Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Developmental Equity: Path to Student Success?

Why school and families must broaden their goals

H. Zhang/123RF
Source: H. Zhang/123RF

I recently spoke at an Equity and Family Engagement Conference, where several hundred Washington State educators and parents gathered to “learn about the critical role that school-family-community partnerships play in the achievement and well-being of children.” Each time I attend a conference on family engagement in education, I am both heartened by the efforts being made on behalf of children and reminded of how much work lies ahead.

In recent years, the field of family engagement has applied a wide range of research to help communities partner around student success. The Harvard Family Research Project outlined six action steps to promote educational equity, all of which underscore the important roles families play as advocates and agents of change.

SEDL, an affiliate of American Institutes for Research, in Austin, Texas, links research to practice in a publication outlining The Dual Capacity-Building Framework for family engagement. The framework’s systemic, integrated, and sustained approach to engaging diverse families reflects the complex reality of creating meaningful partnerships between families and schools.

Researchers in the field of family engagement, like University of Washington’s Dr. Ann Ishimaru, study how to create equitable parent-school collaboration. The primary focus is to bring parents of underserved students into schools, bridging cultural barriers and building relationships that support student success.

What is Equity?

When we think of the word “equity,” we typically view it through a demographic lens, looking at how underserved and at-risk children get fair access to education, freedom from bias and discrimination, and equal opportunities for learning.

Educational equity has been an important topic in the U.S., as schools seek to raise academic performance and graduation rates for all children, especially those impacted by race and income inequalities. It is a critical demographic measure for ensuring high standards of learning.

But is educational equity enough to improve children’s genuine success in school and life?

Terry Heick, Founder of TeachThought, a popular educational website for teachers, thinks not. He calls for a “new definition for equity in education.”

Heick talks about the need for equity “at the student level rather than the demographic level.” More to the point, he’d like to see “a fully-realized system of learning that starts and ends with the humanity of each student.” He encourages teachers to go beyond the academic – to the “body of knowledge, habits, and networks that help each student realize their own perfectly unique potential.”

Many educators, including Heick, are calling for a change in our perspective about equity.

I believe this shift in perspective requires a new term — developmental equity. This type of equity cannot be measured solely by test scores, graduation rates, and other quantitative data. It must also be measured through the life stories of our children.

What is Developmental Equity?

Developmental equity means that all children have a right to the relationships and experiences that help them thrive in school and life. Historically, the goal of educational equity has been to raise academic performance levels and graduation rates to match those of more privileged children.

The goal of developmental equity is more simply to foster positive growth and development of every child. As Heick suggested, this kind of equity “starts and ends with the humanity of each student.” It includes an array of knowledge and skills that foster every child’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development.

Not surprisingly, research in positive youth development shows that when children enjoy positive relationships, experiences, and environments, they are most likely to thrive in school. Their academic performance improves, and they graduate from high school and college in greater numbers.

But there are added benefits. These kids also develop core human abilities that help them succeed in life, like resilience, resourcefulness, honesty, and self-awareness. Their mental health improves. They are more likely to become caring family members, innovative workers, ethical leaders, and engaged citizens.

Instead of preparing children to get the right answers, we need to be teaching them to ask exceptional questions. This is what drives curiosity, critical thinking, and creativity. It’s also an approach that focuses on development rather than retention of facts.

Why should developmental equity become the broader focus of family, school, and community partnerships? Because positive human development, not test scores, is what drives genuine life success. We know this from years of research, and from the life stories of high-performing children from privileged communities who are now feeling the effects of developmental inattentiveness.

Dr. Suniya S. Luthar, a professor and researcher at Arizona State University, studies these more affluent and “successful” students. What she discovered is considered by many to be the dark side of high stakes testing: students who show “serious levels of maladjustment as teens,” including significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety, self-injurious behaviors, and substance abuse.

The question we should be asking in all communities is: “How can we best nurture every child’s positive development through our work in the field of family engagement?”

Beyond the Report Card

Many communities across the U.S. are beginning to apply the research in positive youth development to help parents, teachers, after-school programs, and community leaders impact children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development.

We need to understand, however, that positive youth development takes more than getting parents into schools or teaching them to be agents of educational change. It takes the kind of dialogue that helps parents impact their own child’s healthy development —in their own homes. It also takes educators who view developmental equity as an important part of the curriculum and ask, “How does this classroom experience foster creativity, integrity, or a child’s social skills?” It takes coaches who place positive development on a par with winning.

In one affluent Washington State community, parents have learned that high test scores don’t ensure their children’s healthy development. The Bainbridge Island School District was recently ranked in the top 2% of public districts nationally, based on test scores, AP classes, graduation rates, etc. Yet many Bainbridge teenagers have maladjustment issues similar to what Dr. Luthar found in other affluent communities.

Bainbridge students reported that their quality of life decreased over five years, depression and suicide ideation levels rose, and alcohol consumption remained far greater than State averages. By quantitative educational measures, Bainbridge students excel. Yet there is much more work to be accomplished in the realm of young people’s development — understanding and supporting who they are, not just what they achieve.

Bainbridge parents, teens, educators, and community leaders came together in a number of public forums over several years to ask themselves what they most desired for their children. They wondered, “Are these the outcomes we are working so hard for our kids to achieve?” They decided they wanted more for their children. The Bainbridge Healthy Youth Alliance was formed to collectively engage the community in a more intentional focus on positive child and adolescent development.

If all children deserve developmental equity, then the field of family engagement in education has much more work ahead. It may just be some of its most important work to date.

Please share your ideas, insights, and comments about the concept of developmental equity, and what role you think it should play in in how families, schools, and communities support children’s success.


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and researcher, working at the intersection of positive youth development and education. Follow Marilyn's work at Roots of Action, Twitter, or Facebook.

Subscribe to receive email notifications of Marilyn’s articles.

©2016 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.

More from Marilyn Price-Mitchell Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today