Promoting Equity in Literacy Instruction

Equity. The word is ringing in my ears. It has been a major emphasis in education in our state, as it should be. And sources everywhere are talking and writing about equity in education. But what does it really mean?

What is Educational Equity?

According to the National Equity Project, “Educational equity means that each child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential.” I recently came across saw this image below from Pedro Noguera, which I believe captures what we are really striving for, the removal of barriers.

Equity is… Equity is not…
An outcome…we reach it when gaps are gone; each child reaches at least “proficiency”. All students reaching the same level of accomplishment.
An approach…we deliberately take action to address the differing needs of each child & help them reach success.. A zero-sum game…we can improve outcomes for some students without diminishing outcomes for others.
A belief…that each child can succeed A “one-off” or “stand-alone” initiative.
A habit of practice…organizationally and individually.


Current snapshot: Inequity in literacy instruction and outcomes

Inequities abound in education, and thus also in literacy instruction and outcomes. Consider recent Ohio data on the gap in outcomes for students with disabilities compared to typical peers, or ELA outcomes of white students compared to black students (from Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction, Paolo DeMaria, August, 2021).


We know that to achieve equity in literacy outcomes, each child must receive what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential. What one child needs differs from what the next child needs; some students will simply need more expert and intensive support to achieve. However, we have a plethora of evidence that in fact students who need the most tend to get the least. Students from already disadvantaged groups face inequities such as:

  • Fewer and lower-quality birth-age 5 opportunities that support school readiness (Brookings Institution, 2012)
  • Less access to grade level instruction (The Opportunity Myth, TNTP, 2021)
  • Lower quality and less effective teachers in terms of experience, licensure, and value-added (Goldhaber, Lavery, & Theobald, 2015; Goldhaber, Quince, & Theobald, 2016; Goldhaber, Quince, & Theobald 2018a; Isenberg et al., 2016; Mansfield, 2015; Sass et al., 2012)
  • Significantly fewer school resources, resulting in less/lower quality curriculum, staffing, and support services (Darling-Hammond, 1998)

There is also evidence that these inequities exist in several ways:

  1. Across districts (higher income areas tending to have better equipped schools),
  2. Within districts (different schools with widely varying resources within the same school district) (Goldhaber, Quince, & Theobald, 2019), and also
  3. Within schools across programs/teachers (Hanushek & Rivkin, 2010).

In sum, inequitable outcomes are the result of inequitable systems. To be sure, not all factors that lead to inequities are under the control of school systems. But many are, so as educators, let’s start there.

Changes for Equity in Literacy Instruction

The good news is, we have plenty of evidence on which strategies do have a gap-closing impact to increase equity. Below are some places to start, with reflection questions to guide your team to identify where you are and steps you can take toward equity:

Strategy 1: Ensuring Teacher Quality for Equity

Teacher quality is extremely important in increasing equity. There is much evidence that teacher quality has the single greatest impact on student outcomes, more than other school factors, leadership, or even curriculum (Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff, 2014; Coleman, 1966; Hanushek & Rivkin, 2010). High quality teachers serving high proportions of students behind grade level contribute roughly six months of additional learning per student per year (TNTP, 2018).

  • What percent of my teaching staff are highly qualified teachers (fully licensed to teach in their current placement)?
  • What percent of my teaching staff have more than 3 years of experience? More than 5 years?
  • What percent of my staff are rated as skilled or accomplished? What percent of my teachers have value added or growth scores that indicate students make growth as expected? Make more growth than expected?
  • Where are the fully licensed, experienced, effective teachers placed? Which students are they serving?
  • What are our current recruitment, hiring, assignment, and retainment practices? How can these contribute to increasing our percentage of high-quality teachers? How can we refine these systems to secure and place the highest quality teachers with our students who need the most support?


Strategy 2: Ensuring High Quality Instructional Materials for Equity

Many teachers spend significant amounts of time creating or sourcing their own instructional materials, often to the detriment of students. Research has shown teacher-created and selected materials are typically of lower quality and less aligned to grade level standards than district-selected materials of any quality, but especially compared to high quality instructional materials. High quality instructional materials (HQIM) are: standards-aligned, intentionally sequenced, research-based (if not evidence-based, see here for explanation of the difference), and include teacher support materials and aligned assessments.

  • How well do my district materials fit the criteria of HQIM?
  • How well are teachers prepared to use the materials? How well are they supported on an ongoing basis and including in-classroom support of their implementation of the materials?
  • What percent of my teaching staff are using HQIM with integrity?
  • Where and to whom are HQIM provided? Where and with whom are HQIM being used most effectively?
  • What are our current instructional materials adoption, PD, coaching, and monitoring systems? How can we refine these systems to secure the highest quality implementation of HQIM for our students who need the most effective instruction?


Strategy 3: High Quality Professional Development for Equity

High quality professional development improves teacher quality and ensures effective implementation of HQIMs. The Every Student Succeeds Act (2016) defined defines quality professional development as: sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, or short term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused. More recently, a Carnegie Report (2020) highlighted the use of curriculum-based professional learning designed to support the implementation of HQIMs to have the greatest impact on student outcomes.

  • How well does my district-provided PD fit the criteria of high-quality professional development/learning?
  • Are all of my teachers engaged in high-quality professional development/learning? Where and to whom are high-quality professional development experiences provided?
  • What are our current PD planning systems? How can we refine these systems to ensure the highest quality PD for teachers who serve our students who need the most effective instruction?


Strategy 4: Using Tiers of Support with Evidence-based Interventions for Equity

The core of what is now known as Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) is equity. A key feature of MTSS is tiers of support that grow in intensity based on students’ needs. Tier 1 is core instruction for all students, yet still differentiated and scaffolded based on student need. Tier 2 is targeted support for some students, often a structured literacy intervention provided in small group, and Tier 3 is intensive support for few students, often an intensified and individualized version of structured literacy intervention. MTSS embodies the central idea of educational equity that students who need more get more. However, that is not always how it is enacted in practice, especially when we examine systems across classes, grades, and schools within a district.

Tier 1

  • How is instruction differentiated in Tier 1 to grow all students?
  • How is instruction scaffolded? (Not the same as differentiation, see resources at the end of this blog for more info.)
  • How do we ensure access to grade level instruction for all students?
  • What percent of teachers are implementing differentiated, scaffolded Tier 1 instruction?
  • Where and with whom is Tier 1 implemented most effectively? How can we refine these systems to ensure the most effective Tier 1 instruction with our students who need the most support?

Tier 2/Tier 3

These are not the same systems, but for our purposes here, please reflect on both.

  • How do we identify and place students in Tier 2 interventions? In Tier 3 interventions? How do we equitably ensure that all students who exhibit X need have access to Y intervention? E.g., do we have data-based decision rules to fight bias, or do we mostly rely on individual parent or teacher referral for intervention placement?
  • How do we select and assign interventions that are evidence-based to meet the specific needs of the students assigned?
  • How well are teachers prepared to use the Tier 2 intervention programs? Or to intensify and individualize for Tier 3 interventions? How well are teachers supported on an ongoing basis and including in-classroom support of their implementation of the materials?
  • What percent of intervention providers are using evidence-based programs with integrity?
  • How do you assign and place intervention providers in buildings? To what degree does each building have the capacity to serve the caseload identified by your data-based decision making? g., do you assign reading intervention teachers to buildings based on numbers of students identified as at risk by assessments, or allot a certain number per building regardless of need?
  • Where and with whom are Tier 2/3 interventions being used most effectively? How can we ensure the students who need the most support are receiving the most effective implementation of Tier 2/3?
  • What are our current intervention adoption, PD, coaching, and monitoring systems? How can we refine these systems to ensure the most effective implementation of Tier 2/3 interventions for our students who need the most effective instruction?


Reflecting on these questions is not easy, and the solutions are not simple. However, honest reflection on where we currently are is the first step toward changes that will create more equity. These Four Strategies for Equity in Literacy Instruction will help you take on the challenge!


  • What is Differentiated Instruction? See here and here.
  • What is Scaffolding? See here and here.


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