By Casey R. Ahner
Equity in education provides the foundation of every student’s success. When educators focus on cultivating a classroom that truly adapts to every child’s background and needs, we can begin to close the gap between opportunity and achievement. However, it’s not just up to educators to make equity happen in every classroom.
Schools and districts are put to the test when trying to find a solution to treating all students the same. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) outlines responsibility for districts and states to ensure equity in a variety of ways, such as documenting resource gaps, using multiple measures to assess student and school performance and progress, and designing standards that develop higher-order thinking skills. Even with laws like these in place, students still struggle to keep up. Here are three ways that schools can help.
1) Equity Means no Exceptions
One way to get started refocusing efforts on equity at your school begins in the classroom. As the director of instructional support for Los Lunas Schools, a professional learning community in New Mexico, I tell my staff that it’s up to every one of them to ensure high levels of learning for all students. And to us, all means all, from English language learners (ELLs) to students of color to low-income students to students with disabilities.
In our school, all teams’ work is done collaboratively with a focus on student learning, not teaching. Teachers begin by identifying the essential learning targets that students must understand to create “I Can” statements. It’s important to take the time to understand students’ strengths and needs. By doing this, we can guarantee their needs are met and produce evidence of learning. Each team organizes their team minutes, team notes, essential standards, rubrics, scoring agreements, assessment maps, and proficiency maps, as well as evidence of student learning, in their own way. Some use binders, while others use Google Drive or the “collaborate” feature of Apple apps. Ultimately, every student will keep this information in the school’s data room. This allows other teams to access to assist in vertical alignment and planning.
Our collaborative teams clarify what a proficient student looks like. We use proficiency and other factors to pace the guaranteed and viable curriculum. Teachers then create Common Formative Assessments (CFAs). From there, educators continue formatively assessing students and responding with either intervention or extension. Students who require extra time will never miss what has been deemed essential and important for individual success.
2) First Languages Come First
Most schools can agree that language can be a serious barrier between students, parents, and teachers. In the classroom, it’s so important for students to have access to resources that allow them to read and write in their first language. This empowers ELLs to learn at a pace that’s comfortable and appropriately challenging for them, while staying on track with their classmates.
ELLs are not only learning a new language; they’re learning new topics and ideas in the classroom all at once. Our dual-language classes provide an equitable environment with resources such as PebbleGo, which offers the option to read to students at the K-2 level in Spanish or English. On top of this, we’ve also adopted the Journeys reading program and use the Sendaros component, a comprehensive Spanish Reading and Language Arts program, as well as the Spanish version of the EnVision math program.
These tools give students access to information in their home language in ways that were previously unavailable. During a research project last year, I witnessed a student most comfortable with English and a student most comfortable in Spanish paired to work together. The two students had a copy of the same biography to research, one in English, the other in Spanish. This allowed each student to read in the language they were most comfortable in, while still being able to participate fully with the assignment. As they read to each other, they started to learn a little about each other’s culture while discussing academic vocabulary meanings and context.
3) Connect Learning to Real Life
Ultimately, welcoming equity into schools starts when we accept every student for the different backgrounds, challenges, and life experiences they bring to the classroom. We can provide equitable learning for all when we connect school learning to students’ real life experiences and guarantee that ALL means ALL.
Casey R. Ahner is the director of instructional support for Los Lunas Schools. He started as a special education teacher for 5th– and 6th-grade students for eight years. After that, he was an elementary counselor, assistant principal, and principal. He is a Solution Tree associate and you can contact him at CAhner@llschools.net.
The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.