Department of Education launches webinar series to address inequity in schools

The U.S. Department of Education is signaling that equity will be a priority under the Biden Administration, announcing the release of a new report highlighting the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on K-12 and postsecondary students in underserved communities, the release of Maintenance of Equity guidance for funding in the American Rescue Plan, and an Equity Summit series.

“Building Equitable Learning Environments in our Schools,” the first in the Equity Summit series, explored how schools and communities can reimagine school systems so that every student has a voice in their school and classroom, particularly students from underserved communities, including communities of color, students with disabilities and multilingual learners. The summit featured introductions by First Lady Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and panel discussions focused on best practices for building equitable environments in schools, featuring education leaders from around the country.

Secretary Cardona set a tone of determined resolve in his introduction, saying this is the time to make bold changes in education. “This is our moment to have the difficult conversations about how to build back better, how to lead transformatively, and how to use every penny provided by the President and Congress to ensure that those most impacted by the pandemic receive the most support,” he said.

A panel discussion led by Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten featured district leaders, education researchers, and practitioners discussing their efforts to provide equity through current best practices and plans for the future.

Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education, reflected on the failure of schools to produce equitable outcomes for underserved student groups. “Too often, rather than serving as a pathway to opportunity, our schools are reproducing inequality in our society,” he said. “While the pandemic set us back, it’s no reason to stay back. If we can think holistically about the needs of children and recognize how their social-emotional and psychological needs are related to their academic and intellectual needs, there is no reason we can’t produce better outcomes for all kinds of children across the country.”

Representatives from districts in New York, Missouri and Washington D.C. shared the importance of including student and family voices to create more equitable environments and practices. 2021 School Counselor of the Year Olivia Carter from Cape Girardeau, MO, shared her school’s positive experience incorporating student voices more deeply. “Our community has a very high percentage of concentrated poverty that shows up in our students’ lives daily,” said Carter. “However, when we started to bring in trauma-informed practices, we saw a huge shift from this deficit thinking and saviorism. We recognize that students don’t just have adverse childhood experiences from outside our school, but they may come into school and experience trauma. We worked alongside our community to build these trauma-informed practices and directly with families to find out what they need.”

Miami-Dade County Public Schools

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho shared his district’s ongoing journey to provide equity to all students in the Florida district, the fourth largest in the nation. The work began with the philosophy that “one size fits none.” Carvalho said the district focuses on meeting children where they are, understanding what they need and working not only in the classroom but in collaboration with community and nonprofit organizations “to address the opportunity gaps that so often precede achievement gaps.”

Anticipating there would be relief funding for the disruptions to life caused by COVID-19, Miami-Dade developed strategies to address learning loss early on, including instructional materials for tiered interventions and additional staff to address areas of greatest learning loss. “We’ll also use funds for tutorial services that are on demand and at ratios that have been shown to actually address the needs of students,” Carvalho said. “They are highly qualified, highly certified tutors who actually know the students and their families.”

The district is also expanding pre-K programs and wraparound services and providing staff with professional development in recognizing and meeting both the academic and social-emotional needs of students returning to school from a traumatic year. Carvalho also hopes to continue to engage families and caregivers through virtual meetings and platforms, as that has proven one of the successes of pandemic learning.

Secretary Cardona acknowledged the hard work currently taking place, the challenges ahead, and pledged to be a resource and partner during his tenure. “Equity in education is about providing students from all backgrounds and all parts of the country with the resources and support they need to succeed and thrive. It’s about providing them pathways to contribute to their community and make the world a better place,” he said. “This summit is something that will be infused in our work at the Department of Education and across the administration for the next four years. To advance equity, we must innovate, share promising practices and work together to create the education system that all of our students deserve.”