Beyond High-Stake Accountability: Excellence and Equity Through the Lens of Air Quality

Equity and Achievement Beyond Linear Academics Initiative

Michael T. Conner, Ed.D.

Every educator in our ecosystem remembers what they were doing on March 13, 2020. Yes – this was the defining day in our domestic and international history that the implications of our education model would be operationalizing in a radically different mode than the legacy. The transition into the DC-Stage of Education (During the COVID-19 Stage) was arduous, but a point of learning resonated with me as a Superintendent of Schools. This was an opportunity to learn and create more opportunities to close the access gap amid a once in a generational pandemic. During the DC-Stage of Education, the creative tension focused on operations – the safety of ALL – led me on an organizational journey to seek symptoms and actual problems for excellence in the name of equity.

Operations in the DC-Stage of Education
The education model experienced a seismic shift in practice and behavior because of COVID-19. Social and physical distancing dominated the narrative in schools. Academic model determination was rooted in science and data. The DC-Stage of Education transformed our collective mental, which needs to continue seamlessly in the AC-Stage of Education (After COVID-19). Moving from “whole child” to “whole community” will look beyond the linear scope of academic achievement from a high-stakes lens. COVID-19 challenged the education ecosystem to reimagine the model with a lens of innovation and excellence. A moment where my reflection led me to this analysis – one central thread was negated in the BC-Stage of Education and researched in the DC-Stage of Education. The health and quality of our school buildings – is an agenda item that we cannot ignore anymore.

It was Spring 2020 when I started to conduct walkthroughs and independent research on the health of our school buildings. During that time of the pandemic, ventilation was examined with a fine-comb lens. During this exploratory phase as Superintendent of Schools, I recognized insidious excellence and equity trends in each school. During the most vulnerable time in our history, there were gross inequities in the context of differentiated IAQ (Indoor-Air-Quality) metrics. As I further unpacked these disparities in the context of basic operational features (i.e., HVAC systems), we had to make the necessary improvements to support the present and future. Research states that most public schools are more than 50 years old and require extensive repairs.1 In specificity to the problem variables with healthy school conditions, forty percent of public-school districts need to replace or update large-scale functions that drive student achievement (i.e., heating, ventilation, HVAC systems). 2 According to a report issued by the Office of US Governmental Accountability (GAO) in 2020, 35% of school districts across the country had not assessed their facilities and systems in the previous ten years or had no facilities assessment data. 3 When I reflected on my leadership practice coupled with research on indoor air quality, my equity lens was linear, grounded on the process of academic recovery and preparing for a changing tomorrow. Painstakingly, I did not correlate student achievement with specific domains from local IAQ scores (i.e., growth, absenteeism rates, attendance rates, collective efficacy, and motivation). 4 The AC-Stage of Education concerning organizational operations will fundamentally differ from the BC-Stage of Education. Yes – Chief Academic Officers will have to unpack facility data regarding indoor air quality scores. This inward-outward cross-functional collaboration invites iterative strategies for long-term outcomes regarding cognition and the health of ALL. Methods of engagement and science will work in partnership with the learning where the equilibrium for innovation, excellence, and equity is grounded by data to increase academic outcomes over time.

Disruptive Excellence Framework and Closing Gaps for Healthy Schools

Being a disruptive change agent in the AC-Stage of Education grounds a new vision of excellence – equity in the context of healthy buildings. A realization in the DC-Stage of Education was stark – we must interface operational data to advance student achievement and close equity gaps. It wasn’t until COVID 19 that government entities such as the CDC and EPA expanded the focus on increasing ventilation based on research on increased ventilation rates and disease risk mitigation strategies. Poorly ventilated environments in schools can impact unhealthy conditions for students and stakeholders. Beyond that, poorly ventilated environments are associated with a negative impact on performance. Studies show the direct effects of low-to-moderate CO2 concentrations on cognitive function. 5 One study showed that 7 of 9 cognition scores were marginal or dysfunctional at 2500 ppm CO2 concentrations. 6 I certainly do not claim to be a czar regarding air quality; however, poor conditions in the AC-Stage of Education, where carbon dioxide levels exceed the minimum concentration level benchmark of 1,000 ppm, schools negatively impact the learning environment conditions for students and stakeholders. 7 In a pedestrian context – cognition is significantly reduced in the education ecosystem if it goes above this absolute 1000 ppm level.

Poor indoor air quality and outdated brick-and-mortar schools stymie equity based on the Disruptive Excellence Framework. Moving into the AC-Stage of Education underpins a leadership disposition that must be agile. The Agile Leader must interface academic data and metrics from infrastructure operations to ensure all access to an equitable education. According to a McKinsey & Company Report, the unfished learning gap was an average of five months in math and four months in literacy. 8 In parallelization to this metric, McKinsey & Company’s report on the impact of the pandemic on education globally shows that lower-income communities are far worse than moderate middle-income levels communities. 9 . The pandemic has added more pressure to address the needs of poorer students of color across our country who are worse than their counterparts in suburban communities – including our country’s rural areas. The academic recovery processes will be multi-faceted, albeit there must be a strategy to cohere operations with student achievement. Other data metrics prove to be profound – absenteeism is among the variables, but implications of excellence must be codified through a lens of indoor air quality and healthy learning environments. 10 More than ever since COVID-19 has not disappeared for the 2022 – 2023 academic year, our excellence and equity stance in air quality and healthy schools must be supported systemically and strategically.

Healthy and Innovative Excellence Schools to Close the Expectation and Access Gaps for Equity

The education sector has an opportunity to be permissionless – take strategic steps to move away from static practices in the era of the BC-Stage of Education (Before COVID-19). Advanced technology and artificial intelligence have ground innovation in education that evolved from the rudiments of COVID-19. The DC-Stage of Education brought a stark realization that manifested in the conditions of our schools throughout America. Dr. Miguel Cardona, Secretary of Education for the United States of America, stated, “our schools have more resources than ever before to provide the healthy learning environments our students need to grow and thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.” 11 This historic investment in schools – doubling down on innovation and excellence – has led me to partner with and support the Innovation and Excellence for Healthy Schools Initiative. During my tenure as a Superintendent of Schools, I wish this aspect of my equity portfolio existed to accelerate the process of closing achievement gaps. My leadership team would have been more prescriptive with the data mining/analysis
process to monitor and control school carbon dioxide levels to ensure optimal mental cognition. But beyond that, to monitor and manage indoor air quality for healthy learning environments where students, teachers, and staff can thrive.

In partnership with the Disruptive Excellence Framework, the Equity and Achievement Beyond Linear Academics Initiative is progressive, albeit strategic, to grounding healthy schools for ALL. Moving into the AC-Stage of Education mandates agile leadership where the diversity of voices is essential within the decision-making process. Mining the gap – the theory of evolution – must be welcomed to disrupt and mitigate equity barriers. Being intentional with operations does impact achievement and the long-stand health of students. With urgency – now is the time we ground our equity lens holistically, which only occurred because of examining the needs of ALL in the pandemic as a Superintendent of Schools.

Michael T. Conner, Ed.D., is the CEO/Founder of Agile Evolutionary Group, Corp, and former
Superintendent of Schools. He is the architect and creator of the Disruptive Excellence
Beverly M Hope, MBA, has led global organizational change and innovation growth initiatives
across Fortune 500 corporations for over 30 years. She is currently Vice President of Strategic
Marketing, Education for Active Pure Technologies LLC and author of Well with Zest, a personal
blog devoted to unlocking potential.


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