Student Experience Research Network Blog

In December 2021, Student Experience Research Network (SERN) convened 20 researchers; educators, administrators, leaders of educational organizations; and communications, community organizing, and legal experts along with nearly 100 education funders at our annual funder briefing. The group discussed how to build instructional and institutional leaders’ capacity to promote inclusion and how to initiate and sustain progress toward equitable learning environments. This is the second in a series of four blog posts in which we synthesize lessons from the event.


Our first post about the 2021 SERN Funder Briefing described the event theme and three research projects that illustrate the importance of belonging supports and asset-based approaches within classrooms and institutions. In this post, we focus on how instructional and institutional leaders can promote equity and inclusion through continuous improvement cycles.

We highlight resources that can support institutional communities in coming together around an inclusive and inspiring vision of the experiences and outcomes that they are working towards, as well as facilitate data collection and collaborative meaning making opportunities to make progress towards those goals.

A key early step in this work is to gather data that illuminate how students are experiencing the learning environment, including how these experiences vary across student groups and may differ from educators’ perceptions of students’ experiences.

Dave Paunesku, executive director of PERTS, pointed out that, “teachers have few ways to get feedback about their students’ learning experiences and it’s very hard for anyone to improve without feedback.” To meet this need, PERTS developed Elevate, a professional learning tool that regularly administers a brief student survey and provides teachers with resources to help them systematically improve classroom conditions based on the responses.

Dave said that when teachers first get their reports, “there tends to be a big gap between teachers’ positive intentions for their students and what their students are actually experiencing in their class.” However, more than 75% of teachers using Elevate go on to measurably improve their students’ classroom experiences.

A similar tool called Ascend is used at the postsecondary level as part of the Student Experience Project (SEP), a multi-organization partnership including PERTS and the College Transition Collaborative. Through the SEP, instructors at six colleges and universities have access to student survey data, as well as a host of resources that help them revise their syllabi, refine their feedback practices, and make other practical shifts in response to the areas for improvement identified by students.

Participating institutions have seen students report better experiences, with the largest gains for Black, Latinx, and Native American women. SEP found that as students’ experiences improved, their likelihood of receiving an A or B in the relevant course increased and their likelihood of receiving a D, F or withdrawing from the course decreased.

Importantly, educators and administrators need knowledge about how to interpret and make meaning of data and they need the time, space, and resources to do so.

Royel Johnson, professor at the University of Southern California, spoke at the event about equity-mindedness, “a particular mode of thinking, that is race conscious, that is evidence-based, both quantitative and qualitative, system and institutionally aware, and then most importantly, action-focused.” Royel named as a central question: “Do we attribute racial, ethnic disparities and student outcomes to deficiencies in students or […] do we interpret those kinds of differences as the signal that our policies, practices, even our pedagogies aren’t meeting the needs of students?”

Chong-Hao Fu, CEO of Leading Educators, summarized some of the underlying design principles in his organization’s work with teachers: “Teacher learning has to be job-embedded. It has to be contextualized and it has to be iterative. It can’t be the one and done model.” He also emphasized that professional learning should be content-specific and practical, should build from a standards-aligned curriculum, should provide access to a coach or supportive expert, and should “see teachers as real assets and drivers of this work.”

Leading Educators deploys student and teacher surveys and supports educators in interpreting any disparities in the data. “We invite teachers into that data, not to say that we are judging or that we know better, but we say, what does this perception mean?” Chong-Hao explained. “And what are some of the practices, particularly in your content area and in your curriculum that might allow for students to feel more seen in your classroom? And that’s been a really incredibly powerful conversation.”

Meaning making spaces that promote trust and collaboration among educators can be especially effective. Brenda Fonseca, a mathematics teacher at Walsh Elementary School in Chicago described how she implemented PERTS Elevate: “When that [student] feedback came back, it definitely told us, ‘Something needs to happen here.’ But rather than sit in that discomfort that I was feeling, I said, ‘I’m going to put it out there so that my colleagues can hold me accountable.’”

When students are regularly providing feedback about their experiences, they need to know that their feedback is being taken seriously.

Brenda presented the survey data in a grade-level meeting and began making shifts, particularly to make coursework more relevant to students. As a result, trust between students and teachers began to grow. “Seeing the vulnerability between their teachers and what we were willing to put out there and ask for their help and support, it leveled out the roles of the teacher in the space and the student in the space,” Brenda said.

Denise Bartell, associate vice provost for student success at the University of Toledo, one of the six institutions that participate in the SEP, pointed out the benefits to educators as well as students. “One of the most interesting things that I have seen about this work on our campus is that it has fostered a sense of belonging and community for our instructors, particularly our non-tenure track and part-time instructors,” she said. “One of them said to us a couple of weeks ago that they’ve never felt like they belonged at the university as much as they do now, after participating in this experience.”

For the past two decades, the education system has largely used data for accountability purposes rather than for improvement. Given this history, collaborative meaning making spaces for educators need to feel safe and supportive. Dave explained, “It’s really hard for people to be creative problem solvers if they’re afraid of being evaluated, if they feel coerced or if they’re burned out and stretched thin.”

Tools like Elevate, Ascend, and Leading Educators’ Teaching for Equity framework can provide a shared understanding of the desired experiences and outcomes in an institution or system. In the right conditions, they can also equip educators to own improvement efforts that are guided by student input, rather than conscripting educators to carry out a top-down approach to change.

One major role of institution and system leaders, then, is to make structural shifts that align with and reinforce educators’ efforts to be responsive to students.

Chris Smith, executive director of the College Transition Collaborative, a core partner in the SEP, explained: “This work really requires institutions to commit to this cause and not rely on individual actors to carry it out. So having consistency and focus on the student experience, not only in one setting, but throughout the campus, in the messaging, for example, that students receive from administrators and faculty, the classroom environment that the instructors are creating as well as the institutional policies and the structures that exist. It really has to permeate throughout the institution.”

Furthermore, when students are regularly providing feedback about their experiences, they need to know that their feedback is being taken seriously.

“It’s so important what students think that the data will be used for,” Dave said about Elevate. “I can’t overstate that.” In fact, Elevate asks students the extent to which they agree with the statement, “My teacher will try to use my answers to these questions to make class better for me.” When fewer than 80% of students agree, Elevate prioritizes process suggestions to teachers before moving on to the data on instructional practices.

At Walsh Elementary, Principal Patricia Harper Reynolds explained that Elevate survey data was shared back with students in a school-wide meeting and was used to inform school-wide structural shifts. For example, she revised the school budget to purchase texts that students were interested in reading and revised the school schedule, which resulted in an improved attendance rate.

High-quality resources and strong leadership can create the conditions for equity-centered practices to spread organically throughout institutions. At Walsh, Brenda explained, “because we’ve applied [Elevate] multiple times, we’ve seen that growth, which motivates us to continue to do that work and not just for ourselves, but share it.”

Patricia highlighted Brenda’s role in this expansion: “Brenda was vulnerable enough to say, ‘this is what students had to say about me.’ And if I’m the favorite teacher in the building and students said that I was lacking in said category, I wasn’t providing them with said thing, it made everybody else more willing to say, ‘okay, I’m willing, if Brenda can do it, then I can do it.’ And that right there was like the glue to get the rest of the faculty on board.”

Denise saw a similar pattern at the University of Toledo. She reported that her community of practice on campus has grown from 10 to 65 instructors, and that she and her colleagues developed a train-the-trainer model to respond to the enthusiasm about the project.

“Faculty are spreading the word that this works,” Denise explained. “And you don’t have to blow up and recreate your courses to do it, and this is not going to interfere with the rigor of your classes, it is just going to improve and make equitable the outcomes in those classes.”

See the clips below to hear directly from the speakers. In the first video, Principal Patricia Harper-Reynolds and CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools Sonja Santelises discuss their approaches to building trust and buy-in among educators to bring about collective change in their contexts. In the second video, Denise Bartell, Royel Johnson, and Chris Smith discuss the risks and challenges that faculty and administrators face when implementing more equitable practices, and how institutions can suppport them to navigate those challenges.

Read the next post in the series >>>

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