Tracking the Indicators of Opportunity

Use data to measure the intangibles that can contribute to educational equity.

Topics: Ethical Leadership, Equity and Diversity

Educators need reliable information on the underlying conditions and a clear set of indicators to make sense of how opportunities to learn affect outcomes. What are some of these indicators, and how can school leaders access and use reliable, evidence-based data on these indicators to support their efforts to create equitable schools?

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) published a 2019 report that identifies 16 indicators school leaders can use to measure equity in education. These indicators include measures of outcomes such as test scores, behavioral data, and graduation rates, but they also include measures of opportunity such as student engagement, access to high-quality learning opportunities, grading, meaningful pre-K experiences, and safe and supportive school environments.

The report specifies definitions of each equity indicator, describes the extent to which school districts already report these indicators publicly, and provides recommendations on how schools might integrate them into their improvement processes. NASEM’s 16 equity indicators are:

  1. Pre-K Academic Readiness (outcome)
  2. Pre-K Self-Regulation and Attention Skills (outcome)
  3. Access to and Participation in High-Quality Pre-K Programs (opportunity)
  4. Engagement in Schooling (outcome)
  5. Performance in Coursework (outcome)
  6. Performance on Tests (outcome)
  7. Students’ Exposure to Racial, Ethnic, and Economic Segregation (opportunity)
  8. Access to Effective Teaching (opportunity)
  9. Access to and Enrollment in Rigorous Coursework (opportunity)
  10. Curricular Breadth (opportunity)
  11. Access to High-Quality Academic Supports (opportunity)
  12. School Climate (opportunity)
  13. Nonexclusionary Discipline Practices (opportunity)
  14. Nonacademic Supports for Student Success (opportunity)
  15. On-Time Graduation (outcome)
  16. Postsecondary Readiness (outcome)

Ask Questions That Address Inequities

The NASEM report provides a research-based set of indicators that can help move the conversation past questions about definitions of equity and toward questions about how to address any inequities in schools reflected in the data. Leaders can use these kinds of questions to begin to engage in these conversations:

  • What data does our district already collect that can provide evidence for this indicator?
  • Which opportunity indicators help us understand our outcome data?
  • What improvements would we like to see, and how would these indicators help us measure the change?
  • Which actions can we take to bring about these improvements?
  • What processes will we develop to collect and analyze the data necessary to measure our progress?
  • How does the data help us identify where our systems create and sustain inequity?

Questions such as these can help school leaders expand the conversation about data beyond gap-​gazing to ask how current school conditions and practices contribute to the gaps. Organizing data-driven interactions around these kinds of questions can help integrate already available data and deliver more powerful insights on the school’s equity goals.

Leaders can use the questions to identify the limitations of existing datasets and make changes in what data is collected and how. If you can tap into data that supports a wider variety of NASEM’s indicators, you can expand data-driven equity work from outcomes to opportunities and school processes.

Most principals and district leaders will recognize existing data points that offer evidence for many of the NASEM indicators, but few districts collect data for every indicator. Further, the relevant data might be housed in databases that can’t talk with each other, making it difficult for school improvement teams to access and analyze all indicators seamlessly.

The data sources might also lack the details necessary to compare outcomes and processes from an equity perspective. For example, while districts might already report data on who takes advanced placement courses, the information might not be linked to data on student exposure to segregated learning spaces or school climate.

Our recent work with New York City Public Schools shows a path toward the creation of integrated data resources that support equity-​focused improvement grounded in the NASEM standards. This project identified more than 700 publicly available datasets that contained evidence for one or more of the NASEM indicators, and it developed a system that uses metadata from these resources to build visualization tools that school leaders can use to engage in analysis across sources.

To advance equity, districts can use new tools such as these to integrate available data from a wider variety of sources to expand data-driven inquiries into NASEM indicators. School leaders and educators armed with such tools will be able to launch data-driven conversations that push equity-​focused work beyond gap-gazing into new improvement efforts that create more accessible and equitable learning spaces in public schools.

Alex J. Bowers is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Daniella Molle is a researcher with the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Yeonsoo Choi is a Ph.D. student at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Richard Halverson is a professor and the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education with the University of Wisconsin–Madison.