Responding to Educational Inequality

Educational Policy Can Alleviate Educational Inequity

Educational Policy Can Alleviate Educational Inequity

Key Findings 

  • Educational policies must account for and address the impact of social and economic factors on students and communities. 
  • Increasing equity requires the allocation of adequate and stable resources
  • Utilizing a broader research and methodological base can generate more sound policy and implementation.
  • Policies must increase marginalized youth’s access to high-quality learning environments. 
  • Professional development and increased flexibility can create more robust, culturally responsive learning environments.

While policies have intended to improve schools and alleviate inequities, the research highlighted in this brief provides insights into why educational policies may be missing their mark. Yet, do these research findings suggest that educational policy cannot mitigate educational inequities? Can educational policy in fact improve learning opportunities for all students? 

Despite the evidence demonstrating how and why policy initiatives have failed to advance educational equity, research suggests that it is possible to reduce educational inequity through policy. Policies should advance fiscal investment, balanced research usage, and more comprehensive educational remedies as means to combat the persistent inequities that continue to plague our educational system. 

Policies must address broader factors impacting students and communities.

Students and families are deeply affected by social, political, and economic challenges, including structural racism in all facets of social life. These experiences necessarily impact how students engage in learning and must be acknowledged and addressed when forming and enacting educational reform. To address the welldocumented impact of social, racial, and economic disadvantages on academic achievement, educational policies should incorporate efforts to address the social, emotional, physical, and cognitive needs of students alongside school improvement efforts. A comprehensive approach can more holistically address the obstacles that many students face. It will also more realistically combat educational inequity by broadening “what counts as educational policy” (Anyon, 2005).

This broadening of the scope of educational policy includes a range of possible approaches, including wraparound services, or efforts that explicitly increase investments in health services and programs that foster the social and economic development of students across various stages of their lives. Research has highlighted the impact of wraparound services including early childhood intervention, efforts to engage families, and extended learning opportunities (Dryfoos, 2000; Dryfoos, Quinn, & Barkin, 2005). These efforts increase students’ readiness to learn, meet the emotional and social needs of students experiencing hardships, support parents in the academic and behavioral development of their children, and promote culturally relevant interactions between schools and their constituents. To facilitate these efforts, policymakers should enable cross-sector collaboration that acknowledges the many factors that impact students and in turn supports the development of the whole child. 

A 20% increase in per-pupil spending over the duration of student's education leads to approximately:

  • 0.9 more years of completed education
  • 25% increase in job earnings
  • 20% reduction in adult poverty

In supporting policies that address the broader needs of students and families, policymakers must also acknowledge and specifically attend to structural inequalities experienced by marginalized groups. The application of universal interventions, even when subgroup data is reported or when wraparound strategies are proposed, may inaccurately prescribe remedies that obscure how different groups experience various social contexts. Instead, policymakers should craft and implement polices that are targeted and universal. john a. powell describes targeted universal policies as those that are inclusive of the needs of both dominant and marginal groups in particular social and community contexts, paying particular attention to the experiences of marginalized groups (powell, 2012). Policymakers and school officials must assess the needs of communities and prescribe strategies that address the specific social and economic challenges faced by the students and families while promoting efforts to improve school quality and academic achievement. 

Schools must be adequately funded.

Disrupting educational inequity requires that sufficient resources and revenues are distributed based on student need, are efficiently utilized, and are invested in a variety of resources that enhance school learning environments. Policymakers must address disparities in educational funding to ensure that all students have access to robust learning environments and educational opportunity. In particular, they must adopt and implement funding systems that equitably allocate resources to schools and districts, targeting significant funding to schools with high concentration of lowincome, minority students. We know from research that increased fiscal allotments to schools can have a significant impact on educational attainment and life earnings. For example, a study conducted by Rucker Johnson and colleagues, notes that a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending over the duration of student’s education leads to approximately 0.9 more years of completed education, a 25 percent increase in job earnings, and a 20 percent reduction in adult poverty (Jackson, Johnson, & Persico, 2014). 

Increased school spending can also positively impact the day-to-day learning experiences of students. Specifically, when invested wisely, increased funds can minimize opportunity gaps by providing schools with sufficient resources to implement a rigorous curriculum, to hire and retain well-trained teachers and school leaders, and to provide additional resources to student populations who require more high-quality support (Yaffe, Coley, & Pliskin, 2008). To ensure that increased resources are used for these important inputs, policymakers must institutionalize equitable funding systems and buffer school budgets from financial crises to ensure schools can invest in key resources and avoid relying on more vulnerable or temporary funding sources. Furthermore, they must ensure that sufficient resources accompany policies so that school and district officials are not forced to channel money away from these inputs to meet policy requirements. Finally, they must also develop evaluation and monitoring systems to ensure that funding and resources are utilized in the provision of meaningful educational opportunities for all students, including investing in teacher professional development and the rigorous learning opportunities. Doing so is key in that resource inequality is an important mechanism of structural racism.

Policies must be based on a broader range of research.

Enacting and implementing educational policy that mitigates inequity also requires that policymakers utilize a diverse, rigorous research base that facilitates a more comprehensive understanding of how schools, students, and communities are situated within complex ecologies. To do so, policymakers must solicit and utilize research from a variety of methodological approaches to develop a more comprehensive grasp of how initiatives may impact schools, communities, and students. 

A diverse research base should include research from a variety of methodological approaches. The research from the Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster members in this brief reveals the important role that qualitative research can play in informing policy by illuminating how inequities can be perpetuated despite explicit policy efforts to address them. As argued by Michael J. Dumas and his colleague Gary Anderson, qualitative inquiry can enhance policy knowledge, or “the information and ideas useful in framing, deepening our understanding of, and/or enriching our conceptualization of policy problems” (M. Dumas & Anderson, 2014). This line of inquiry can provide key insights into how reforms will be undertaken and enacted in our educational system. Specifically, Kris Gutiérrez and Shirin Vossoughi (Vossoughi & Gutiérrez, 2014), explore the limitations of traditional ethnography in capturing the movement of diasporic communities, as well as their stable and hybrid practices. They argue that multi-sited ethnographic sensibilities are important to developing ecologically valid research and policy to understand the regularity and variance in cultural communities. Specifically, multi-sited sensibility inquires into the ways people, ideas, tools, artifacts, and practices move and become re-constituted across the boundaries of school, home, and community spaces and even across the multiple contexts within a single setting. Using expansive notions of human development and culture, this work argues for the use of interpretive and multi-sited ethnography to challenge reductive one-sizefits-all policy and practice. 

Policymakers must address disparities in educational funding to ensure that all students have access to robust learning environments and educational opportunity.

Such work also can provide critical insights into the political and normative dynamics that affect reform enactment and implementation. Political, normative, and ideological resistance to the ideas or approaches embedded within reforms (particularly those that attend to racial disparities) can impede equity-oriented initiatives from actually taking hold and improving learning contexts. Policies should anticipate and attend to political and normative aspects of reform to develop policies that can better inform educational practices (Oakes, 1992). 

Policies must support the development of robust learning environments.

To ensure that all students can consistently engage in deep learning, policymakers must form and institute policies that facilitate the creation of robust learning environments. As demonstrated in this brief, classroom and school-level practices can perpetuate educational inequalities, particularly for marginalized groups, as deeply held ideas about student ability, behavior, and acceptable learning practices are activated and perpetuated. To address these practices, policymakers must invest in building teachers and leaders’ capacity to authentically engage a variety of learners in an equitable and respectful manner. Jabari Mahiri’s recent research reveals the positive impact that deep investment in teacher and school development can have in creating optimal learning environments for some of our most disadvantaged and marginalized students. Focusing on the systematic way in which initially reluctant and discouraged teachers in an alternative school environment developed facility and confidence in the use of various digital tools, his research reveals that a commitment and investment in immersive professional development can change teachers’ mindsets and positively inform their practice (Mahiri, 2011).

Increased flexibility in pedagogical approaches for teachers and schools can also facilitate the creation of more supportive learning environments. Qualitative case studies by Na’ilah Suad Nasir reveal what is possible when school environments are able to establish school cultures and supportive learning spaces that allow for student behavior and academic prowess to be reinterpreted through positive frames and deeper understandings of students and their communities (Nasir et al., 2013; Nasir, 2004). The positive impact of increased flexibility on students’ deep learning is also demonstrated in research noting deep student engagement in literacy practices associated with participatory action research and culturally relevant learning practices that allow students to develop critical thinking and authentically apply of their learning (Mahiri & Conner, 2003; Wright & Mahiri, 2012). At the school and neighborhood level, it is also critical to attend to issues of detracking and desegregation in order to ensure access to high-quality teaching within schools and across neighborhoods. 

Overall, to disrupt persistent educational inequities, policymakers must enact school improvement policies that facilitate the enhancement of teaching and learning quality. This requires investment and commitment to systematic teacher and leadership development that focuses on pedagogical skills as well as addresses teacher and leader mindsets that may impact the creation of self-affirming learning spaces for all students. Policymakers can provide guidelines for ongoing professional development that deepens teachers’ knowledge of the communities they serve, broader systems of disadvantages faced by their students, and robust pedagogical practices that engage all learners. Simultaneously, policymakers must grant districts and schools greater autonomy in determining professional development and pedagogical approaches that best serve their teachers, students, and communities. Providing guidelines while empowering those closest to the work can facilitate the development of rich, culturally responsive teaching and learning practices.

Ensuring that all students have their educational rights fulfilled through more equitable policies and improved schools can enable our system to transform from one that harms, dehumanizes, and marginalizes to one that confers to dignity to all groups and communities.