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What District Leaders Can Do to Support Equitable Classrooms in Their Schools

A thought leadership post about supporting equity in classrooms by Lanette Trowery.

Tags: Study Survey, Classroom Best Practices

Supporting districts in their efforts to create equitable classrooms is a goal at McGraw-Hill

As district and school leaders continue to increase their focus on transforming their learning communities to systems that provide equitable opportunities to all students, the research on educational equity also continues to expand. What goes into creating an equitable classroom environment that supports all learners?

At McGraw-Hill, we believe that all students deserve the opportunity to thrive in a learning environment that suits their needs — that nurtures their strengths, acknowledges their individuality, and is dedicated to their success. In my work as a teacher educator and classroom coach, one of my greatest joys was seeing teachers grow their classrooms into true learning communities. It’s never easy or seamless work; the time and support needed to create a classroom that puts students’ needs front and center requires dedication to your craft, support from your team members and administration, and a continual desire to learn about your students.

I want to share some of the lessons I learned from those teachers who worked tirelessly to create equitable classrooms that supported all learners.

Driving a district toward equity begins with the classroom environment

Why classroom environment? An equitable classroom is one where all students are supported to learn rigorous academics at their level, examine and critique the content and skills they are learning, and engage in critical inquiry of how what they are learning interacts with the world around them. Doing high-level learning through critical analysis with your peers, taking risks and making mistakes, or engaging in discussions that draw on different, and sometimes uncomfortable, methods or worldviews requires students to be in a space where they feel safe and cared for. Taking time to develop a classroom environment that supports that work becomes the structure upon which equitable teaching and learning can find a foothold.

Creating an equitable classroom environment that supports all learners

As part of their equitable classroom environment, the teachers I worked with spent time developing a positive classroom community, which encompass the interactions between classroom members and the supportive learning relationship that can be developed among those members. Another aspect of the environment that the teachers built was the classroom climate - the degree to which their students felt safe and supported in the classroom and how that safety allowed students to critically consider their world. Finally, the teachers focused on the learning environment, which encompassed the structures and procedures that supported student learning and the academic attitudes developed in the classroom1,2.

Utilizing students’ cultural competence to build a classroom community

Equitable classroom communities designed to enhance cultural competence encourage students to be self-reflective about their multiple identities and how those identities can be used to create a positive life path. Teachers utilize students' cultural competence as a vehicle for learning which allows students to maintain their cultural integrity as they strive for academic excellence. Knowing each student academically, socially, and personally supports a teacher’s ability to further understand student behaviors and how to address them. It is also important for teachers to critique their own responses to behaviors and determine the detriment and/or benefit to learning each behavior represents and then respond accordingly3.

Practices teachers can enact to build a classroom community4:

  • Utilizing routines that teach students collaboration skills, discussion and critique methods, and personal and group responsibility

  • Encouraging student sharing and explaining of their ideas for both correct and incorrect work and responses

  • Actively engaging and connecting prior content knowledge, student background and cultural knowledge, in preparation for learning

  • Encouraging active listening among classroom community members by promoting and modeling student to student, student to teacher, teacher to student interactions

  • Modeling and supporting multiple means of communication using academic language, everyday language, symbols, and representations

  • Modeling, comparing, and analyzing problems and solution strategies with students by thinking, reasoning, and justifying

Creating a classroom climate that supports risk taking and critical analysis5

To engage in a critical stance about learning, students first need to feel safe in the classroom climate. Developing a safe classroom means teachers readily address issues and events that can potentially make students fearful and hesitant in their interactions with others. Then, teachers and students can develop a critical or problematic stance about both school and life through interrogation and dialogue. From analyzing why algorithms were developed and are used in math to considering multiple perspectives on why wars happen, developing a problematic stance in relation to everyday school learning is important. It develops the skill of critical inquiry in students that includes querying issues and ideas both in and out of school.

Practices teachers can enact to support an inclusive classroom climate4:

  • Analyzing and critiquing differences in viewpoints through and with content objectives

  • Adopting a problematic stance in teaching by developing, analyzing, and critiquing content ideas

  • Demonstrating and leading students in developing respectful and caring classroom norms, individual work behaviors, habits, and attitudes through explicit critique and discussion

  • Using activities and tasks to encourage risk taking, perseverance, and collaborative thinking with/among students

Developing an academically focused learning environment

In a learning environment that is focused on the academic achievement of all students, teachers encourage, reinforce, and produce academic excellence in their students; students’ skills and abilities are valued and channeled in academically important ways7. Providing structures, templates and academic protocols for students allows them to have a base upon which to build their learning and in turn, will scaffold students to tackle higher-level problems and tasks. Scaffolding opportunities to learn new material and grapple with challenging ideas encourages students to develop perseverance and dedication for their academic endeavors. Teachers also know that in order for students to be successful in the work that is expected of them, additional work may be needed on a regular basis – in and out of the classroom. This additional focused time allows teachers to attend to students’ academic identities and explore the ways those identities are tied together with their personal and cultural identities8.

Practices teachers can enact that foster a strong learning environment4:

  • Encouraging all students in their academic success; providing space for accolades of academic achievement

  • Questioning and probing students on multiple levels and using thinking time to encourage academic engagement

  • Providing activities and tasks of a varying cognitive demand that challenge all levels of students in classroom.

  • Using multiple forms of assessment to support the learning growth of all students

  • Creating a two-way path of communication about academic progress between school/classroom and families using innovative forms of communication

  • Providing work and interaction templates, structures, routines, and organizers for students in assignments, communication, and behaviors

  • Developing and using varied tools and representations, including student work, to share ideas and expand content knowledge

  • Maintaining lesson pacing that encourages student engagement and focus on learning

We are invested in creating equitable schools

Having well-crafted practices that reflect the deep consideration of equity in classrooms help teachers reflect on their habits, beliefs, and cultural vision. The development of a classroom designed to support critical inquiry of academic and social goals is grounded in the teacher’s awareness of the different forces coming to bear on their classroom practices. It is the teacher’s work to build a classroom environment that supports the high-level knowledge to be taught, the cultures students bring, and the practices that acknowledge, examine, and support student growth as learners. However, as an education community, it is up to all of us to provide all teachers with the tools, support, care, and guidance they need to do the difficult work of creating learning spaces that allow all students to flourish.

To learn more on how we are invested in supporting districts in this effort, review our set of Equity Principles which can be used as guideposts for district leaders in their journey toward equitable schools.


Lanette Trowery, PhD is the Senior Director of the McGraw-Hill Learning Research and Strategy Team.

Lanette was in public education for more than 25 years, working as a university professor, site-based mathematics coach, elementary and middle school teacher, mathematics consultant, and a professional learning consultant, before coming to McGraw-Hill in 2014. She earned her Master’s, in Educational Administration, and Doctorate, in Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum, from the University of Pennsylvania.

After earning her PhD, Lanette furthered her work in teacher education by becoming a professor in teacher education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. Her next position brought her to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN where she was the director of the Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools Master’s program. As director, Lanette led a team of faculty and coaches, along with school principals and district leadership, in supporting urban middle school teachers through a focus on developing and enhancing the teachers’ pedagogical, content, leadership and advocacy skills. Her research work focused on understanding the impact of culturally relevant pedagogies on teaching practices in mathematics.

Lanette’s team, Learning Research and Strategy, serves as the center of excellence for teaching and learning best practices. They collaborate across teams and with experts and customers to establish guiding principles based on learning science research and lead the efforts to move from theory to practice through a strong learning science foundation for our programs, efficacy research into our products, and professional learning both internally and externally.


(1) Tompkins, G. 2009. Language Arts: Patterns of practice. Boston, MA : Allyn & Bacon.
(2) Matsumura, L., Slater, S., and Crosson, A. 2008. “Classroom Climate, Rigorous Instruction, and Curriculum, and Students’ Interactions in Urban Middle Schools”. The Elementary School Journal. 108(4). 293-312.
(3) Davis, J. and Martin, D. 2008. Racism, Assessment, and Instructional Practices: Implications for Mathematics Teachers of African American Students. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education. 1(1). 10–34.
(4) Waddell, Lanette R. (2014) "Using Culturally Ambitious Teaching Practices to Support Urban Mathematics Teaching and Learning," Journal of Praxis in Multicultural Education: Vol. 8: Iss. 1, Article 2.
(5) Hiebert, J., Carpenter, T. P., Fennema, E., Fuson, K.C., Wearne, D., Murray, H., Human, P., & Olivier, A. (1997). Making sense: Teaching and learning mathematics with understanding. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
(6) Ladson-Billings, G. 1995. “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy”. American Educational Research Journal. 32(3). 465-491.
(7) Nasir, N. 2002. “Identity, Goals, and Learning: Mathematics in Cultural Practices”. In Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 4(2&3). Eds. N. S. Nasir and P. Cobb. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

This article was initially published on the Nation School Board Association’s (NSBA) website and can be found here.