High-Quality Teaching for Equity

Sheena Hervey and Erick Witherspoon

The most significant challenge we face in education is how to best prepare our students for a rapidly changing, technology driven, globalized world. We need to broaden our view of student achievement to include greater emphasis on the higher order skills necessary for developing global citizens who are ready for the world beyond school.  Our current focus on career and college readiness addresses this need for increased rigor by significantly raising expectations for students. But evidence shows that high-quality teaching is the most important influence schools can have on high-quality outcomes for all students and closing the achievement gap.

Recently, Richard Carranza, the newly appointed Chancellor for New York City, said he saw equity as a priority for the city schools. He also said he wanted a de-emphasis on Standardized Testing and to bring fun back into schools. The parents and guardians of New York’s 1.2 million students and the 14,000 principals would probably agree that equity needs to be a focus. However, there is unlikely to be agreement on what this means in terms of shifts in practice at the school level.

Equity must be addressed at the points where inequity in educational opportunities and outcomes exist.  Every student brings a unique cultural background to school, and every day many students struggle to navigate the conflicting cultures between home and school. There can be no educational excellence without educational equity. Understanding the full impact of inequities is the first step to creating inclusive learning environments, supportive schools, and targeted instruction that reflects high expectations for every student.

In the fall of 2014, for the first time, the overall number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 classrooms surpassed the number of non-Hispanic whites. This enrollment milestone reflects not only a cultural shift but also a host of challenges for educators, including more students living in poverty, more students learning English as an additional language, and more whose life experiences will differ from those of their teachers.  The greatest challenge in education is acknowledging and addressing the issue that the majority of the student population is now made up of the students whom schools historically have served least well.

There are emerging and innovative practices springing up across the education community seeking to motivate, engage and challenge more students.  There are many excellent teachers, and great schools with strong community links.  But, at a system level, overall performance against international and national benchmarks is relatively stagnant. The achievement gap between high and low performers persists and, alarmingly, has increased in some areas. This suggests we need to do things differently, and do them better, so that all students are well prepared for a more challenging and uncertain world.

Over the years, various approaches have come in and out of favor in an effort to raise achievement. These include: tighter curricula specifications, prescriptive structures for literacy and math blocks, scripts for teaching and increased accountability, all resulting in minimal impact on the learning outcomes for students (Boykin & Noguera, 2011).

We are a little reticent to suggest that education needs to be reinvented, partly because many aspects of the system work perfectly well, and also because one of the big problems that education suffers from are endless attempts to reinvent it. American schools are very good at implementing new initiatives but not good at improvement.

Forty years ago, we knew there were no easy answers, or quick fixes, for addressing the achievement gap and the same is true today. The difference is that we are now addressing the achievement gap for an increasingly diverse student population while also raising expectations for all students.

Our kindergarten students will enter a job market that is vastly different from today. The profound changes ahead demand an education approach that will provide young people with enduring capabilities and skills to harness the opportunities of technological change. The next wave of education reform will need to lift the bar higher and make education ‘smarter’ to ensure that today’s kindergarten students have the skill and confidence required to navigate an increasingly complex world.

  1. The adoption of new, more rigorous standards has provided an opportunity for schools to reflect on the quality of their curriculum. Students are more likely to succeed when the curriculum is challenging, engaging and culturally responsive to the diversity of the students and community. However, academic quality is influenced not just by content, but also by teacher expectations for students. Numerous studies have demonstrated that students’ patterns of progress and achievement are impacted by their teachers’ expectations (American Educational Research Association [AERA], 2004). Evaluations of successful schools have also found a direct connection between a culture of high expectations and student success (Kannapel & Clements, 2005).
  2. The social setting teachers provide is equally as important as the physical environment.  Schools that value academic achievement and maintain high expectations are more likely to establish safe, inclusive learning environments.  More importantly, they do this through adherence to a culture of high expectations rather than mandates and policy decisions (Casey, 2000; Kannapel & Clements, 2005).
  3. Even though a high-quality curriculum and high expectations for learners are required for success, they are insufficient on their own. What we know and have persistently ignored is that the quality of the classroom teacher is more important than a challenging and engaging curriculum: “the most important thing a school can do to raise achievement and close the gap is to improve the teaching” (Hattie 2009).  An analysis of data from the UTD Texas School Project found that high quality teachers substantially closed the achievement gap, especially for low-income elementary school students (Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2005).   Effective teachers who know their students as learners provide instruction that is differentiated and flexible.
  4. True adoption of these standards represents qualitatively different expectations and their success will require significant shifts in educational practice. Changes this significant are unlikely to occur without equally significant in­vestments in the knowledge and skills of educators.
  5. There is an urgent need to provide our teachers with the same level of depth and rigor of professional development that our evolving educational standards are being placed on our students. Not only is this a necessary shift for all teachers, but it is critically important that we make this a priority for our most underserved populations and communities. 

We’ve spent the last decade redefining educational standards and what it means for a student to be college and career ready.  If we are going to make our goals a reality, then we must make the instructional shifts needed to ensure an equitable education for all our students.  

Sheena Hervey is chief academic officer and advisory board co-chair and Erick Witherspoon director of equity services at Generation Ready.


Boykin, A. W. & Noguera P. (2011)  Creating the opportunity to learn: moving form research to practice to close the achievement gap. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Casey, S. C. (2000). No excuses: Lessons from 21 high-performing, high-poverty schools. Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation.

Hattie, J.A,C. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of 800+ meta-analysis on achievement. London: Routledge

Kannapel, P. J., & Clements, S. K. (2005, February). Inside the black box of high-performing high-poverty schools. Lexington, KY: The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

Rivkin S. G., Hanushek E. A.  and Kain J. F. (2005): “Variable Definitions, Data, and Pro- grams for ‘Teachers, Students, and Academic Achievement’,” Econometrica Supplementary Material, 73, 2,

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