5 ways for school leaders to promote equity, student agency

New Project Tomorrow research documents how technology use can support more equity and engaging learning experiences for all students

Students continue to struggle against persistent educational inequities, and while they report worrisome levels of disengagement, a move toward student-directed learning could help students and educators alike find a better path toward impactful learning experiences.

The report, Empowering and Engaging Student Voice to Create Equity in Education, comes from Project Tomorrow, a national education nonprofit supporting the implementation of research-based learning experiences, and Blackboard Inc., a global edtech software and solutions company. It leverages key insights from a survey of 50,000 K-12 students, parents, and educators during the 2020-21 school year.

“The disruptive events of the past 18 months with the pandemic and shifts in learning modalities have opened our collective eyes to several new truths including about the interrelationship between equity and student empowerment as documented in this new report,” said Dr. Julie A. Evans, chief researcher and CEO of Project Tomorrow. “With the research in front of us, we cannot look away now but must take this opportunity in time to re-think the ways we are approaching learning and especially how technology can be better used to support student engagement in learning.”

Key findings

1. While two-thirds of students grades 6-12 said the top benefit of virtual learning was learning at their own pace, less than half of school principals saw it as an important benefit.

2. Overall, just half of students say they’re engaged. At schools where the majority of the 6-12 grade population are students of color, just 43% agree they are engaged with what they are learning, 8 points lower than schools where the majority of the student population is white (51%).

3. Self-directed learning emerged as a critical engagement tool. Surveyed students’ preference for a school culture where self-directed learning is the norm is valued by 55% of high school students. Among students who say that they wish their classes were more interesting at school, 60% identify this learning preference.

4. Teachers have also become more comfortable using technology to personalize experiences for students. For example, 37% of teachers this year said they were very comfortable using technology to personalize experiences for students in their class; only 21% of teachers said the same in the 2019-20 school year.

5. Additionally, 44% of teachers report that, as a result of remote learning experiences, they now understand how to engage students effectively in learning when that learning modality is online. Email (67%), mobile apps with conversational capabilities (61%), and text messaging (54%) remain the most effective way for high schoolers to communicate with teachers.

“Educators and learners’ experiences during the pandemic continue to bring into sharper focus the importance of student agency when it comes to engaging learners,” said Dan Seeley, Vice President, Product Management for Community Engagement at Blackboard. “Empowering learners to direct their unique learning journey demands a personalized experience, tailored to each student’s needs.”

Five questions K-12 leaders should be asking today

Using the survey data as the foundation, the new report proposes five key questions that every K-12 education leader should be asking today as a result of the ongoing disruptions to school for many students in the United States. The five questions set out in the report prompt the reader to think deeply about what is needed to ensure that student agency and equity is a top priority in their school or district. 

Those five questions are: 

  1. How does technology support student learning and agency across a variety of educational settings and classroom formats?   
  2. What has been the impact of remote learning and digital learning formats on students’ perceptions of school and education? 
  3. Are our students more or less engaged in school today?        
  4. What types of learning experiences do students want and prefer?  
  5. What can your school or district do to meet the needs, expectations, and aspirations of students for a more equitable and engaging learning experience?  
Laura Ascione
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