Shining a Light On Inequity In Education: Actions You Can Take

Become aware of the most common and well-researched inequities in schools and how equity-focused leaders can disrupt them so all students have access to a high-quality education.
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Blog date
3/22/22
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The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning for all students, with economically disadvantaged students and students of color taking the hardest hit. Yet, educational inequity predates the pandemic. Students of color and those in underserved communities in the United States have weathered disparities, limited access to resources, and low expectations in public education, all of which impact their health and well-being and create unnecessary obstacles to learning and student achievement.

Despite the disruption in learning, the pandemic also presents an opportunity for education leaders and teachers—and a ray of hope. As New Leaders CEO Jean Desravines explains, his sense of hope “stems from the fact that the pandemic is shining a light on the inequities that existed before the pandemic and that spotlight serves as an impetus to drive us to action." 

It's nearly impossible to work towards a solution and more equitable student outcomes when you don't fully know a problem exists, don’t quite understand it, or recognize its drivers. Growing in awareness and understanding of persisting systemic inequities is a first step towards positive change in our K12 education system.

Limited access to resources

We live in a deeply inequitable society, where too many systems—including our schools—uphold structural racism. Consider for example that school districts with higher concentrations of students of color and students in low-income communities receive significantly less funding than predominantly white districts serving the same number of students. Less school funding equates to lower quality curriculum materials, computers, and less experienced and qualified teachers. 

We need to work to remove barriers to student success. Disrupting inequities requires equity-focused leaders passionately contributing to systemic change.

During the pandemic, the lack of technology access in our public schools became abundantly evident. During the first shutdowns in March 2020, only 42 percent of households with school-aged children had an internet connection or access to a device. Black and Hispanic families were 1.3 to 1.4 times less likely to have access than their white counterparts, preventing students from even participating in remote learning. 

But educational inequities extend far beyond technology. Here are the most common, well-researched, and documented inequities in our schools. Naming these educational inequities is not enough. We need to work to remove these barriers to student success. Disrupting them requires equity-focused leaders passionately contributing to systemic change. 

1. Students of color are less likely to have rigorous coursework.

Generally speaking, Hispanic and Black students are less likely to attend schools that offer rigorous coursework, advanced courses, and programs for gifted and talented students. If students of color do attend these schools, they are less likely than white peers to be enrolled in advanced courses and are often denied access to these opportunities. It doesn’t have to be this way. Research also shows that students of color show higher enrollment when they are led by principals who share their racial identity

2. Students of color are less likely to be taught by skilled educators.

Public schools that serve many students of color are more likely to be taught by out-of-field and inexperienced teachers. Additionally, the teacher workforce is less likely to be stable in schools with high enrollments of students of color. Students of color are more likely to attend a school where greater than half of teachers were absent for more than ten days. However, in schools with an equity-minded leader of color at the helm, researchers found that teachers of color have higher levels of job satisfaction and lower turnover rates. And, as a results, students are more likely to receive a quality education.

3. Students of color are disciplined more frequently and more harshly.

Students of color, particularly Black boys, receive disproportionately more out-of-school suspensions than their white counterparts. Disciplinary action can influence educational outcomes as well as a student's health, well-being, and social-emotional learning. Students who are expelled or suspended are ten times more likely to drop out of school, experience academic failure, and face incarceration. Archie Moss, Jr., New Leaders alum and principal at Bruce Elementary School in Memphis, TN, created a mentoring program to help African-American and Hispanic boys beat these odds. As a result, he decreased disciplinary issues, increased access to educational opportunity, and accelerated learning in his school. This is just one example of how equity-focused leaders disrupt inequities for students of color.

Embracing equity-focused leadership is one actionable step that all school leaders can take to reduce the impact of injustice in their own school communities.

Building equity-focused leaders

We know that representation in educational leadership matters. And it’s only one piece of the puzzle in disrupting systemic inequities in education related to access to resources, opportunities, and support. The solution lies in building the capacity of diverse, equity-minded school leaders who are committed to the success of every child and young person. Because a quality K-12 education in the United States can, and should, be accessible to all students.

School and district leaders can advance educational equity and support students in fully realizing their futures through three domains: culture, high-quality curriculum, and equitable systems.

1. Culture

Equity-focused leaders believe all children can learn and instill this belief in every adult in their building. These leaders know that positive, inclusive environments matter, and they work to create environments where all school community members feel safe, valued, cared for, and seen. 

2. High-quality curriculum

Aside from creating a positive culture with high expectations of all students, equity-focused leaders provide high-quality, academically challenging, and culturally fortifying curricula and instruction to narrow the achievement gap. They also ensure equal opportunity and equal access.

3. Equitable systems

Equity-focused leaders create systems and structures that equitably distribute resources and funding. They also consider the impact of their decision-making and policies through the lens of historically marginalized groups in low income areas.

Final thoughts 

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Inequities in public education impact all students. When we are aware of and understand these educational inequities, we can take steps towards positive change and improve student achievement. Embracing equity-focused leadership is one actionable step that all school and school district leaders can take to reduce the impact of these disparities in their own school communities. When we all take small actions consistently, a lot can be accomplished.

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