The Intersection

An Equity Q&A with Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, CEO, Learning Policy Institute

September 4, 2017


Q: Describe the opportunity ESSA presents to states hoping to achieve a more equitable education system. Why is this a critical juncture in the history of education policy in the United States?

A: Despite the American promise of equal educational opportunity for all students, persistent achievement gaps among more and less advantaged groups of students remain, along with the opportunity gaps that create disparate outcomes. However, the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) represents an opportunity for the federal government, states, districts and schools to equitably design education systems to ensure that the students who have historically been underserved by these same education systems, receive an education that prepares them for the demands of the 21st century. 

Just as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 institutionalized the federal commitment to improving schooling for disadvantaged students, ESSA has the potential to make the education of these young people – students of color, low-income students, English language learners, students with disabilities, and foster and homeless youth – a top priority.

The passage of ESSA presents an opportunity for states to move away from policies that incentivize schools to push out low-performing students to boost test scores and instead to recognize and advance the dignity, promise, and potential in all students as they strive to graduate high school and college, to excel in their school experiences, and to be fully prepared to succeed and shape the life ahead of them.

If federal and state officials approach the new ESSA through an equity lens – and if communities and stakeholder are informed and engaged – we could make serious progress in the coming years toward the values of fairness and equity we espouse as a nation.


Q: What policy mechanism(s) relating to ESSA would you identify as having the most potential to create a more equitable education system?

A: As we outline in a recent Learning Policy Institute report, there are at least four ways that ESSA could strongly advance equity, if it is thoughtfully regulated and implemented. 

First is the set of expectations in Title I that states will design standards, curriculum, and assessments that develop and measure higher order thinking skills for all of their children, and the resources in Title II for professional learning that could make these rights real. Just as W.E.B. Dubois argued for a rich, liberal education for black children, when most wanted to relegate them to training for menial labor, so must we insist on a 21st century curriculum focused on critical thinking and problem solving for the children whom ESEA is intended to serve, rather than a rote-oriented education that prepares them for the factory jobs of the past.  States have the opportunity to transform their assessments to support real applications of learning. The law encourages the use of projects and performance tasks, ESSA raises the possibility that the nation will take up this work.

Second is the fact that ESSA insists that states use multiple measures to evaluate student and school progress — both overall and for subgroups of students. Among these could be measures not only of student outcomes—such as test score gains, English learner progress, and graduation rates – but also measures of students’ opportunities to learn: how many receive and complete a college preparatory sequence, for example, or a high-quality career technical pathway? Do their schools have well-qualified and effective teachers? Do survey results suggest that they have a safe, supportive school climate that offers high-quality learning opportunities to students and teachers? Have schools reduced high and disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates that reduce student success? These measures can shine a light on inequities as well as poor learning conditions and help diagnose the steps that must be taken to close the opportunity gap. A skillfully designed dashboard of indicators can provide objective, measurable ways for schools, districts, and states to identify challenges and solutions to close opportunity gaps.

Third, much more than its predecessor, ESSA directly addresses the resource gaps among our nation’s public schools. The law contains provisions that require states to focus on equity during the state application process; to report actual per-pupil spending on school report cards; and to evaluate and address resource inequities for schools identified as needing intervention assistance. In addition to the longstanding maintenance-of-effort, comparability, and supplement not supplant provisions, ESSA establishes incentives for districts to adopt strategies that fund schools based on student needs and that enrich the curriculum opportunities available to historically underserved students. 

Finally, ESSA emphasizes evidence-based practices for school improvement. States and districts are required to implement evidence-based interventions in schools identified for school improvement, encouraging educators and leaders to determine which data-driven approaches are best suited for its schools and students. ESSA also provides funding streams for early childhood education and community schools, both of which are evidence-based, equity-enhancing approaches to reducing the opportunity gap.


Q: Have you seen any interesting ideas promoting equity in state plans that have already been submitted? What are states to watch?

A: Many states are taking up these opportunities to address the sources of longstanding disparities among students, and to support the most marginalized youth. For example, California and New York are among the states that have decided to include suspension rates among their accountability indicators, suspensions and expulsions disproportionately affect students of color and result in higher dropout rates, lower achievement, and less safety in schools. In place of zero tolerance policies, these states aim to help schools apply supportive, inclusive, and effective strategies to create greater student responsibility, including restorative justice. Among the many evidence-based resources on restorative justice are those offered by the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, and school districts such as San Francisco Unified, on how to develop a framework for planning and implementing restorative practices.[i]

More and more states and districts are also recognizing the connection between student engagement and the development of social-emotional skills that enable positive relationships. As states like Illinois integrate school climate and social-emotional learning (SEL) measures into their ESSA plans, they are working with schools to teach students how to collaborate, communicate, and resolve conflicts. There is ample evidence showing that SEL programs are associated with positive outcomes, ranging from significantly better academic achievement to improved social skills, attitudes, and behavior. The student surveys that many states plan to use will give stakeholders information about how students experience school and what opportunities they have to learn in ways that can propel ongoing improvement.

From an accountability and improvement perspective, states can use SEL indicators to identify strategies and supports for schools to help students feel safe and supported and to be productive and powerful learners. Resources for helping schools create inclusive and positive climates include the U.S. Department of Education and American Institutes for Research’s Safe and Supportive Learning,[ii] and resources provided by organizations such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Engaged Schools, and the National School Climate Center.[iii]

[i] The following resources can be found at Davis, M. Restorative justice: Resources for schools (2015). (accessed 12/27/16): Implementing Restorative Justice: A Guide for Schools (Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority) – this guide focuses on ways that schools can integrate restorative justice practices, looks at challenges to implementation, and provides three approaches to using restorative justice; Restorative Justice: A Working Guide for Our Schools (Alameda County School Health Services Coalition— this guide provides examples of restorative practices and a discussion of the impact on youth; Restorative Justice: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools (National Opportunity to Learn Campaign) – this guide provides examples of restorative practices, implementation tips and strategies, and examples from school districts; and Restorative Practices: Whole-School Implementation Guide (San Francisco Unified School District) – this guide provides a framework for planning, implementing, and using restorative practices across a school or district, including curriculum-planning resources.

[ii] National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments. (n.d.). School climate measurement. https:// (accessed 12/14/16).

[iii] Community Matters. (n.d.). Ten keys to safer schools. (accessed 12/28/16).


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