As districts across the country prepare for the next school year, educators are rightly concerned about the effects the pandemic is having on the persistent inequities in education. The opportunity gaps for students from historically marginalized communities were significant and well-documented before the pandemic, and early data indicate that remote-only learning without universal technology access and other adequate supports has widened this divide.
During the 2020-2021 school year, Black, Hispanic, and Asian students were more likely than white students to live in districts without an in-person school option and without the critical supports necessary to make remote-only learning successful for all students. Recent research from PACE: Policy Analysis for California Education indicates that COVID-19 related learning impacts have been more severe for certain student groups, including low-income students and English language learners. Without aggressive and bold actions, these students may never catch up.
To lessen the impact of COVID-19, reduce the opportunity gap, and begin a sustained change in addressing these issues, the education community must pursue equity efforts that include evidence-based instruction, progress monitoring, targeted supplemental instruction, and professional development for teachers.
As a digital curriculum company, we at Weld North Education (WNE) have been on a journey to consider how curriculum can begin to address the equity issues that arise in digital learning environments. And that journey began with defining what equity in the context of education means to us.
Equity is what allows individual students to get what they need to be successful.
– Dr. Eric Ruiz Bybee, Assistant Professor at Brigham Young University
While equality aims to provide everyone with the same resources, equity focuses on providing everyone with the right resources for them. “Equity is what allows individual students to get what they need to be successful,” said Dr. Eric Ruiz Bybee, Assistant Professor at Brigham Young University. “Equity is when a student with a learning disability or who is an English Learner is given additional support to meet challenging learning objectives.”
In the context of our work, equity means ensuring that all students have access to what they need to be successful. “In some instances, it means extra supports, and in others, it means instruction that is representative of cultural ways of knowing and learning,” said Danielle Ohm, Senior Content Specialist in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at Weld North Education.
When done well, equity efforts benefit both individual students and their entire community, according to Dr. Maisha T. Winn, Chancellor’s Leadership Professor at University of California, Davis, by “helping students imagine themselves as important community contributors within (and far beyond) classroom walls.”
Not a single curriculum provider can say their materials are perfect. What matters is what is being done to improve them.
– Danielle Ohm, Senior Content Specialist in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Weld North Education
What Influences Equity
While our work focuses on equity issues in curriculum, equity in education operates on many interrelated levels that must be addressed holistically to close opportunity gaps.
The first is equity in funding, which is about how we invest in districts and schools. For decades, educators and activists have advocated for equitable school budgets—developed based on student need—rather than equal. And while there has been some recent movement to bring equity to the public school budget process, the reality is that school funding is often both inequitable and unequal—resulting in increased investment in students with existing advantages.
The second is equity in resources, which includes access to technology, digital devices, wireless internet, and other essential tools necessary to learn. As all of these materials cost money, inequitable funding makes it nearly impossible for many districts to deliver equitable resources to their students.
Research shows that the past year both highlighted and deepened the disparities in both funding and resourcing. Although districts stepped up efforts to distribute devices, connect students to the internet, and formalize benchmarks for remote instruction, by fall 2020 Black and Hispanic households were still “three to four percentage points less likely than white households to have reliable access to devices, and three to six percentage points less likely to have reliable access to the internet.”
The third is equity in instruction, which is an area of focus for our work at Weld North Education. This includes having highly trained and effective teachers, curriculum, and instructional materials that are appropriate, challenging, and culturally resonant.
Like many companies offering digital curriculum, we have seen an uptick in questions around instructional equity and addressing bias in our materials. “Not a single curriculum provider can say their materials are perfect,” said Ohm. “What matters is what is being done to improve them.” At WNE, we have adopted a rigorous and continuous process to evaluate all our curriculum and make sure it aligns with equitable instructional practices, so we can provide all students with materials that are relevant to their lens and way of life.
Our work is informed by the principles outlined in Universal Design for Learning, which focus on ensuring all students get what they need in the way that they need it, and asset-based pedagogies, which consider individual differences—in language, culture, thought, and other traits and ways of knowing—assets that can be leveraged to make learning more relevant and effective. Ohm explains, “In a classroom where teachers have 25-40 students, creating individual pathways is difficult.” Digital curriculum can help bridge that gap. “Teachers have innumerable opportunities to personalize instruction and provide equitable learning opportunities with digital curriculum,” Ohm said. “By being offered multiple means of communication and representation and through the use of features like translations and audio options, students are able to engage with learning materials in the way that’s most meaningful for them.”
The process of building more equitable instructional materials is iterative, and it will never be finished. “We’re agile in a way that textbooks aren’t,” Ohm said. “We have the ability to effect change right away.” And while it’s only one piece of the equity puzzle, the ability to tailor curriculum to a student’s specific experiences and contexts is powerful.
To further our equity efforts, we have established an internal Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Council and launched the first Weld North Education DEI Advisory Board.
The WNE DEI Council is comprised of employees across the company and members of senior leadership, and aims to connect DEI initiatives and activities to our broader business strategy and work toward our commitment to create a highly diverse, inclusive, and effective work environment. The Council will help create accountability for results, provide governance and oversight on diversity efforts, and promote company-wide communications on progress.
The DEI Advisory Board’s current members—Dr. Eric Ruiz Bybee, Dr. Joseph Flynn, Dr. Monisha Bajaj, and Dr. Heather Kertyzia—use their extensive expertise in teacher education, culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy, and multicultural curriculum to review and provide ongoing feedback on Weld North Education curriculum and products.
Where To Focus Next
With so much work still to be done, we are also thinking strategically about how to further equity efforts in our schools and communities. To support communities still affected by the pandemic and families who are hesitant to return to in-person learning, equity means continued access to virtual learning. A new poll released by the National Parents Union, an education advocacy organization, found that “the majority of parents value having a choice between in-person and remote with 56% saying they want both options to be provided next year.” To reduce the opportunity gap for historically marginalized communities, districts must provide quality virtual learning opportunities.
For educators on this journey, there are many resources to help guide explorations and conversations about instructional equity.
The Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford has built the first national database that measures and tracks educational opportunity in every community in the United States, helping educators understand the opportunity gaps in their community. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Instructional Practice Guide for Equitable Teaching & Learning series offers practical guidance on how to incorporate universal instruction practices into K-12 mathematics instruction. And the National School Boards Association’s Reimagining School Board Leadership: Actions for Equity provides guidance to school boards seeking to “reimagine and redesign systems for learning.”
Achieving equity in education is an enormous—but not impossible—pursuit. With a clear understanding of the work to be done, a multilayered strategy for addressing equity on every level, and innovative, research-informed tools for putting equity models into practice, we can accelerate equity efforts in our classrooms, schools, and communities.