Quality Design Principle #2: Commit to Equity

“We aren’t just trying to close the achievement gap. That’s using a deficit model. When we started designing the school, we wanted to have a place where students discover the things that make them special. In this way, we are recognizing students as assets and affirming their creativity and intelligence…something that a lot of schools fail to do.”

– David Weinberg, Principal, EPIC High School North, New York City Department of Education in 2014


A culture of equity starts with conviction that every child can learn at high levels in conjunction with a commitment to meeting all students where they are with timely supports. A culture of equity supports these aims by prioritizing fairness. Fairness tells us that each person receives what they need to succeed, whereas equality tells us that each person receives the same as everyone else. A culture of equity takes root in trusting relationships that demonstrate respect and support dialogue, reflection and learning. Districts and schools pursuing equity design to ensure that each student’s needs are met and embed culturally responsive approaches to promote belonging. Continuous improvement efforts and professional communities of practice root out bias and institutional practices that contribute to inequity.

Key Characteristics

  • Commit to all students succeeding. Districts and schools articulate a comprehensive definition of student success and commitment to ensuring all students can achieve this success. Furthermore, they put into place structural and pedagogical systems that support students equitably and use continuous improvement to adjust systems that are not effective.
  • Create inclusive multicultural schools. Schools honor and respect each individual: their personal, cultural, historical and community identities. They foster greater empathy and understanding between community members. They make cultures and languages of power explicit, simultaneously helping students navigate them and working to make a more inclusive community. Diversity is not just touted as a matter of representation, but also leveraged to improve performance. The perspectives most likely to be marginalized are actively sought and integrated into school decision-making to generate new practices and innovations.
  • Address bias. Districts and schools recognize that all forms of inequity—racism, classism, ability, gender, orientation, religious discrimination and others—live in the individual and collective consciousness of community members. Individual teachers, leaders and students are supported to investigate and address their own biases.
  • Interrupt inequitable practice. Districts and schools recognize that inequity lives not only in individual bias, but also in the structures and policies that make these biases operable and enduring. They seek to eradicate systemic barriers to equity including resource allocation and policies.

How Is a Commitment to Equity Related to Quality?

The pursuit of quality and the pursuit of equity have a reciprocal and reinforcing relationship. Equity is a moral imperative that pushes relentlessly to achieve greater equality for all. It is both a set of strategies that help students be fully supported by schools and a commitment to continually adjust practice and improve to help every student succeed. Quality is an imperative for effectiveness that drives equity by promoting instructional strategies grounded in the learning sciences, organizational agility to respond to student learning and consistency in determining proficiency. Operating together, quality and equity help districts and schools move past rhetoric about all students achieving and move closer to making this reality.

When designing for equity, it is important that individual strategies are coherent and reinforced by energetic continuous improvement efforts. To emphasize this point, consider what might happen if equity strategies are not aligned and robust. If a school attempts to promote equity by meeting students where they are but does not also have critical data and support structures to ensure that every student has the right resources, and is making appropriate progress toward proficiency, inequity may be exacerbated. Or, if a school makes the shift toward personalized competency-based education but does not support teachers to moderate their understanding of what it means to be proficient or to unpack their biases, teachers may wind up unintentionally tracking and sorting students on learning pathways with differing levels of rigor.

As part of the 2017 National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, participants looked deeply at the issue of equity and what would be needed to ensure that competency-based education led to improvements in equitable achievement. This definition of educational equity developed by the National Equity Project was selected to guide discussion on equity as it powerfully reminds us that to reach equity, states, districts, schools, educators and communities must work at three levels: systemically, organizationally within schools and classrooms, and as individuals.

According to the National Equity Project:

Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential. Working toward equity in schools involves:

Ensuring equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system; removing the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor;

Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases and creating inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children; and

Discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests that every human possesses.

Please note, referring to students’ “potential” runs the risk of reinforcing a fixed mindset or notions that students have a predetermined amount of potential, some having more or less than others. Alternatively, “potential” can be understood in a more aspirational way, pushing us to look beyond what students have accomplished to date to focus instead on what more is possible. It is not for educators to determine potential, but to help students discover and reach their own.

The following ten cornerstones of equity-oriented practice aligned to the National Equity Project’s definition delves into how to create an equitable competency-based system. The intersection with the quality principles are numerous, including purpose-driven, transparency, consistency, inclusive cultures and educators as learners. In fact, equity is such an important aspect of creating effective competency-based systems a companion report that looks deeply at these key design principles, Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed, has been prepared to fully explore this issue.

Commit to All Students Succeeding

  • Recognize broader goals and purpose of education. Alongside academic competency, equity-oriented systems prioritize college and career competencies and skills for lifelong learning. They recognize student agency as an important learning outcome and seek to ensure that students have the knowledge and skills to make meaningful choices about college, career and life.
  • Promote accountability and transparency. All aspects of the learning experience—especially progress, pace, and proficiency—are explicit and accessible to students and families to empower informed decision making and continuous improvement.
  • Invest in continuous improvement. Equity oriented systems respond and adapt to students to ensure every student’s needs are met.

Create Inclusive Multicultural Schools

  • Prioritize belonging and inclusion. Learning experiences reflect and validate students’ personal and cultural identities and experiences. They promote awareness and empathy across these backgrounds and actively support positive cultural identity development.
  • Engage in community participation and empowerment. Beyond transactional engagement, equity-oriented systems validate, elevate and integrate community voices in all aspects of design, implementation and improvement. They proactively and respectfully seek to include the voices of communities who have been historically excluded.

Address Bias

  • Invest in adult culture and development. Districts, schools and educators commit to ongoing examination of beliefs and biases that may be affecting education and opportunities for students of color and other historically oppressed groups. They promote a strengths-based approach, equitably high expectations for all, and the belief that all students are capable of achieving high levels of academic success.

Interrupt Inequitable Practice

  • Confront historical and institutional oppression. Equity-oriented systems recognize, validate and seek to dismantle to the dynamics of historical and institutional racial and socioeconomic oppression.
  • Address disparities in resources, supports, care and expectations. Equity-oriented systems provide these supports to students, and perhaps also to families, to ensure all have equal foundations for success, and the resources and opportunities to build on their natural strengths and abilities.
  • Ensure equal access and opportunity. Equity-oriented systems never sort or track students based on perceived ability. Further, they address previous patterns of sorting and tracking by proactively creating opportunities and ensuring that marginalized students receive the supplemental resources necessary to access, engage and achieve success in rigorous learning opportunities.
  • Allocate resources through an equity lens. Equity-oriented systems allocate and invest resources through an equity rather than an equality lens, focusing on need and accounting for historical practices of underinvestment and oppression.

The only way to ensure every student is fully ready for college, career and life is to identify and remove systematic barriers to equitable outcomes, eradicate inequitable practices and ensure all students can access relevant, effective and empowering learning experiences. Individually, we must each take responsibility for uncovering, unpacking and addressing the biases that we carry consciously and unconsciously in our hearts and minds.

In short, achieving equity is the result of action. And furthermore, it is not piecemeal action—it is strategic and coordinated action. We recognize that this is an ongoing challenge for individuals, organizations and systems. This work cannot be done all at once, and it will not happen overnight. The key is to know where we have come from and where we want to go and to have a plan to engage and sustain others along the way.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • The school or district’s vision expresses a commitment to ensure every student succeeds, supported by an analysis of which students and subgroups are and are not succeeding in terms of growth and grade-level proficiency.
  • Students describe having strong relationships with their teachers and that they feel respected and supported in discovering positive identities and their potential. Students often articulate a sense of belonging and describe their school or classroom as a family.
  • The school/district engages stakeholders in decisionmaking and proactively seeks out stakeholders who have been previously marginalized.
  • Intentional efforts to identify bias and patterns of inequity within professional learning communities and through management reports.

Examples of Red Flags

Student skill or motivation at one point in time is misinterpreted as their potential. The goal to have all students succeed is a commitment to equity. Districts and schools pledge to do whatever it takes to ensure that students have opportunities to pursue college and work upon graduation. Although some may choose to pursue trades or go immediately to work after graduation, it is likely that at some point they will want to pursue either college or postsecondary training to access higher wage jobs. When schools determine that students are not “college material” too early and fail to ensure they have the skills they need to enter college without remediation, they are at risk of failing to support students in discovering their potential. Certainly, they are at risk of breaking the social compact with students and families.

Grouping students around academic need has slipped into grouping by perceived ability level. Flexible grouping is a strategy used to better meet the needs of students based on their own learner continuum rather than delivering one curriculum to all students. This can be a highly effective practice, allowing teachers to organize instruction through a student-centered lens. However, this practice can easily slip back into tracking if students are grouped based on their perceived ability and held to different expectations accordingly. Tracking has proven to be ineffective and to replicate inequity. Thus, it is important for schools to use flexible grouping carefully, to balance homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping strategically, and to regroup often. Most importantly, monitor that students are showing growth and able to advance upon demonstrated mastery.

Learning is “culturally relevant” but not rigorous. When teachers initially build skills in culturally responsive practices, they might introduce symbolic efforts yet fail to use the learning sciences to design robust learning environments and experiences. However, culturally relevant strategies require rigorous learning experiences based on high expectations. An effective practice is to “tune” learning experiences by having a set of criteria and review by other teachers to strengthen the initial designs.

Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

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