Equity in Education: Student- and Family-Centered Approaches
By Dr. Laura Latta, M.Ed., Ph.D., Director of Post-Secondary Partnerships & Research
This is the third installment in the ImpactTulsa multi-part series, Equity in Education.
The first installment of the equity series, Defining Equity, Equality, and Standardization, discusses the conceptual differences between equality and equity. The second post, Equity and Standardization: Are they Compatible? explores the history of equality, equity, and standardization in the public education system. This post highlights research about schools and their practices that promote equitable and personalized education for all students.
History reveals that throughout the formation of the public education system, students and families of color have been largely excluded from the decision-making that has shaped the way that the current system functions. This becomes especially apparent as one considers that in the 384 year history of public education, people of color have only been able to freely access public education for 17% of the time that schools have existed in America. Access is emphasized because Brown vs. Board of Education (1954- just 66 years ago), prompted the end of segregation in schools but did not ensure that families of color could participate in decision-making processes at the school, district, state, and federal levels.
It is important to note that though no one alive today created the public education system, it is everyone’s responsibility to address inequities in the system, give power to those who have been historically excluded, and make it more equitable for all students and families. It is also very important to understand that the decisions that are made today create the public education system that impacts both current and future generations of students.
In a 2018 Education Post special called Getting Real About Education: A Conversation with Black Parents, Teachers, and Students, various perspectives about how the modern education system excludes students and families of color are captured in a focus group-style vlog series. Chicago mother and blogger Marilyn Rhames explains, “our [African American] voices have been drowned out over the years.” Personal accounts of how major school decisions are made without consideration for families’ perspectives shed light on why many teachers, students, and families of color feel disempowered in the public education system. The videos are challenging to watch and provide an urgent call for the reconstruction of the power dynamic in schools, granting more power to families, teachers, and those who are most closely connected with the community.
The call for equity in school decision-making is supported by a WestEd study completed in 2014. Researchers Sonia Claus Gleason and Nancy Gerzon sought to identify exemplary Title 1 schools that provided an authentically equitable education program for every single student as evidenced by all students in the school achieving high academic outcomes (outperforming the state achievement average). After searching the entire country for exemplary schools, the researchers identified four schools in Texas, California, Vermont, and Tennessee. Of the four schools, two included a majority of students of color with the largest student populations identifying as Black/African American or Latinx/Hispanic.
Upon studying the practices of school leaders, teachers, families, and students within the schools, the researchers noticed that there were some common practices and behaviors that promoted equity most effectively within these schools. The following list captures the common characteristics of these schools where all students were provided a personalized and equitable education. These practices can be replicated in any school.
- There was a school-wide emphasis on equity.
The most consistent finding among each of the four schools highlighted in the WestEd study was that the concept of equity was central in every school meeting, conversation, and decision-making process. Gleason (2014) explained, “Equity is the fundamental value exhibited by these schools.” The researchers explained that students in the schools were not just known by their teachers, they were known and supported by many, meaning that every person in the school community (including families, community members, and volunteers) had an intrinsic motivation to support and participate in the education of every child.
Rather than making assumptions about students’ backgrounds, teachers and school staff built close relationships with families and sought to understand the interests, backgrounds, and cultures of every student. In terms of instruction, the researchers noted that there was “very little whole-class teaching [in favor of small group work], no mixed expectations, no grading on a curve or teachers working in isolation,” (WestEd, 2014). Students worked in flexible groupings and instruction was adapted and differentiated based on the needs of each student.
- In an effort to personalize instruction for students, school leaders personalized professional development for teachers.
School leaders at the four WestEd study schools realized that if they expected teachers to personalize education for each of their students, they should first be given opportunities to experience personalized professional development and learning. Professional Development in the focus schools was ongoing throughout the year and responsive, tailored to the expressed needs of the educators within the professional learning community (PLC).
- Leadership and support systems in the school helped to keep equity and continuous improvement as a priority
Regular communication and collaboration within the staff PLC helped to ensure that teachers were improving together. Additionally, families and community members were included in the school support systems. Regular communication with these groups increased the visibility of families and community members and elevated their perspectives and voices in the daily school context.
- Rather than relying on year-end assessments to capture student learning, teachers used formative assessments to gauge student growth
It may be easy to look at year-end test data as a measure of student mastery and success, however, this one-point-in-time snapshot does not provide an accurate picture of a student’s growth over time. Student growth and achievement in the four WestEd study schools was measured over time with formative assessments that took place at many timepoints throughout the entire school year. By using an ongoing measure of growth, teachers were able to personalize their instruction, communicate with students about their learning, and modify their instruction based on student needs in real time.
A few other recommended best practices to ensure that equity is a focus in schools:
- When looking at student data, ensure that the data is disaggregated (broken into parts) by race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and other student characteristics. When data are disaggregated, it allows disparities across group outcomes to become more apparent so that inequitable practices can be addressed and changed (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2016).
- In every situation, school leaders and staff members ask themselves, “who has a seat at the decision making table and who is missing?” If there are perspectives missing from that table (i.e. parents, students, individuals of color), equity-focused leaders ensure that groups are brought into the conversation and included in decisions that will affect students.
- School leaders, staff, and community members should define and talk about equity on a regular basis. There are a variety of resources like the National Equity Project (2020) that can be helpful for facilitating these conversations.
Stay tuned for the next installment in the equity series: Advocating for Equity in a Standardized School System.
Annie E. Casey Foundation (2016). By the numbers: A race for results case study. Retrieved from
Education Post (2018). Getting real about education: A conversation with Black parents,
teachers, and students. Retrieved from
Gleason, S. C., & Gerzon, N. (2014). Equity-focused schools carry all students to high levels. In
WestEd R & D Alert, 15 (1), 1-3.
National Equity Project (2020). Retrieved from https://nationalequityproject.org/.
U.S. Department of Education (2018). Improving basic programs operated by local educational
agencies (Title 1, Part A). Retrieved from