By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer
Equity. Today, this single word can bring up some charged emotions in conversations among educators. There are many varying definitions for and examples of the concept of educational equity, too. To me, equity in education means ensuring each student gets what they need to learn and to learn well.
When I worked in Special Education, I often heard our school leaders highlight the importance of equity in education and in our classroom. It was a kind of rallying cry during teacher training workshops or staff meetings, a way for our team to unite around the common goal of driving positive educational outcomes for all of our students. As a new educator, I was fired up and ready to tackle these equity gaps — I still am as passionate more than a decade later.
But this was much easier said than done.
My Special Education classroom felt like a microcosm of the equity issues in education that I had studied in college. Each student came to our school community from a different cultural and ethnic background. Each of our families faced challenges with adverse childhood experiences and trauma. And though my students represented a similar socioeconomic status that earned them complimentary SEL and mental health support from the district, even that level of access to resources varied from home to home. My students’ academic, social, and emotional needs could not be more different.
I knew how crucial it was to ensure every child in my classroom, from every race and ethnic background, had an equal opportunity to thrive. I recognized that non-English speaking students could succeed as well as native English speakers, and that students with disabilities had just as much potential to thrive as their able-bodied peers. And I had studied all the different ways in which educators navigated barriers to equity, explored equity examples in education that were successful, the way policies could be restructured to close major equity gaps.
But I will readily admit that I often felt overwhelmed by the challenge of tackling the equity gaps I witnessed.
I was also overwhelmed in recognizing how much my own advantages had set me up for success as I tried to support underserved students. And I was overwhelmed by the huge academic gaps that our classroom in particular needed to overcome to prevent our students from falling even further behind.
How on earth was I going to tackle these equity issues in my own classroom all on my own?
Well, I wasn’t on my own — none of our teaching teams were. We all had the support of our families, and we needed these crucial partnerships to level the playing field for all students. And though I no longer work in classrooms directly, through ParentPowered’s partnerships with school districts I still see the impact that families can make in a student’s life. Families are essential to tackling the most critical equity issues in education today.
Equity issues in education today
The phrase ‘equity issues in education’ may conjure a variety of images in educators’ minds. Some might think about the need to address the achievement gap between students with different socioeconomic statuses or increase the number of people of color in the educator workforce. Others may reflect on the United States’ challenging history with race and education access.
‘Equity’ has many definitions in education, but at the core, each version emphasizes building a world in which all students thrive. In this vision, education reaches a universality of student outcomes — students succeed regardless of circumstances. These circumstances include everything ranging from race or ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, the languages they spoke, residency status, and so forth. Equity in education is critical for all learners, from the youngest ones all the way up to college-age students.
It’s worth clarifying that there is a significant difference between equity and equality when it comes to student educational goals. Equity is not about the equal and even allocation of resources or opportunities for students. That approach doesn’t take into account the unique circumstances and needs of the individual student that, once met, can set them up for future success. Instead, the key to equity in education is personalization, supporting each student according to their specific situation.
This level of personalized support is well worth it, as equitable learning environments deliver huge benefits. When integrated into school culture, practices that cultivate equitable learning lead to better academic outcomes for students. Equitable education also leads to long-term community benefits that boost the local economy and reduce crime rates.
Public education in the US has long faced challenges with creating equitable learning environments, especially for historically underserved students. The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight just how urgent these issues continue to be.
Here’s the good news: families can help educators tackle equity issues in education. In fact, family engagement is a crucial ingredient in any recipe designed to provide equitable opportunities for students regardless of background or circumstances.
Family engagement: the power of (equitable) partnership
The pursuit of equity in schools is one in which families can play an active role. If you’re at all familiar with ParentPowered or our programs, you know that we are HUGE advocates of bringing families and educators together to make learning possible.
But what effect does family engagement in schools have on equity issues in education?
Research has repeatedly shown that effective family engagement has a positive impact on student learning outcomes. For example, family engagement has been shown to increase student attendance rates and academic outcomes such as reading and math scores. What’s more — family engagement can especially benefit traditionally underserved student populations that may not have the same resources or educational opportunities as their peers.
Further, equitably inviting parents to participate in decisions about student learning gives educators direct access to crucial information about what all of their families truly need to thrive. Educators can then use this feedback, in partnership with their family community, to design more equitable access to learning resources as well as community resources that can increase a family’s well-being and capacity to support student learning.
These are just a few examples of how equity and family engagement interact together to catalyze positive student learning outcomes. The question then becomes: how can educators and families most effectively — and equitably — partner together to ensure all students have the best chance to succeed?
Strategies for effective and equitable family engagement
We at ParentPowered know that every student has the potential to thrive, and their families, too, can enable that future. This is why we use an equity lens when it comes to family engagement. We designed our suite of ParentPowered programs such that they can support the unique needs of individual students and families, focusing on the skills and competencies that result in positive outcomes for children. After all, no matter what family background or experience a parent brings to the table, every family is an asset to student success!
We want to share a few key ways in which we put equitable family engagement into practice. We hope that these examples and tips inspire your efforts to build highly effective and equitable family engagement programs in your organizations.
Equity and Available Time
If you ask any educator or parent what their most precious resource is, most will say time. Time is a key factor in designing equitable family engagement opportunities. Some families may have the extra time to attend in-person events at school, such as family workshops or Open House nights. But other families may face barriers such as transportation costs or work schedules, and as a result, cannot always access activities that center at school buildings.
By understanding what family capacity looks like with respect to time, educators can then get creative to ensure their ideas for a family engagement event are tenable and accessible to everyone in their community. Here are a few ways that educators can ensure time limits are not a barrier to a family’s ability to support student learning:
- Offer learning activities that fit into at-home routines. Learning can happen anytime, anywhere — even when schedules are packed. Incorporating learning opportunities into existing daily routines gives families an easy way to support student growth without adding extra time constraints or demands to their plates. For example, in one of our favorite ParentPowered activities, families challenge younger students to practice sounding out words on item labels during grocery shopping to build their literacy skills. In another activity, students count the number of red-colored cars they see on their way to school to practice their math skills. This simple but effective strategy helps families navigate time limits and support students learning at home.
- Bring family engagement into the community. Organizations such as religious centers, libraries, community health groups, and others often have both trust and access to families in the school community. Educators can establish trust and connection with families by working with these community partners. For example, schools can arrange family workshops or Q&A sessions about school activities in these locations at times when families already gather onsite. This gesture both spares families from finding that extra time to meet with their school teams and also signals to them that all voices are welcome and needed to inform school decisions. In-community family engagement opportunities provide equitable access for all families to contribute to positive educational outcomes.
Equity and Access to Resources
Another key consideration for designing parent engagement strategies is resource equity. Families from historically underserved backgrounds might be able to afford some materials to support learning at home, such as multiplication cards or specialized literacy tools. But no educator can really assume that every one of their families has such access to resources financially. In fact, the OECD estimates that 60% of the most disadvantaged students come from under-resourced homes or communities.
This reality presents a unique challenge: how can educators support families with educational activities that they can do at home without requiring special equipment or resources?
Here are a few tips for educators considering families’ access to resources as they design family engagement opportunities:
- Emphasize what assets families DO have at their fingertips. Strengths-based family engagement is an approach that points to the abilities, resources, and other assets already available to families, rather than emphasizing what families may lack. Though this mindset shift seems simple on the surface, it is a powerful tool for building parent confidence and collaboration with their schools. It can also help families tap into community resources in new and innovative ways that benefit students. Read our recent blog post to understand how strengths-based approaches evolve family engagement for a better future for all students.
- Design family engagement opportunities that leverage existing everyday items. Children are masters of repurposing objects — they can turn sticks into writing utensils, paper towel rolls into spy glasses, or a cardboard box into an imaginary space shuttle. Families, too, can find ways to utilize items, places, or people around them to enable student learning. For example, a favorite ParentPowered activity for middle school students involves a challenge: build a device that can roll across the floor, but only using items they can find around the house. This creative exercise is not only enjoyable for kids, but it also boosts their creative problem-solving skills — and requires no extra materials or purchases!
Equity and Digital Access
Digital access is yet another element to building equitable family engagement approaches. People increasingly rely on access to the internet and smartphones to navigate our world, and the pandemic highlighted persistent issues in families’ access to technology that continue today. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, over a quarter of American families do not have reliable internet access at home. These digital equity gaps will be crucial for families and educators to tackle together with student success as the driving force.
How then do schools partner with their families to create learning opportunities without requiring families to have digital tools readily available? Take a look at these suggestions for navigating families’ lack of access to digital resources, such as a reliable connection to the internet:
- Leverage phones and text messaging for communication. A whopping 97% of cellphone users send and receive text messages on a regular basis. Educators can take advantage of the benefits that text messaging offers when communicating with families. For example, schools that send text-based surveys to families stand to receive a more representative sample of parent feedback than when using other methods, like paper-based or email-based surveys. For schools with diverse communities that speak languages other than English, text-based surveys offered in home languages are a game changer for collecting family input.
- Partner with community organizations to improve digital equity. Community-based organizations can support educators not only to build trust with their families but also to bridge digital gaps. Some organizations such as public libraries or non-profit organizations can provide families with access to devices, internet connectivity, and even digital literacy workshops. Research which organizations are available in your local community. For inspiration, learn how one district in Texas collaborated with two community-based organizations to support Spanish-speaking families in navigating virtual classrooms during the chaos of the pandemic.
Equity, Language, and Cultural Responsiveness
Language plays a vital role in a family’s experience of schools and their child’s education. Families without English language proficiency may struggle to participate in engagement opportunities or understand how to ask for help to further support their students. Language barriers are yet another critical equity gap for educators to close such that they can build connections with all students’ families, and not just native English speakers.
One straightforward solution here is for education leaders to provide school and district information in families’ home language. This ensures that families can access the right information about their schools at the right time. It also signals to families that schools recognize, respect, and are invested in their unique identities.
But educators can go even further than simply translating materials to close such equity gaps. Language is only one aspect of a family’s culture and background. School leadership can greatly increase a family’s trust and desire to collaborate with school staff by incorporating more comprehensive culturally responsive practices into family engagement programming.
Here are a few ways educators can create equitable family engagement when it comes to language and culture:
- Reflect on which stories are present in your school materials. When students and families see themselves reflected in learning materials, it sends a signal that their identity and experiences belong in the school community. Educators can take time to reflect on their existing school materials and practices to determine if they represent the full diversity of languages or ethnic backgrounds found in their school. Asking questions such as “Whose stories are represented in our curriculum?” and “Have we established family engagement methods accessible in all home languages?” are helpful places to begin this internal audit.
- Orient families for the school experience as early as possible. The public school experience in the United States is unique, and not all families will feel comfortable navigating the system. Schools can set up new and returning families for success by ensuring they have all the fundamental information necessary to engage with staff. For example, consider how you inform families of transportation schedules, school calendars, or how/when/why to call the school front office. Watch our webinar to discover how a local organization in Missouri partnered with schools to support bilingual immigrant families to have a great school experience from the start.
Addressing equity issues in education benefits everyone
Though it has been years since I left the classroom, I still think back to the lessons in education equity and family partnerships that I learned. Each of our students came to our classroom from different walks of life, with unique strengths and challenges, raised in various cultures and family backgrounds. Creating the optimal learning path for each kid required the entire learning team — from teachers to families to the broader school community — to lend a helping hand and unite together behind our equity goals as an organization. Those years were among the hardest and most rewarding in my career.
At the end of the day, equity in education aims to provide a level playing field in which students all have the opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally. And isn’t that the ultimate goal of teaching and parenting?
I certainly believe so — and every effort to address such equity gaps is worth it!
About the author
Maren Madalyn has worked at the intersection of K12 education and technology for over a decade, serving in roles ranging from counseling to customer success to product management. She blends this expertise with fluid writing and strategic problem-solving to help education organizations create thoughtful long-form content that empowers educators.