Defining equity inside and outside of schools: How district leaders can listen to their communities to improve equity
There’s a dynamic shift happening in how schools define and work toward educational equity.
In the past, equity has focused largely on race and socioeconomic status. Today we’re seeing a greater focus on inclusivity, fairness, and cultural competency for everyone.
Ultimately, educational equity is about making sure your school district is affirming students’ experiences and identities. In doing so, you can build trust, create equitable and safe spaces, and drive student success.
Many educators are taking small, meaningful actions to help improve equity in their schools and help students embrace diversity. This includes safe zones for LGBTQ+ students and classroom libraries featuring diverse authors.
However, there’s often a gap of understanding in communities about what equity means. This makes it hard to know if you’re doing everything you can to help all students and families feel like they belong in your school district, especially when your community isn’t on the same page.
As head of research at K12 Insight, the first question I always ask when discussing equity with a district superintendent is, “Do your stakeholders know what equity means?”
It sounds simple, right? Especially if you work in education, you have a fair understanding of what equity means for your district. However, as a leader, you also need to address the gap between your understanding of equity and the understanding your stakeholders have of equity.
We often hear about a parent who reacts negatively when equity efforts are proposed because they think it will negatively impact their child or family. However, when I ask parents to describe how we should support specific groups of students — such as students with disabilities, English learners, students with different religious backgrounds and the LGBTQ+ community — they often describe a need for equity without using the term.
When we survey stakeholders in communities about the concept and definitions of equity, they support it. The hesitation lies in the word “equity” because they don’t fully understand what it means and sometimes associate it with taking away from one group of students to provide more to another group.
Once we define the “what,” we can move onto the “why.” If you can get your community on the same page about what equity truly means, it becomes easier to implement changes and make improvements.
The next step to achieving equity in schools is simple: Listen to your stakeholders.
Listening to students, families, teachers, and staff is an essential part of improving overall equity in schools. You need to understand the experiences and perceptions of your community before you can improve it.
One of the best ways to listen to your community is through a research-backed equity survey. Do parents feel all students have equitable access and opportunity to succeed? Does your district distribute resources equitably? How do students feel like they are being treated? Is the district and its schools welcoming to all families, students, and staff? These are tough questions that can give you important insights on how people perceive equity in your school district.
As a researcher, I start equity surveys by defining what equity is and what it is not to ensure every stakeholder is on the same page about what we mean. We ask them to keep that definition in mind as they answer each question.
Then, once you have your survey data, you can dive into the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of your stakeholders on how the district, its leadership, and the teachers and staff value and promote equitable practices. It’s also key to take a deep dive into the data and disaggregate results by demographics, such as different academic backgrounds, cultures, economic backgrounds, genders, languages, races and ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations, to get a better understanding of the big picture and small pictures of equity.
By listening to your community, you can identify areas to invest time and resources —such as anti-bias training or new school policies. Asking for feedback through an equity-focused survey also helps you learn how to communicate better about the purpose and intentions behind your district’s work on promoting more equitable practices and communicating that equity is more than just a buzzword in your district, as well as allowing your community to understand why this type of work is important.
Improving equity in your schools starts with understanding and listening. By better understanding the perceptions and experiences of your students, families and community, you can take meaningful action to improve and achieve equity.
Dr. Jennifer Coisson is the Head of Research at K12 Insight. She has extensive experience in education research, including college and career readiness; diversity, equity, and inclusion; employee and student engagement; school quality; strategic planning; and superintendent searches. She earned a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Florida Atlantic University.