Connecting SEL with Academic Achievement to Achieve True Education Equity

By Stacey Pusey

Leading for Equity: Academic Development Through an Equity Lens edWebinar recording link


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As schools reckon with learning equity, they’re often focused on academic progress. During the edWebinar, Leading for Equity: Academic Development Through an Equity Lens,” hosted by AASA, The Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, the presenters talked about the important role social-emotional learning (SEL) plays in the process. In fact, they argued that schools must connect academic equity with SEL if they’re going to reach their goal of serving all students.

Across the nation, district equity discussions include how schools must examine current biases from bus stops to classroom materials to educator and staff expectations. In the report, Social, Emotional, and Academic Development Through an Equity Lens, from The Education Trust, researchers found most families of color don’t think schools are set up for their students to succeed. Nancy Duchesneau, a Research Associate at The Education Trust, said that’s because current SEL models focus on competencies and reaching specific standards without thinking about individual student’s needs. This adds to a deficit-based mindset where the teachers are focused on fixing the students. Instead, said Duchesneau, educators and staff need to recognize cultural and contextual differences and how they impact students.

Based on the research, the report’s authors have six policy and practice recommendations:

  1. Provide meaningful professional development and supports in key areas like reducing bias and culturally sustaining pedagogy;
  2. Engage parents, students, and communities as full partners so that leaders have reliable information about the school climate and school needs;
  3. Diversify the educator workforce so that students from all backgrounds recognize themselves in teachers and staff, thus feeling more welcome in the school;
  4. Ensure equitable access to and supports for success in rigorous and culturally sustaining coursework. In other words, all students should be using rigorous curricula that are free from stereotypes and negative reinforcement. SEL should be integrated into the materials;
  5. Develop inclusive discipline and dress code policies. Discipline, for instance, should focus on restoring relationships; and
  6. Provide access to integrated wraparound services and supports, which should include partnering with community officials like law enforcement and hospitals to ensure that students receive support wherever and whenever they need it.

One school district modeling this type of intentional equity is Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. Dr. Jack R. Smith, Superintendent, said when he came to Montgomery County, he noticed while many cohorts of students were achieving sustainable success, he couldn’t say all students were being set up for success. Based on the district’s strategic plan and other work being done in the district, the leadership developed an equity and achievement framework based on three main principles.

  • Evidence of Learning: Smith said the key questions he asks are “Are all students learning?” and “Are they learning enough?” The district is using multiple measures from the classroom to district level across internal and external categories to determine if students are college and career ready.
  • Equity Accountability Model: Administration looked at the groups of students that were typically underperforming and asked how they know they are underperforming and why. Without the deeper details about these students, the district couldn’t develop an action plan to help them.

Leading for Equity: Academic Development Through an Equity Lens edWebinar image

  • Equitable Access to Resources: More than just culturally appropriate, rigorous curricula, district leaders also looked at how all staff, time, and money were being used to support all students. For Dr. Monifa McKnight, Deputy Superintendent, the key questions for every program are: Who has access to that program? Are we providing resources to make sure all students are successful in that program? Again, the resources need to support the students’ well-being as well as academics.

The key to all of this, said Dr. Smith, is to think of data as a flashlight and not a hammer. It tells us the questions and where to look, but data should drive us to numbers, then to names, and then to faces. Each student is an individual who deserves attention to their specific needs. As Dr. McKnight reminded attendees, there may be a different path for each student to reach the standard, and it’s the job of everyone in their district to help each child on their journey.

This edWeb broadcast was hosted by AASA, The Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, providing premier professional learning for educational leaders.

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This article was modified and published by eSchool News.

About the Presenters

Nancy is a P-12 Research Associate and leads the Social, Emotional, and Academic Development work at EdTrust. In this role, she works to fill current gaps in research, policy, and advocacy to ensure that schools holistically support the well-being and development of students, and especially for low-income students and students of color.

In addition to having served as EdTrust’s Spencer Fellow for Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, Nancy worked in multiple roles prior to joining EdTrust. Recent experiences include serving as a research assistant under education faculty at Michigan State University. She has also worked on projects with researchers at Education Testing Service (ETS) and interned with consultants at the Center for Assessment.

Jack R. Smith began his tenure as superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) on July 1, 2016 and is now in his second term as superintendent. A dedicated lifelong educator, Dr. Smith has been a classroom teacher, principal, curriculum director, and a local superintendent of schools. Dr. Smith’s steadfast goal has always been to provide all students, regardless of their learning needs, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, with options and choices upon graduation.

Among Dr. Smith’s many illustrious awards and honors, he was named Maryland Superintendent of the Year in 2013 and he received the 2010 Change Agent Award from the Maryland State Department of Education’s Division of Career and College Readiness. Dr. Smith is a member of Leadership Maryland’s Class of 2011, and he has served on a variety of volunteer boards. A graduate of Eastern Washington University, with a bachelor’s in English and Communications and a master’s in School Administration, Dr. Smith received his Ph.D. in instructional leadership from Notre Dame of Maryland University.

Dr. Monifa McKnight currently serves as Deputy Superintendent in MCPS. Prior to this role, she served as the Chief School Management and Instructional Leadership Officer for Howard County Public Schools. Prior to going to Howard County, Dr. McKnight served as the Director for Secondary Leadership Development Programs in Montgomery County Public Schools. She also served as a Campus Principal Ambassador Fellow for the United States Department of Education in 2016 under the leadership of Secretary of Education John King.

Dr. McKnight was honored as the 2015 Maryland Middle School Principal of the Year by the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals and as the 2015 Maryland State Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She received this honor during her 5th year as the Principal of Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg, MD.

Dr. McKnight’s prior experiences in education include classroom teacher, English Resource Teacher, Staff Development Teacher, and Assistant Principal. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, a Master of Science in Educational Leadership from Bowie State University, Bowie Maryland, and a Doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership and Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park.

About the Host

Valerie joined AASA early in 2019 as the Assistant Executive Director responsible for guiding leadership development services and programs. With years of experience in the superintendency and roles in instructional technology, she knows that AASA’s Leadership Network can be a substantial resource for school leaders trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing delivery of K-12 education.

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Leading for Equity is a free professional learning community on for school and district leaders who face many challenges leading schools and driving school improvement for all students, especially now with COVID-19.


The AASA Leadership Network drives superintendent success, innovation and growth, shaping the future of public education while preparing students for what’s next. We are the largest, most diverse network of superintendents in America. Passionate and committed, we connect educational leaders to the professional learning, leadership development, relationships and partnerships they need to ensure a long career of impact.


Stacey Pusey is an education communications consultant and writer. She assists education organizations with content strategy and teaches writing at the college level. Stacey has worked in the preK-12 education world for 20 years, spending time on school management and working for education associations including the AAP PreK-12 Learning Group. Stacey is working with as a marketing communications advisor and writer.