Educational Equity Q&A with Newsela’s Hasan Rafiq
This article first appeared in the September 2022 Issue of The MABE Scoop, a quarterly newsletter from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
Newsela is a community of people who are on a mission to build meaningful classroom learning for every student. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging are central to Newsela’s mission, which is why Newsela partnered with MABE’s Educational Equity Committee in support of the “Leading for Educational Equity Through School Board Governance” Workbook, according to Hasan Rafiq, Newsela’s VP of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging.
“We are committed to providing every student access to instructional content that excites, empowers, and unlocks their potential. The Leading for Educational Equity workbook and our partnership with MABE has strengthened our respective efforts toward our shared goal of nurturing a sense of belonging for all students, teachers, and administrators,” Mr. Rafiq noted.
MABE interviewed Mr. Rafiq to get his thoughts on how educational equity strengthens communities as a whole; an educational equity challenge his team has overcome; and the power of unlocking student potential.
Q: What was the inspiration for Newsela’s support of and commitment to educational equity as a whole?
A: Equity starts at home–whether you’re looking at representation of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, or women employees; how to build systems to attract more diversity; or ensuring people have an exceptional experience before and during their time at Newsela, and that the exceptional experience lasts a lifetime. Our mission is to build meaningful classroom learning for every student. We cannot do that if equity isn’t embedded into everything we do.
Q: Based on Newsela’s experience and areas of expertise, how would you make the case on whether educational equity can benefit communities as a whole?
A: Educational equity is a key component of a thriving community. When we have massive achievement gaps between low-income school systems and high-income school systems, or between students of color and white students, we are shortchanging the potential of our youth. Equity means creating opportunities for all students. If more students are graduating, more people are entering the workforce and taking on jobs, which in turn means our communities are growing and strengthening.
Q: Newsela writes, “We shouldn’t settle for content that doesn’t change in a changing world.” Can you give a specific example of your team’s thinking on this front?
A: No two classrooms are the same, and content that works for one school’s class may not work for another. Students engage most with content that is relevant to their lives and that reflects their own stories. Unfortunately, outdated textbooks that remain static year over year too often fail to reflect diverse narratives. Teachers will tell you that it’s harder than ever to engage students—providing them with relevant texts is key to growing engagement.
Q: On Newsela’s “Commitment to Equity & Access” page on your website, it caught our eye that you write, “Every student deserves to have access to instructional content that excites, empowers, and unlocks their potential.” Can you share more specifics on this? Who benefits?
A: We’re proud to deliver instructional materials that aim to benefit every student, specifically those with disabilities. Our conformance to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 AA standards, which are guidelines for making web content more accessible to people with disabilities, reflects our efforts to provide content that is accessible to all learners. We incorporate accessibility best practices into every step of our design and development process with the support of a full-time accessibility-focused staff member and partnership with third-party accessibility services companies.
When students with disabilities cannot access or engage with the digital content the rest of their classmates are working on, they miss out on engaging materials, and their classmates miss out on their contributions and perspectives during group discussions and activities. This is not an ideal learning environment for anyone, and we’ve made it a priority to ensure that students’ ability or their use of assistive technology does not exclude them from our platform.
Some of our accessibility supports include things like a built-in “Read Aloud” feature, articles with adaptive reading levels and activities, platform navigation using only a keyboard, and colors that meet both text and graphical color contrast standards, among others.
Q: Do you have a particular success story or a challenge your team has overcome when it has come to educational equity?
A: At Newsela, we set out on a mission to increase representation in our own ranks and ensure that Newsela is a place where all people belong. We established systems to check for equity within our hiring process. We implemented customized training and optimized our systems, policies, and processes to create a more equitable hiring environment. Our goal is to ensure that bias is identified and removed from the hiring process to create a fair and transparent pathway to working at Newsela.
Committing to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging internally at Newsela means that diverse experiences will be embedded into the products we create and that we’re serving students of all backgrounds – for our ultimate collective benefit.
Q: Do you have a particular hero(ine) or inspiration, living or deceased, from the education realm?
A: Dr. Abdus Salam. He was a pioneer in physics, the first Pakistani and first Muslim scientist to win a Nobel Prize. He has dedicated much of his life to educating others and developing the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), in Trieste, Italy, to provide support to underrepresented scientists from across the globe. He is a source of inspiration for me in efforts to contribute to the equity journey at Newsela and broadly across the U.S.
Q: If you could name one thing you’d most like to see achieved in America when it comes to educational equity, what would that be? Why?
A: We have been talking for so long about the achievement gap and opportunity gap, and how we close them. We have the data, and we know what the data is telling us at a high level. But data alone is not enough – because there are real people behind each percentage point. We need to employ strategies to close these gaps by providing opportunities for and investments in all students’ potential. Doing so will help break the historical cycles that disadvantage students of color or low-income students, and help create true equity in education.
Q: Why did you decide to partner with MABE on its educational equity efforts, including our “Leading for Educational Equity Through School Board Governance” workbook?
A: We partnered with MABE because of its membership’s commitment to educational equity, and MABE’s connection to leaders in school systems who are making decisions that will affect diversity, equity, and inclusion at public schools across Maryland. Equity is strongest when it’s made a practice by all administrators in each school system, every day. MABE’s Leading for Educational Equity workbook will empower boards with the tools they need to create an equitable learning environment for all students, and we applaud MABE members’ prioritization of this important work.
Q: What are your thoughts on the workbook itself?
A: MABE’s Leading for Educational Equity workbook allows boards to take an honest look at themselves without judgment, and create a plan that will enable greater equity for their organizations and districts. It’s actionable, which is one of the most important elements of creating greater equity in Maryland schools, and it provides a clear roadmap for any school board to participate.
Q: Who should people contact at Newsela if they’re interested in learning more about your focus and offerings?
A: If folks are looking for more information about Newsela’s equity and accessibility, they can always reach out to us by visiting this page or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.