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How Can Digital Tools Advance Educational Equity at Scale?

1EdTech's Learning Impact Conference kicked off Monday with a panel, “Achieving Curriculum and Instructional Equity at Scale,” in which K-12 and college administrators discussed inequities facing underserved students.

Black students commute
(AP/Jaime Henry-White)
Over the course of the pandemic and the shifts to and from remote learning, educators have grappled with how to combat learning loss and mitigate existing learning disparities affecting students of color and low-income backgrounds, among other underserved student groups.

Speaking to these issues, Superintendent LaTanya McDade of Prince William County, Va., Public Schools and Shanna Jackson, president of Nashville State Community College, opened up the Learning Impact Conference in Nashville on Monday by examining key challenges in closing achievement gaps amid today's digital surge in education, such as a lack of adequate instructional resources. The ongoing conference is scheduled for June 13-16 and hosted by the nonprofit collaborative 1EdTech, formerly known as the IMS Global Learning Consortium.

In a panel titled “Achieving Curriculum and Instructional Equity at Scale,” McDade said schools must leverage the possibilities of digitization to make curriculums dynamic and interactive in order to boost student engagement and performance.

“When you have a quality digital curriculum, it helps the learner experience,” she said. “We have to be able to keep up … If you have a digital curriculum, it really focuses on continuous improvement.”

McDade (Image from Learning Impact Conference)
McDade noted that digital inequity, a core topic of discussion among educators during COVID-19, highlighted existing disparities across the education system. Among those are equal access to quality instructional resources, which she said has been exacerbated by the pandemic — hindering the economic mobility of students of color, English-language learners, disabled students and other underserved populations later in life.

“About 40 percent of students that are actually going into college are going into college taking remedial courses,” she noted. "When you disaggregate that data, it’s 66 percent for Black students taking remedial courses and 53 percent for Latino students taking remedial courses, and it is 74 percent more likely if you take a remedial course as a first-time bachelor-degree-seeking student, you’ll drop out and never earn that degree, on top of being saddled with debt.”

When it comes to instructional and curriculum equity, McDade said the main challenges revolve around “three critical pieces”: content, teacher practice and student engagement. She noted that about 40 percent of classrooms made up predominately of students of color did not have access to content that was grade-appropriate or culturally relevant.

“Teacher practice is important. More and more, when you think about equity, you have teachers that are not accessing or do not have strong content. They’re spending inordinate amounts of time searching for resources, and oftentimes, the resources they find are low quality,” she said. “If we can tackle that from a place of equity at scale, we would be in a much better place.”

Jackson 1.PNG
Jackson (Image from Learning Impact Conference)
Noting potential solutions to these issues, Jackson said Nashville State Community College recently embarked on an initiative called Better Together to prepare graduates of Metro Nashville Public Schools to attend and complete college courses.

According to the college’s website, the goals for the program are to expand college access, boost college persistence and completion and significantly improve student outcomes for both systems — with a particular focus on closing all achievement and equity gaps that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, among other aims.

The program offers resources to mitigate the digital divide by giving students access to devices, as well as online information on tutoring services.

“We put our teams together because we realized we both were struggling with completion issues,” she said of the program, launched in 2020.

Jackson believes education officials should put their heads together to redesign the education system and make the most out of digital resources and online learning to serve specific student populations like Black males, who she said often graduate college at much lower percentages.

"We’re really getting the results of the system we have designed," she said. "My charge to my folks is that we have to redesign the system."

“We really have to pay attention to the needs of our students, and again, redesign the system so that it actually works for the people we’re actually trying to help,” she later added. “When do you offer classes? How do you offer classes?”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.