Teaching Opinion

Deeper Learning For Greater Equity

By Urban Education Contributor — May 07, 2018 6 min read
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This week we are hearing from the University of Louisville-Jefferson County Public Schools (UL-JCPS) partnership. This post is by Michèle Foster and Jason Immekus, Co-Directors of the UL-JCPS partnership.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.

With the adoption of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, schools and school districts faced increasing pressure to raise academic achievement or risk serious sanctions — with the result that schools had little time for anything other than a strict focus on academics. This, along with the rise of standardized testing, has generated a high-stakes and narrow educational ethos that can negatively affect the socioemotional lives of children and adults in schools, devolve the complex act of schooling into mere test preparation, and neglect to acknowledge the cultural backgrounds of students.

Given the lack of compelling evidence that high-stakes testing has succeeded in improving urban student outcomes at scale, Vasquez Heilig, Khalifa, and Tillman (2014) asserted that the NCLB system functioned as a means of colonial-style social control —including privileging of culturally exclusive knowledge through state-mandated standards and ongoing surveillance through testing— imposed by the dominant White society on urban people of color [1].

As a result of these negative outcomes, some school districts, among them Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), have begun changing their focus, moving away from the skills-based approach and instead embracing a deeper learning approach to education, asking the question, “Who do we want our students to become?”

Why Deeper Learning

Deeper learning focuses on improving the powers of learners to think, communicate, and care throughout the day and throughout their learning journeys. By thoughtfully elevating the development of intellectual, social, and emotional learning into daily teaching, weaved into the learning experiences and environments of all learners, deeper learning can serve as a powerful, proactive approach to developing constructive behaviors, individually and collectively, tied to the real, intrinsic motivations of each learner and his or her desire to find meaning and make a difference.

At JCPS, initial work around deeper learning began in March 2016 and was followed by the Jefferson County Board of Education (JCBE) adopting a Deeper Learning Framework in June 2016. Next, JCPS convened a group of stakeholders across the district, including principals, teachers, and district administrators for the purpose of discussing, planning, and considering what the implications of deeper learning would be for JCPS. The result was the district’s new Deeper Learning Initiative.

The tenets of the Deeper Learning Initiative are that individuals learn best when they are embedded in meaningful relationships, experiences, and environments, and it seeks to cultivate caring, constructive learning relationships; meaningful, personalized, real-world learning experiences; and supportive, equity-focused learning environments. Recognizing that deeper learning approaches offer tremendous possibilities to accelerate achievement and promote social justice, the initiative is part of the district’s overall equity agenda.

JCPS has already created the infrastructure on which to build the Deeper Learning Initiative, with a program director in place and a Deeper Learning Resource team established to provide necessary professional learning around deeper learning strategies, approaches, and assessments.

Over the next several years, the University of Louisville-Jefferson County Public Schools (UL-JCPS) partnership will study the program as it unfolds, spending time trying to understand how a new district program gets launched, is rolled out and adopted, and embraced by the district’s schools.

What The Research Is Examining

The first research study we agreed to undertake, currently underway, is examining the initial launch of the initiative, including the Deeper Learning Conference, analyzing the process of 21 JCPS schools (57% elementary, 19% middle, and 14% high schools) chosen to receive funding (55.26% of applicants) for up to $50,000 for Deeper Learning projects ($835,401 in allocated funding), and documenting and assessing these initial projects as they get underway and subsequent projects as they are taken up.

As researchers committed to equity, we will also investigate whether and how the district’s new deeper learning practices promote more equitable outcomes and what refinements or alterations might be required to insure that the deeper learning approaches promote high levels of engagement, learning, and positive academic and social outcomes for the district’s most marginalized students.

We have submitted a proposal for a small grant to complete this first study and will be submitting proposals for major funding to launch a long-term research program about the Deeper Learning Initiative.

Research Questions:

This initial study focuses on the following research questions:

  • How do personnel in JCPS understand and engage in the Deeper Learning Initiative?
  • How do the schools that received the first Deeper Learning Grants compare to all to the schools in JCPS? How do these schools compare to those schools that applied but were not awarded the Deeper Learning grants?
  • How do the schools that received the deeper learning grants shift their practice, especially when this challenges the status quo?
  • To what extent do they actually shift their practice?
  • What conditions support significant shifts in practice? In particular, what happens when schools have access to outside support that aims to help shift their practice?


This mixed methods study will take place over 10 months. Data collection will include semi-structured interviews, observations at the district and school levels, surveys, secondary data (i.e., JCPS Data Books), and documents and other artifacts. For example, survey data will be gathered on JCPS schools that have received internal funds to support their deeper learning initiatives. All 21 funded schools —elementary, middle, and high— will be included and each of these schools will be compared to two schools: one unfunded applicant, and one non-applicant, matched on similar demographic characteristics.

Implications and Future Work

Although our research focuses on the specific deeper learning initiative underway in JCPS, this inquiry has broader relevance as it can illuminate the processes by which school districts nationwide undertake system-wide efforts to fundamentally change teaching practice to support improved teaching and learning for all students as well as what happens when school districts turn to outside researchers for help and are provided external research to help them understand their work.

The findings from this initial study will enable us to ask pointed research questions for further research, develop survey instruments, and formulate research hypotheses, serving as a foundation for further research over the next couple of years to both launch and support the fledgling University of Louisville-JCPS research practice partnership.

[1] Vasquez Heilig, J., Khalifa, M., & Tillman, L. (2014). High-Stake Reforms and Urban Education. In H. R. Milner IV & K. Lomotey (Eds.), Handbook of Urban Education (pp. 523-538). New York: Routledge.

Previous blog posts by the University of Louisville-Jefferson County Public Schools partnership:

Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice 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.