Teacher Leadership

Deeper Learning Means Educational Equity in Urban Schools

A look at what it takes for a district to prioritize academic discourse, a component of deeper learning.

Photo credit: wwworks via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Many articles on deeper learning have addressed what teachers can do within the classroom to guide their students to rigorous, meaningful, deep learning experiences. Teacher practice is a core area to focus on, but without naming and valuing the structural conditions which support teachers to develop these pedagogical skills, the promise of deeper learning can’t be realized.

Here I’ll take a systemic look at what everyone within an education system—from the classroom teacher to the superintendent—can do to provide children with access to deeper learning every day.

What Is Educational Equity?

In an urban context, such as the one I work in, aligning resources toward deeper learning is an imperative: Deeper learning significantly contributes to educational equity. Equity means that every child gets what they need in our schools—every child, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, who their parents are, what their temperament is, or what they show up knowing or not knowing. Every child gets what they need every day to develop the knowledge and skills to be ready for college or a career.

Our students need to engage in collaboration, inquiry processes, critical thinking, a range of creative endeavors, and much more; the 21st-century Four Cs are a powerful framework to guide deeper learning. Classrooms and schools that are organized around principles of deeper learning are well on their way toward being equitable schools.

So how do we start?

From a Vision to an Instructional Focus

First, a district or school needs to agree on the instructional practices that reflect deeper learning. I’m going to focus on the development of students’ academic discourse as a high-leverage instructional practice that contributes to deeper learning, one in which our urban students need particular explicit instruction. Some of the schools I work with in Oakland, California, are aspiring to this description of academic discourse in the classroom: “Conversations in whole and small group settings are facilitated by students and consistently involve all students in academic discourse among students. Students talk about an academic idea, using academic vocabulary and support ideas with evidence.”

In our urban schools, with our high population of English learners, this is a very relevant and meaningful focus. There’s broad agreement that these are foundational skills that our students need to acquire in order to be college and career ready. In a classroom where students are doing the majority of the talking, where they are engaged with each other in rich, structured conversations and where they use academic vocabulary to support their ideas with evidence, I know two things are happening: Students are experiencing deeper learning, and this classroom is a step closer to ensuring educational equity.

Professional Development: Deeper Learning for Teachers, Too

If we want to see all students using rigorous academic discourse in all classrooms, every day, what needs to happen? How do administrators ensure that teachers have the skill, will, and knowledge to guarantee that students develop this capacity?

These questions raise the responsibility of site and central office administrators. There are two conditions that I’ll argue are essential for deeper learning to be experienced by our students, which lie in the decision-making domain of administrators.

1. Teachers need time: If we want to see teachers using instructional strategies like academic discourse, then teachers need time to learn about, practice, and master this craft. They need to collaborate with colleagues and observe classrooms where this practice is in fine form. They need time to learn and plan and reflect. In order for this time to be carved out, teachers need something removed from their plate. Many districts and schools have so many goals, initiatives, projects, and foci that teachers struggle to prioritize their work. Let’s create deeper learning for teachers, too.

2. Teachers need high-quality professional development: Time and priorities aren’t enough—we need rigor and quality in professional development (PD) as well. So what is the quality of learning for teachers? What does their PD look like? How is it differentiated? Who delivers it? In PD sessions, who does the talking? (Remember, whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning.) Effective PD must be guided by principles of adult learning. Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning is a useful guide for creating deeper learning experiences for teachers.

Deeper Learning Is Intentionally Designed Throughout a System

And now let’s take another step back and consider the alignment between the work done by those outside of the classroom—including principals, central office administrators, and superintendents—and the desired goal of seeing deeper learning structures, like rich academic discourse, experienced by all students. In order to reach this end goal, principals need to have knowledge of this instructional practice, and they need to be able to observe teachers and offer meaningful feedback in this area of practice. This means principals need rigorous professional development and opportunities for deeper learning, too.

School administrators also need something taken off their overflowing plates—they can’t be asked to focus on leading 16 initiatives at their site each year. Resources such as curriculum need to be aligned to this goal, and these decisions are often made in central offices. Finally, a superintendent can message this priority, and ensure that other goals and initiatives and projects don’t compete.

In order for our students to have experiences of deeper learning, certain conditions must be guaranteed and certain resources must be aligned. Deeper learning must be designed from the central offices to the classroom. We can’t leave it to chance that our students will get this experience, or rely on the individual knowledge set that teachers come in with.

We’re not going to see deeper learning for students until we see deeper learning throughout the system. If we aspire to educational equity for our students, we need to start with the decisions made in central offices, and by site leaders, that impact the learning of all educators in our schools. This is the only way deeper learning will mean educational equity for urban students.