All children deserve a chance at success; this statement is one all educators and parents stand behind. Yet, in too many schools, there are students whose opportunities are limited by factors beyond their ability to learn.

I’m a firm believer that every student can learn, provided we identify and remove the barriers standing in the way of their success. These barriers might involve access to high-quality learning opportunities, such as home broadband internet access or instruction tailored to each student’s individual needs. Barriers might consist of social-emotional challenges—like anxiety or trauma—inhibiting a child’s ability to focus on schoolwork. Or, barriers might be developmental in nature, such as a learning disability that impacts a student’s academic progress.

When I was growing up, my parents owned a jewelry store, so I was around gemstones regularly. When the stones are first mined from the Earth, they are often weathered and rough in appearance. It takes several days of careful care, cutting and polishing to reveal their true splendor. This process cannot be rushed and if you cut corners in the process, the subsequent results will reflect it.

Addressing student equality in the classroom is a similar process. It requires deliberate, focused effort to recognize and chip away at the barriers to success, enabling students to shine and reach their full capacity as learners. But how do we begin this process?

Collecting and analyzing student data is a fundamental aspect. School districts need tools that can help them pull together and examine data from multiple sources—including assessments, class grades, attendance, behavior and social-emotional learning data—to undercover their students unique needs and insights behind hindered success in the classroom.

With the help of data, K–12 leaders can make learning more equitable and inclusive for all students. Throughout my years in education, I’ve discovered three key insights to doing this effectively.

Focus on the root cause of problems

There could be many possible reasons why a student is laboring academically. Sometimes, students are misdiagnosed as needing special education services when the actual cause of their struggles may be closely tied to their mental health, behavior or a combination of sources. Only by taking the time to identify the root cause of the problem can educators develop solutions that will be effective for each child.

The ten school systems we serve at Northland Learning Center in Minnesota use Proliftic from Sourcewell to compare and analyze student data from a variety of sources to pinpoint the root cause of issues.

For example, frequent student absences can reflect a variety of underlying causes. While the number of absences itself might not provide much insight, comparing this information with other data sources could help determine why a student has been absent so often: Does the child have health problems? Have there been any conflicts or issues reported between that child and another student? Does social-emotional learning data suggest the child may suffer from anxiety or depression? Are there signs the student is not academically challenged enough, such as high-test scores but low grades in class?

Think holistically

Several factors influence student success, and these factors are all closely linked. Providing equitable learning opportunities for everyone means taking a “whole child” approach to education, focusing not just on a student’s academic development, but on their physical and mental health, family support, social-emotional well-being and other areas.

In one of my home/school experiences, there was a child we suspected might have ADHD or possibly anxiety. A school inventory was conducted. We share the results with the parent in a whole-child approach meeting. We provided resources in the event the parent wanted to have this looked into further. The parent brought up concerns in seeing some of the behaviors and needs at home also. There were indicators that exhibited possible barriers contributing to the success of the child’s education. Even though the child’s mother shared our concern, she hadn’t sent back the portion of the paperwork we needed to move forward with a possible special education evaluation referral.

As educators, we need to remember that parents and other family members don’t all share the same skills, just like our students. It occurred to me that maybe this child’s parent had a barrier to completing the paperwork, examples of this could be reading, writing, understanding the content, etc.

To remove the barriers that were holding up this process, I called the parent and asked if we could go for coffee while I helped complete the paperwork. While we drank coffee, I asked her the questions and filled out the form for her based on her responses. The appreciation of this time was evident. The student was seen by a doctor the very next day. This again, affirms the need to take a whole-child approach. And this includes the needs of the families we work with.

Don’t be afraid to look within

Some school policies or routines might disproportionally affect certain students over others. Analyzing student data from a wide range of sources can help reveal these discrepancies and lead to better equity for all students.

For example, K–12 leaders might discover that certain subgroups are suspended at a higher rate than others for the same transgressions. If leaders are aware of these differences, they can change school or district policies to create more equitable practices and opportunities for everyone.

Student equity is about removing the barriers that prevent our children from learning and growing academically, socially and emotionally, so they can have an optimal learning environment. As educators, we want to see all students receive the support and enrichment they need. In order for this to happen, we need to figure out the “why” behind their struggles and areas of strengths. An intelligent approach to using student data, and student narratives, enables us to do this, so we can make education more equitable for every child.

About the author

Beth Shermoen is the Director of Equity & Inclusion at Northland Learning Center in Virginia, Minnesota. Northland Learning Center provides specialized programming and special education services for 10 Minnesota school districts.