How to use Evidence-Based Education to Improve Equity
What is the state of the art in increasing equity in education today? If you listened to the news, you would think that it is teaching critical race theory to bewildered second graders or mandating the use of nongendered pronouns and clothing in middleschool. While these might be highly visible experiments in equity, there are more concrete (and less controversial) ways that teachers can and are increasing equity in our schools.
“Equity” is a fancy word that in everyday language means “giving people a fair shake no matter what hand they were dealt in life.” So when we say “increasing equity” it means creating a level playing field, it doesn’t mean slowing down anyone born on third base, but it does mean improving the chances of someone who was born in the dugout. Since all children deserve a fair shot at fulfilling their goals and dreams, educators (despite all odds against them) should focus on doing everything they can to help all the children have a fair opportunity in life.
There are various dimensions to equity that observers and researchers have identified. Again, the more visible ones are more talked about but are not necessarily the most important. You can see someone’s face, maybe even how they express their gender identity, but getting a fair shake also has to do with invisible traits like a person’s religion, their immigrant status, and their class.
In the past, attempts to improve equity have been hamstrung by paternalism, bias, and ignorance. Even with the best intentions, we can do more harm than good if we are not conscious of who we are and what we are doing. Recently commentators urge us to reflect on our own societal position (or “positionality”) before we blindly try to “make the world better” for someone else. For instance, someone who speaks standard English might think it was a good thing to correct someone else’s nonstandard English when, without the proper relationship, trust, and permission, this could lead to feelings of shame or even anger and disrupt learning. Becoming aware of what sorts of advantages and disadvantages we ourselves experience in society is an important step to helping others who may be, in some ways, more disadvantaged than us.
The history of education, unfortunately, is a history of fads. From phonics workbooks and TVs in every classroom to smart boards and iPads, educators are constantly reacting to fads. Few if any of these fads actually increase student learning. However, something changed dramatically in the early 2000s. Educational researchers began putting a lot more energy and stock into evidence-based educational research. They began conducting controlled studies of educational interventions and patterns. With these evidence-based interventions, education finally began to have the chance to get off the merry-go-round of fads and start making real progress toward improving student outcomes.
Some of this research has already revealed steps that educators can take to improve equity.
For instance, in the past educators operated on the intuition that learning two languages at once was harder than learning one language, and would leave the student with substandard mastery of both. Recent research has proven the opposite. Now the state of the art is to provide ELL students with tools and learning activities to develop bilingualism and biliteracy: a pattern called additive bilingualism.
Another example of evidence-based equity intervention comes from a researcher named Judith Kleinfeld in Alaska. In the 1980s the schools in Alaska had integrated Inuit and Eskimo students into their white populations and were in crisis. It was not rare to find an aboriginal student weeping or throwing up in the bathroom from overwhelm on the first week of school. The most common symptom of the aboriginal student was going entirely silent in class and refusing to answer questions or talk at all even when addressed directly. Kleinfeld was invited in to the schools to see if she could solve the issue. Kleinfeld quickly realized that there were some teachers that succeeded with aboriginal students, and these Kleifeld identified maintained an attitude that she named “Warm Demander.” These teachers united a high degree of personal warmth and support with a high level of demandingness and expectations for all student performance.
Researchers prove again and again that human beings carry around cognitive and social biases. It is critical to eliminate the effect of these biases in an educational setting. One technique for doing this is Blind Grading — where educators grade work without knowing who completed it. Some research has suggested this is an easy and effective way to eliminate bias from grading and assessment. There is a cognitive bias called the “halo/horns” bias that says that humans are likely to see someone else in terms of the most recent or their first impression of them. For instance, if the first thing I told you about my friend was that he spent 8 years in jail for larceny, you would see everything he did differently than if the first thing I told you was that he has three daughters and is a loving and supportive father. While that may be an extreme example, the “halo/horns” bias is everywhere and literally built into the human brain. By hiding the names of our students on each assignment, educators can turn this bias off. There are also shortcomings to blind grading, like not being able to integrate and connect other experiences with the student with their work, such as seeing a topic from a conversation in office hours show up in an assignment later. It is up to each educator to experiment with these practices and see which ones improve their practice as a teacher.
The focus on equity is itself an evidence-based choice. Multiple papers, including one by the OECD entitled “Equity and Quality in Education, Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools” (2012) have demonstrated that “The highest performing education systems are those that combine equity with quality.” Counter to intuition, the absolute best educational systems are not simply the most selective, grueling, and elitist. They are, like the warm demander, maximizing both quality and equity. It helps all students to succeed when they are in a school that values and takes action to improve equity.
In conclusion, we are at a pivotal moment in equity in education where we can banish the fads and boosterism and instead embrace evidence-based interventions and patterns. Are we going to keep accepting fad after fad, or are educators and principles and parents going to start to demand that each new intervention must first be tested in a controlled study with a randomized and statistically significant set of students before we accept it in our classrooms? I hope so! The education and success of millions, and the continuation of our democracy itself, depends on it.
- “How to Promote Additive Bilingualism over Subtractive Bilingualism in the Classroom” https://www.waterford.org/education/additive-vs-subtractive-bilingualism/
- “Effective Teachers of Eskimo and Indian Students” Judith Kleinfeld, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1084645
- “The Risk of a Halo Bias as a Reason to Keep Students Anonymous During Grading” John M. Malouff, Ashley J. Emmerton, Nicola S. Schutte, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0098628313487425