Okay, it wasn't a financial audit. It was an unofficial Equity Audit, and I asked for it. Mainly I was trying to keep my student-teacher busy. In the early 1990s, he and I felt intrigued by the groundbreaking, recently published American Association of University Women's report "How Schools Shortchange Girls: A Study of Major Findings on Girls and Education." I wondered aloud if I was one of those teachers who give girls less attention and opportunity during class discussions. My student-teacher offered to audit me for a few days, using a very sophisticated data collection system.
And so he sat at a desk at the back of my classroom, making tally marks on paper with a pencil. An avowed feminist since adolescence, I was feeling pretty confident. I'd just taken a summer class called "Gender, Reading and Writing" at the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English. My boy students accused me of favoring the girls by giving "open notes" tests and credit for complete, organized three-ring binders. Plus, the text we were discussing was Maya Angelou's earliest memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Clearly I'd prove myself an exceptionally enlightened private school English teacher.
I wish I had still that piece of paper with the exact tally marks on it, but all I remember is that at the end of the week, the results were clear: In a co-ed population that was evenly split, I called on the boys significantly more often, and they did substantially more of the talking than the girls. All this was faithfully recorded by a male colleague who'd started out with no agenda. If anything, I was the one with the agenda, something to prove. But even when I knew I was being audited and tried my best to be above reproach, I still gave uneven treatment.
Of course, I had a lot to say in my defense. My boys tended to volunteer more. They waved their hands, bouncing in their seats, crying "Ooh, me, me!" and speaking out of turn if I didn't call on them. A boy who felt ignored was much more likely to start acting out, distracting the whole class. Ignored girls could still be counted on to behave. (Actually, they withdraw and disengage, which hurts their own learning but at least doesn't harm their classmates.)
And of course, all my excuses were true. But that still didn't make my behavior right. As a relatively new teacher, what I needed was training and mentoring to figure out how to treat my students more equitably. What I got, instead, at a school that didn't prioritize such initiatives at the time, was the beginning of self-awareness, and a touch more humility than I'd started out with.
I wish I could say this experience changed me forever. That I never shortchanged girls again, or slighted students of color; that my teaching was utterly even-handed thenceforth. All I can say is that this "audit" was an eye-opening experience for me, part of a process that extended for decades, into other aspects of equity besides gender, and other aspects of my life besides my career. I read everything I could get my hands on and took more classes, eventually earning a master's in education. As a department head in three different school settings, I continually reminded teachers--and students--that there were myriad points of view to be considered. As an editor in the Providence College and URI Departments of Publications, I kept an eye on diversity in print and pictures. As a mother of two daughters, I encouraged them to ask questions like "Why do so many Disney princesses have dead mothers?" and "Why are there so few girls in this AP Physics class?" and "Do I really want to be a software engineer for a hedge fund, or am I just trying to prove that women can earn as much as men?" Meanwhile, despite higher GPAs and graduation rates, the Gender Pay Gap in the U.S. has been holding pretty steady, but creeping up ever so slightly, ever so slowly: women now earn a little over 80 percent of what men do. You can see the results of the annual audits here.
Above all, getting audited made me believe in audits. Audits are necessary and important. Without them, we can fool ourselves into thinking we're already doing everything right. With them every so often, we can take stock and take steps to get back on the path we thought we were on. That's why businesses do regular financial audits, and schools need to do regular Equity Audits. In fact, such audits are even more important gauges of educational effectiveness than student scores on standardized tests.
Thank you, DEI subcommittee, for recommending that our school department undertake its first-ever Equity Audit at a modest cost of $73,250. I can't think of a better use of Esser Funds. I can't wait to see the results. I hope all NKSD administrators, faculty, and staff--and the students who are mature enough to share responsibility--remain eager, curious, and open to surprises as this process unfolds.
P.S. I sent a version of this story to all 5 members of our NK School Committee, encouraging them to approve the recommended Equity Audit. Here's more info about the DEI subcommittee and its Equity Audit recommendation.