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March 25, 2021

High-Quality Curriculum Is a Transformation Tool for Equity

The design of curricula deeply affects how a student experiences school, giving teachers a way to put equity into action.
A pervasive and powerful part of our American democracy is the belief that though we may be born into unequal and unjust circumstances, these factors should not predict our ability to fail or succeed. Education has the potential to be a powerful engine for disrupting structural inequities and fulfilling our nation's promise of equal opportunity for all, but in reality, the system was built to maintain a status quo that perpetuates economic and racial inequality.
Many educators committed to working for equity have similar goals, but we often have different ideas about how to reach those goals. Because educational inequity is such an enormous beast, we grasp at it and do our best to get hold of the problem. Some of us may be working to address the ways in which school discipline policies negatively affect Black and Brown students. Others may be working to improve family engagement or address opportunity gaps that emerge in test score data. These efforts are worthy, but for lasting change, we need to get our arms around the entire animal. The way to get a grip on inequity, in our eyes, is with a high-quality curriculum and accompanying professional learning for teachers.

The Promise of Curriculum

Curriculum is the heart of the solution to educational inequities because it is a container for so much that happens during each school day. Curriculum is much more than the content students learn in a given unit, semester, or grade. The design of curriculum, which also includes students' texts and tasks, shapes pedagogy, and pedagogy affects how a student experiences school—whether they believe it is engaging or boring, challenging or easy, and even if it feels fair and just. A high-quality curriculum includes lessons that empower students and develop their critical thinking and communication skills. A high-quality curriculum creates a classroom culture that nurtures students' leadership, agency, and ownership of their learning and encourages critical analysis of the world. Such curriculum gives us a way to put equity into action day in and day out.
There are three primary ways in which our teaching and learning nonprofit, EL Education, is meeting the urgency of the current moment: integrating equity-focused social-emotional learning into curriculum; designing curriculum with "windows, mirrors, and doors"; and ensuring that curriculum is scalable and accessible as an open educational resource.

Integrating Equity-Focused Social-Emotional Learning into Curriculum

Students learn best in classroom environments where they have an opportunity to build connections with their teachers and peers (Darling-Hammond, Flook, Cook-Harvey, Barron, and Osher, 2020). A holistic education that integrates strong relationships, social-emotional learning, rigorous and engaging content, and precise pedagogy is most supportive of young people's developing brains.
Designing curriculum with integrated equity-focused social-emotional learning (SEL)—versus a skills-based SEL "program" that is not explicitly focused on equity—builds on students' existing assets, lifts voices, promotes empowerment, and nurtures a sense of belonging among students from historically marginalized groups. Further, it supports all students—including those in dominant groups—to analyze systems of oppression and understand avenues for their own civic action.
Educator bias is a significant barrier to Black and Brown students' achievement and sense of belonging in the academic environment of the classroom (Ford and Grantham, 2003, Riddle and Sinclair, 2019, Steele, 2011, The Education Trust, n.d.). Often this bias is unconscious, but its impact is felt by students in big and small ways every day. The benefit of a high-quality curriculum is in its curation of diverse texts and topics that affirm students' varied identities, and in its integration of equity-focused SEL, which helps teachers ensure that each student is a valued part of the learning community. A high-quality curriculum with equity-focused SEL integrated into daily lessons can mitigate some of the unconscious bias that prevents teachers from fully embracing the genius in every child. In this way, curriculum can be its own form of professional learning for teachers as it walks them and their students deep into content and toward a greater sense of ownership and agency.
Take for example, three of the main pillars of any literacy curriculum: texts, topics, and tasks.
  • Texts give students opportunities to learn social-emotional skills as they build knowledge of historical or contemporary events or analyze fictional characters' actions and reactions throughout a story. Curriculum that offers students collaborative and engaging ways to reflect on what motivation drives events and characters, such as racism or homophobia, allows students to think about how a text may be affecting their peers and analyze the systems around them that are catalysts for events. In the process, they practice empathy, compassion, and critical thinking skills.
  • Tasks throughout lessons and units can help students to practice essential social-emotional skills like collaboration, respect, and responsibility. Discussion protocols, for example, promote equity of voice and support students to listen to one another with compassion, empathy, and respect. Tasks also can encourage students to reflect on their own lives and society. For example, analyzing texts through the lens of how oppressive systems and structures impact the people in the texts and the people in students' communities develops critical consciousness. Long-term, culminating tasks may highlight assets within students' communities, bringing in community members as experts or engaging students in creating products for the community. Writing and recording PSAs can encourage other students and members of the community to make difference.
  • Topicsof any curriculum are the driving force behind the tasks and texts and present many opportunities to not only affirm students' identities and build their knowledge of a diverse and varied world, but also to build their social-emotional skills, so that they feel the confidence, responsibility, and ownership over their learning to understand how to take action on that topic. This is healing and empowering for students, and especially important for those who have experienced trauma. For example, the topic of the ratification of the 19th Amendment provides students with the opportunity to understand that period in history through the lens of the oppressive systems and structures for women and people of color, and to make connections to current events and persisting inequities.
In the accompanying video, you can see how designers of the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum (first edition) brought text, task, and topic together with equity-focused SEL into one 5th grade lesson. As they discuss the text Esperanza Rising and the topic of human rights, students practice collaboration, empathy, and respect for one another. Notably, the lesson is heavily weighted toward students talking with each other in small groups using a discussion protocol, rather than simply responding to the teacher. This is one example of high-quality curriculum as a form of professional learning for teachers as these key instructional moves that integrate equity-focused SEL with academics are intentionally built into the lesson. The curriculum itself is an opportunity for teachers—new and veteran alike—to learn instructional techniques.

Designing Curriculum with Mirrors, Windows, and Doors

A high-quality curriculum offers students texts and topics that contain mirrors, windows, and doors: mirrors that affirm and celebrate their own identities and cultures, windows that help them learn about and understand others, and doorways that present them with opportunities to be agents of change. Choosing the texts and topics that will reflect students' lives and help them see into others' lives is an enormous responsibility because it affects students' sense of belonging in their learning community.
A curriculum with mirrors will allow students to see themselves, or an element of themselves, in its texts and topics. Such a curriculum has the potential to appeal to students' interests and also reflect their lives along various axes of identity so that they feel connected to and invested in the books they read and the topics they study. It is equally important for students to see new worlds—these are the windows they look through, and they are important in developing social-emotional skills like empathy and respect for others. Critical to equity work in a high-quality curriculum is helping students look through those windows, particularly at events in the past, with a critical eye for how they are connected to life today.
When working for equity, perhaps the most impactful part of the mirrors, windows, and doors trifecta is ensuring that curriculum offers students doors to walk through. Scholar Shawn Ginwright argues that when students can meaningfully engage with the very problems in their communities that have caused them trauma, they become "agents in restoring their own well-being (2018)." They can think critically about the complexities of such issues as environmental racism, the Holocaust, or human rights. Analyzing systems of oppression and how these systems impact students as well as their peers, their families, or their communities—inspires students to work for change. And when lessons are integrated with equity-focused SEL, which builds upon and further develops students' existing social-emotional assets, they are equipped with the skills they need to feel empowered as engaged citizens and young activists. Ginwright calls this "Healing Centered Engagement."
In the accompanying video, see how students in Detroit extended their learning from the same topic referenced previously—Esperanza Rising and human rights—to solve a real problem in their community. Eight schools teamed up to support literacy as a civil right, choosing to design, build, and stock little free libraries to reduce the number of "book deserts" in their community.

Making High-Quality Curriculum Scalable and Accessible

If a high-quality curriculum with equity at its heart is our goal, then we can't stop once the curriculum is written. We must think beyond who the curriculum is written for—students and teachers—to the school and district level, where issues of access and equity play out on much larger scale. We must ask: Who will have access to the curriculum, what resources are required to use it, and how will it be distributed? After the painstaking work of creating a high-quality curriculum is done, we should not rest. Instead, our work is only just beginning.
We must do two things to ensure that a curriculum continues to advance educational equity on a large scale: 1) disseminate it in a way that ensures that schools in historically underserved communities can access it, and 2) support teachers with professional learning opportunities so that they can maximize the potential of the curriculum to build agency and belonging in their students.
High-quality curriculum that is available as an open educational resource levels the playing field by offering free material that teachers can use and customize. Choosing texts that are affordable for schools to purchase as classroom sets—with no expensive textbooks or anthologies—increases access. And integrating social-emotional learning into academic curricula, in addition to the benefits for students' developing brains, may have real financial benefits for schools and districts if it can obviate the need for other, additional social-emotional learning resources. The costs that schools and districts save can be repurposed to provide cohesive professional learning opportunities and coaching for teachers, which is critical to ensuring that teacher and student learning is deep and purposeful.
In the end, what we want most is for all students to have a sense of agency and an equal chance in a world that has historically had extensive resources and support for some students while consistently creating barriers for others.
Our educational system has reached an inflection point. If we truly want it to be the engine that drives changes to deeply embedded structural inequities, we must focus closely on the details of the daily instructional experience for our students. Over 27 years pursuing this goal, we have found no stronger entry point than a high-quality curriculum, especially when it is combined with accompanying professional learning and coaching for teachers. Such a curriculum, with equity at its heart, will challenge, engage, and empower our students in just the way the world most needs.

Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D. (2020). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development, Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 97–140. DOI 10.1080/10888691.2018.1537791.

Ford, D. Y., & Grantham, T. C. (2003). Providing access for gifted culturally diverse students: From deficit thinking to dynamic thinking. Theory into Practice, 42, 217–225.

Ginwright, S. (2018). The future of healing: Shifting from trauma informed care to healing centered engagement. Retrieved from:

Riddle, T., & Sinclair, S. (2019). Racial disparities in school-based disciplinary actions are associated with county-level rates of racial bias. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, 116(17), 8255–8260.

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.

Steele, C. M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company.

The Education Trust. (n.d.). Social, emotional, and academic development through an equity lens. Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust.

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