Is Your Approach to Continuous Improvement Colorblind? - ASCD
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March 1, 2021

Is Your Approach to Continuous Improvement Colorblind?

To make gains in student learning, schools must identify patterns of inequity and take responsibility for changing them.

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As educators increasingly explore the practice of continuous improvement, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that asking questions like, "What is the problem we're trying to solve?" "What intervention do we want to try out?" and "How will we know our intervention is making a difference?" can empower teachers to lead their own learning about instruction and yield meaningful change. The bad news? Too often educators engage in the process from an entirely colorblind perspective. They don't disaggregate formative data about students' race (or other important identifiers), let alone address racial inequities in their school-improvement work. As a consequence, it's not possible to investigate patterns based on race or determine whether racial bias may be a root cause of the problem at hand.

Perhaps this omission is because people don't consider addressing inequities as a central goal of improvement. Or perhaps people assume that all students experience school the same way—that teaching practices, curriculum choices, relationship building, and family engagement are carried out in ways that are equally respectful, rigorous, and meaningful regardless of student or family background. This is certainly a noble ideal, but it's not the current reality in—or out—of schools.

Bias in Schools

Research in fields ranging from medicine to public safety to the arts show that people across races continue to act in ways that favor white people and disadvantage and harm people of color—particularly Black people (Eberhardt, 2019; Mullainathan, 2015). Even though the vast majority of educators care about their students and want to help them succeed, we're all influenced daily by the same unconscious racial biases that influence people in other sectors. While conscious, deliberate bias also exists, many of our biases are so deeply internalized and ingrained that they operate outside our awareness (which allows them to persist).

As a result, many educators do not engage, empower, and challenge Black and brown students in the same way they do their white counterparts. For example, many educators hold Black and brown students to lower academic standards and view their behavior more suspiciously.

They offer white students more empathy and second chances when they make mistakes and more opportunities and encouragement to develop intellectually. Some identities, beliefs, and norms are devalued, marginalized, or rendered invisible, while others are prioritized and celebrated (Lewis & Diamond, 2017; Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015; Sheets, 1999).

Understanding that bias is often an unconscious process can help reduce the defensiveness that sometimes comes up when educators look at data disaggregated by race. It's hard to get traction for improvement with a team of defensive educators. Building a culture of nondefensive ownership of our biases is a crucial first step in any improvement process.

Bringing an Equity Focus into Improvement

In our work as consultants with schools around the country, we've encountered school leaders who successfully use a continuous improvement process to address inequities in student learning. These leaders start from the premise that racial bias exists in schools. We explore here additional steps leaders can take to ensure that continuous improvement directly confronts the harm being done to Black and brown students in schools. Specifically, leaders can disaggregate data to make inequities visible, focus on impact over intention, counteract deficit thinking, and disentangle root causes from biased assumptions about students.

Disaggregate Data by Race

Surprisingly, many of the schools we've worked with don't have a practice of disaggregating (by race, gender, or other factors) formative data they collect at the classroom or school level. Without collecting such data, they can't know if they're meeting the needs of all students equally well.

For example, many schools collect school climate data. Every quarter, students answer questions about how safe they feel in school, whether they are bullied, and so on. But when such surveys don't ask students to identify their race, gender, or other characteristics, the data can't be used to find and address potential disparities. Imagine that data from such a survey shows 90 percent of students have an adult they trust in school. Schools might feel there is no significant problem. But what if the 10 percent who say they don't have a trusted adult are all from a similar population of students at the school, such as Black girls or English language learners? Then the data tell a very different story. Perhaps something is going on that makes this particular group of students feel unsafe or alienated from adults, or from peers.

Every school will have different variations of student populations to pay attention to and different ways to sort the data to learn where to investigate. But key problems will remain invisible when schools neglect to disaggregate their data. As James Baldwin (1962) said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced."

Data can be disaggregated at all levels of improvement work. A few school-level examples are AP enrollment, scores on quarterly reading assessments, or who tries out for chorus or Math Olympics. At the classroom level, for example, teachers or teams might collect and disaggregate data on who raises their hand during discussions, or whose exit tickets consistently show understanding or confusion.

Focus on Impact

Disaggregating data alone will not solve the problem. It's entirely possible to continue to blame students for low performance rather than examine the learning environments that lead to students not being served equally. At schools where educators have internalized a continuous improvement mindset, data serve as a starting point, not an end point. Instead of falling into the "I taught it, they just didn't learn it" trap, teachers at these schools turn to data to learn about their own practice. This is a significant mindset shift.

This mindset—viewing student learning results as a reflection of teaching practice—is challenging to adopt in general. It's even harder to make this shift when race is involved. It can feel unsettling to consider that we may be treating students differently by race. Yet considerable research reminds us that this is often the case. Ignoring it won't help us be more effective with our Black and brown students. On the contrary, investigating data to learn where they are and aren't effective allows educators to better achieve their aspirations.

At the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Baltimore, Maryland, where Kristina was principal from 2011 to 2014, the majority of the student population, which was 97 percent African American, was not mastering grade-level standards. Under pressure from district pacing guides and mandates, teachers had generally settled into a routine of teaching from textbooks, testing students, and perfunctorily moving from one unit to the next without pausing to investigate student learning results. Yes, student achievement was poor, but people seemed resigned to that fact. Kristina knew she had to change expectations at the school so teachers would shift their focus from what they were teaching to what students were learning.

After a few false starts, Kristina and her administrative team created the conditions that helped teachers focus on impact. The leadership team decided they needed to shift the culture of how teachers viewed formative assessment data. They had direct and candid conversations with teachers about whether classroom formative data reflected the kind of impact the staff aspired to have through their instruction (or as Kristina liked to say, "If you taught it, who caught it?"), and how their own practice could be improved to ensure that every child in their class had access to the learning they deserved. Then the leadership team at Dunbar instituted a series of structures that empowered teachers to advocate for their own instructional needs and learn from one another. They added a system of trained teacher leaders and instituted common planning time for teacher teams.

The teacher leaders met weekly before school to learn and practice protocols that they then used with their teams to analyze formative class-level student achievement data. With this added support, teachers gained agency. Team meetings became more productive as teachers dug into student achievement data—evidence to help them understand their impact—and researched and learned strategies from each other that might help with the problems data examination uncovered.

Did every teacher embrace these changes? No. Some continued to avoid challenge or misdiagnose student performance by blaming external conditions. Other teachers resisted changing long-standing practices and assumptions. Kristina found that she had to participate in some team meetings to keep conversation from veering into deficit thinking. Over time, however, a critical mass of teachers felt empowered as they learned new strategies and ways to check whether those strategies helped students learn more. As this focus shifted teacher expectations, the school saw higher SAT and AP scores, attendance, and GPA (which nearly tripled for 9th graders).

Avoid a Deficit Mindset

Improvement starts with a conviction that all students can meet or exceed the learning standards. We've found, however, that this conviction is often lacking. Frequently cited statistics of the low performance of Black and brown students create an expectation that this is normal. What would happen if instead we saw this state of affairs as absolutely abnormal? If our improvement efforts started with the belief that, given the right conditions, all our students are capable of thriving in school? Probably, when confronted with students who aren't thriving, our natural first step would be to ask how our school conditions might be holding a child back and what we might change to produce a different outcome.

When we start from this conviction, we'll view students' low performance as an indication that something is awry in the conditions surrounding them. Some readers may be thinking, Well of course something is awry! Systemic racism has contributed to a disproportionate number of students of color having little food or housing security. All the challenges that come with that affect school performance.

We don't disagree that these (and other) larger social conditions are immoral and harm children. But we also know that race is often the determining factor in the quality of education a child receives. This can't happen on our watch. A commitment to equity requires ensuring that we as adults adjust our practices to provide children with what they need to thrive in our classrooms and schools.

As psychologists Kegan and Lahey (2001) explain, the way we frame a problem shapes our success in solving it. When people speak the "language of blame," we focus attention on the things we have little influence over; we feel defensive and frustrated and rarely accomplish more than venting. Kristina and her team modeled the "language of personal responsibility," making statements like "I still haven't landed the right strategy to get all my students to complete independent reading. What are you doing to get better results?"—and expected this kind of language from their school community. Taking responsibility for impact shifts teachers away from a culture of blame and generates collaborative problem solving, momentum, and self-reflection.

Identify Root Causes— and Ways to Change

The tendency in most schools is to leap from identifying a problem to making an action plan. These plans are often based on assumptions. At Kristina's school, the assumption was that the hundreds of African American students who were failing needed remediation through repeating classes, after-school interventions, or summer school. This remediation approach clearly located the deficit in students. Kristina and her team realized that analyzing data wasn't going to be enough to shift this mindset of blaming students. They wanted to support teachers to examine their own practices to see what might be a barrier to student learning. In addition to examining student outcomes, they needed to examine teacher inputs—the instructional practices used in the classroom. To do this, they designed schedules so that teachers weren't working in isolation as much, so teachers could see a broader range of possible teaching practices.

The Dunbar administrator team repurposed two prep periods each week to provide time for teachers to observe each other and lesson plan with a broader range of colleagues. During collaborative planning time with the English teachers, for example, AP teachers demonstrated how they designed their lessons starting with the standards. During the second designated prep period, teachers observed their peers teach.

With a broader understanding of what was possible, teachers were more open to starting from the assumption that teaching practices might be a significant root cause of the problem and to taking more personal responsibility. For instance, teachers accustomed to assigning rote practice for their Do Now activities discovered that giving students an open-ended problem to grapple with was both more engaging and produced more academic gains. Along the way, teachers came to see that the intervention students needed was more meaningful, challenging classroom learning—not additional hours of worksheets after school.

As this case demonstrates, when we assume the root cause for low performance is student capacity, we risk designing the wrong intervention. Having the insights of the right people at the table helps accurately identify root causes. Sometimes this means including an expanded team. Other times it means including qualitative data from focus groups or surveys with students. For example, Alison worked with a group of schools to unpack school climate data with students, asking them to generate explanations for why some students might feel less included than others and to offer solutions for how the school could foster a more inclusive and respectful environment. The schools then used this data to implement students' strategies, such as holding explicit, student-led time to talk about personal and collective identity. As a result, students' perceptions of peer trust, respect, and connection improved.

We find the data for equity protocol developed by the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, to be particularly helpful (n.d.). Its prompts at the "root cause" step read, in part:

Where are we making assumptions, engaging in deficit thinking, or blaming others rather than taking a critical eye to our system and our own practices? … What forces in our system may be contributing to the inequities we see? How might our current processes/practices/beliefs be contributing to inequity?

Toward Transformation

While all the steps described here are necessary in ensuring improvement work leads to equitable learning outcomes, they aren't sufficient. In addition to adopting an inquiry mindset regarding our students' learning, we need to adopt a similar inquiry stance about our own biases, asking questions like, What has allowed us to be complacent about low performance from Black and brown students? Or use harsher consequences for these same students?

Whose skills, values, and experiences are named, lifted, and celebrated, and whose remain invisible or marginalized? What makes us prioritize compliance over independent thinking when working with particular groups of students? What gets in the way of engaging students and other stakeholders in the process of improvement?

We can change policies and practices, but unless we simultaneously address the root causes in our own thinking, it's likely new biased policies and practices will crop up to replace them. True improvement work requires transforming ourselves as well as our practice.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Can you identify any ways unconscious bias or deficit thinking has affected school-improvement efforts in your school or district?

➛ How could your school or district do better in disaggregating data by race and ensuring that data informs policy and practice?

➛ In terms of teaching or leading for equity, what would adopting the "language of personal responsibility" mean for you?


Baldwin, J. (1962, January 14) "As much truth as one can bear." The New York Times Book Review.

Eberhardt, J. (2019). Biased: Uncovering the hidden prejudice that shapes what we see, think, and do. New York: Viking.

HTH GSE Center for Research on Equity and Innovation. (n.d.) Data for equity protocol. Retrieved from

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lewis, A., & Diamond, J. (2017). Despite the best intentions: How racial inequality thrives in good schools. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mullainathan, S. (2015, January 3). "Racial bias, even when we have good intentions." New York Times.

Okonofua, J., & Eberhardt, J. (2015). Two strikes: Race and the disciplining of young students. Psychological Science, 26(5), 617–624.

Sheets, R. (1999). Relating competence in an urban classroom to ethnic identity development. In R. Sheets (Ed.), Racial and ethnic identity in school practices: Aspects of human development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sarah E. Fiarman is director of leadership development for EL Education. They are both former principals and are coauthors of Unconscious Racial Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism (Harvard Education Press, 2019).

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