George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Equity

Using Data to Advance Equity

Listening to students is a valuable source of data as schools seek to support students and create more equitable learning outcomes.

February 20, 2024
Brian Stauffer / The iSpot

Equity now is anchored on an idea that students’ voices matter. If we listen to our students, they will tell us precisely what they need, but they might tell us things that we may not want to hear. Listening to students can be a valuable data point. There will be no need to guess or hypothesize about how we can best support them; we can go directly to the source. But we must be prepared to hear the honest, insightful, surprising, critical, and at times angry perceptions that young people can offer. I recently worked with a school district that has been focused on improving the experiences and outcomes of Black students. I was brought in to help the district “do better” by its Black students. The district asked me if I could help to create a plan of action or set of professional learnings to help improve Black student outcomes across the district.

The first question I asked was “Have you talked to the Black students yet?” After receiving a negative to that question, that was my first data point to collect. How can we figure out how to support and serve Black students without first talking to Black students? In response, I was part of a team that did just that; over the course of a three-month period, we held “listen and learn” sessions with hundreds of Black high school students about their likes and dislikes of their schools, what they wish teachers knew about them, how to make schools better, what contributes most to their learning, and their experiences with their peers. These data (which were collected anonymously) were powerful, sad, infuriating, and enlightening. As follows, you will see some of the comments (data) that came from Black students about their experiences in school. Students were provided several prompts and then asked to respond on sticky notes. The prompts are followed by a sampling of responses.

Book Cover of Equity Now
Courtesy of Corwin

What should teachers/staff know about Black students that they don’t already know?

  • “We are humans just like everyone else; we are not angrier or criminals just because we are Black.”
  • “I feel like they should know Black students aren’t all the same or act the same.”
  • “I want them to know that we do care to be something and be successful in life. I want them to care and put the same amount of effort they put in other students to us.”
  • “I feel like teachers and staff should know that Black students aren’t as strong and tough as some may appear. We do have feelings, and some stuff really does hurt.”
  • “Teachers should know that skin color does not equal the way somebody learns, and we are all here for the same reason.”

What would you like to see in the curriculum that would better support you as a student?

  • “I would like to see more real-life application of the curriculum, and I would like to see more teachers encourage Black and Brown students to take Advanced Placement/Honors.”
  • “I would like about three minutes to ask how we as students are doing, especially if it is an elective. Three minutes to do a mental check-in won’t hurt our instruction time.”
  • “I want to see teachers trying as hard as the students, and I want more time to study.”
  • “To help me out when I need it and stop guessing I am a dumb person.”
  • “I would like to see more talk about our heritage as Black people. There are a lot of things about Black culture and history that get overlooked.”
  • “Stop expecting very little/too much from me. I know that I am an intelligent Black student, but it should not be surprising. I want to succeed like everyone else. Don’t put me in the spotlight.”

All these responses are part of a large data set that highlights how Black students see school, but the comments highlight some of the raw, unedited, and direct views that Black students have about their teachers and schools, which need to be taken seriously by school personnel if there is a real commitment to support Black students under an equity framework. Data can be compelling and insightful, but at times it can be sad and discouraging yet informative about the work that needs to be done. If one of our key goals is to recognize and repair harm for students, asking them in what ways they believe they have been harmed is the most authentic way to capture those injuries. Our students are brilliant, insightful, and highly intelligent. They are more than capable of letting us know what they think, feel, and need. The equity issue is whether we are willing to listen. And, if not, why?


An important data indicator is the concept of disproportionality, which refers to a group’s representation in a particular category that exceeds expectations for that group or differs substantially from the representation of others in that category. For example, special education has been deemed an area where students of color are represented in higher numbers than they are in the general population (Harry & Klinger, 2014). Disciplinary disproportionality is another area that encompasses the significantly high rates at which students of color are subjected to discipline referrals, suspensions, expulsion, and school arrests. School leaders and practitioners should always be assessing schoolwide data and individual data to determine if certain groups of students are being subjected to differential or unfair treatment. At the school or district level, leaders might ask the following questions:

  • What is the racial/ethnic breakdown of students who are suspended and expelled?
  • What is the racial/ethnic breakdown of students who are in GATE courses?
  • What is the racial/ethnic breakdown of students who are in Advanced Placement/Honors and International Baccalaureate courses?
  • What is the gender breakdown of students in leadership positions?
  • How many students whose first language is not English are in advanced courses?
  • How many students with disabilities are in advanced classes?
  • What is the graduation rate for non-white students?

For classroom teachers, similar types of reflective data points should be occurring that help them think about their own practice and ensure that some students are being recognized and affirmed, while others are being rendered invisible, surveilled, or punished. Questions to think about for practitioners could include these:

  • Do I call on the same students consistently?
  • Do I try to offer affirming comments to all my students?
  • Whose name have I not called today?
  • How have I made sure to recognize my quiet students?
  • What are the types of comments that students have heard from me today?
  • Who have I recommended for leadership opportunities, and why?
  • What has the racial/ethnic/gender breakdown been of students who I have disciplined or sent to the office?


By now, it should be clear that student data can be quite revealing, but only when we are willing to take a deeper dive into what the data are really telling us. The disaggregation of data involves data that have been divided into detailed subcategories. It can reveal inequalities between different subcategories that aggregated (large) databases cannot. Often, larger data sets can paint a positive picture of something such as district achievement rates, but a more analytical look at the data can highlight disturbing outcomes. Most disaggregated data are numerical, but it is possible to have categorical disaggregated data as well. For example, many schools will boast about a high school graduation rate that may be close to 90%–95%, which is an impressive feat. However, the disaggregated data would ask, What are the graduation rates for students with IEPs? How many students who are multilingual learners graduated? What are the graduation rates for Black or Indigenous students?

A close look at  disaggregated data reveals that, in some cases, the graduates for those subgroups are only in the 60%–65% rate, which is completely unacceptable. While the numbers might be low, the percentage is still important. Losing one student is one too many. At the classroom level, a teacher may have taught a lesson, and it appears that most of the students understood the concept being taught. Only after disaggregating data across all students do teachers recognize that of the 30 students in a class, 6 failed to understand the concept. The disaggregating of data allows the teacher to see where there is a need for additional support for certain students to bring them up to par. One of the areas that also helps us to disaggregate data is when we look at big subject areas like reading or literacy.

The National Reading Panel has identified five key concepts at the core of every effective reading instruction program: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, evaluating reading for students in Grade 4 covers three key areas:

  • Reading for literary experience: Readers explore events, characters, themes, settings, plots, actions, and the language of literary works by reading novels, short stories, poems, plays, legends, biographies, myths, and folktales.
  • Reading for information: Readers gain information to understand the world by reading materials such as magazines, newspapers, textbooks, essays, and speeches.
  • Reading to perform a task: Readers apply what they learn from reading materials such as bus or train schedules, directions for repairs or games, classroom procedures, tax forms (Grade 12), maps, and so on.

Yet often schools will get a general (aggregated) reading score for students, but this amorphous score does not provide educators—nor does it provide the students and parents/ caregivers—with an accurate assessment of where a student may not have been taught well. Is the student strong in phonemic awareness, but needs more support in reading comprehension? Does that student show strong ability to identify characteristics, sequence, and plot of a text, but struggle with reading to perform a particular task? Disaggregation of test scores gives a better glimpse into where there is need for additional support and avoids a generalizing of what needs a student has or does not have in a particular subject area.

If schools and districts want to keep an open eye on becoming equity focused, understanding data and creating more data-informed decision-making processes are a must. However, in a number of my interactions with teachers, I have been told that many do not understand much of the data that are given to them from their schools. Having data is important, and understanding data is vital, but using data to inform decision making around curriculum, instruction, assessment, and policies can be transformative. To that end, district and school leaders bear a major responsibility to make data accessible, understandable, and usable for school personnel, students, and parents/caregivers. Among the steps that can be taken are the following:

Creation of data teams. The purpose of data teams is to create a collaborative community of stakeholders who can discuss data, identify important trends, and serve as the conduit to the rest of the school or district. These teams can help ensure that multiple voices and perspectives are honored when interpreting data and share a consistent message with members of the school community. While each school is responsible for determining the composition of their data teams, a diverse representation of school personnel across grade levels and years of experience is highly recommended to ensure that multiple perspectives (and analyses) are honored.

Offer ongoing professional development on data. Most schools offer professional development on a multitude of topics. However, what is often missing are ongoing learning sessions that explain to teachers and staff what data are being collected and how to interpret these data. Having someone with expertise who can go over data, address any questions, and be a resource for those seeking greater clarity can help to increase awareness around data. The more valuable professional learning sessions occur when teachers can demonstrate how they use data in their classrooms to inform instruction and student learning. Moreover, teacher training that has an explicit focus on equity-driven data is largely absent in most school districts.

Identify user-friendly data platforms. A step that can be useful for building data literacy is the incorporation of user-friendly data formats. Many districts have platforms that allow parents/caregivers and students to track student progress. Using learning management systems that allow users to track student performance can be a game changer for parents/ caregivers and students. Many find these formats quite useful to monitor daily, weekly, and monthly progress. Identifying a format that teachers, staff, students, and parents/caregivers find beneficial can go a long way in creating more transparent and user-friendly ways to track student work and progress. There are also lots of platforms that allow school personnel to see trends, patterns, and areas of concern for students. Each district should be diligent in identifying the platform that works best for them.

Talking to parents/caregivers about data. One of the ways that equity comes to fruition is when all stakeholders feel as if they are seen, are valued, and have a voice. Belonging matters. To that end, schools should strive toward finding ways to get parents/caregivers engaged in school-related matters. Schools can make major strides to be inclusive by offering seminars, webinars, and learning sessions that are specifically for parents/caregivers about how to navigate data platforms about their schools, their students’ performance, and various resources that are available to support learners.

In the spirit of transparency and openness, such endeavors send a clear message to parents/caregivers: We want you to be informed and knowledgeable about what we are doing as a school community, how your child is doing academically, identifying supports for your child, and offering concrete ways about how best to access your child’s teachers. Such efforts can go a long way to invite parents/caregivers into the learning process. Examples of such forms of parental engagement may be more popular at the primary grades but could be strongly encouraged at the middle and high school grades as well.

From Equity Now: Justice, Repair, and Belonging in Schools (pp. 175-181) by Tyrone C. Howard, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Copyright © 2024. Use the code SAVE20 for a 20 percent discount on this title.

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