3 Uplifting Examples of Equity in Education - ParentPowered®
Read our recent blog post to discover uplifting examples of equity in education.

by ParentPowered contributing author Curran Mahowald, M.A. Cognitive Science in Education

Like so many other educators, I became a teacher so I could help all students learn and thrive. Equity is the idea that any student, no matter their background, can reach their potential through high-quality public education— it is essential to achieve this goal. And I was motivated to promote equity in education systems by creating equity in the classroom.

I was so motivated, in fact, that I moved from a sunny suburb in my home state of California to the unfamiliar state of Indiana, where an urban public charter high school needed a French and English teacher.

I may have been naive about midwestern living (hello, seasons!), but I wasn’t naive about the barriers to education equity faced by students of color, students from low-income families, and others in high-poverty schools. Research reveals that a significant gap in academic achievement exists between student groups across learning environments. For example, according to data analysis from the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, the difference in standardized test scores between black and white students amounts to about two years’ worth of learning.

As I strove to create an equitable learning environment that would help all students succeed, I myself learned a lot about educational equity.

To truly promote equity in schools means using research-based best practices and support systems that benefit diverse learners. Equity in the classroom also requires providing extra resources to help students with differing levels of language skills and disabilities.

A black father sits with his toddler son as they explore a wooded park.

Efforts to create equitable educational opportunities are necessarily tailored to their context and thus take many forms to meet the needs of different students. But the unifying principle of promoting equity for students is simple: “Every student has access to the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education across race, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, sexual orientation, family background and/ or family income” (Council of Chief State School Officers / The Aspen Institute).

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3 real-life ways that educators promote equity

Building an equitable classroom and education system can seem like a lofty ideal that is difficult to put into practice. Fortunately, we can look to the example of educators and education leaders to understand what it looks like to reduce equity gaps in public schools.

In a two-part series, we highlight examples of equity in education from the field, featuring leaders working to drive equitable outcomes in public schools starting with their local school system. Read on to hear from these educators directly and discover how they created an equitable classroom, stronger relationships with their students, integrating trauma-informed practices, and much more.

1. Early education for the whole child

Berol Dewdney, Pre-K teacher in Baltimore, Maryland (Interview with Teach for America)

Early childhood education significant impacts a child’s later academic success. Research consistently shows that children who attend high-quality early childhood education programs have better academic outcomes later in life, from stronger kindergarten readiness to higher rates of high school graduation and even college attendance.

Berol Dewdney’s approach to creating this high-quality early learning environment is based on two well-established findings from education research. First, children in preschool need to develop key pre-academic and socio-emotional skills especially oral language and executive function (Road to Readiness report from the Overdeck Family Foundation). Second, children learn best from play. That’s why Dewdney, like many early childhood educators who embrace rigorous play-based learning, focuses on allowing children to build cognitive skills through playful exploration.

A young girl plays with giant bubbles in a city plaza surrounded by other children.

By giving students a supportive environment to explore and play, Dewdney demonstrates how kids can safely build early learning skills that promote future student outcomes—an inspiring example of how to foster equity in the service of the youngest learners.

Explore these resources to learn more about advancing equity in early childhood education:

2. Prioritizing relationships to close the achievement gap

Rodney Robinson, district administrator and former middle and high school teacher in Richmond, VA (Interview for The Teacher Education Podcast)

Educators hoping to close the achievement gap may be focused on strictly academic elements such as classroom strategies to instruction and assessment design. But research shows that the relational aspects of equity in the classroom are just as worthy of attention in public education.

Teachers’ relationships with students are paramount. For students in traditionally underserved groups especially, positive relationships with teachers can help provide a supportive school environment in which students overcome barriers and thrive. These connections also invite student voice into learning when teachers truly listen and respond to students’ unique perspective, needs, and goals.

An Asian mother and her young daughter work on homework together while smiling.

Teachers can also look beyond the classroom level to understand the neighborhood and community where students live, including its history. Last, they can take time to learn about their students’ culture and its impact on their experience with school.

District administrator Rodney Robinson says he makes an effort to go to after-school events like football games to be present in the school community. Listening goes a long way, he adds, and unconditional love and support to encourage students are not to be underestimated: “Wherever the heartbeat of the community is, you should be there.” As important as teaching methods are, Robinson sees the relationships he builds with students as core to his concept of equity in education systems.

Take a look at these resources to learn more about building student-teacher relationships and how they create equitable outcomes for students:

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3. Partnering with families to support English Language Learners

Juliana Urtubey, bilingual special education teacher in Nevada (Interview with ACSD)

Families are allies for educators to create equity in the classroom, especially when it comes to academic skills and determining the best ways to support students who are English Learners. They are also a rich resource when it comes to serving children with learning differences or different physical ability.

The funds of knowledge of immigrant families (also known as “newcomer” families) are too often undervalued or overlooked by most schools. Culturally responsive family engagement that fosters genuine two-way relationships can help with this.

Juliana Urtubey sees each student as a complex individual in the context of their communities, cultural backgrounds, and history. She enhances school-family partnerships beyond communication into shared projects, like a community garden that allows parents to contribute culturally and materially to school assets and students’ learning. The pandemic highlighted the importance of family-school relationships in education, and not just when remote learning was ubiquitous: “Our students’ progress and wellness depended on us being able to partner with families.”

As a bilingual herself, Urtubey knows that providing accommodations like translation for families who speak a language other than English is necessary—but not sufficient to enact culturally responsive family engagement and cultivate thriving learning environments. Families can truly be themselves when they receive the message that “[w]ho you are matters to our school, we have things to learn from you, we want to really know who you are.”

The idea of seeing strengths also extends to students with disabilities. Urtubey recommends having an open conversation with parents about what works best to support that student’s education, rather than immediately labeling them with a disability. This is key because the word ‘disability’ can carry different connotations in other cultures, and not all students or families may feel receptive or supportive to additional support if framed this way.

A dad and his three boys work together to make dinner at home, having fun spending family time together.  They mix and pour ingredients in to a bowl.

Finally, it’s important to remember that school-family relationships are not about the adults but rather about centering students individually. These relationships should be intentionally oriented to setting each learner up for success. Urtubey speaks of a relationship she built with a parent of a student with autism who was transitioning to general education: “It was through this relationship that I had with her mom that Leila eventually started feeling comfortable in school. Once she did feel comfortable, her academics flourished.”

Here are more resources to learn about family engagement for parents of students who speak a language other than English at home and students with disabilities:

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Creating New and Powerful Examples of Equity in Education

Equity in education aims to give every child the same opportunities and ability to reach their full and unique potential. Educational equity is both universal and personalized to promote successful student learning for the entire classroom using tailored support. What this support looks like is as varied as the diverse children that educators serve.

The perspectives shared above are just a sampling of many ways that equity work in schools can look. From community schools to diversity and representation in staff and materials, there are many more promising practices being used to level the playing field. And of course, there are many, many more educators and families working day in and day out to make good on the promise to help every student learn, grow, and thrive to their fullest potential.

Continue exploring more equity examples in education in the second part of this series.

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About the author

Curran Mahowald is a former high school language teacher turned education research advocate. In addition to having worked at ParentPowered, she has also designed parent-facing informational materials at Oakland Unified School District and currently works on improving national research-to-practice infrastructure at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Curran holds an M.A. in Cognitive Science in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and B.A.s in Linguistics and French from the University of Southern California.

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