A Social Justice Critical Framing for Opportunity-to-Learn Indicator Use

Making the Meaning of Opportunity More Socioculturally Sustainable, Inclusive, and Action-Oriented

This is the first post by one of our 2021 summer interns based on their project and the assessment and accountability issues they are addressing this summer with their Center mentors.  Thao Thu Vo, from Washington State University, is working with Scott Marion on using opportunity-to-learn information to enhance the utility of state test scores. He writes here about framing OTL systems around social justice.

In this post, we propose employing a social justice critical lens to frame the design and interpretation of opportunity-to-learn indicator systems. This framework represents a commitment to identify and critique the complex inequities associated with race, gender, language background, and ableness. We argue this lens is especially important now more than ever as the U.S. school-age population is becoming increasingly culturally diverse (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020) and we are belatedly, as a country, starting to reckon with our racist structures. 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM, 20192020) curated a report and guidebook of educational equity indicators for states and districts that can be used to monitor and address disparities in educational opportunities. The committee defined educational equity as an “adequate effort to lessen the effects of structural disadvantages that disproportionately affect different student groups” (NASEM, 2020, pp. 1). These indicators serve to bring attention to the existing conditions and issues that children face in schools and provide a way to explore potential factors that may lead to inequity. Such indicators are critical in documenting consequential disparities, especially for Black, Latinx, Native Americans, Asian/Pacific Islanders, English learners, and students with disabilities who face significantly greater barriers to quality education.

An equity lens is a considerable advance in terms of painting a comprehensive picture of the processes that occur in schools and classrooms; however, it maintains a traditional view of opportunity-to-learn (OTL) that does not explicitly consider the complexities of how knowledge is acquired or measured. The establishment of prior knowledge, power of representation, and students’ lived histories are all examples of the relevant differential factors that impact learning opportunities and ultimately educational outcomes (Gee, 2008). 

We argue the equity OTL lens alone may not precipitate positive action within educational systems because it allows us to only focus on monitoring whether the availability of opportunities exists, rather than discerning opportunities to learn what and for whom (Randall, 2021). We illustrate below the differences between using an educational equity lens compared with a social justice critical lens

From Equity to Social Justice

Among the equity indicators NASEM suggests are “disparities in engagement in schooling.” According to the guidebook: 

“Engagement refers to wide range of behaviors that demonstrate student’s connection to teachers, classmates, academic jobs, and the school… absenteeism can indicate disengagement in schooling. Chronic absenteeism is usually defined as missing 15 or more school days or missing more than 10 percent of instructional days in a year” (NASEM, 2020, pp. 25)

In other words, the construct of engagement was operationally defined as whether a student had 15 or more days of unexcused absences in an academic year (i.e. chronically absent). We note that this indicator is the most common School Quality and Student Success (SQSS) indicator used in states’ Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)-required accountability systems (Woods, 2018). Adopting an equity lens could lead to interpreting and labeling a student as “disengaged” but neglecting to understand the factors why students might not be attending school in the first place. An equity framework alone could result in misguided actions for students who miss school due to myriad reasons.  

A social justice critical framework would instead ask, how can student engagement be reconceptualized or reimagined to be more inclusive and sensitive to the wider experiences of culturally diverse students? Instead of relying on and prescribing a single indicator (e.g., chronic absenteeism) as a sign of student (dis)engagement, a social justice critical framework challenges the definition of “student engagement” and centers the notion of engagement on the culturally diverse experiences of Black, Indigenous, People of color (BIPOC). 

For example, consider the case of a student named Alex (Hispanic-identifying) who the school might determine is “chronically absent.” Alex may choose (or be forced) to skipschool because of employment (e.g., additional family income), family responsibilities (e.g., sibling childcare), or as a result of adverse school climate (e.g., discrimination) – which have historically and disproportionately affected BIPOC students.

Applying a social justice OTL framework, the school might collect additional data that account for Alex’s socio-cultural context; for example, through indicators that consider the student’s employment status, the number of parental figures in the household, or responsibilities of caring for other family members in a multigenerational household. 

Without a social justice OTL framework, we would not know that Alex is self-employed, living with a single parent, and helps provide childcare for a sibling. The social justice critical framework seeks to identify and dismantle the sociocultural and contextual barriers that students may face in trying to stay engaged in school. By reimagining the concept of student engagement as a consequence of the family and community responsibilities required of Alex, we might infer from this framework that Alexrequires additional supports in/outside of school to balance the responsibilities affecting the ability to attend school and therefore engage in the classroom. 

Possible additional supports for Alex could include wrap-around services involving their family or community like mental health counseling, after-school tutoring, or increasing representation of ethnically diverse teachers similar to Alex’s cultural identity.

Figure 1 depicts additional factors that could be investigated with the school engagement indicator through a social justice critical lens. 

Figure 1: Reimagining the Construct of “Student Engagement” through a Social Justice Critical Lens

Moving from Theory to Practice

While a social justice critical framework certainly offers a deeper understanding of the contextual conditions in which opportunities are presented and in what capacity they are accessible, we must acknowledge that there are challenges in how such data are collected and by whom. We encourage state leaders to continue and expand on OTL data collection started this past year while focusing more intentionally on indicators to support equity and perhaps even social justice aims. These efforts can be supplemented with additional efforts at a more local level (e.g., district). 

Determining who is responsible to collect, interpret, and use the data is most likely to be determined by what level of the system has the most agency to trigger meaningful change. Thus, this work calls for a multi-level approach that encourages coherent, balanced, and action-orientated indicator systems that can be used for continuous improvement and evaluation. Adopting a social justice critical lens for designing OTL indicator systems requires us to reimagine the meaning of opportunity to be more socioculturally sustainable, inclusive, and action-oriented. Such a framework would provide a more contextualized portrait of students’ experiences and provide realistic solutions to the underlying barrier(s)inhibiting students from the opportunity to engage in school.