Districts, families, communities and youth-supporting organizations all have vested interests in supporting the academic journeys of students, yet their decisions affecting education often occur independently. This disconnect is especially evident for students from communities that have historically and systematically been excluded (HSE) from opportunity and access in education: Black, Brown, Indigenous, those experiencing poverty, multilingual learners and students experiencing learning differences.
Despite decades of education reform efforts, HSE students’ academic experiences and attainment are still moderated by social position and identity factors, such as race and socioeconomic status. Many seek to address these disparities by implementing education solutions at the district level. However, these solutions are often not co-created with HSE communities and families, and the diversity of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) solution providers does not reflect the HSE student population.
Solving deep-seated equity challenges in education is complex for a myriad of reasons. One key and solvable challenge is for solutions to be informed by the cultural and contextual expertise of the communities in which they’re implemented. One consideration is that BIPOC solution providers and developers likely possess deep community and cultural expertise but often lack the necessary access to share their solutions.
“And just something didn’t feel right about that to say, ‘Hey, why aren’t folks who are from the communities that we serve the folks who are actually building and leading these initiatives, right? Inherently, are we saying that they’re not capable of addressing the community concerns that they have, right? Because for whatever reason, we’re not creating pathways for folks to actually be able to come into whatever the solutions are.” — Solution Provider
Digital Promise’s Center for Inclusive Innovation engaged in exploratory research through a pilot initiative called Learning Salons to explore this idea. These BIPOC solution providers hidden in plain sight are people of color leading high-value edtech companies who potentially have created the solutions that can effectively address districts’ needs.
The Imbalance Between the Need and Opportunity
Grounded in the spirit of the Inclusive Innovation Core Tenets, we outlined criteria for consideration when evaluating solutions for promise toward meeting an equity-based challenge:
- Centered in belonging and identity
- Natively designed to meet the needs of diverse students
- Reflective of the culture, languages and experiences of diverse students
- Inclusive of the voice and input of diverse communities
Using criteria such as this will help source education solutions and BIPOC solution providers that wholly embody equity as a starting point for support for HSE student access and support. Still, a larger problem rooted in the stratification of opportunity for BIPOC solution providers remains.
BIPOC solution providers have the ability and determination to develop impactful education solutions. However, they encounter obstacles in establishing district relationships and contracts. Our report describes an effort to address the barriers to opportunity navigated by a sample of BIPOC solution providers we had the honor of working with over the past year, including:
- Human, financial and social capital barriers related to their social and professional networks, funding and the capacity it takes to navigate a complex education solution industry.
- Challenges associated with the nature of industry practice and district procurement practices.
- Sociocultural barriers related to perceptions of BIPOC solution providers and the sociopolitical climate surrounding equity-centered work.
These barriers all have implications for the visibility and success of solutions that are aligned to the needs of HSE students and, ultimately, how many HSE students are able to receive support designed with their needs in mind by people who understand—and in some cases, share—their experiences.
Amplifying BIPOC Solution Providers Through a Learning Salons Model
Digital Promise and our partners designed the Learning Salons model to create opportunities for school districts to broaden their lens on sourcing solutions to meet the needs of HSE students through a rapid-cycle approach anchored in each district’s problem of practice to discover innovative, equity-centered programs and practices.
The Learning Salons engaged district leaders and BIPOC solution providers in a collaborative experience focused on:
- Defining the root cause of a district’s problem of practice.
- Identifying a solution pathway to address the problem of practice with the goal of achieving student-centered outcomes.
- Matching and adapting equity-centered learning solutions aligned directly to a district’s problem of practice to define opportunities for partnership and engagement.
Benefits and impact of Learnings Salons for district leaders and BIPOC solution providers:
- Prioritized opportunities for districts and BIPOC solution providers to collaborate on problems of practice to discover equity-centered, innovative and effective student-centered tools.
- Created a platform for BIPOC solution providers to share their deep content and context expertise on high-priority challenge areas and showcase their solution and its impact.
We supplemented the Learning Salons with a broader opportunity designed to engage leaders and decision makers from states’ district and charter school teams, practitioners, researchers and funders in a showcase of BIPOC-created solutions where they learned about undiscovered teaching and learning solutions and tools.
The Learning Salons approach helps to mitigate the equity gap by:
- Creating awareness of solutions and tools that are unknown to district leaders and decision makers.
- Fostering collaborations on co-designing solutions that align with district-specific challenges or problems.
- Building relationships between district leaders and BIPOC solution providers founded on a shared commitment to an equity challenge.
The Promise of Addressing the Needs of Historically and Systematically Excluded Students
When BIPOC solution providers are intentionally engaged and have a platform to showcase their talent and solutions, the opportunities for addressing inequity abound, informed by:
- The Value of Deep Equity Content and Context Expertise: BIPOC solution providers contribute their extensive knowledge and lived experience to address critical challenges. Their insights offer practitioners valuable perspectives, methods and successful models tailored to HSE students’ needs, providing effective solutions for district leaders’ equity challenges.
- Surfacing Culturally Relevant Solutions: BIPOC solution providers naturally integrate culturally responsive pedagogy into solutions for HSE youth. With inclusive research and ongoing enhancement, plus careful diversity of representation, they create impactful solutions. Their understanding of excluded students’ authentic experiences drives meaningful, resonating change.
- Broadening the Definition of and Measurement of Impact: Like most BIPOC solution providers, BIPOC solution providers design products and programs to meet traditional standards and metrics that demonstrate solution impact. BIPOC providers may offer different perspectives on measures and progress indicators that are most meaningful to HSE students and communities, such as engagement and belonging, identity reflection, agency and other factors that are most important for HSE student achievement in education.
Reimagining a More Inclusive Future
If we are committed to a more inclusive future in education, we must also imagine a path that ensures HSE scholars have the support they need to thrive. Doing so means that we must actively seek out and embrace BIPOC solution providers as experts, given their experience and proximity to the challenges of HSE students. Changes in practice can lift the veil.
Three Practical Recommendations for Change
- Redefine Solution Development Readiness Criteria: Evaluations of solution provider readiness should include relevant and equitable criteria with a laser focus on sourcing diverse tools, curricula and resources that support the HSE student population with intentionality.
- Reconceptualize Expertise: Consider the cultural community knowledge and lived experience necessary to inform effective solutions for HSE communities that have historically been left out of district decision-making and education R&D processes.
- Repave Procurement Pathways: Allow for consideration of lesser-known education BIPOC solution providers who have developed solutions that show promise for meeting the needs of HSE students, such as BIPOC and equity-centered education BIPOC solution providers.
These three small pivots in practice will take a meaningful step toward creating an education system where all students can learn, grow and thrive as their authentic selves with the support and resources they need. Breaking down the barriers makes room for solutions that reflect the growing diversity of the student body.