies to education (see pages 9-13 where they break it down from a big picture to smaller and smaller groups – this makes more sense to me.)

This brings us to the example that the district seems to be pivoting from –Oakland Unified School District. Living Cities has a good series of articles in a series about equity in collective impact that includes the Oakland program.

They talk about the courage of the OUSD to focus on color because of the meme that we should not see race but rather just see children needing to be educated. As well, they raise the issue of the legalities of using public resources to target a certain racial group.

What’s interesting is that they make quite a point about using disaggregated data to track outcomes. I find this surprising because I would have hoped, by 2016, that all school districts were doing this across all data points like race, gender, ethnicity, etc. Apparently not.

They also note the issue of “community voice and data gaps” whereby many smaller ethnic communities are often not sought out for their thoughts and concerns.

When leaders of public systems and members of marginalized communities regularly work together, they jointly can increase understanding and create better targeted strategies to improve the outcomes of those who face the greatest barriers to thriving.
When I am out in the community, this is a theme I increasingly hear. I think this quite important because we need to acknowledge the ethnic differences within a race (between native-born African-Americans and immigrant blacks.) This is something that the SPS presentation does not address and that’s troubling.

As well, the big umbrella of “Asian” certainly does not cover the differences among all Asian groups.

Lastly, the article speaks of “an equity lens in public systems.”

For example, when partners in the Oakland-Alameda County Opportunity Youth Initiative were designing their plan to reconnect opportunity youth to education and family-sustaining career employment, they asked “Which opportunity youth face the greatest barriers to re-connection?” From that conversation came a particular focus on cross-over youth – young people who have been involved in both the child welfare and juvenile or criminal justice systems.
Back to John Powell and his basic question that could be asked for Seattle’s proposal:
Important questions about My Brother’s Keeper have been raised. Even those who undoubtedly care about men and boys of color have questioned, “But why this group and not others?” Some may acknowledge that there is a strong case that black boys need focused support, but also ask, “What about girls and women of color?” We can continue to add to that line of questioning, “What about white girls and women? What about the disabled? What about any group that through no fault of their own find themselves struggling to stay in their homes, afford higher education or keep their families on track?”

These are important and legitimate questions, and they deserve to be answered. The government, in using its resources—including its moral authority—has an obligation to all of its members, not just to some. When it focuses on some and not all, we need an explanation as to why. What must inform our policies is not equal treatment, but equal concern for all groups and individuals. A plan that focuses on everyone, without recognizing that different groups are in unique situations and need responses appropriate to their position, will fail at delivering equal concern or effective outcomes.
I’m not sure the second paragraph answers the first.

Here’s what Oakland Unified School District writes about its own program.

The Office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA) works to engage, encourage, and empower African American male students throughout the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).

The Office of African American Male Achievement was launched in 2010 and creates the systems, structures, and spaces that guarantee success for all African American male students in OUSD.
I found that the Oakland webpage on their program to be a lot shorter and easier to read than what the district is presenting. As well, I see some overlap in what the district seems to be proposing to do with what Oakland has.

I note this:

In 2010, the superintendent, together with Oakland's Board of Education, the Urban Strategies Council, and the East Bay Community Foundation, examined longitudinal data and came to a jarring conclusion: Past initiatives had done little to transform the experiences, access, or educational attainment of African American male students. Regardless of the reform or learning theory or even school site, en masse, the educational needs of Black children were not being met.

And there you have what is NOT in this presentation – a look at what had gone before in Oakland.

They go on:

Data revealed that African American males were the furthest away from opportunity. (On every positive indicator of success, African American boys were consistently in the lowest position while on every negative indicator African American boys were consistently in the highest position.) OUSD's theory of action, Targeted Universalism, ascertains that by transforming the system to support successful outcomes for OUSD's lowest performing subgroup, OUSD can create a district that improves academic and social-emotional outcomes for all students.
A couple of things. While the first part of that paragraph may be true in Oakland, for academic outcomes in SPS, that’s not true. Looking at the district’s own data, Native American students and Hispanic students come out lower in some academic data points than do African-American students.

Second, the latter part of the paragraph is the first time in my research I see “targeted universalism” linked to just one group. (If anyone else can lead me to other research with that linkage, I would appreciate it. I found one on just single mothers but that’s one gender across multiple races.)

As I said in the first part of this two-part thread, besides not reviewing past initiatives, SPS also put no price tag on this effort nor where the money would come from. Oakland has a long list of funders. Funders   

 It’s great to reach out to multiple community groups for input but if the weight of this program is solely on the district, that’s has to be a consideration. There’s a dynamic tension in any district between fiscal constraints and the quest for better outcomes.
I also reviewed the outcomes of Oakland’s program which they also have available.
Testing for 10th grade African-American students shows slightly more passing both parts of the state test (from 36.5% to 37.3%) with the rate of not passing both went from 51.6% down to 46.7%) but the did “not take” went up from 11.9% to 15.9%.


Anonymous said…
It would seem another name for "targeted universalism" could be "common sense." Identify your overall goals, then identify strategies that will get you there. Of course the same strategy won't work for all, so you have multiple strategies, targeted to the needs of different subgroups. You'll probably want to focus additional attention on efforts to reach those most in need, but you still need to provide effective strategies to everyone else at the same time. This all seems so obvious, it's crazy.

Note: SPS likes to say that by targeting those with the greatest needs it will help everyone. No, implementing effective strategies will help everyone. Using specific strategies to target those with the greatest needs is only one part of the solution, not the entire solution. If JSCEE would clearly identify the outcomes they are trying to achieve, the specific indicators and they will use to measure whether these efforts are successful, and the specific strategies they will use to try to bring about those changes, they would be in a lot better position. They'd probably also be able to finally understand and effectively communicate what the heck it is they are trying to do. Right now it seems that they are as confused as the rest of us.

Outsider said…
Here is a thought experiment: ask yourself what concrete policy, program, or practice related to equity would not be possible without this big theoretical apparatus of "targeted universalism." Not obvious.

Two theories:

1) The people at headquarters are just trying to use the stuff they learned in their masters degree programs, and it means nothing.

2) It's required to deal with an awkward problem with the teaching methods they talk about. Celebrating the genius in each child, and differentiating instruction in a data-driven way, if applied equally, would benefit the stronger students even more than the students they care about. Apply everything in the PowerPoint doc equally, and the achievement gap is 100% guaranteed to increase.

Oops. Perhaps "targeted universalism" is necessary as a theoretical apparatus to justify applying these methods to children of color, and denying them to the colorless.
I cannot say what is in action here but the actual presentation as it reads sounds a lot like #1.
Anonymous said…
Outsider wrote " Perhaps "targeted universalism" is necessary as a theoretical apparatus to justify applying these methods to children of color, and denying them to the colorless."

I don't know how SPS intends to use it, but it doesn't have to be what you said.

For example, SPS could have the universal goal that all students graduate. Then they would look at which group is furthest from meeting this goal (presumably African-American males in SPS). Then they would analyze why this group is not meeting the goal. Maybe (just hypothetical for the purposes of an example) they find out that this group also has high rates of chronic truancy which could be lowering graduation rates. Then they would formulate a plan to reduce chronic truancy, and get approval of the plan from their equity teams and community based organization.

However, when the plan to reduce chronic truancy is implemented, it would apply to all students, not just the group of students furthest from the universal goal. Some students outside the targeted group would also benefit, although likely at lower rates. For students, in targeted and untargeted groups who are not chronically truant, it would only have indirect effects (maybe reducing teacher time spent on catching up students who are chronically truant).

But I don't understand the "celebrating the genius in each child" mission. Even if you believe there is "genius" in each child, shouldn't the mission of a school be not to celebrate, but to teach, prepare, develop or something else along those lines?

Outsider said…
Lisa --

The actual phrase was "recognize the brilliance and genius of every single child" and I was just too lazy to look it up.

There is nothing inherently zero-sum about education, and nothing wrong with trying to help struggling or disadvantaged students. But there is also nothing universal about it. It only becomes universal if the goals set for some students are used as ceilings for others, so the outcomes are equal and equity is achieved. Perhaps that is what they mean by targeted universalism.
Anonymous said…
Outsider. Of course education, like all commodities, is a zero sum game. Money spent on one student isn't spent on another. Money is limited. Back to the old ceiling talk. Public ed, like all public services, provides a floor of opportunity, nothing more. And, not a pony for every kid. When some kids aren't getting that floor, society isn't benefitted by giving your kid a pony, just because you've already provided the floor and more for your own kid, especially since it is indeed a zero sum game. But don't worry. Targeted universalism, is just another PowerPoint with a bunch of expensive suits clicking the next button. It will amount to nothing. Maybe it will be the reason for ending a few programs like Spectrum, which retained segregation and did nothing for the targeted groups. But, that was on the chopping block long before anyone ever heard of targeted universalism.

Charlie Mas said…
I think that LisaG's example, with the truancy, is how SPS understands and intends to implement what they call "targeted universalism". As with any such jargon each person using it will provide their own definition - whether there is an official definition or not. Look what they did with "Standards-Based Education".

In the end, however, all of this effort is predicated on the use of differentiated instruction and the District has yet to show that they are able to implement differentiation on any scale or with any reliability, so it's all building castles in the air.

When is someone on the Board going to call them on that?
Charlie is right and that's why I called out the differentiated language in the presentation.

I did this series so that parents know that what the research out there says about targeted universalism (in general) is not what the district is doing. It seems to be moving to Oakland's model. Again, that's their choice but I don't want them setting the definition when the Oakland model is just their interpretation.
FYI, I did send the Board the links to this series, along with my top points. I'm not sure if staff ever sent them the research on this topic so I offered mine to them. I'm hoping they go into the Work Session with eyes wide open especially on what this district has done before (and lessons learned) and costs.
Anonymous said…
Targeted universalism basically says that a strategy tailored to the specific needs and challenges of your target population will also benefit, to some extent, everyone else. So by targeting the very great needs of group x, you can also help address the lesser--but still important--needs of groups w, y and z. Targeted universalism implies that you have a pretty good idea ahead of time that an intervention will work for all--otherwise you're just targeting, without the expectation of universal benefit. TU also implies the presence of a universal goal.

Targeted universalism itself, however, is not universal. Just because something works for one group does not mean it works for others. If a one-size-fits-all approach to education worked, we wouldn't be having this discussion. In cases such as the truancy reduction strategy LisaG mentioned, TU sounds reasonable. But if we're talking about something like curricular rigor or cultural competency, not so much.

So the big question is, how exactly does SPS plan to use targeted universalism? We see it here in the context of MTSS, and as an additional support--a supplementary intervention--it makes sense. When your overall approach doesn't seem to be working well for a particular subset of the population, common sense says you'll want to add in some tailored strategies more likely to get the effect you want for that group. You end up with your basic strategy, and some enhanced strategies. But the key is that you don't necessarily abandon all your original strategies in favor of the new targeted approach. Targeted strategies often address unique needs, so DON"T work for everyone.

This is of when/where to use TU is where I think SPS could use some clarity--whether in their own thinking or just in their communications, I don't know. Is Targeted Universalism our approach to all of teaching and learning now? Or is it the preferred approach to providing the supplementary supports associated with MTSS?

Anonymous said…
Reader,there are many things we can do that benefit all our students while benefitting our most vulnerable the most (better start times, smaller class sizes, research based differentiation/achievement based classes, more recess) and some things we can do which only help the bottom achievers. I think this move is sps focusing only on those things which only help the lowest achievers because things that help all our students do not close the achievement gap quite as quickly. Because they, you know, help all students. I am sure that is not the way targeted universalism has to be, but this is sps.

Of course it is not a pony to expect your child to learn something at school. Education is for everyone. Literally everyone.

Anonymous said…
@ Reader,

Education is NOT a zero-sum game. Educational SPENDING may be, but not education itself. Yes, more money directed toward the lowest performing groups will likely mean less money directed toward those already at or above standard, and that makes sense from a societal standpoint--but only up to a point. I doubt many think we should redirect ALL education funding to those below standard, and not spend anything on those at or above. We want those who are doing ok to stay that way, after all, and continue with their educations.

Education itself, however, is not a zero-sum game. When one group learns, it does not "undo" learning in another group. The whole intent of our public education system is to educate everyone--so that everyone gains. It may make sense to focus more resources on creating larger gains in those at the bottom, but we want educational gains across the board. Your zero-sum beliefs as they relate to learning seem to suggest that we should place ceilings on those performing above standard and keep them from learning, so that after years of efforts to bring those at the bottom up we might end up with everyone at the same level. Is that really what "equity" looks like?

Outsider said…
Anyone who has experience with a bright but colorless child in SPS would know that money is not the issue. I don't want more money spent on my child. I just want him to have appropriate challenging work at school, which costs the same as the too-easy work he is forced to do. The school says no not because of money but politics.

Holding back bright colorless kids does not save money (except perhaps that it closes the achievement gap in the cheapest possible way). Giving them appropriate levels of challenging work is not the same as giving them ponies. But it does alas run counter to universal goals.

p.s. I can't see how Lisa's example solves the mystery. Targeted dropout prevention and truancy prevention initiatives are uncontroversial and have been tried going back decades. They don't require a grand theory. In Seattle, targeted initiatives to help minorities or disadvantaged students would meet little resistance and would not need the backing of a grand theory. (I suspect; does anyone know of an example of a targeted program meeting resistance because it was targeted? Probably the only source of resistance would be simple lack of discretionary funds. But isn't it reasonable to expect that every dime not tied up in contractual or regulatory staffing formulas will go to targeted programs, with little or no opposition?) Going back to my original query -- either the grand theory is just masters degree puffery, or it has another function.
Outsider, I find your use of the word "colorless" odd. Is that a new thing? I read "Between the World and Me" and Coates refers to white people as "people who think they are white."

I believe if the district drove more money to actual doing than overthinking, they might see better results.
Unknown said…
Thank you for posting this. It is very interesting reading. I don't know a lot about targeted universalism, although I have read quite a bit of john powell's writings. Like you, I don't think he answers the question sufficiently as to why one target one group and not another.

I think this is a particularly provacative question in Seattle Public Schools. I attended an oversight meeting last week where the Executive Director of Special Education, Wyeth Jessee, discussed the difficulties of how Special Education exists in its own silo in SPS, and that one of their goals was to move it out of this silo.

Yet, in the entire discussion of MTSS-B, which up until now was supposed to be "behavior" is now labeled "attitudes, beliefs, and belonging" seems to be about African American males, and NOT behavior. Here's a fact: students with disabilities are suspended and expelled from Seattle Public Schools just as much as students who are black, and my data says that they are suspended and expelled MORE than students who are black.

I am extremely disappointed that by focusing the MTSS B on "attitudes, belief, and belonging," which STILL could be targeting staff attitudes, beliefs, and belonging for students with disabilities as well as race, it seems to only be about race, once again.

What gives with making MTSS-B about race, and what about that siloing of students with disabilities, SPS?

Anonymous said…
Outsider wrote "p.s. I can't see how Lisa's example solves the mystery. Targeted dropout prevention and truancy prevention initiatives are uncontroversial and have been tried going back decades."

It was just meant to be an example of how targeted universalism also applies to students not in the targeted group. But I think you're wrong about truancy prevention initiatives being uncontroversial unless you're OK with Washington leading the nation in jailing kids for truancy and similar offenses http://www.theolympian.com/news/politics-government/article27020662.html

Anonymous said…
To add to Mary's post,


If you want to raise our districts overall graduation rate you need to focus on all students. You can see in the data that special education students are in the most need of intervention. I don't think SPS has figured out how to package up SPED into one of its pet racial issues and therefor they really aren't interested.

Mr. Jessee has run out of excuses. Maybe our new quid pro que civil rights officer can help him out of the silo.

Sped parent
Anonymous said…
The SPED silo excuse is laughable. Have the SPED department stop being a different department. Then they won't be a silo. Oh, but then a bunch of SPED managers might lose their jobs. Oh, but then the general education managers and teachers will have to deal with SPED. Oh, but then we couldn't shuffle SPED students around on a space available basis and that would mess up building capacities.

SPED silo could have been eliminated a decade ago or more. The only reason it exists is that the system's employees and leaders want it to exist.

Anonymous said…
I agree, Outsider--with one exception. You said giving bright kids appropriate levels of challenging work runs counter to universal goals. I disagree.

If the universal goals are concerned only with producing the same outcome for all groups, you're right. For example, if the goal is that all subgroups of students achieve an average of 1800 on the SAT, then any education you provide that might help some groups exceed that level is bad. But if your universal goal is that all groups will score at least 1800 on the SAT, then there's no problem with providing education beyond the minimum.

SPS has a universal goal to educate all students. Goal 1 of the strategic plan is to "ensure educational excellence and equity for every student" and specifically to "challenge...each student." Providing appropriate levels of challenging work is thus not counter to, but rather CONSISTENT WITH, that universal goal.

At some level, the goal itself seems contradictory, right? How do you provide both "educational excellence" and "equity for every student" when you consider "equity" to be synonymous with "equal outcomes", as SPS often does? If you want all to achieve at the same level, you might need to stop educating some along the way. But then that's not educational excellence for all... I think the answer is in the specific measures used to define the target outcomes. If one measure of success is that all groups have similar graduation rates, then whether some groups exceed the requirements and others only just meet them is irrelevant. Providing appropriate levels of rigor to all and eliminating disparities in key outcomes are not mutually exclusive. It all depends on the specific measures.

Anonymous said…
It am convinced that School Administrators just spend their time looking for projects to justify their jobs and keep themselves busy. Every year a new educational theory to chase with wasteful staff training. It's not just SPS either.

NB Parent
Anonymous said…
It's like having a great working elementary math program, like Saxon math, then switching to MIF, then switching to whatever they are switching too next. It's an endless loop of killing successful programs then adopting someones fad program without any evidence the program will work. 5 years and 30 million later....woops.

Try fail repeat...Try fail repeat.

NB2 Parent

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