The pandemic and remote learning have put equity issues in schools under the spotlight, with new attention being paid to how internet access, home environments, and any number of other factors can affect student engagement and success.
I’m a strong believer in surveys. I often help the teachers I work with craft survey questions for their students, and this year we’re constructing questions that shed light on equity issues. We will distribute the surveys to students in the first few days of school so that teachers have the information they need from the get-go to address equity concerns in their classrooms, and to signal to their students that the teacher/student relationship is of paramount importance.
Many of us are accustomed to a slow drip of information about our students over the course of the entire year, but an early survey can put that important information front and center. Without detailed information directly from your students, you can wind up flying blind with respect to equity.
The Benefits of an Equity Survey
There are so many barriers in education that can prevent us from reaching students, whether it’s spotty internet access or difficulty communicating with a student’s family members. A survey can bring obstacles to the surface and springboard them into actionable change. You can ask your students about any number of circumstances that can affect their learning (like if there are many people in their household relying on a single hot spot) but also prompt them to share their academic and personal goals, their aspirations for the year, and what they’d like to learn about.
A survey can also help equalize classrooms after a turbulent year when many students had vastly different experiences. Some learned remotely, some in a hybrid classroom; some enjoyed learning from home, and others found it profoundly isolating; some are overjoyed to return to school, while others are processing trauma. A survey can help you understand the differences in the students’ experiences and give you ideas for how to bring them together again, healthily.
Finally, a survey can surface ideas for co-crafting class norms and for combating injustices in the classroom.
Survey Questions That Shed Light on Equity
Here are some questions that have worked well in surveys I’ve written, as well as what they’re intended to achieve.
How do you access the internet from home? Last year showed us that just because a student has a device—even a school-issued one—that doesn’t mean they have reliable access to the internet. Some students have their own computer setups in their homes, complete with high-speed internet access, while others might be working from their kitchen table with a hot spot.
When you ask students about their internet access, you can troubleshoot immediately and get them the support they need or adjust your expectations for assignments. If everyone in the class doesn’t have reliable internet access, for example, then assigning homework that demands it would be inequitable.
Do you have a family member or supportive adult who helps you with your assignments? Last year also surfaced dramatic differences in terms of parental bandwidth. Some students had a caregiver at home all day who could carve out time to help them with their schoolwork, while others were home alone. In some families, help from adults is routine, while in others it isn’t. If you have this information up front, you’re better prepared to create assignments that students will get equal support on—at least as much as possible—and you can identify the times when you need to scaffold.
What challenges do you anticipate this year? If you ask students an open-ended question about what they find challenging in terms of technology, concepts, or instruction, you’re better prepared to head off problems before they start and ensure that each student learns the best they can, with the resources they need identified up front.
What goals and aspirations do you have for this year? When students think about, write down, and share their goals and aspirations with you, they benefit from clearly expressing their dreams, and you benefit by having information that you can incorporate into your curriculum and instruction. There’s often a clear path from what students want to learn to strong engagement, but it takes planning to identify relevant books, materials, resources, lesson plans, assignments, and teaching strategies.
For example, some students may indicate an interest in learning more about their culture. In response, you can create activities that authentically celebrate student culture and values, such as an Observance Calendar that recognizes holidays and celebrations across cultures.
Also, if you find common threads among students’ goals and aspirations, then you have even more reason to plan lessons, activities, and discussions around their shared interests. For example, if multiple students want to explore local Black-owned businesses and their importance in the community, you can invite owners of those businesses to speak to your students about their path to being business owners and entrepreneurs.
Once the responses are collected, analyze the data and you’ll likely be able to group their suggestions by time frame. Some items you’ll be able to implement immediately (like setting the wheels in motion for students who don’t have reliable home internet access to get their own hot spot, if possible), and some might need budget approval, like books that cover a topic they’re interested in. Also, remember that student perceptions may change, so circle back midway through the year with the same survey, perhaps tweaked to reflect experiences thus far in the classroom.
Incorporating equity in the classroom is a marathon and not a sprint. If you don’t see results immediately, that’s OK—it’s a process that can and should be built over time so that you can build trust and community with your students.