How to Promote Equity in High School Education

When student Arianne showed up each day at Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS), an XQ…

By Anna Sudderth

When student Arianne showed up each day at Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS), an XQ school in Indianapolis, IN, she was certain about one thing: no matter what challenges she faced in her learning, she would be given what she needed to succeed. 

PPHS came to be when Indiana leaders noticed that a disproportionately small number of students from underrepresented backgrounds in Indianapolis Public Schools received admission into Purdue University each year. Thus, PPHS emerged from this mission of equity: to be a place where all learners, especially those who are historically underserved in traditional public schools, can succeed. As Arianne described, “I feel like when you are sitting in school and you are just totally drained and sad and not motivated in life, you might drop out, because school is just not your thing. And I feel like school can be anyone’s thing if it’s fitting your needs, and if it’s fun or interesting, or just getting help that you need.”

In this video from the MIT Teaching Systems Lab’s online edX course: Becoming a More Equitable Educator: Mindsets and Practices, two Indianapolis teachers talk about the importance of forming relationships with students to develop a better understanding of what they need to be successful, and to create a culture where students feel cared for by the adults in the building.

What Is Equity in Education?

At a basic level, equity means fairness. Equity in education means that every student is given the tools, resources, and support they need to succeed in school. 

There’s no one-size-fits all roadmap for equity in schools. Equity means listening deeply to the needs of students and communities, and then building systems that respond to those needs.  However, there are some common, baseline structures that schools use to understand and respond to students effectively. The Barr Foundation identifies four elements of schools that foster equity:

  • A mission rooted in the belief that all students can achieve at high levels
  • Challenging and meaningful learning experiences for all students
  • Customized, varied, and accessible student supports
  • Data practices that measure what matters and inform strategies to better serve all students

As these elements show, truly committing to equity means rethinking school at every level: in terms of mission, approach to teaching, available supports, and methods of evaluating learning. It’s a big project, but it’s what all students deserve—and when these elements align, the results are powerful. PPHS exemplifies these commitments in action. The school has a clearly defined mission to prepare students who are underrepresented in STEM fields to succeed in high-demand STEM pathways, with an explicit focus on academic achievement and college preparedness among Black, Latinx, and low-income students. To create challenging and meaningful learning experiences, PPHS uses an innovative, project-based learning model, where students learn through pursuing meaningful, engaged work based on real-world challenges. Students receive a high degree of support, with teachers who call themselves “coaches,” and work more as guides and mentors than traditional instructors. And, PPHS constantly hones its mission, measuring how well their approach serves its students. So far, the results are encouraging: PPHS boasts the highest rate of underrepresented students passing state standardized English Language Arts and math tests among all students in Indianapolis public schools. Through rethinking high school, PPHS is working toward equity for all students.

Equity vs. Equality

To understand what equity means for schools, it’s helpful to consider how equity differs from another commonly used term: equality. While equity and equality may sound similar, they do not mean the same thing, especially when it comes to education. If equality in education means that each student gets the same thing, equity means that each student gets what they need. Whereas an approach to education based solely on equality might ask, ‘What’s wrong with students who don’t succeed in our current system?’, an equity-based approach asks, ‘How can we change the system to ensure that all students succeed?’ As Russlynn Ali, XQ’s chief executive officer, summed up at a conference focused on innovation in education, “Equality asks us to distribute opportunities equally. Equity demands that we go one step further. It is about fundamental fairness. … [Let’s view] equity as an opportunity, but also an obligation.”

The Importance of Equity in High School

Much of traditional high school relies on standardization: in testing, in seat-time, in curriculum, and in requirements for graduation. Yet the reality is, these standards don’t work for too many students: from BIPOC students who don’t see themselves reflected in their predominantly White teachers, to students with disabilities who are consistently left out of conversations about school reform. 

High school has the power to equip students to lead lives of purpose, giving students the knowledge, skills, experiences, and confidence to achieve their dreams. In doing so, we believe that high schools can be engines of much-needed social change. But this is only possible if all high school students have their needs met, and all high school students have the opportunity to succeed: in short, if equity is at the center. 

Barriers to Equity in High School Education

High school should be a place where all students can access the resources they need to pursue their goals. Yet too often, it serves as another structure of disempowerment for students who face barriers based on their race, gender, ability, socioeconomic status, sexuality, or other identity or circumstance.

These barriers to equity in high school education exist at both individual and structural levels. In a powerful interview with XQ about how to advance racial equity in education, Professor Rich Milner from Vanderbilt University explained how we need to consider both individual and structural barriers in order to enact change: “We have to have an institutional, systemic, structural analysis, but we also have to have a very clear micro-level analysis as well. Those have to actually interact in very purposeful ways in order for us to move forward.”

At an individual level, the biases that teachers and others involved in education hold can negatively impact students. For example, implicit bias in teachers has been linked to racial disparities in outcomes for students, with BIPOC students bearing the brunt of harm. Some consequence of individual bias include:

  • Underestimating students based on their identity, and not providing them with appropriate challenge
  • Biased implementation of classroom management, where some students are punished unfairly and unequally
  • Failure to include all students in a classroom culture of belonging

Barriers to equity also impact students at a structural level, through the very way that traditional high school is set up to serve some students better than others. Some of these barriers include:

  • Lack of resources between or within schools
  • Overly punitive discipline practices
  • Schedules that don’t account for students with obligations outside of school
  • Inaccessibility of school resources
  • Lack of representation in curriculum
  • Lack of input and voice from students and community members

It’s crucial to recognize these barriers in order to dismantle them. While they paint a stark picture of the struggles many high school students face, they also provide a roadmap for where to transform high school so that every student can succeed. Renowned scholar Travis Bristol led a group of Teach Plus fellows in a conversation about advancing equity in the face of barriers, and the importance of teachers of color in this work. “Our education system is extremely flawed and it’s extremely skewed,” described Shareefah Mason, a Black educator in Dallas. “But when you are empowered and surrounded by educators who believe in the work as much as you do, so much good can happen. Even if that just means helping each other grow.”

Equity and Focus on the Whole Student

High school students bring a huge range of life experiences and situations with them to school each day, all of which impact their ability to learn. Equity means responding to these material and emotional needs, so that every student has the opportunity for academic success. 

Da Vinci RISE High, an XQ school in Los Angeles, CA, embodies this mindset. Da Vinci RISE serves students whose needs are most frequently unmet by traditional high school: students navigating foster care, housing instability, probation, and other circumstances that have disrupted their academics. RISE’s commitment to equity means understanding that these students have needs outside of the classroom that deeply impact their academic experience—and then structuring school to meet those needs. As founder Kari Croft explained, “The biggest thing we are doing is putting kids back in the center of everything. We really are trying to gather their input, their schedules, the different learning pathways, then they have the services they need. [The current education system has always] taken kids and put them into a system, and now we’ve flipped that. We’re bringing a kid in and changing the system for them.”

What does this look like in practice? Da Vinci RISE has three campus locations, each co-located with a non-profit organization that helps meet the holistic needs of students. RISE has a flexible, year-round schedule, so that students can access supports without disrupting their academic timeline. And, RISE operates a rideshare program to provide transportation to students, so that students don’t miss school, work, or appointments. Taken together, these services embody a whole-student approach to equity. 

Da Vinci RISE has a unique structure—but any school can embrace a whole-student approach to equity. Brooklyn Laboratory High School in Brooklyn, NY is another XQ school committed to addressing equity gaps in education, especially around racial equity, socioeconomic equity, and equity for students with disabilities. Based on their own model, experts from Brooklyn LAB put together this set of recommendations for schools looking to promote equity through a whole-child approach, with suggestions like:

  • Create professional learning opportunities for teachers to reflect on and develop their own social-emotional learning.
  • Create a school hub that links students and families to community resources.
  • Ensure all students are connected to a safe and supportive adult.
  • Use whole child tools that account for nuance and context when it comes to race, ability, and other factors.
  • Ensure that all planning and spending centers those closest to the challenges and opportunities.

In addition to these large, whole-school structures, some of the most important support students receive comes from relationships. Responding to student needs means seeing them for who they are and celebrating the fullness of their identity, teaching in ways that are responsive and relevant to students’ culture. Reflecting on her own experience as an educator, XQ curriculum writer and designer Ann-Katherine Kimble explores how teachers can practice culturally relevant and responsive teaching through:

  • Getting creative with both what and how you teach your students, keeping in mind what is relevant to their lives and experiences
  • Using others to bolster your teaching, especially on subjects where you lack experience or expertise
  • Thinking about all parts of the classroom experience, not just content: is your classroom decor welcoming? Do your classroom rules uphold equity for all students?
  • Expanding content to reflect a range of perspectives and experiences

Promoting Equity in High School Through Academics

Creating a supportive environment that meets students’ needs doesn’t mean de-emphasizing academic challenge. In fact, equity means ensuring every student has access to rigorous learning—along with plenty of love, encouragement, and support. 

Providing these meaningful challenges means embracing academic approaches that create personalized, responsive learning environments. The table below provides a quick introduction to several approaches that place equity at the center of learning.

The ApproachWhat it IsHow it Fosters Equity
Competency-Based EducationStudents move through content at their own pace, progressing based on how well they’ve mastered material instead of how much time they’ve spent in classCBE gives students the flexibility to learn when and how works best for them, rather than holding all students to the same set of arbitrary standards
Project-Based LearningStudents gain knowledge and skills through responding to authentic, real-world challengesPBL empowers students with a sense of confidence and agency in their ability to solve problems outside of classroom walls
Culturally Responsive TeachingStudents build brain power through engaging with material that holds relevance to their lives and experiencesCRT supports learners who have been marginalized by education systems to learn in a way that is rigorous and related to their lives

Each of these approaches may seem like a lot to consider, but in practice, they work together seamlessly to support meaningful learning. Take this example from Washington Leadership Academy (WLA), an XQ school in Washington, D.C. which serves predominantly Black and brown students from low-income families. At WLA, educators work to empower students through academics grounded in computer-science, a field in which BIPOC students have been historically underrepresented. Students at WLA succeed in STEM fields, embodied in the computer science curriculum in which students participate for all four years. The success of WLA’s program rests in the school’s approach to learning that is:

  • Competency-based. Students come to WLA across a full range of academic experiences but no one is “behind” or “ahead.” Instead, each student learns material at their own pace. As WLA student Khalilah described, “Schools need to trust the students to get the work done. Trusting the student body is how to hold them accountable. At WLA, students are learning at their own pace.”
  • Project-oriented. Learning takes place through meaningful projects. For example, all 11th graders complete a computer science internship in the field, where they apply academic skills to real-world challenges. 
  • Culturally responsive. Students learn computer science through material that is relevant to their lives. WLA brings in community partners to teach daily electives, where students can choose to learn about computer science through topics that they care about, like mindfulness, photography, and DJ basics.

Embracing these teaching methods to strike an equity-centered balance between love and rigor takes intention. Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA), an XQ school in Providence, RI, went through a significant process of reflection and revision to make sure it was delivering on its promise of equity for students through challenging academics. TAPA empowers students through an interdisciplinary focus on the arts. However, years of student data showed that TAPA students were not reaching their academic milestones. 

In response, TAPA embarked on a mission in partnership with XQ to match their deep love for students with high rigor. They sought student input, made a plan for data-collection, and invested in a new, standards-based curriculum. Ammar Zia, director of teaching and learning at TAPA, explained this process in terms of equity: “By holding our students to high rigor, the TAPA team sends them a message of love that they deserve and will master high expectations. The curriculum itself says that our students—many of whom are poor, students of color—can do the rigorous work. That—in and of itself—is social justice.” 

Learning from TAPA’s example, consider how your school can commit to equity through academic rigor by:

  • Seeking student input on their academic experience 
  • Collecting detailed data on student outcomes
  • Implementing challenging, standards-aligned curriculum
  • Letting students learn through failure, within a network of support

Tips for Teachers to Promote Equity in the Classroom

As a teacher, cultivating equity in the classroom means truly adopting an equity mindset in everything you do, and keeping equity at the forefront of both your reflections and actions.


Every teacher brings their own personal biases into the classroom. Fostering equity means thinking critically about how these biases impact your students. Reflecting on how adopting an equity-mindset has influenced their teaching, educators from Purdue Polytechnic offered these tips for how to check in with yourself:

  • Reflect on your own life experiences, education, and personal biases
  • Seek out professional development to challenge your own biases 
  • Monitor how you are interacting with students, and notice any patterns in how your responses to students correlate with race, gender, and other identities


One key area for teachers to consider equity is in classroom management. You can take an equity-focused approach to classroom management by adopting a restorative approach to discipline—like teachers at Da Vinci RISE High, where instead of traditional punitive discipline, students engage in regular restorative circles to foster positive community dynamics. Born out of indigenous traditions around the world, restorative circles are a non-hierarchical way to have discussion, resolve conflict, and be in community. Explore this step-by-step guide to holding restorative circles for your students.


Truly meeting students’ needs means keeping student voice central in the classroom. Educators from XQ schools Elizabethton High School in Memphis, TN and Círculos in Santa Ana, CA offer tips for how to build student voice and agency in class, including:

  • Give regular opportunities for students to voice their thoughts, reflections, and opinions
  • Scaffold flexible learning opportunities for students to choose their own learning pathways
  • Encourage participation with student-centered learning strategies

How to Promote Equity as a Whole School

One of XQ’s six design principles is strong mission and culture: a set of unifying values and principles that give a school a sense of common purpose and a fundamental belief in the potential of every student. Make equity a central part of your school’s mission and culture, and consider how your school’s practices at every level meet that goal.

Prioritize representation in hiring

Students deserve to see themselves represented in their teachers. Yet teachers of color are severely underrepresented in public high schools. In an interview with XQ, educator Shareefah Mason described the importance of representation for equity: “When there are educators who look like their students, it can provide examples of how academic success might look. As a Black educator, I can prove to my students that they are capable. I get to give them the opportunity to see how I’ve created trajectories for myself in order to achieve success academically and professionally. I want my students to expand their trajectories.”

Increasing representation cannot be a superficial project. Instead, it must be done with an understanding of the relationship between diversity and equity. Sharif El-Mekki, Founder & CEO of Center for Black Educator Development, shared strategies with XQ on how schools can hire with the goal of increasing representation and equity by asking questions like:

  • Is the candidate compassionate, hellbent on supporting students, their academic success, and their full potential? 
  • Do they know, not just Black history, but Black pedagogy? In other words, do they connect the fight for educational justice with racial justice? 
  • Do they see themselves as educators or as educator-activists? 
  • Do they reflect the students they will serve, not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but socio-economics and personal experience?
  • Do they know how to operate as problem solvers and leaders who earn the trust of those under their charge?

Involve students and caregivers

Just as teachers must involve student voice in the classroom to create equitable outcomes, schools also must gather community input. Brooklyn LAB took this approach at the beginning of the pandemic, when COVID-19 forced schools to make quick decisions about the structure of learning, leaving many students vulnerable. Brooklyn LAB immediately worked to gather input from students and caregivers about what the community needed. As a result, they created a hybrid model with flexibility and options that allowed students to continue learning with minimal disruptions. As founder Eric Tucker explained, “Listening to students and their families and including them in decisions is a crucial part of creating a school that uplifts all students, regardless of their backgrounds or income levels.”

This process of gathering input is a powerful model for how schools can make decisions with an equity-mindset, empowering students and community members. Following Brooklyn LAB’s example, your school can: 

  • Hold town halls for parents and caregivers to weigh in on key issues
  • Facilitate regular focus groups to encourage community voices
  • Use on-line tools for gathering input, like our student self assessment tool

Transforming High School Based on Equity

Erin Whalen, the principal of Da Vinci RISE High, summed up the school’s commitment to equity like this: “In a city with such high numbers of homeless youth, such high numbers of foster youth, there’s really no other option but to create something that is gonna be different. Something that’s gonna really rethink the needs of those communities. And the work that we’re doing is really to provide equity for communities who have never seen that.”

Principal Whalen’s words resonate with the task that faces everyone invested in high school education: to commit to bold, creative change to meet the needs of students. We hope you join us in our commitment to transforming high schools with equity at the center, to empower all students with the opportunity for success.

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