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Promoting Equity and Excellence through Online Learning

Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Ph.D. Rupi Boyd, Ed.D., & Jose Iniguez, Ed.D.

In response to COVID-19, almost overnight, K-12 schools pivoted to implement online learning. Hundreds of thousands of dedicated educators quickly learned new technologies, designed new lesson strategies, and tried to figure out how to connect with their students electronically. While our nation should applaud educators for their amazing efforts to adapt quickly to the realities of the pandemic, we know students did not benefit equitably. Often the students who were most likely to benefit were those from middle-class families with abundant access to technology and college-educated parents who could facilitate their children’s learning. Often the students who were least likely to benefit were those from low-income families, English learners, Black students, Latinx students, indigenous students, students experiencing homelessness, and students with disabilities (the groups that have been traditionally underserved in our nation. As we continue to rely heavily on online learning (whether teaching occurs within or outside of school building) we should focus intently on helping everyone refine efforts in ways that maximize excellence and equity. This is a great time to ask ourselves, how can we get the most from online learning in ways that ensure equity and excellence for all the students we have the privilege to serve.

Toward this end, we believe the schools NCUST awards, celebrates, and studies can teach us a lot about how to improve equity and excellence in online learning. Since 2005, NCUST has been identifying amazing elementary, middle, and high schools that generate great learning results for all demographic groups of students. Not surprisingly, we have seen impressive teaching throughout these schools. As we described in Teaching Practices from America’s Best Urban Schools (2nd Edition), instruction in these schools:

  1. Makes students feel valued and capable – Instruction occurs in a context that sends a powerful message to students (from all demographic backgrounds) that they are valued, respected, and loved and that they are capable learners who have infinite capacity to grow and excel. Focuses on students understanding and mastering challenging content – Teaching is planned not merely to present content, but to ensure that all groups of students develop deep understandings of content. 

  2. Promotes clarity – Students acquire clarity about what they are expected to learn, how they are expected to demonstrate their learning, and how they can assess the extent of their learning.

  3. Ensures culturally, socially, and personally responsive teaching – All students perceive a connection between what they are learning and their cultural, social, and personal backgrounds. Teaching is designed to make students perceive unfamiliar content as highly relevant to their backgrounds, concerns, and experiences.

  4. Checks understanding, provides feedback and adapts – Educators do not assume students understand simply because the student was in the range of their voice. Instead, teachers continuously check to ensure that each and every student is progressing toward a deep understanding of key lesson concepts. As well, teachers provide clear and useful feedback that helps students adjust their thinking as appropriate.

  5. Builds students’ fluency with key vocabulary – All students (even the shy ones) come to “own” the vocabulary central to the concepts being taught because students are continuously being challenged and supported to use the vocabulary frequently and precisely.

  6. Promotes successful practice – Teachers gradually release responsibility to students, so students have a strong likelihood of success (with reasonable effort).

  7. Leads students to love learning – Instruction engages the hearts, minds, and bodies of students in ways that make students want to learn more and more.

Teaching Practices from America's Best Urban Schools Second Edition Book CoverEach year, when we visit our America’s Best Urban Schools Award finalists, we find countless examples of these practices. We see teachers from all grade levels and all academic disciplines utilizing these practices in ways that generate excellent learning results for Black students, Latinx students, English learners, students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and many other demographic groups.

We believe all eight of these practices can be applied in ways that make online learning more powerful and more effective for diverse populations of students. In fact, we already see evidence from many of our 2020 America’s Best Urban School Award winners that they have modeled the adaptation of best teaching practices in ways that greatly enhanced the effectiveness of their online learning efforts.

Every other week, for the next several weeks, we will use this blog to highlight how educators can strengthen their online teaching efforts in ways that enhance the success of all their students. Starting with “Making Students Feel Valued and Capable” we will follow the outline of Teaching Practices in America’s Best Urban Schools with blog posts that provide practical suggestions for how educators can adapt their online teaching and learning practices. As well, we will offer a series of free webinars that highlight how outstanding teachers and principals are accelerating the learning of their students by utilizing these practices well.

NCUST is excited to partner with educators around the country who want to make online learning more than just a stopgap measure. We are excited about the potential of online learning to engage and inspire students who have traditionally not been either. Together, we can make online learning a great tool for advancing equity and excellence. Please look to our next newsletter for additional information about how you can participate.

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