Equity & Diversity Opinion

How Can Teachers Create Equitable Spaces for All Students?

By Contributing Blogger — August 13, 2018 6 min read
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This post is written by Alison Lee, Senior Research Scientist, and Meg Riordan, Director of External Research, at EL Education.

“Strong relationships that really foster a sense of belonging, that foster empathy and caring, really set a tenor and a tone that might be different from where [students] have come from previous places.”
~Crew Leader, Expeditionary Learning Middle School, Syracuse, NY

In 2016, EL Education joined forces with a network of organizations working to close opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and low socio-economic backgrounds to launch the Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) project, funded by the Raikes Foundation. For its part in the project, EL Education is focused on improving students’ sense of belonging: the perception of having a rightful place in an academic setting and belonging in a community of learners.

Research shows that students who report a higher sense of belonging in school are more likely to persevere at challenging tasks--a key mindset for solving complex problems and learning how to learn. In EL Education, Crew supports students to learn deeply, about themselves and about one another. In Crew, a small group of students meets four to five times per week to develop and strengthen their socio-emotional skills. Crew also supports students to build their awareness of and practice habits of scholarship that enable students from all backgrounds to get to and succeed in college and careers. Yet, for all of our confidence in the power of Crew to build relationships and stoke students’ capacity to learn and to lead, we wonder about Crew as an engine for equity. More specifically, though our organization is 25 years old, we haven’t yet identified whether Crew serves allstudents equally and what practices are especially powerful for driving student belonging and inclusion. As part of BELE, we brought together six schools from across the country to tackle the question of how Crew can serve as an engine for equity.

How does this project differ from past research on student belonging? We believe that for our improvement work on student belonging and equity to have lasting impact, this work must be led by those positioned to impart change: the teachers/leaders who facilitate student Crews. Teachers (both in and out of Crew) are ideally situated as researcher-practitioners: they know their students, are well-situated to design and test interventions, and have access to (or can collect) a variety of telling data. However, teachers may lack sufficient authority, credit, professional support, or resources to impart schoolwide, systemic, and lasting change. What does it mean, exactly, to empower teachers with the agency, structures, and skill set to lead school improvements for and with their students?

Go to the Source: Ask the Students

A well designed survey can give teachers and students a bird’s eye view of patterns emerging from students’ experiences. In 2016-17, EL Education schools in our study piloted a 22-item “Crew belonging” student survey using an instrument co-developed with Project for Educational Research that Scales (PERTS) at Stanford University. Through this data, schools like Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School analyzed their students’ perceptions of their experiences and sense of belonging in Crew, both as an affirmation of the power of Crew for their student body and as a driver for conversations about equity in their school.

In the fall of 2017, six schools self-identified teams of 4-6 teachers to lead improvement work. Teachers conducted the Crew belonging survey in the fall to get baseline data from their students and analyzed data from survey items like:

  • I feel like I belong in my Crew
  • If you share your opinion or ideas in Crew, people listen to and respect your thoughts
  • I feel like the other students in Crew accept me for who I am

Teachers also analyzed “positive deviants"--specific Crews or items that had particularly high outcomes. Students responded anonymously to the electronic survey and provided demographic data (race, gender, English language learner and/or special education status) during one Crew period. This data propelled teachers’ inquiry into students’ sense of belonging and experience of Crew.

Get to the Root: What Prevents a Sense of Belonging?

After analyzing student data, teacher teams conducted a root cause analysis, asking:

  • What are the conditions of our system or structures that diminish the sense of belonging and a positive experience of Crew?
  • How might these conditions impact particular groups of students more than others?
  • What key changes can we make to improve students’ belonging?

In collaboration with the EL Education research team and our research partner, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, teachers reviewed focus group data with students that probed how students think about belonging and what kinds of factors influence their willingness to participate in Crew or build relationships with others in their Crew. By considering conditions that contribute to lower or inequitable outcomes, teachers imagined ways to recreate and leverage Crew as a brave and safe space where all students experience a sense of voice and belonging while working toward academic success.


Teacher teams then launched their first Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, testing their change ideas and measuring progress with student exit tickets or weekly teacher observations. These teacher teams met regularly after each cycle to discuss the impact of the practice on their students and analyze their data. Then they continued, revised, or implemented new practices in a subsequent PDSA cycle.

While these activities may represent what many teachers do intuitively--testing ideas in their classrooms, convening with other teachers to talk about common problems of practice, and assessing students--systematically structuring these activities in a larger framework of improvement (i.e. change cycles) was transformative. One teacher remarked, “This process allowed us to examine the ways we need to help all students to connect in more meaningful ways--not just hope for the best and get most of them to connect.” On the process of looking at positive deviants, another teacher said, “It was useful to have exemplar teacher work that we could implement schoolwide to address these areas. ... It allowed us to celebrate some of the great work we do as Crew leaders.” And finally, on the process of using PDSA cycles to drive improvement: “We had success using the data from the whole-group student analysis and creating meaningful targeted lessons that addressed specific targeted responses.” This process was especially effective for improving novice teachers’ capacity to lead Crew, with 100 percent of teachers in their first two years as a Crew Leader reporting considerable gains in their capacity to lead Crew.

When teachers are empowered to listen to and learn from their students, they can lead effective and lasting change. But teacher leadership isn’t the only essential ingredient to increase belonging for all students. How does giving all students opportunities to speak and to lead impact their sense of belonging and their academic growth? In our next post in this series, we unpack what lifting student voice as a key condition for improvement looked like in our study schools.

Photo Credit: David Grant

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.