Is Education the Great Equalizer?

Credit: Bianca Bagnarelli

How Our Schools Score

The state’s public education system faced serious challenges even before COVID-19 upended schools’ routines. Source: California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress
CA Dept. of Education data; Source:

Can We Improve Schools?

Innovate Public Schools’ annual report highlights public schools that perform especially well for student populations who face the largest education opportunity gaps. Source:
  1. Quality Instruction: Researchers generally concur that teacher quality, and more specifically, instructional quality, has a huge effect on student learning. Teacher’s instructional effectiveness — and the quality of the professional development they have access to — varies widely according to many studies and can be improved by consistent instructional feedback and hands-on coaching from instructional experts. In addition to continuous feedback and training, teacher effectiveness is also positively correlated with other characteristics, such as verbal skills, subject-matter certification for mathematics and consistent use of particular instructional strategies, such as modeling and guided work, for language arts. Recent research has also found that teacher diversity is important, especially for boys and students of color, who rarely see themselves reflected in the person leading the class. Given the high stakes for students and society, the wide variance we see in teacher effectiveness, and the fact that what makes a great teacher is hard to isolate in discrete characteristics, it is especially important that we 1) grow the number and diversity of potential teachers in our teacher pipeline, 2) use data to assess teacher’s effectiveness and inform ongoing professional development, 3) extend the period of time during which teachers are evaluated prior to being granted tenure, and 4) curb policies that protect underperforming teachers and/or make high-performing teachers vulnerable to layoffs simply because of the order in which they were hired.
  2. School Leadership: As most of us have likely experienced in our professional lives, leadership matters. High-performing schools benefit from leaders — not solely principals, but also other administrators and expert teachers — who create a culture of high expectations for students and teachers alike, actively participate in teacher training and development, evaluate and invest in quality curricula, and engage parents and students. According to some research, school leadership may be second only to quality of instruction in its impact on student outcomes. This is likely because leadership helps unlock or constrain progress in the other factors noted here.
  3. High Expectations: Study after study after study finds that schools’ expectations for their students have outsized impact on student learning. Teachers and other school leaders play a pivotal role in setting the bar for educational achievement through curricular decisions, quality of in-class and home assignments, grades and other forms of feedback. Even seemingly small and subconscious decisions, such as who is called on, how much assistance they are given in answering, and how a teacher’s tone and facial expression change when looking at different students can have measurable impacts over time. Significantly, recent research has found systematic gaps between teachers’ feedback on a given assignment (i.e. grades) and more objective measures of how well the students’ work met the relevant standards for their grade level. While it sounds obvious, a critical and low- to no-cost improvement schools can make immediately is ensuring that all teachers are consistently assigning work that is on-grade level and providing feedback that is aligned with grade-level standards.
  4. Student-Centered Approach: Schools that demonstrate the greatest progress in closing the education opportunity gap for Black and Latino students in particular tend to have longer school days, provide more opportunities for learning and extra-curricular activities before school, after school and during the summers. They also use targeted interventions, such as intensive tutoring, to keep students on grade level. To identify who needs what kind of support and when, they use regular assessments to measure each student’s progress. Rather than organize the school day and other internal structures around the convenience of adults, high-performing schools do what it takes to personalize instruction and give each student the learning opportunities and support they need to succeed. In some communities, this means incorporating nutrition and health services into the school experience. While I’m skeptical that schools can “fix everything,” I think that personalizing instruction and giving each child the extra support they need to be successful in school is the right approach, both morally and fiscally.
  5. Parent Engagement: Parents obviously play a critical role in students’ success, especially as it relates to emotional well-being (children’s ability to emotionally self-regulate, which parents can cultivate, is increasingly understood as linked to success in school and beyond). While schools face barriers to parent engagement — particularly in the critical early years prior to formal education — high-performing schools make an extra effort to involve parents in their child’s learning through persistent outreach, consistent communication about goals and progress, and sharing strategies for supporting their child’s learning. Fortunately, the evidence indicates that parents need not have expertise in academic instruction for their child to succeed in school. Parents’ primary contribution to their child’s success occurs through “academic socialization” — i.e. cultivating the attitudes, values and expectations shaped early in one’s life that are foundational to student success. Successful schools support parents in playing a positive and proactive role in their child’s educational journey, regardless of their own level of formal education.

Structurally Unsound

The U.S. is a top spender on education, especially on private college tuition. Source: OECD,

COVID Complications

  • The minimum amount of time with a teacher each student will receive each day, by grade level,
  • The minimum amount of time spent on learning each student will be expected to complete each day, by grade level,
  • How past learning loss due to COVID will be measured and addressed using the additional state funding available for these purposes and, importantly, without waiting for in-person instruction to resume,
  • How teacher support, including class observation and continuous coaching, will work going forward,
  • How all students will be able to access learning, whether through the provision of laptops and internet hotspots, or high-quality work packets and phone calls with teachers,
  • How parents will be supported to learn new technologies and assist their children in using them, especially in earlier grades,
  • How students who are absent, due to illness or other reasons, will receive lessons if classes will not be recorded and uploaded for future use (I believe they should be, but there has been substantial opposition to this proposal),
  • How districts plan to use the inherent advantages of distance learning — flexibility around class size, ability for teachers and classes to team up, and other opportunities afforded by the lack of physical constraints — to enhance learning opportunities,
  • How additional support will be provided for students with special needs and English language learners,
  • What objective measures (or triggers) will be used to determine that schools can begin reintroducing in-person instruction, differentiated by grade level and other factors like special needs.




Councilmember, San Jose District 10. Formerly Brigade CEO & Co-founder Brigade, SVLG and Joint Venture Silicon Valley Boards, and SJ Clean Energy Commission

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Matt Mahan

Matt Mahan

Councilmember, San Jose District 10. Formerly Brigade CEO & Co-founder Brigade, SVLG and Joint Venture Silicon Valley Boards, and SJ Clean Energy Commission

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