Using Continuous Improvement to Disrupt Inequity and Promote Deeper Learning
This post is written by Alison Lee, Senior Research Scientist, and Meg Riordan, Director of External Research, at EL Education.
Education has often been championed as "the great equalizer," but persistent opportunity gaps between white students and students of color show that in most schools this promise has yet to be realized. Despite reform attempts, "educational achievement and attainment continue to reflect student background: parent education, access to preschool, childhood nutrition and health, individual and neighborhood poverty, and segregation" rather than schooling practices. Just as problematic is that inequality often becomes internalized and can affect students' sense of themselves and of what they can achieve. Nevertheless, there is hope: research suggests that schools can make a difference in children's life trajectories, both academically and on social-emotional measures, and that continuous improvement is a key element to actualizing more equitable learning experiences.
Two years into EL Education's continuous improvement project to target equity in Crew, we look back to reflect on lessons learned and consider refinements in our final year of the project. We see this learning as generalizable to other organizations and schools engaged in working to disrupt and dismantle systemic inequity.
Looking Back: Designing for Student Ownership and Deeper Learning
Donald Schön, professor and contributor to organizational learning theory, stated that reflective practice is "a dialogue of thinking and doing through which [we] become more skillful." To develop our skills and persist in our own learning, we begin year three of the BELE project by looking back and asking: What did we learn from applying continuous improvement practices to Crew? Below we highlight two important lessons that have emerged thus far.
When teachers listen to students' voices and move towards autonomy and leadership, students develop community and strengthen character.
We know that one way to make learning "relevant to students is to invite them to be a part of creating the curricula." Students' input on design can promote a culture of trust and collaboration, in which students feel free to discuss what is happening in their lives and problem-solve around difficult topics. We saw teachers and students make progress towards this kind of liberating collaboration in our project. The following practices enabled students to lead and cultivate their own social and emotional learning:
- Inviting students to assume leadership of their Crews
- Promoting group cohesion and identity through collaborative projects facilitating activities that build relationships between students and with the Crew leader
- Engaging students in authentic conversations to get to know each other's perspectives
- Enabling openness and trust and effective conflict resolution
For example, the teacher team from Amana Academy in Alpharetta, GA, decided to try having students themselves lead Crews, after noticing that some of the students in their Crews were reporting that they didn't feel accepted or cared for by their fellow Crew members. Amana teachers proposed that if students were given the opportunity to lead Crew, they would feel that they're heard and in turn more connected to their Crew members. Once a week, a different student led a Crew conversation on a real-world socio-cultural topic by setting an agenda with their Crew leader that included sharing a personal artifact or experience. Teachers measured impact by through monthly exit tickets that asked students to report on their sense of belonging, student voice, and willingness to share. Students' perceptions of belonging and willingness to share increased as students assumed a leadership role, and Crew Leaders observed greater student investment and interest in their Crew activities.
When teachers and leaders systematically review and reflect on their own practices in Crew, they're more intentional about how to implement, test, and scale the most effective practices.
Grounding conversations about Crew in student data helped confirm or challenge assumptions teachers and school leaders had about their students' experiences and lifted up learning opportunities. For example, Damon McCord, co-principal at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, NY, remarked, "Having student data has given us some concrete starting places for [equity] conversations--with data, instead of just feelings." Expeditionary Learning Middle School in Syracuse, NY, also took this to heart. They examined their survey data by Crew and identified Crews who had especially high responses to the statement, "Crew gives me the opportunity to reflect on my academic progress and figure out where I can do better." From there, they discussed what academic tracking practices these Crew Leaders were using with their students and decided to scale one of their practices--the use of an academic tracker--to all of their Crews. The use of this tool across all of their Crews, with support from the original Crew Leader, was transformative. Twenty-six percent of their students experienced an increase in their overall GPA from fall to spring!
Another key reflective structure was the BELE Network Convening. School leaders and teachers from all six EL Education schools came together to share insights, compare notes, and celebrate the learning from the second year of the project. The Convening provided a place for cross-pollination of ideas and practices between schools representing different geographical and demographic communities. Leaders "embraced the wisdom" of colleagues. The resulting sense of community and shared growth highlights the power of networks to accelerate improvement.
Looking Ahead: Disrupting Inequitable Systems and Conditions
On reflection, we conclude that teachers and students have made progress toward our original research goals, but we haven't yet answered one central research question: Can Crew be an engine for equity? Despite the potential for this work to directly mitigate gaps in student experiences by subgroups (i.e., gender, race, class, or other demographic factors), teachers did not yet explicitly design interventions with specific subgroups in mind.
Moving into Year 3, we plan to dig more deeply into the experiences of particular groups who experience lower outcomes compared to their peers and implement interventions that directly target levers for improving experiences for these groups of students. We'll do this in three ways:
First, to support teachers in digging into student experiences, particularly for students who experience lower outcomes, teachers will share excerpts of students' survey data with students during Crew. This will serve as an exercise in understanding and norming what belonging, trust, and respect mean, and as a way to learn directly from students what causes inequitable outcomes. This practice promises three exciting outcomes:
- Sharing student data with students shows that teachers are paying deep attention to their survey data, which may incentivize honest responses to future surveys.
- Looking at data with students invites students to flex their skills of data-interpretation and perspective-taking.
- Revising Crew practices in response to data shows students that their voices matter and have the potential to shape their Crew experience for the better--a key driver for deeper belonging.
Second, we plan to provide teachers with research-based practices on equitable teaching in the classroom through webinars featuring external experts from research and design. As teachers implement these strategies, we will help them to continue and strengthen ongoing progress monitoring that will allow them to measure the results of changing an individual practice.
Finally, we aim to strengthen the power of the BELE network by providing greater opportunities for schools to collaborate and advise one another. To do this, we will establish peer learning communities in the form of school pairs, where each school will be able to visit each other's campus, observe Crews in action, and engage in advisories around common problems of practice.
Working alongside teachers and students to conduct and respond to research on belonging is a decisive and collective step toward learning deeply. The BELE project takes students and teachers seriously as learners and researchers. Together, we hope to discover how Crew can be an engine for equity and begin to fulfill education's promise as the great equalizer.
Photo Credit: Katie Schneider