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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Designing for equity
The new ABC's for re-opening schools
By Linda Kaminski, Magaly Lavadenz and Elvira Armas | September | October 2021
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The term “learning loss” is too often used to describe the restorative restart needed in California’s most underserved communities for the 2021-2022 academic year. It is accurate that many students have experienced enormous disruptions in their lives and learning, but historically most approaches to learning deficits have meant remediation, which has not proven to be an effective strategy, especially for English learners.
According to NASEM (2017), diagnosing student needs and addressing them instructionally necessitates a mind shift that involves “seeing instruction as supporting students’ academic development rather than as remediation for their lack of English language proficiency” (p 273). Focusing on loss is not the whole “truth” of what we will experience when classroom doors open. It is glass-half-empty thinking, deficit thinking, that limits our ability to see and build on the strengths and the assets that our students bring with them as they enter classrooms again. There are better approaches.
A positive view based on the recognition of assets provides a stronger starting place for addressing both unmet needs and new opportunities for thriving. While we recognize and address student needs, we also recognize that our students are resilient. Our students adjusted the best they could to learning from home. Black and Latino families especially faced economic and health challenges, often signaling “the triple pandemic.” They return to school, perhaps a bit unsure about how the new year will unfold, but also with a belief that school is good for them, a place where they can continue to grow in academics, athletics, activities, and affirmations from their peers and teachers. Our students have shown that they are resilient, and as they begin in-person learning again, their willingness to engage in learning renews our hope and commitment to re-energizing education.
A new opportunity to enact equity
Our responsibility is to build on these assets and create learning environments characterized by the new ABC’s: Accelerate, Build and Communicate. For English learners, these new ABC’s incorporate the key principles of the California English Learner Roadmap, the state policy for equitable and effective instruction. This roadmap comprises four principles:
1. Assets-Oriented and Needs-Responsive Schools 2. Intellectual Quality of Instruction and Meaningful Access 3. System Conditions that Support Effectiveness, and 4. Alignment and Articulation Within and Across Systems.
Let’s see how the new ABC’s align to the four principles and guide us in providing the most effective schools for English learners.
A is for accelerate
It is a truism that one must go faster to catch up. Yet that seldom happens in our schools. Traditionally, students who have not had equitable learning opportunities are pulled out of the grade level instruction for some portion of the day and taught the prior grade-level lessons. While this may help students master prior year expectations, it still leaves them behind, partly because of reduced exposure to the current year expectations. Acceleration, however, better meets teachers’ goal to help students meet grade level or course expectations. With acceleration, teachers from the current year course and the prior year course identify and align the essential learnings for success in the current course. Many districts and schools do this already. But, here’s the difference: Instead of implementing a remedial approach by assigning students to an intervention course or pull-out program, or taking an extended period of weeks to re-teach the prior content, the teacher orchestrates the acceleration of access to content coupled with academic and linguistics supports/scaffolds. Students remain in the same course and the teacher embeds the prior year content when it is pertinent to the current course. Engaging in the essential prior year content when it is most applicable allows students to learn the content when it will be needed, to make connections between the prior and current year content, and to deepen their understanding. Students continue to have access to the full, intellectually rich, standards-based instruction for their grade or course, and receive the support of exposure to key antecedents necessary for success aligned to current instruction. Additionally, English learners in schools with bilingual or dual language instruction can use the students’ primary language assets to provide even deeper understanding of essential concepts between courses. Acceleration is thus both assets-oriented and needs-responsive, while providing students meaningful access to intellectually rigorous, language-rich, standards-based instruction through alignment and articulation within and across courses (EL Roadmap Principles 1, 2, 4, and with district and/or school support, 3).
B is for build
Building on strengths is the essence of an asset-based approach to education. Brain research has shown how prior knowledge facilitates acquiring new knowledge. Some of students’ prior knowledge is acquired through formal education, but even during the time of school closures, students have continued to learn … through online instruction and through experiences and observations during stay-at-home orders. Families and siblings have spent more time together, sharing their knowledge, culture, expectations and strategies for handling the pandemic challenges. Older students may have taken outside jobs and acquired practical knowledge in a new environment. Bilingual students’ primary language may be richer and more developed as they have been exposed to many more discussions in their primary language at home with family members and through the news, or other television. The knowledge gained during the pandemic can contribute to further learning once schools reopen. For example, math concepts such as fractions, decimals and money may make more sense if the students were engaged in shopping or budgeting. Discussions at home about coronavirus could contribute to greater understanding of health and science. Discussions about politics can contribute to deeper understanding of challenges seen across history. This informally and experientially acquired content knowledge is a strength that can facilitate continued learning in school of both general educational concepts and career-focused knowledge. It is an asset from which we can continue to build new learning. As such, it exemplifies an assets-oriented approach to education and strengthens meaningful access to new knowledge and experiences, while ensuring coherence between what students already know and what they are in the process of learning. (EL Roadmap Principles 1, 2, and 3).
C is for communicate
In addition to communication between home and school that builds on the cultural and linguistic assets of students, families and communities, there are two essential sources of communication within the classroom: teachers and students. Teachers’ communication of affirmations and their recognition of students’ strengths and capabilities to grow intellectually establish a positive learning environment — the necessary foundation for learning. Students’ communications help them capture and retain ideas, make meaning, identify feelings, and retain knowledge. Teacher and peer communications support the expansion of ideas, meaning, empathy and knowledge. All students, as language learners, need ongoing opportunities to listen to language and practice language in authentic ways to communicate their perspective, understandings and wishes. Language-rich classrooms that value and build on the language students bring to school and build language and knowledge through strategies such as dialogic reading and Socratic discussions are instrumental for accelerating learning. For English learners, both designated and integrated ELD are essential for continued language development. Designated ELD provides students the time to acquire specific aspects of language; while integrated ELD provides access to content knowledge across the full curriculum. A rich, standards-based curriculum based on ELD standards and content standards with optimal engagement in authentic language strengthens language development, preferably in both the primary language as well as English (CDE, 2015.; EL Roadmap Principles 1 and 2).
The ABC’s plus D and E: Designing for equity
These New ABC’s — Accelerate, Build, and Communicate — can serve as a reminder for organizational planning, student engagement, teacher collaboration, professional learning, and school and district support for the coming year. The ABC’s should be informed by “D and E”— Designing for Equity — as school reopening plans require systems alignment and articulation with an equity focus.
To be clear, systems-level reforms are required if we genuinely desire different processes and outcomes (Santos & Hopkins, 2020). Designing for equity requires clarity and commitment to define equity as a framework for systemwide enactment. Essential components in designing for equity include both schooling and families as leaders. All families, especially those of marginalized groups such as Black, Latinos and ELs, should be full partners in the development of plans for programs and services.
There are several equity frameworks that help to conceptualize equity in order to build and design new education systems that serve to dismantle systemic inequities:
The National Equity Project Leading for Equity Framework — This framework challenges us to actualize an equity leadership mindset that utilizes a windows and mirrors stance to “see” inequities, engage others, and act by strategically addressing equity challenges. The framework employs a Liberatory Design approach that includes iterative co-design processes intended to develop system conditions that yield equitable outcomes and experiences for students.
Building Equitable Learning Environments Framework (BELE) — Comprised of four dimensions, the BELE framework emphasizes the creation of critical consciousness and understanding of the history and people in the school and communities we serve. This heightened understanding allows for an identification of inequities coupled with a commitment to address these by intentionally designing teaching and learning spaces that are culturally sustaining and trauma informed to promote maximum engagement. Schoolwide systems and structures include restorative practices, meaningful relationships, and partnerships with families and communities to transform student experiences and learning outcomes.
The Equity Scorecard — Developed by the USC Center for Urban Education (CUE), this higher education scorecard embeds a culture of equity mindedness as part of a process that engages a cross-departmental “evidence team” to investigate data, practices and policies. The process sheds light on the current state and areas of improvement to address inequities and increase the success of students from underrepresented racial-ethnic groups. Actionable short- and long-term goals can be applied to K-12 schools and guide implementation of proposed solutions; evidence is collected and the team completes a Scorecard to reflect the results of the investigations.
Next steps for education leaders
Prior to and throughout this new year of reopened schools, we can ask ourselves the following questions:
Reflections for district leaders
  • How do I ensure I have deep knowledge about acceleration, leveraging prior knowledge, and engaging students in authentic communication across the curriculum?
  • How do I engage and collaborate with my team — the governance team, district leadership, site leadership, and labor leadership — to (re)define and design equity leadership and actions that inform our shared knowledge about the value of acceleration and engaging and supporting students in rigorous, intellectually rich grade level curriculum?
  • How can I lead the development of an equity plan that includes principles and elements of the California English Learner Roadmap?
  • Reflections for site leaders
  • How do I work together with staff, students and families to collaborate on ways to align the curriculum in order to accelerate student learning, to build on prior knowledge and to engage students in authentic communication?
  • Are our lessons based on the new ABC’s plus D and E?
  • How do our goals reflect our commitment to equity?
  • How can I lead the development of an equity plan that includes principles and elements of the California English Learner Roadmap?
Reflections for my school and district
  • How can my school and district support alignment and articulation across courses throughout the district and provide job-embedded professional development and peer coaching?
  • Are district expectations and support based on a defined equity framework and the new ABC’s plus D and E?
  • How can my school and district support the development of an equity plan that includes principles and elements of the California English Learner Roadmap?
Closing thoughts
Developing conceptual clarity about what equity is, and is not, is an essential first step in turning the challenges of reopening schools into the opportunity of redesigning our schools. These New ABC’s, embedded within a system Designed for Equity, hold promise for a future of success for both students and educators. The lessons learned during COVID-19, the challenges overcome, and the resilience developed can propel us to re-imagine education and rebuild with a renewed commitment to the best practices for equity and excellence for all.
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California Department of Education. (2017). California English learner roadmap: Strengthening comprehensive educational policies, programs, and practices for English learners. Sacramento, CA: Author.
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California English Learner Roadmap and Toolkits for Elementary, Middle and High School: Available online and in print from Californians Together: https://californianstogether.org
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Lavadenz M., Kaminski L.R.G., Armas E.G., & López G.V., (2021). Equity Leadership for English Learners during COVID-19: Early Lessons. Frontiers in Education. 6:636281. https://doi:10.3389/feduc.2021.636281
Myung, J., Kimner, H., Cottingham, B., Diaz Luna, S., Shiels, S., & Hough, H. (2021). Restorative restart: The path towards reimagining and rebuilding schools [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education. https://edpolicyinca.org/publications/restorative-restart
National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine (2017). Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, doi: 10.17226/24677
Santos, M., and Hopkins, M. (2020). “Creating schools and systems that support asset-based, high-quality instruction for multilingual learners,” in Improving Education for Multilingual and English Learner Students: Research to Practice. California Department of Education, eds P. Krizo and A. Calinsky (Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education), 413–504
The National Equity Project. (n.d.). Leading for Equity Framework. Available on line from: https://www.nationalequityproject.org/framework/leading-for-equity-framework
TNTP. (2020). Learning Acceleration Guide. Planning for Acceleration in the 2020-2021 School Year. Available on line from: https://tntp.org/assets/covid-19-toolkit-resources/Learning_Acceleration_for_All_2021.pdf
Linda Kaminski is a retired superintendent and former ACSA president. Magaly Lavadenz and Elvira Armas work at Loyola Marymount University.
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