Three Strategies to Help States Elevate Educational Equity

Image of teacher with mask kneeling to help student in mask

The national drive toward equity in education is grounded in the belief that our school systems must offer all students a real chance to succeed and should do so in ways that reflect an understanding of individual and group culture, circumstances, needs, and challenges. Despite decades of systemic reform initiatives and funding dedicated to creating equity for all students, persistent achievement and opportunity gaps continue to plague our nation’s education system.

In fall 2019, the U.S. Department of Education awarded AIR funding to operate comprehensive centers for Region 1 (serving New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont) and Region 9 (serving Illinois and Iowa), as well as subcontracts in three other regions.

Comprehensive centers provide essential technical assistance to states in support of high-priority education initiatives. In the first year, AIR worked with these states to launch 13 projects to improve educational services for underserved students.

While the road to achieving equity in education has always been challenging, the COVID-19 global pandemic has further complicated these efforts. There is concern that achievement and opportunity gaps between underserved student groups and their peers have widened, as their education has been disrupted. At the same time, the social unrest related to racial injustices has highlighted longstanding disparities that profoundly impact outcomes for our nation’s youth. These circumstances have prompted many educators to pledge to double down on equity efforts. What’s the best way to go about this?

Through AIR’s work with eight states as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Comprehensive Centers program, we are learning more about which strategies are showing promise. Here are three.

  1. Prioritize meaningful and ongoing engagement from a broad and diverse group of stakeholders.
  2. Analyze the right data, mapped to essential problem-solving questions, to identify and address root causes of persistent equity-related challenges.
  3. Understand how policy decisions, program support, and resource allocations provide advantages to some communities or create barriers for others.

These equity-centered strategies have the potential to build the courage, relationships, and skills of educators and community members to help all students thrive, improve schools and school systems, and address pressing educational problems.

Below are three examples of how states, in partnership with AIR, are using these strategies to increase equity in three critical areas of education.

Improving the Educator Workforce

Effective teachers significantly influence student success, yet underserved student groups are more likely to have unqualified, less experienced, and less effective teachers. And as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, the need for effective educators is greater than ever, especially for the most vulnerable student groups.

Four of the states—Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, and Massachusetts—that AIR works with through the comprehensive centers have undertaken work to improve the effectiveness of their educator workforce. To better understand the scope of the issue and how to address it, AIR helped education leaders in these states engage stakeholders in an intentional and meaningful way, such as through focus groups, interviews, and surveys. With so many options for data to analyze, AIR worked with states to narrow the focus, using data from school climate surveys and educator preparation programs to understand which factors may be affecting recruitment, training, and retention of the teacher workforce.

AIR also helped states consider how state, regional, and local policies, programs, and resource allocations may help or hinder the educator workforce. For example, the Iowa Equitable Access to Quality Instruction project integrates equitable instructional strategies and practices to increase student engagement and achievement. In Massachusetts, a project called Assessing Literacy Instruction in Educator Preparation Programs and K-3 Classrooms promotes evidence-based practices for early literacy instruction to establish a more equitable educational foundation for students statewide.

Advancing Postsecondary Outcomes

Despite a growing demand for postsecondary education and training across economic sectors, not all students, and particularly historically underserved groups of students, graduate ready for postsecondary success. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are working to improve students’ postsecondary trajectories, particularly those in low-income and rural communities.

Education leaders in New Hampshire and Vermont are considering ways to create more coherent education-to-workforce systems. The two states are using AIR’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool that layers data to visually map access to and use of specific services, funding, programs, and other resources. The GIS tool and AIR’s stakeholder engagement process help states identify geographic areas or specific communities that may be disproportionally affected by policy decisions.

Maine educators, in partnership with AIR, are redesigning postsecondary pathway supports to decrease gaps in academic, technical, and employability skills between low-income and rural students and their peers.

Responding to Inequities Exacerbated by COVID-19

As COVID-19 led to school closures across the nation, educators had to establish virtual learning structures and supports, often with little notice or planning time. Projects in four states have involved rapid turnaround of services to help states address emerging equity-focused needs.

AIR worked with New Hampshire to quickly organize a Return to School Taskforce that designed a reopening plan to ensure educators were ready to support the needs of diverse students, particularly those who are underserved. The taskforce activities included a robust statewide survey of various stakeholders, an advisory group to help guide recommendations, and reports to help districts implement equitable reopening plans. Massachusetts education leaders used AIR’s GIS tool to map social vulnerability index data, examining how CARES Act funding is being leveraged to support low-performing schools’ needs.

In Maine, AIR supported the state’s design of its Rethinking K-12 Education Models application for a federal grant to support state responses to COVID-19 challenges. Illinois, with ongoing support from AIR, established “Race in Education” roundtable discussions that give diverse stakeholders, including local practitioners, a safe space to discuss how race disparities affect equity in education. AIR also provided fast response resources to give states and districts access to the latest research on mitigating the impacts of COVID-19.

Looking Ahead

As the 2020-21 school year progresses, AIR’s comprehensive center work will continue to build and increase states’ capacity to tackle these pervasive issues to increase equity in education and minimize achievement and opportunity gaps exacerbated by COVID-19. Applying the three equity-centered strategies to launch projects in Year 1—engaging diverse stakeholders; analyzing the right data for the right questions; and understanding the effects of policy decisions, program support, and resource allocations—positions states to make long-term systemic changes that will give all students a “real” chance to succeed.

AIR has operated Comprehensive Centers since the inception of the program in 2005. Learn more about our current and past work.