George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Equity

Using Data to Advance Racial Equity

Schools that strive for equity can collect, interpret, and use data about students in purposeful and self-reflective ways.

August 4, 2020
Teachers talking at white board
julief514 / iStock

The Black Lives Matter protests aren’t just about police brutality. The movement asks all institutions, including schools, to take a hard look at themselves and identify policies that contribute to systemic racism—and then to reform them.

Data is a crucial tool for teachers, administrators, and principals to begin this reflection process. But too often, racial blindness and deficit-based thinking can corrupt data analysis. When they do, school personnel may inadvertently arrive at conclusions that mischaracterize or harm students of color.

This is where data equity comes into play. Having an equity approach to data analysis means maintaining an awareness of potential distortion and taking proactive steps to counteract it. We must adopt an equity mindset in the collection, interpretation, and use of education data.

Equity in Collection

Collecting the right information is the first step of any data project. Racial equity analyses often seek to understand how or why school opportunities, outcomes, and environments differ along racial lines.

This project requires collecting student race and ethnicity data in a way that allows for disaggregation by demographic group. For instance, in addition to examining your school’s or classroom’s test scores, you could break that data down by race. Maybe as a school, your test scores sit above the state average—but are below the average for particular racial or ethnic groups. To see that trend, you must collect the data.

It’s important to keep in mind that racial equity issues also intersect with matters relating to other demographic groups, such as gender and class. Breaking up data only by race may reveal that Black students disproportionately receive disciplinary action, as is true in many schools across the country. But adding in gender may uncover connections between race, gender, and specific disciplinary policies, such as how school dress codes often discriminate against Black girls. Collecting and then disaggregating for a variety of demographic factors can help uncover such inequities.

Equity in Interpretation

After you’ve collected the data and identified some trends, the next step is interpretation. If you see racial disparities, ask why they’re present in your classroom or school. It’s a difficult question, and the answer will depend on your unique context. That said, you can improve interpretation by using two practices: avoiding deficit-based thinking and using qualitative data.

Deficit-based thinking in interpretation means attributing differences in education outcomes among racial groups to student deficiencies while ignoring the impact(s) of systemic racism on those students. By failing to address systemic issues, deficit based thinking tacitly accepts them—and expects more of students with fewer resources.

Take SAT scores as an example: Black and Hispanic students tend to score below the national average. Deficit-based thinking might conclude that Black and Hispanic students need to spend more time studying to close this gap. That would ignore phenomena like intergenerational systemic racism, which has privileged White perspectives in curricula, produced racially segregated schools, and caused students of color to internalize negative stereotypes. Some describe the persistent discrimination against these students as creating an “educational debt,” so that simply providing them test prep or other services wouldn’t be sufficient. Avoiding deficit-based thinking means understanding these systems of oppression and taking the time to look beyond the student to explain trends in your data.

A helpful tool for avoiding this pitfall is using qualitative data. Relying only on quantitative data often leaves out students’ contexts and lived experiences. Interviews, surveys, and focus groups that allow students to describe their experiences can often help explain trends in your data or spark ideas for new investigations.

Educators already use a host of qualitative data–gathering techniques. Parent-teacher conferences offer a window into students’ home lives, and educators often speak with students one-on-one to learn their perspectives. Free survey services, such as Google Forms and Survey Monkey, offer methods of collecting qualitative data and have easy-to-use interfaces. Focus groups can be difficult to facilitate, but guides abound. They can also be much less formal than the guides recommend, and could simply mean taking aside a group of students and asking them a few questions.

Equity in Use

If your analysis reveals troubling trends, then it’s time to act. The specifics of how you change classroom culture or school policies will depend on your particular circumstances, but two points of guidance can make a difference.

First, don’t get stuck on symbolic changes like affirmatively stating support for anti-racist movements or adding racial diversity to leadership staff without doing the hard, necessary work to dismantle racist systems.

Second, after you make a change, test whether it had the desired effect. No plan is perfect, and implementation often reveals unforeseen hiccups and hurdles. I’ve witnessed this many times. Once, I worked with a program that primarily served low-income children of color, and it identified that there were many students who had low attendance. Unfortunately, the program initially fell into the deficit-based thinking pitfall, decided that the low attendance resulted from students and families not valuing education, and “solved” the problem with harsher penalties for absences.

We evaluated whether implementing the harsher penalties improved outcomes; it didn’t. Students still had low attendance and now had the added stress from the penalties. So we altered our approach. We started collecting qualitative data by having conversations with families and students to try to understand their perspective. Far from the faulty deficit-based thinking rationale, we discovered that usually the causes were transportation issues or other commitments. After this realization, we changed our approach. The harsher penalties stopped, and instead the program began calling the families of chronically absent students to try to better understand their individual circumstances. The program then worked with these families to create a flexible plan that suited their needs.

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