4 Strategies for Closing the Opportunity Gap

Event: Closing the Opportunity Gap Virtual Roundtable on June 21, 2022
Facilitator: Shannon Buerk | Founder & CEO, engage2learn | @ShannonKBuerk
Attendees: Ed leaders representing school districts in Illinois, Texas, Kansas, California, and Virginia

Today, educators and ed leaders face increasingly complex challenges: teacher support and retention, ensuring educational equity for all students, providing effective support for multilingual learners, integrating things like SEL into curriculum and culture, closing the opportunity gap, and much more. Such challenges require thoughtful, strategic solutions.

In the spirit of innovation and collaboration, engage2learn hosted the Closing the Opportunity Gap Roundtable for public education leaders from around the country to come together to share their experiences, exchange new ideas, and take actionable steps toward addressing unfinished learning. Here are some key takeaways.

Big Idea: Change happens at the grassroots level.

Whether you’re looking at teacher attrition, student achievement gaps, behavioral challenges, or equity and inclusion, real change can only come from solutions that address the root of the problem. As Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”

01. Invest in job-embedded coaching for principals.

Campus principals have the unique authority to influence sustainable change within the school walls and the responsibility to do so with empathy and intentionality. The pressure to find that delicate balance in order to make the right decisions for an entire school community can be tremendous – and shouldn’t be handled alone. 

Providing ongoing coaching for campus leaders in addition to classroom teachers is crucial for keeping all school staff focused on the same big-picture goals and priorities, nurturing a positive and encouraging campus culture from the top, accelerating student learning and closing opportunity gaps, and making it clear that coaching is not just for a select few. Rather, investing in job-embedded coaching for principals sends the message that ongoing professional learning is for everyone at every level.

“We took all of our leaders, myself included, through a Balanced Leadership Framework training and instituted ongoing professional learning for our principals. It focuses on differentiated learning because our principals were and still are in different places. We have two positions devoted to nothing but principal coaching, supervision, and support, and they spend 80% of their time on campuses to support the ongoing improvement. Through coaching, new learning systems, and aligning our vocabulary through the leadership framework, we’re just scratching the surface.”

Malinda Golden, Deputy Superintendent
Belton Independent School District, Texas

02. Prioritize literacy support.

The importance of consistency in literacy development cannot be overstated. A person’s literacy skills influence virtually everything, from academic success and confidence during childhood to employment, income, and quality of life in adulthood.

Unfortunately, the unpredictable disruptions in learning over the past couple of years means that many students – particularly those in early grades – have not been able to receive the support they’ve needed to build foundational literacy skills. Though this trend is affecting children across demographics, already marginalized communities are experiencing this opportunity gap much more acutely. Thus, prioritizing increased literacy support is critical for student success, today and into the future.

“We were part of a grant program that gave every campus a teacher leader that we call Collaborative Learning Leaders. Today, those have been transitioned into support roles that focus strictly on literacy. Now we call them LIFE (Literacy Impact for Excellence) Coaches. We know there’s a big need in math as well, but literacy ties into math. So by expanding literacy support and maintaining the math support programs already in place, we are helping our students be more successful across subjects.”

Rebeca Garza, Assistant Superintendent for Talent Development
Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, Texas

03. Differentiate professional learning for teachers.

Though the goal of professional development (PD) is to propel teacher and student growth, the research overwhelmingly tells us that traditional PD hardly ever translates to improved practice in the classroom. Differentiated, smart professional learning, on the other hand, meets teachers wherever they are to individualize the path toward growth and mastery of best practices. 

Just as we scaffold standards and differentiate activities for students, smart professional learning gives us the tools to scaffold competencies and differentiate ongoing support for teachers. It makes it easy for teachers to identify the classroom practices they feel confident in, pinpoint areas in which they’d like to improve, and utilize the relevant professional learning resources that meet their unique needs. 

This gives educators ownership over, choice in, and a renewed enthusiasm for their professional learning, translating into increased student achievement and engagement in the classroom.

“We’re getting a lot of buy-in from our staff because we’re giving them choices about their professional development and supporting them where they are… We ask teachers specifically what they need on a personal level and in the classroom, in addition to finding ways to provide a family atmosphere for our teachers and staff. We can’t be losing people because they didn’t have a good experience in our district, so we’re being very intentional about our processes and showing our people that we value them.”

Leopoldo Perez, Associate Superintendent of Instructional Services
Shasta Union High School District, California

04. Utilize data as a tool for equity.

Like we always say: if we don’t have data, it didn’t happen. Collecting and analyzing student outcomes and behavior data allows you to quantify student achievement, pinpoint opportunity gaps, and implement intervention plans that promote educational equity. 

Similar data can also be collected and analyzed on ongoing professional learning, giving you the ability to correlate educator growth with student achievement, identify areas for improvement on the individual or campus-wide level, and continually modify systems and practices to ensure equity.

“First, we had to clearly define what equity is. We’ve spent significant time making sure every human who works for, learns from, or has family members within our district understands clearly what we mean when we say equity. With that in mind, we’ve been able to reframe the way we look at our data. For example, we know that when students are not in class, they’re not learning. When we looked at office discipline referrals in our district data on May 23rd, 53% of Black students in our district had at least one office discipline referral. When we looked at other student demographics with similar behaviors, the numbers were nowhere near that. That was a hard piece of information to accept. But we’re using that data to look at and revise our behavior intervention systems because clearly, we have some that are not effective for many of our students.”

Jamar Scott, Chief Equity and School Improvement Officer
Springfield Public Schools, Illinois

Final Thoughts

Addressing the complexity of opportunity gaps will not look the same from one district to the next. It may not even look the same from one classroom to the next! However, no matter the challenge, designing and implementing people-centered strategies that focus on creating change at the grassroots level will get you closer to accelerating student learning and closing opportunity gaps for good.

Trusted by hundreds of public school districts nationwide, engage2learn’s comprehensive support services and edtech products give ed leaders actionable insights into which initiatives are most effective in closing opportunity gaps and driving long-term change. Learn more and get in touch here!