Best Practices for Driving Equitable Student Experiences

By Amy Guterman | July 9, 2021 | , , | Education, Impact Labs

Last month’s Salesforce.org Education Summit brought together more than 10,000 education trailblazers from over 100 countries for a day of community-driven innovation aimed at driving student success in a whole new way.

One of the themes throughout the Summit was driving equity in education and supporting learners from all backgrounds. I had the privilege of hosting a panel session on Driving Equity in Education, featuring members of our current Impact Labs cohort: Derick Hutchinson, senior manager of college readiness at Houston Independent School District; Dr. Beatriz Joseph, vice chancellor of student success at Dallas College; Dominique Raymond, strategy director for partnerships at Lumina Foundation; and Dr. Jennifer Engle, director of U.S. program data at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Research shows tremendous disparities in the U.S. education system for Black and Latinx learners, disparities only made worse by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is one reason why we’re focusing our second Impact Labs cohort on promoting equity in education for these learners. In the Education Summit panel, this esteemed group of leaders and experts from both the nonprofit and educational sectors shared four key ways for creating more equitable student experiences.

Man and woman sitting at a table talking
Research shows tremendous disparities in the U.S. education system for Black and Latinx learners, disparities only made worse by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy of Dallas College.

1. Set Actionable Goals That Prioritize Equity

A global future is more important and prevalent than ever in a post-pandemic world. Dominique Raymond, strategy director for partnerships at Lumina Foundation, talked about the steps it takes to get there, starting with setting actionable goals that hold schools, states, and leaders accountable to reaching them.

Lumina Foundation set a nationwide goal of 60% of adults to have a postsecondary credential or degree by 2025. “Setting a goal is an essential component to reaching them,” she said. “We’re really interested in seeing not just what schools can do, but what a state and a region can do for students. You have to focus on equity because equity is the work.”

And while driving equity for all students is goal number one, it’s only a pipe dream until you have the goals — and the requisite buy-in — to make it happen. “We’re really after, not just talking about equity, but measuring equity. How are you going to decrease equity gaps and have leadership commitments that can in turn help your campuses thrive? How do you increase your post-secondary attainment on your campus, in your community, and across your state?”

Long-term solutions best occur when you combine leadership, data, and conversations with faculty, staff, and students. As an education advocate, keep learners in mind in every situation and learn about promising practices and solutions being implemented by other organizations.” Most importantly though, Raymond said: “Start. Start doing something.”

2. Utilize Technology to Adapt to Student Needs

Dr. Beatriz Joseph, vice chancellor of student success at Dallas College, talked about the importance of technology that’s used wisely. Coming out of a global pandemic where technology was the only true connective medium between institutions and students, technology undoubtedly has an integral role in making education more equitable.

However, the conversation around technology shouldn’t end there. “It’s not just about technology, but about how to use technology wisely,” Joseph said. “If we’re truly going to meet students where they are, the new normal requires leveraging technology so everyone has access to what they need — whether that’s face to face or virtually.”

Even though Dallas College is fully open as of June 1, virtual academic advising appointments are still at an all-time high. That way of connecting with advisors, and likely the institution as a whole, is an invaluable option for students — not just during the pandemic, but in the years to come.

To continue assisting students when they need it most, Dallas College created more accessible and convenient channels for engagement between students and faculty. Being able to get advice on the weekend or late at night, and being able to access resources 24/7 in a virtual setting are non-negotiable in the post-pandemic environment — they’re increasingly becoming standard expectations of the college experience.

“Whatever the need is, you have to be able to pivot,” she said. The pandemic certainly forced every institution to be more nimble and adapt to the needs of the students they serve, and that continued flexibility will be essential for driving learner equity in the years ahead.

3. Identify Struggling Students Early & Connect With Them Often

The top quarter students are often the ones who visit a teacher’s office, seek out your college advisors, and are generally pretty easy to keep in touch with. But creating equity in education requires deeper interventions with the students who aren’t easiest to connect with. “We need to reach the students who are struggling, and likely avoiding the college centers, the advising department, the financial aid offices,” said Derrick Hutchinson, senior manager of college readiness at Houston Independent School District.

His team has been proactive about making these important resources more approachable by trying things like changing the names of college preparatory centers to make them more inclusive. Another critical component to connect with the students who need extra support most? An all-in-one platform to reach students where they’re at. “We built a custom solution using Salesforce that gave us a 360-degree view of all of our students — test scores, contact information, advising appointments, etc.,” Hutchinson said. “The kids who need the most help are the ones who are avoiding us, so having a platform that gives our advisors more information and access is critical to reaching them.”

He came with his own tips to drive equity in education, which include: using data to find the gaps and dive deeper beyond the top 15% of students; reaching the students who are starting at a different level than others, and not waiting to connect with them until the end of the year; proactively setting advising appointments with students and not waiting for them to come to you; and taking notes when you do meet with students so you have all your information and data in one place.

4. Leverage Data to Support Students Who are Falling Behind

For Dr. Jennifer Engle, director of U.S. program data at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, her team thinks about data as representative of students’ experiences throughout the course of their education. “When we don’t have the appropriate data, education equity gaps are ignored,” she said. “Data helps us tell stories about how students are being supported through the education system, and offers important early indicators of either positive student momentum or early warning flags that enable immediate action.”

How do we help ease that transition from high school to college? “We know that students who accumulate enough credits in their first year to graduate on time are two-to-three times more likely to graduate. Early momentum indicators are critical for helping us find out in real time which of our students need extra help to stay on track,” Engle said. “Students who have unmet financial need are at higher risk to drop out because they have to make a choice between going to work or going to school — it’s a really huge early warning indicator. Data is critical for helping us understand those student stories, and also for helping rewrite those student stories.”

We know how the pandemic exacerbated the equity gaps that already existed in the education pipeline, and how students of color and low-income students were the first ones to drop out or delay their education plans when the pandemic started, but the data gives us a fuller picture. “Looking at access rates is in and of itself an important indicator,” she said. “We need to look not just at attendance, but how students are interacting with course materials, instructors, et cetera, and leverage those interactions as points of contact to keep them engaged for success.”

Woman on a virtual call
To continue assisting students when they need it most, Dallas College created more accessible and convenient channels for engagement between students and faculty. Image courtesy of Dallas College.

This is undoubtedly a critical inflection point for global education. Coming out of the pandemic, we have an opportunity to create a “new normal” that makes equality a cornerstone of education. To do that, it’s imperative that we harness the power of community to create solutions that better support Black and Latinx learners as they navigate post-secondary education and transition into the workforce.

Learn more by reading Impact Labs’ new report on five technology design principles to promote equity in education.


About the Author

Amy Guterman, Director for Salesforce.org Impact Labs
Amy Guterman
Director for Salesforce.org Impact Labs
Amy believes in the power of human-centered design and technology to create positive change in the world. Her career has centered on using design thinking for social impact, tackling challenges that range from reducing violence in Chicago to improving health information systems in low to moderate income countries. Her work has been featured in publications such as FastCo, Wired, and Design Observer and recognized internationally by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.