The struggle for equity in education goes beyond our nation’s living memory. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made painfully clear, we still have a lot of work to do.
In a recent discussion with global education leaders, we have looked carefully at some of the inequitable practices that continue to plague our schools. The conversation was refreshing, raw and relevant to the current situation in our public institutions, highlighting major issues that may not have been considered before.
Below are nine key themes that emerged from our panel, along with some action items to help education leaders enable equitable education in their schools or districts.
1. Bridging the digital divide requires a human-centric approach
Early in the pandemic, schools rushed to provide devices and hotspots to students, responding to concerns about the widening digital divide. We must not allow the flood of technological tools to overshadow the necessary human element of education. Paige Johnson, Vice President of Education Marketing at Microsoftreminds us that we need to keep thinking about how to help all teachers take advantage of the technology that they and their students have received over the past few years.
Schools and districts have prepared action plans, strategies and vision statements on how they can make technology more accessible to all students. While this is essential, Kyle Zimmer, founder of First Book, emphasizes that teachers need to be directly involved in this conversation: “We need the voice of educators at the forefront.” Classroom teachers are in the best position to identify where the main problems lie and where schools should focus their attention.
2. Intentionally used technology can support equitable learning
As we strive to bridge the digital divide, we also need to consider how we use learning technologies. A tool like Microsoft’s Immersive Reader– integrated into many education products, such as Teams, Word and Minecraft Education Edition – can be such a powerful way for a student with dyslexia, for example, to feel connected and participate in classroom conversations.
Technology can also give teachers more time to focus on individual student interests and needs to truly personalize instruction. Apps that quickly aggregate data, making it digestible and actionable for teachers, are the first step in this personalized journey. For instance, Microsoft Reading Progress The tool works to increase reading fluency through individualized assignments for learners, while generating information on correct words per minute, accuracy rates, difficult words and speaking patterns, all of which can enlighten teaching.
3. A one-size-fits-all approach does not advance equity
Dr. Adam Phyall, Director of Technology and Media Services for Newton County Schools in Georgia, offers a great analogy to help us think critically about equity in the classroom: Of his three children, one needs glasses and the other hearing aids. Logically, he bought a pair of glasses and a pair of hearing aids to meet those specific needs, rather than distributing three of each item across the family, in case an unidentified problem arose.
Providing the exact same tool to every student in a school, regardless of their circumstances, does not advance equity; nor is it an efficient use of resources. True equity in education requires that we give every student access to the tools and technologies they individually need to become successful learners.
4. We need to measure the effectiveness of our learning technology
At the start of the pandemic, an assortment of tools were dropped on teachers and schools to help with remote or blended learning. Many of them have not been checked or tested to determine their educational value.
Phyall warns that schools need to regularly evaluate the tools they use and determine their educational net worth: “We have all these tools that are thrown at people, and we spend a lot of money on them. But then we don’t use the very simple things [that help our kids].”
5. Professional learning can lead to positive change
Recently, literacy scores across Mississippi have seen a dramatic increase, moving the state from the bottom of the national rankings to the middle of the pack. Greer Proctor-Dickson, chief executive of Barksdale Reading Institute, acknowledges the role that technology and data have played in this change. However, she attributes much of the success to an investment in human capital.
Through various state grants, she had the funds to create a structure and support network that could help with both the technology element and the literacy work. “A big part of our success was that we built a model, a statewide model, of literacy coaching,” she explains. Leveraging this network of coaches and their embedded relationships with schools across the state, his team quickly pivoted during the pandemic to provide strategy, training and mentorship, initiating a ripple effect of best practices. for teachers and positive outcomes for students.
6. We must consider the child as a whole in each learner
When we look at our current traditional model of education, it just isn’t fair. Providing direct and synchronous instruction on various topics at certain times of the day fails to take into account the diverse learning needs of each student. Technology can play a key role in giving students the opportunity to leverage their interests through authentic projects and providing space for them to showcase their talents.
For Johnson, it’s surprising that a flipped learning model hasn’t really taken off as much as it might have during the pandemic. Giving some students space to learn online and at their own pace became a real possibility briefly, but was not sustained in many cases as students resumed in-person learning. The rush to get back to normal has made us abandon some of the best methods of teaching diversity.
The sad truth is that many students in marginalized settings were not well supported or did not succeed when things were “normal” in pre-pandemic times. We must be careful not to fall back on patterns that reject the holistic view of the learner’s child.
7. Investing in the parent community is essential
We have all seen our world turned upside down by the pandemic. But for many parents, the challenges have been almost insurmountable. Their homes became de facto schools — and they became part-time teachers and tech support reps — when their kids started remote or hybrid learning with school-provided devices in early 2020.
Zimmer stresses the importance of creating an ongoing support pipeline for parents. That means spending time training parents on best practices with home devices. It also means being there to support them in the event of a device malfunction. Additionally, we need to listen to concerns and create feedback loops between school and home.
Prioritizing frictionless experiences for parents and guardians builds trust within the community, facilitates technology integration, and promotes student success.
8. We can leverage technology to increase representation and support diverse interests
“Children who see themselves in books become better readers. They are motivated,” observes Zimmer, commenting on the theme of diversity in library collections. We need to consider this same effect when introducing technology into the learning environment.
We know that some groups of students don’t feel personally connected to many aspects of digital learning and technology. For example, female students traditionally show a sharp decline in interest in coding by the time they get to college. Educators can work to overcome this by creating opportunities for girls to code at an early age. Likewise, they can provide more opportunities for students from traditionally underserved communities to engage in esports and access other interests through technology.
9. It’s all about relationships
We are drowned in data. We are facing a time famine. Teachers are overwhelmed and burnout is a real problem. Not all students have an equitable experience in schools.
Technology is not a panacea, but it can help. It can highlight important learning data from the classroom and empower teachers to act on those results. It can create pathways to creative ideas based on students’ unique interests and perspectives. And that can go a long way to filling identified gaps in students’ learning experiences.
However, the importance of interpersonal relationships should not be overlooked – of coaches mentoring teachers; administrators working side by side with parents; students are valued for who they are and supported across differences in learning needs. Investing in relationships improves opportunities for all learners.
Technology cannot replace human relationships. Relationships are the ultimate key to an equitable education system for all.