Time to go on Offense on Equity in Schools

Doug Roberts
7 min readMay 6, 2020


Image by Craig Froehle

May 4, 2020

By Doug Roberts, Founder/CEO

The opportunity to go on offense for equity

This is a moment. Many of us have been talking about inequity in public education for years. We’ve sat in plenary sessions and keynotes starting at the picture of the kids trying to look over the fence where the kids all have stools the same height vs. each kid getting a stool with the right height allowing them to peer over. This graphic is a simple illustration of what we have to do, but then our thoughts turn to what it takes to get stools of different heights in a public education system in which finances are determined based on counting each student equally through tools like “Average Daily Attendance.” These mechanisms are drawn up by legislators and policy wonks, many of whom will never have to figure out how to get a classroom of learners with diverse backgrounds and needs to the same finish line.

But here we are, in the midst of a pandemic. Millions of parents have been deputized as teaching assistants. Districts have been tasked with figuring out how to deliver instruction outside the 4 walls of the school building, where they can no longer control the ability for students to access the internet or ensure the proper safety protocols are in place when kids go online. We may never again see a moment like this. Many parents now realize how difficult a job teaching really is, and surely many also realize that their kids’ ability to learn is directly proportional to a family’s ability to provide a suitable learning environment and instructional support at home. Families with multiple children may see that some kids do better with distance learning and asynchronous instructional methods, while others do not. Even genetically related kids learn differently. On the silver lining side, districts are discovering that some kids do OK with this setup. All of us are learning what works and what does not with remote learning. We’re finding that things that seemed important before don’t seem as such now- bell schedules, grades, assessments, on-site meetings and PD.

The IEI Superintendent community has been engaged in discussions throughout this period to share ideas and support with each other through this unprecedented situation. One of our long-time partners, ThoughtExchange, provides a tool that facilitates discussion amongst our group both when we are together in-person and when we are all in our district offices. The prompt for a recent Exchange toward the beginning of the COVID-19 school shutdown was:

Equity: What are solutions to accelerate learning for students most affected by school closures?

The most common words that bubbled up from all the responses we received across our network of superintendents were:

Love. Support. Home. Access. Learning. Devices. Now.

In an Exchange, our members are asked to contribute ideas which are then reviewed and rated for by the community based on how much that particular idea resonates with them. The ideas that rose to the top in our group were:

  1. Pressure legislatures to make universal broadband the law of the land

Parents are voters. Everybody is now aware how important internet at home is for learning.

  1. Kids need to know they are cared for!

Learning gains will be greater when they know they have love/support.

  1. Competency-Based Education

The nation and our states need to consider moving to a competency based model with a series of assessments throughout the year.

  1. New learning is challenging in a regular classroom with certified teachers

We must provide local and regional “Office Hours” to support learners. If we do not support students, they will disengage.

It is being written and said on cable news shows that if COVID were a baseball game, we are only in the second inning and we’re playing a full 9. So here at this early stage of processing the massive impact of the pandemic on our students and their learning, the IEI superintendents are already looking ahead and planning for a new normal. We dedicated an entire superintendent summit in spring of 2019 to the discussion around equity- equal access to learning opportunities for all kids and equal opportunities for all our staff members to develop into successful leaders, regardless of their socio-economic status or identity. Equity has been a hot-topic issue discussed at many superintendent and other education conference gatherings across the nation the last several years. COVID is forcing us to move quickly from words to action, and the IEI superintendents have already begun to make this pivot. It is becoming increasingly clear that when kids do come back to school buildings, we will have to drastically change some of the ways we were used to operating. IEI Advisor and Puget Sound ESD (WA) superintendent John Welch said recently on a Talk Supes Podcast that everything is on the table for being revised and rewritten- the daily school schedule, starting times, dismissal times, the school calendar, teacher and staff employment contracts, after-school extracurricular activities, assemblies. All of it. Some of these changes will be temporary until there is an antibody test or vaccine. Some of this will be permanent- the same way we’re probably going to have to rethink shaking hands with random people. But some of these changes will increase equity of learning opportunities for students and needed to happen, COVID or not.

Love. Support. Home. Access. Learning. Devices. Now.

Think about these words from the IEI superintendent discussion. Pretend there is no pandemic. Pretend kids are in classrooms, that lacrosse, softball, and baseball games and track meets are being played on school fields in the afternoons, that proms are happening and graduation ceremonies are being planned. Now look at this list of words again. COVID hasn’t changed our belief that these ideas need to be central to our work as district leaders. But now some of the systemic structures that restrict our ability to implement solutions that ensure equity have suddenly been removed.

Assessments are important, and of course we want to make sure that kids learn grit and skills necessary to succeed in the workplace or college, but what if we focus FIRST on love? IEI Board member and Livonia CSD (NY) superintendent Matthew Cole went as far to send out communication to the Livonia parents and students that he was effectively re-writing the “Learning Standards” to focus on loving and supporting one another, encouraging the entire district community to postpone worries about ensuring students meet academic milestones.

There has been a lot of research and writing on the impacts of a student’s access to learning at home, including access to devices connected to the internet. Many of our IEI member superintendents have told stories of families driving up to school parking lots in the evenings because it’s the only place they can access reliable wifi. The top rated idea in our Exchange was that of universal internet access. It’s not that we did not need this in The Before Times. We did. And every IEI superintendent and many of their colleagues around the country have been talking about this to anyone who will listen. If kids are in homes where parents are able to provide support for their education- either through literacy/numeracy exposure, by providing safe, quiet spots for kids to read and do work, by helping them with their school work, or by providing reliable internet access- those kids are more likely to do better in school and have success in life. If families are unable to provide such support in the home- for whatever reason, usually out of the parent(s)’ control- students are more likely to struggle. Before, our work was to try to figure out ways to get more services and support for those kids who need it more without compromising the opportunities for other kids to learn.

But we were bound by the structures of school as we knew it then. Now? Not so much. The truth is that there are some students who are doing OK with out-of-school learning. So maybe this gives us the opportunity to find ways to get more aggressive on solutions for kids who have traditionally struggled? If, as John Welch says, everything is on the table to be rethought, then we need to truly rethink everything before kids come back to school, and then keep rethinking and revising after that. We used to furrow our brows in breakout sessions and share ideas for incremental improvements we could make to increase equity within the rigid structures of our school systems. But Now? It’s time for bold ideas and action. The next thought exercise for IEI is:

Imagine you are the king/queen of your district with unlimited and unrestricted power to restructure your schools for the fall. What would you do?

Assume your current local/state/federal funding is the same as this year, but you are free to seek new revenue sources!

COVID-19 has been a horrible disaster. As of this writing, over 65,000 lives have been lost. Businesses are closing. Families are feeling acute economic impacts, jobs are being lost at record rates. All this loss and heartbreak can not be for naught. Let’s honor the victims of COVID-19 by working hard to put new structures in place when kids return that will better help us provide access to great learning opportunities for ALL kids, regardless of their socio-economic status, identity, or geographic isolation. Look out for Part 2 of this blog post in a month or so!

The author is the Founder and CEO of The Institute for Education Innovation, a national think tank of school superintendents who gather virtually and in-person throughout the year to discuss bold ideas, share best practices, and solve the challenges facing our students in public schools.



Doug Roberts

Doug partnered with some of the nation’s most innovative educational leaders to form IEI as a think tank that solves challenges facing kids in US public schools