If schools want to serve students equitably, getting the metrics right is everything

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Apr 14, 2021

COVID-19 has not impacted all communities to the same degree. Rather, some communities are disproportionately impacted. Recognizing this reality, last fall the state of California implemented a health equity metric to ensure that no county can move to an open phase until the most disproportionately affected racial group in that county meets the required percentage of negative COVID-19 tests. 

“The state of California just unveiled one of the coolest and potentially most effective uses of data equity…” acknowledged Heather Krause, founder of the We All Count Project for equity in data, in a recent newsletter. “These people are demonstrating a wonderful data equity trifecta of caring, thinking, doing,” she added. It’s worth noting that California’s plan was not created because certain populations are less healthy; rather, the plan acknowledges the long-standing systemic inequities that have put many communities of color at increased risk for exposure to the virus.  

It would behoove schools to take a page from the public health playbook. After decades of failed efforts to close academic achievement gaps, the American education system is long overdue for an accountability system that honors the potential of all young people. One possible solution? No school can be considered “good” until the most disproportionately affected students are able to access and activate the supports they need to thrive. 

 

Disparate access to relationships and networks as a signal of structural inequity

Despite a myriad of efforts, structural racism and systemic inequities have short-changed learning experiences and outcomes for students of color long before the pandemic hit. In fact, the racial and economic divide between students in our country today likely reflects a deep systemic inequity—students’ disparate access to social capital—hiding behind the mask of meritocracy. In narrowly focusing on academic achievement alone, many efforts often ignore this critical variable in the student success equation.

 

Social capital is defined as students’ access to and ability to mobilize relationships that help them further their potential and goals, both as those goals emerge and as they inevitably shift over time. Just like skills and knowledge, relationships are resources that drive access to care, information, and opportunity. 

Schools targeting equitable outcomes will be fighting an uphill battle if they don’t account for students’ relationships. Schools have powerful metrics around academic accountability, but also need metrics that position students for social and economic mobility. For schools to pave advantageous pathways for all learners, metrics that focus on who students know must be positioned alongside what students know.  

Measuring students’ relationships can advance equity in school practices

How do education systems begin to measure who students know and ensure that all students—particularly those on the wrong side of opportunity gaps—graduate with not just knowledge, but also a robust network and the skills to mobilize it? Here are four recommendations to help more education systems move toward measuring students’ relationships and networks as gateways to support and opportunity:

1. Start early: Integrate measurement to drive program design and improvement

Measurement is an essential component of overall program design. Early innovators building students’ social capital often work to identify relationship-focused outcomes at the front-end of the design process. This approach enables school and system leaders to answer questions such as, “How do we intend to grow our students’ networks?” and capture baseline data on relationship metrics. Incorporating measurements early on also ensures that programs begin by identifying relationships students already have within reach. From there, programs can improve through data-driven, personalized strategies for increasing student access to relationships and networks where they don’t yet exist. 

2. Leverage technology: Make students’ relationships and their growth visible

Technological infrastructure helps organizations to efficiently gather information and measure progress across multiple dimensions of social capital. Some programs build their infrastructure tools to deliver relationship-focused curriculum as well as assess the degree to which students are building social capital, weaving together essential relationship-specific and academic data that is both purposeful and integrated. For example, Beyond 12 coaches interact with students through a virtual platform that tracks how students’ networks are evolving at frequent intervals. As coaches log their interactions with students, this data, in addition to existing datasets on college student trajectories, gives Beyond 12 a more robust portrait of how an individual’s needs square with larger trends. 

Technology can also help students see how their networks evolve over time. For example, iCouldBe leverages its platform not only for backend analytics on relationships forged on the app over time, but its network map also makes visible to students the interactions they have and the relationship assets they build along the way. Similarly, trovvit’s digital portfolio tool enables students to track the feedback they receive from professionals on their projects and digitally build diverse networks created in the course of those experiences. 

3. Harness the power of 4D vision: Build a comprehensive view of students’ networks

Measuring across multiple dimensions of students’ networks can help educators and administrators make sense of relational assets and gaps in students’ lives. Innovative schools rarely use a single metric to gauge how students access and experience relationships. Instead, they capture data across four interrelated dimensions: quantity of relationships (who is in a student’s network over time); quality of relationships (how a student experiences the relationships they are in and the extent to which those relationships are meeting their needs); structure of networks (the variety of people a student knows and how they, themselves, are connected); and ability to mobilize relationships (a student’s ability to seek out help when needed and to activate different relationships). For some programs, however, it may not always be feasible or practical to measure for all four dimensions. In those cases, prioritizing dimensions that align with program goals and student needs can still give school leaders a head start in understanding how to evolve their program. 

4. Invest in R&D: Align efforts among education practitioners, researchers, and funders. Of course, developing research-backed measurement tools and data infrastructure doesn’t come cheap. Funders play a pivotal role in accelerating research and development by investing in programs’ measurement capacity and advancing research to validate survey instruments. They can also invest in technology to streamline relationship data collection and analysis.

After decades of working to level the playing field, it’s time we change the playing field. That will require a deliberate effort to redefine meaningful metrics aimed at ensuring the most marginalized learners are equitably accessing the wealth of benefits that come from high-quality relationships. By focusing on social capital as an outcome, education systems can begin to fully deliver on their promise to provide all students, not just some, a chance to harness the opportunities that are the building blocks of a fulfilled, successful life.

To explore ways to deliberately integrate social-capital-building into schools’ data equity framework, I invite readers to review the following resources:

For concrete examples of how to design for and measure students’ social capital in equitable ways, review these case studies profiling early K–12 and postsecondary innovators.

Mahnaz Charania, PhD is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute. Her work focuses on studying disruptive innovations in education that amplify equitable opportunities for students to achieve social and economic mobility. In her current role, she leverages her deep expertise in measurement and evaluation to drive innovations that expand students' social capital.