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 final installment in a series of four blog posts in which we synthesize lessons from the event.
The 2021 SERN Funder Briefing focused on how to make structural shifts toward culturally responsive, identity affirming, and belonging-supportive learning environments. Our previous posts have explored how leaders can achieve equity-centered, research-based shifts by using data and collaborative meaning making opportunities to facilitate continuous improvement processes and authentically engaging diverse stakeholders in their systems and the communities they serve.
The work of transforming structures also requires field-level conditions that help protect and expand educational equity. While strong leadership – among students, communities, educators, and administrators – is a powerful force for change at the system- and institution-level, it must be supported by a field-level infrastructure that aligns resources, public support, and legislation with effective strategies for improving students’ experiences in school.
As mentioned in previous posts, the type of work that engages students, families, and communities and reflects a commitment to equity and continuous improvement often requires a significant investment of time and resources. Recognizing the time-intensive nature of transformative work, and grappling with how to measure progress toward equity-centered goals was a common theme at the event.
Chong-Hao Fu, CEO of Leading Educators, summarized, “improving school systems is the work of a generation.” Shawn Whalen, program director at the College Futures Foundation, pointed out the disconnect that this can cause between practice and philanthropy in the context of postsecondary education.
“This work is about redefining what it means to be a good faculty member, which by definition then redefines what it means to be a good college and then ultimately a good system,” Shawn said. “If we [as funders] fail to lean into this work because it’s hard to measure our impact immediately on a three-year timeframe, like we might want to for our board, we do so at the risk of making our work more around the margins and less of the center.”
Rather than expecting transformational change to happen on traditional philanthropic timelines, many speakers recommended using interim benchmarks to measure progress toward longer-term goals. They also discussed what should be measured and how data should be presented.
Taryn Ishida, executive director of Californians for Justice, described how student organizers advocated for a state-level accountability system in California that incorporated “multiple measures and more holistic measures that got at […] school culture, climate, and student experience.” For example, the students’ research identified caring relationships as key to their academic success, but punitive school cultures and a “belief gap” among educators who had low expectations for students hindered the development of those relationships.
To this end, California’s new accountability system uses suspensions as an indicator of school climate. It also provides transparent and disaggregated data on how different student groups are experiencing the system, which can help to fuel conversations about how to make structural shifts. Taryn reported “being able to connect the local and the state level data as a spark or as a motivator to really go deeper on the connection between race, belief gap, and why we need to hear from the most marginalized students.”
Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, echoed the call for new strategies for measuring progress. She also cautioned against “back[ing] out of the academic data.”
While acknowledging that students are always learning new skills and gaining new knowledge that may not be directly reflected in their grades and test scores, she noted, “what is also true is you can learn a whole bunch of other stuff and still not have the level of competency and proficiency in certain areas that allows you to be successful. So I think the push needs to be not on giving up one or the other, but on looking at far more creative ways to measure.”
Finally, Jonathan Collins, professor at Brown University, pointed out that progress is not always linear. His research on participatory budgeting showed that as parents and students learned more about school and district budgeting processes, their dissatisfaction with the system initially increased.
“The dissatisfaction is just a point in the parabola,” Jonathan explained. “Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you actually get higher levels of satisfaction when you can establish conditions for collaboration. […] When it comes to community-based scholarship and this work in practice, this is not a short-term investment or commitment. This is a long-term commitment, and we need to understand these as long iterative processes.”
“When we’re talking about trying to make systemic or system changes, it’s going to take a lot of different voices, a lot of different tactics.”
Along with funding and accountability structures, messaging, community organizing, legal work, and research are among the enabling conditions at the field level that help facilitate the structural shifts in practice and policy that drive more equitable student experiences of school. Messaging and organizing can cultivate a base of political support for equity-centered shifts, while legal work can protect equity-centered policies and the educators and administrators who are carrying them out.
Coordination within these spheres can also amplify the impact of local efforts. Jennifer Warner, executive of organizing and campaigns at Learn from History, explained: “When we’re talking about trying to make systemic or system changes, it’s going to take a lot of different voices, a lot of different tactics.”
When institutions and organizations are working in organized coalitions and have aligned messaging strategies, they can advance together toward a shared, long-term goal from the various positions they occupy in the field.
David Hinojosa, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, described the importance of strategic legal cases related to educational equity. Local cases can set legal precedents at the state and federal levels and can also reinforce advocacy, organizing, and communications strategies.
“[High-profile] cases aren’t just about what happens in the court,” he said, “but also what happens in the court of public opinion, and that can help influence what happens in the community.”
Across these realms, research evidence is critical, both to help the field understand the changes that contribute to student success and to make the case with key stakeholders.
Ashley Burns Nascimento, principal at RALLY, said that communicators can “use academic research to paint the pictures about what young people need and what the system is supposed to actually do and provide, pointing folks to the aspiration.”
Jennifer built on this point from her perspective as an organizer. “[Research] gives language to what people feel,” she said. “Academic research can actually change minds for elected officials and those who are very data-driven, but also give language and validation to experiences [in which people] often think, ‘It’s just me, and that’s why I’m not going to speak up because it’s just my experience.’ But no, this is the system that is having this impact. I think just gives a lot of confidence and empowers people to speak up and step forward.”
The speakers also acknowledged that absorbing and communicating about research can be difficult. “In the field of advocacy and policy,” David said, “I think it’s incredibly important to have academics front and center to be able to talk about these issues, but in ways that legislators can understand.”
Like the other enabling conditions outlined above, investing in scholars and scholarship that are setting a high standard of sophistication in practically relevant, equity-centered, interdisciplinary research can help the education sector generate near- and long-term responses to challenges and opportunities.