Equity & Diversity

Advice on Closing the Opportunity Gap, From State Teachers of the Year

By Sarah Schwartz — February 05, 2019 3 min read
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As income inequality in the United States keeps growing, schools continue to struggle with bridging the opportunity gap—the way that factors like poverty and racism negatively affect students’ educational options and outcomes.

In a new report, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year has surveyed educators about how they work to offset these effects for their students. NNSTOY identified eight state teachers of the year who have done work to counteract the opportunity gap in their schools. Five of the eight teachers were white, two black, and one Latina.

The schools, located in the South, West, and Midwest, span a range of different student contexts. Three were majority Hispanic, and three majority black, and two majority white. At most of the schools, more than half of the students received free or reduced lunch.

Survey administrators interviewed teachers, conducted focus groups with other school staff, and observed classrooms to identify how educators worked with children and families to lessen the effects of opportunity gaps. The recommendations in the report are based on these conversations and observations, as well as a review of initiatives at these schools specifically designed to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students.

Among the suggestions, teachers discussed forming strong relationships with students, challenging students academically and giving them ownership over their own learning, and developing a positive school culture. But researchers also identified a few strategies that reach beyond instruction and school climate.

Here are some of the highlights:

Data can help teachers understand students’ circumstances—but look beyond the usual sources.

The word “data” often brings to mind school- or district-level statistics, like percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch or the number of English-language learners. But other sources of information can inform teachers, as well: parent surveys, records from past teachers, insights from guidance counselors, and, of course, talking to students themselves about what they need from you and your class.

Other schools the researchers surveyed turned to the community, asking local employers about the skills needed in their industries and linking classroom instruction to training for those jobs.

Call parents in with targeted outreach.

Schools should be sure to make school events accessible to all parents—holding them at times when working families can attend, and sending out information in multiple languages. But schools can’t assume they’re doing enough by just making these resources available, teachers said. Reaching out to individual families (by sending direct text messages or going on home visits, for example) is more powerful than the “passive engagement” of generally asking for families’ time, the report found.

Give parents opportunities to be experts.

“Parents will want to be involved in a school where they are seen, and shown, as exemplars,” the report reads. Students’ family members can be invited in to speak as experts about their own education or professions, or about their culture, religion, or food. It’s important for schools to validate students’ parents as role models, the report states.

Let teachers lead in professional development.

In the schools included in the survey, teachers who had particular skills led professional development in those areas for other educators at the school. This allowed these teachers to tailor their PD to the specific context. It also meant that their peers had someone to turn to for ongoing implementation help and feedback.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.