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Equitable Classrooms: Where Policy Meets Practice

Major contributions to the body of knowledge on the educational benefits of diverse schools and universities

We have a moral imperative to build equitable learning places to realize the intellectual, social, academic, and civic benefits of diverse schools for all students.

At Stanford University, we used sociological theories and research to design and evaluate interventions that promote equitable classrooms. Complex instruction is a theoretical research program based on robust sociological frameworks and solid empirical evidence. Well-known in the field of education, complex instruction is a pedagogical approach designed to create equitable learning opportunities and equitable outcomes for diverse populations by supporting equal-status interactions. When working with complex instruction, teachers purposefully and unceasingly plan for range and heterogeneity à priori rather than modifying or adjusting the curriculum and the instruction to “accommodate” diversity post hoc.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, initiating a new approach to applied research in sociology and based on important value choices, Elizabeth Cohen conducted experimental tests of status characteristics and expectation states theory. She found that in four-member, mixed-race groups of adolescent boys engaged in an interactive task, race was associated with differences in rates of participation and measures of influence. White youngsters were more likely to have significantly higher ranks than African-American youngsters. Subsequently, in more complex field settings with more open interactions, Cohen and her graduate students documented the effects of race, ethnicity, gender, and perceived reading ability among mixed-status groups of school-aged children engaged in a collective task. They showed that through a process of generalization of high or low expectations for intellectual competence, status characteristics predict behavioral outcomes. Students with perceived high-status participate more often, are more engaged, and are more influential. Students with perceived low-status are much less so.  

In the early 1980s, moving from the lab to heterogeneous classrooms, the Stanford team became concerned with specifying and testing the classroom conditions necessary to establish equal-status interactions among students from diverse racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds, varied levels of previous academic preparation and achievement, and social attractiveness.

Conceptualizing the classroom as a social system, we explored the interconnections between theories that explain classroom phenomena such as Bandura’s social learning theory, theories of classroom management based on the work of Perrow and Thompson, and the theory of evaluation and the exercise of authority articulated by Dornbusch and Scott. We developed methods of observation to test our theoretically-derived interventions. In close collaboration with practitioners, we honed and sharpened implementation in classrooms. Still mindful of applying theory in the development of concrete interventions, our work contributed to further refinement of theoretical propositions derived from expectation states theory.

We relied on organizational sociology to investigate central features of classrooms such as the role of the teacher in managing and orchestrating patterns of productive interactions among students, the nature of the learning tasks, and evaluation practices that promote deep learning. Because learning is a social activity and because on-task interactions promote learning, equal-status interactions among students engaged in collaborative problem-solving are essential. In other words, because perceived status predicts task-related participation in small learning groups and because participation predicts learning outcomes, we designed and tested Interventions to disrupt a status-order based on academic standing and social attractiveness, the two locally salient status characteristics in diverse classrooms. Two interventions were particularly effective in narrowing the participation gap by changing expectations for competence. First, we helped teachers to redefine and expand the definition of intellectual capacities needed to complete open-ended, problem-solving tasks. Second, we urged teachers to recognize publically the intellectually relevant contributions of perceived low-status students.

Weakening and often eliminating the effect of status differences on interactions in heterogeneous classrooms has important implications. With the intellectually challenging, multi-dimensional, open-ended learning tasks, the introduction of groupwork norms and roles, and the status interventions, it is possible to produce equal-status interaction. Raised expectations for intellectual competence are bringing about raised levels of participation of students perceived as low-status, without depressing the participation of high-status students. Furthermore, average learning gains increase when average rates of interaction and engagement increase, with the important added benefit of a narrowing the distribution of learning gains. Participation and engagement are not zero-sum game.

With the detracking movement in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, more secondary schools and teachers became interested in learning how to implement complex instruction in different subject areas at different grade levels.  As we continued to offer professional development to teachers, we began to investigate the organizational conditions and arrangements necessary to support the fundamental change in instruction on a larger, school or district-wide scale. We applied and investigated a central organizational proposition that complex and intellectually demanding changes in the teachers’ work in the classroom will require parallel changes in the structural arrangements of the larger organization, i.e., the school. We found that soundly-based feedback to teachers, availability and coordination of curricular resources, an organizational climate of expectations, and administrative leadership were significantly related to the quality of the implementation of complex instruction. 

The knowledge base of complex instruction and documentation of its implementation and educational outcomes encompass doctoral dissertations, journal articles, technical reports, and several books published in the US and in other countries. Scholars, educators, and maybe most importantly, teachers have gained confidence in the generalizability of the underlying principles of complex instruction, mainly due to their well-defined theoretical foundations and propositions repeatedly tested in vastly different contexts.

Theoretical and practical rationale for the research done

Academically, linguistically, socially, and culturally heterogeneous classrooms are a global phenomenon. The movement of people from one region to another, from racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous places to cities, villages, and neighborhoods where people speak different languages, wear different clothes and eat different foods, celebrate different holidays, and keep different traditions has become ubiquitous and enduring.

Educational systems throughout the world are tasked with providing the youngsters of these multi-national and multi-cultural populations with genuine opportunities to learn, to achieve social and economic advancement, and to live safely as citizens with equal rights and responsibilities in democratic societies.

While the contexts differ, educators and scholars in the US and in other places share the proclaimed goal of the pedagogical approach known as complex instruction: equity in diverse classrooms and in diverse learning places. For example, in Hungary and in other Central and East European countries, schools with relatively high concentration of Roma students have adapted complex instruction to create classrooms that offer more equitable opportunities for all students to learn and to succeed. In New Zealand, commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Dr. Alton-Lee, author of a number of volumes describing best evidence syntheses on quality teaching for diverse students, found that the implementation of complex instruction resulted in significant effect sizes on achievement and higher order thinking, strengthened students’ social skills, reduced peer racism and bullying, and by supporting teacher inquiry reduced teacher stress. In the mid- to late 1990’s and early 2000’s, intensive research and teacher professional development were conducted under the auspices of the Institute for the Advancement of Social Integration in Schools at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. The Cooperative Learning in Intercultural Education Project (CLIP) that aimed at creating equitable and cooperative classrooms using complex instruction was conducted under the auspices of the European Union and participating institutions in Belgium, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

Complex instruction has traveled to near and far places. Its explicit theoretical principles and the invitation to test them under different contextual conditions have proven to be extraordinarily generative. Rather than imposing a requirement for fidelity of implementation -- the ban of many educational innovations, complex instruction welcomes further research and development, theoretical contributions, and practical innovations.

Future research

I am gratified and proud of the many documented benefits for students in complex instruction classrooms, and I remain interested in aspects of its dissemination and implementation in different settings. Some of the following questions are awaiting answers:

  • To what extent are theoretical principles continuing to guide and evaluate further developments and adaptations of complex instruction in different contexts?
  • What are the conditions that support complex instruction implementation in different contexts? How is research expanding, deepening, refining our knowledge base?
  • What policies lead to the introduction of complex instruction to diverse educational institutions and for what purpose?
  • What are the applications of complex instruction practices in higher education in general, and in the continuum of teacher education in particular?

Most importantly, we need to continue exploring how integration can and will benefit all students.

Rachel Lotan
Stanford University
September 2016


The Effects of Desegregation on Race Relations

Author(s): Elizabeth G. Cohen

Source: Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 39, No. 2, The Courts, Social Science, and School Desegregation: Part 2 (Spring, 1975), pp. 271-299

Published by: Duke University School of Law

Stable URL:

Joseph Berger, Susan J. Rosenholtz, and Morris Zelditch, Jr. 1980, Status organizing processes, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 6: 479-508, DOI: 10.1146/

Cohen, Elizabeth and Rachel A. Lotan, 1995. Producing equal status interaction in heterogeneous classrooms, American Educational Research Journal, 32, (1), 99-120

doi: 10.3102/00028312032001099

Cohen, Elizabeth G. and Rachel A. Lotan, (Editors), 1997.Working for equity in heterogeneous classrooms: Sociological theory in action. New York: Teachers College Press 

Cohen, E.G. and R. A. Lotan, 2014, Designing groupwork: Strategies for heterogeneous classrooms, 3rd Edition, Teachers College Press, New York, NY