What do we know about designing schools for equity?

Modern schools are designed so that all students can thrive. This is actually a huge departure from the traditional system, which designed schools to weed out the smart kids from the less smart. Designing modern schools for these very different expectations does not happen by accident. It doesn’t happen by talking about it or having hopeful mission statements. Designing schools where all students can be successful happens by paying careful attention to designing with equity. The word “equity” gets thrown around a lot, so it is helpful to have a common definition. The National Equity Project uses this one:

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.

So, what does this look like in practice? How do schools that are designing for equity put this definition in to action? These nine cornerstones are guides for translating ideas to practice.

  1. Recognize the broader purpose and goals of education. Learning is not just academics. Yes, we want students to be able to read and do math, but the larger purpose of an education is social and economic opportunity, mobility, democratic participation, freedom, and equality. Schools designed for equity recognize these broader outcomes. They include them in their definitions of student success, and they integrate them into learning experiences and environments. In other words the process of learning itself reflects and promotes agency, freedom, and equality.
  2. Promote accountability and transparency. You’ve probably heard the adage that knowledge is power, right? This is true in schools, too. When students and families have access to information about student learning, progress and pace are transparent, they are empowered to have agency and to be advocates.
  3. Invest in continuous improvement. Why is this an equity strategy, you wonder? Because at its core continuous improvement is a commitment to never giving up. Schools that practice continuous improvement are schools that take responsibility for adjusting instruction, student supports, and all other aspects of a school’s daily operations so that every student can succeed.  
  4. Prioritize belonging and inclusion. Research shows that students need to feel belonging and emotional support to learn best. Research also shows that cross-cultural competency is becoming increasingly important to citizenship and just about every career. Schools designed for equity are intentional about fostering multicultural inclusion so students can learn best today, and be competitive on the global market tomorrow.
  5. Engage in community participation and empowerment. Schools designed for equity go beyond “engagement.” They work with families and community members as partners: partners in the school design process, partners in creating student learning experiences and environments, and partners in continuous improvement.
  6. Invest in adult culture and development. Schools designed for equity make sure that their staff reflects the community they serve, that staff culture is inclusive and multicultural, and that staff have the mindsets and skills to be culturally competent.
  7. Confront historical and institutional oppression. The first step in overcoming institutionalized inequality is to acknowledge that it exists. Then, to figure out how it operates and where it still “lives” in policies, systems, and practices. Then, to dismantle it and finally to create alternatives. Schools designed for equity recognize, validate, dismantle, and replace the remnants of historical, institutionalized oppression.
  8. Allocate resources through an equity lens. Equality means giving each person the same thing. Equity means giving each person what they need. Students who have been traditionally marginalized or underserved may need additional (or different) resources to thrive. Resources can mean time, teachers, money, supports, and a whole host of others. Schools designed for equity make sure students have what they need to thrive.
  9. Ensure equal access and opportunity. Schools designed for equity never track students. And, they take proactive efforts to help traditionally underrepresented students access rigorous, high value learning opportunities.

Questions to Consider

  • What does the National Equity Project’s definition of equity mean to you? What would this look like in your school or district?
  • What do data and stakeholder feedback suggest to you about the current status of equity in your school or district? Using a root cause analysis, what systems, structures, or policies might be contributing to these findings?
  • Reflect on the nine equity cornerstones. To what extent are these reflected in your school or district? Which might be important starting points for action?
  • Where and how is your school or district successful in promoting equity today? How can you build on this success?
  • Where and how is your school or district impeding equity? What systems or structures need to be mitigated or adjusted?