Years ago, in my first school, I walked into my classroom of high-needs students—a group of high-energy, disorderly second- and third-graders—that the school leaders didn’t know how to manage. The classroom was away from the core of the school, down a long corridor with the Title I room. But it was the first time the school had acknowledged these students’ needs, and by putting money toward a new teacher with a degree in counseling (me), the administration expected problems would be solved.
Their plan didn’t work. The bigger problem, of course, was that their idea of equity was spending money, not enabling real engagement, to make a difference.
We know now that equity isn’t simply a measure of access defined by dollars being spent. To truly achieve a system that is equitable for all students, a school needs a wide array of professionals and resources working together to meet the individual needs of each student. The Learning First Alliance has produced “The Elements of Success,” a compendium that redefines equity according to the recommendations of a wide range of school-based professionals and parents who have built successful schools. By studying these schools, we have found six key elements that need to be in place to help each child:
What is unique in the elements of success is that successful schools do not implement a formula; rather, they analyze their school’s assets, their students’ needs, and what elements they need to expand. As each child is different, so is each school—with strengths and weaknesses that take professional knowledge to recognize. How schools use these elements makes the difference in seeing equity as impacting each child, not simply seeing the child as part of a group. Achieving equity, then, is applying all of these elements in unique combinations for each child with the result being that the children reach their potential. To be clear, resources are important, and far too many schools have too few resources. But where resources do exist, the most important factor is how those resources are used.
At district and building levels, we have seen examples of teachers and administrators using the six elements to identify what they need to help each child. For example, technology is understood to be an important part of effective schools. Yet, equity isn’t simply having a machine for each student. It is taking all of the elements of success, and seeing that equity means giving teachers and administrators professional learning to understand how to integrate the technology into effective instruction and for communities to have bandwidth available for all students, even when they are out of school. Similarly, if a school thinks that it is being effective by focusing only on reading and writing, the school too will find that it hasn’t used the lessons of the elements. Successful schools must also have relationship-oriented school climates with strong and supported teachers and staff who see that social emotional learning is crucial to success. Schools must have the necessary tools on site, give access to tools outside of school, and have knowledgeable educators who are able and willing to implement these strategies. Schools that use the elements of success and can provide the necessary resources will meet the needs of every students.
But how can a teacher use the elements of success (or other tool) to improve equity? Here are two ways:
- First, teachers can show that these elements come from across the education field, and then engage their colleagues to determine how the elements best fit into their classroom, grade level and school.
- Second, the elements can be used for long-range plans for their school’s future work so that teachers have access to services and products that can make a difference.
Thankfully, much has changed since my first job in teaching. Title I is now often integrated into a school’s structure. And children with special needs are no longer kept apart from their peers. Yet, we still sometimes find that equity is being defined as what is being spent rather than on what is needed. “The Elements of Success” can give you a set of principles to make equity a tool to help all children.