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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Is the Relationship Between ‘Learning Culture’ and ‘Equity Culture’ So Lopsided?

By Michael Fullan & John Malloy — November 24, 2019 16 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Michael Fullan and John Malloy.

In his classic 4th Edition of Organizational culture and leadership, Edgar Schein defined culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration” (p. 18). In this post, we contend that for the past 30 or more years we and others have pursued the “learning culture” of schools as a focus to improve learning for all students, but when it comes to fundamental equity, the field has taken a broad structural approach, along with policies that end up separating equity from learning. The result is that we are making very few gains in equity achievement in schools. Equity cultures are ones that recognize that all cultures are biased in favor of some groups, and as a result, some students fail to get the support they need to succeed. The subsequent cost is destructive for individuals and ultimately bad for society.

Learning culture
Changing the culture of schools toward continuous improvement is the key to better learning. Dan Lortie (1975) was among the first to clarify that the existing culture of schools favors stagnation. He found that the work of teachers was characterized by three mutually reinforcing traits: presentism (what do I do today), conservatism (solving small-scale immediate problems), and individualism (working in isolation). In 1990, Judith Warren Little captured this syndrome of stability in the phrase “the persistence of privacy.”

Gradually, and then with more recent acceleration, many of us worked to develop collaborative cultures within and across schools that effected student learning for the better. Leading practitioners and researchers have begun to focus on the nature of the work, the relationship among teachers, the engagements of students, and the depth and impact of learning. It is only in the past five years or so that the work in learning culture has become more explicit in certain schools and districts.

The goal in these learning cultures includes greater equity of learning outcomes. With recent developments in the neuroscience of deep learning, we find better results, whether you take our four elements (partnerships, pedagogy, learning environment, and leveraging digital), Fullan, Quinn, & McEachen, 2018) or Boaler’s (2019) six keys of brain plasticity (strengthen neural pathways; making mistakes as associated with brain growth; change your beliefs, change your brains; neural pathways being optimized with multidimensional approaches; creativity and flexibility beats speed of learning; and connecting with people enhances neural pathways). Research is also identifying some “positive outlier” districts (Burns, Darling-Hammond, & Scott, 2019). Most encouraging is the breakthrough finding that deep learning is good for all, but especially good for the underserved. But even here, the actual deep-learning results so far are modest.

While more gains can and should be made with deep learning, our claim in this entry is that trying to achieve greater equity through only changing “the learning culture” will always be limited because of the existence of “the culture of inequity” that privileges certain groups while underserving others. Such privileges take their toll regardless of policies to the contrary. Noguera and his team are in the midst of a major policy study of how minorities fare, especially black youths in Los Angeles County (Noguera et. al 2019). Black and Latinx students are well behind their white counterparts on just about every measure: underprepared for college, subject to punitive forms of discipline, chronic absenteeism, attending schools that are underperforming overall, and graduation rates (for example, four-year rates of black students meeting graduation rates are 17 percentage points behind white students: 45 percent vs. 62 percent).

Lewis and Diamond (2015) focus in depth on a high school that they describe as: “Serving an enviable affluent and diverse district, [Riverview] is well-funded, its teachers are well-trained, and many of its students are high achieving.” The authors pose the big question: “Why is it that even when all the circumstances seem right, black and Latinx students continue to lag behind their peers.” In Riverview, 90 percent of white students end up in four-year universities, compared with 50 percent of black and Latinx graduates. Lewis and Diamond document deep-seated racial inequalities occurring daily despite the espoused goals of racial equality. The authors find that: “It is ... in the daily interaction [read, culture] among school policy, everyday practice, racial ideology, and structural inequality that contradictions emerge between good intentions and bad outcomes” (p. XIX). It is what happens inside classrooms and school buildings that count. Even though the goals of these systems include equity for all, in practice, certain groups are still fundamentally privileged.

To change this, we need to do three things. First, invest in improving the conditions of the lives of those underserved (safety, shelter, health, and financial support for those dealing with poverty). Second, improve the learning culture (early learning, quality teachers, deep learning). The third crucial development—the essence of our post—is to focus on “cultures of equity” integrated with “cultures of learning.” The lopsided relationship we note in the title is that investments in the learning culture will be blunted if not eradicated if we do not focus explicitly and assertively on altering the equity culture.

Equity cultures
Cultures of equity have a number of important characteristics. First and foremost, these cultures understand that most school cultures are inequitable for many historically underserved students such as black and Indigenous students. The use of the word “underserved” is key so that the responsibility to change this reality rests with educators working closely with students and their families. By using terms like “at risk,” we are actually laying more of the responsibility on the student who is negatively impacted by processes, structures, barriers, and bias that privileges white students over racialized students.

A culture of equity centers the voices and experiences of those most underserved in all decisions. Further, the dynamic of power and privilege are not ignored; rather, they are acknowledged for what they are, which is the unjust way that people may have more or less access to opportunities based solely on their identities as opposed to expertise, merit, and/or experience. While racialized students are the most obviously underserved, the concept of inequity applies to any category of students who do less well than others (those in poverty being one obvious group).

For example, in schools, certain students are very engaged in traditional ways: school council, athletics, and arts to name a few. These students may have greater influence in the school. They may be academically successful and are often affirmed for their achievements. Equity cultures support all students. There are most probably students in the schools who are not involved, engaged, or academically successful. There may be other students who want to be involved and want to lead, but their experience, knowledge, and convictions are not valued by the school. Centering their voices and experiences means that we learn from them regarding the barriers they face, and we are willing to make changes in the school community and in ourselves to remove these barriers. Further, we are not afraid to deal with their experiences of oppression, even when it is very difficult to receive this feedback. Most importantly, we change the outcomes for all students.

Another instance of how current cultures are biased against some occurs when matters of dispute are being addressed. In such cases, we have to ask the question, “Who is being served or protected by this decision?” If we analyze the decisions that are made in difficult situations, too often the person who has been harmed by the decision is not at the center of the discussion. Rather, we may favor the experience of the adults in the situation or sometimes students and their families who are usually given greater access and/or influence. The reason that they may have greater access is because they have relationships with those in formal leadership positions or they may have identities that are more associated with privilege or they have shared their displeasure with previous decisions in ways that make leaders uncomfortable. Equity cultures ensure that those most historically marginalized are the priority. Leaders in equity cultures consider all of the issues and perspectives but are not compromised by those with power and privilege when making the appropriate decisions.

In cultures of equity, discrimination of all kinds is confronted, and the comfort or satisfaction of those most privileged does not hold priority when unjust situations are being addressed. The diversity of the students is reflected in the classroom through learning opportunities, learning resources, and everything that is posted on the walls. Student voices are honored, which leads to student agency and leadership, which in turn allows students to not only feel included and supported but also to be provided opportunities to confront and change some of the oppressive structure that they may be privileged or harmed by.

A culture of equity understands that schools are colonial structures, meaning the worldview that operates most often favors white students and is not afraid to incorporate, through instruction, issues of oppression, race, and all other themes that point to the inequitable structures that need to be dismantled. These cultures understand that status quo is not an option because the status quo would only perpetuate the inequities that have always existed, something that education must interrupt.

The challenge, however, is that power and privilege hate to be interrupted. Those who benefit from oppressive structures fear what they might lose. Those who have been harmed by oppressive structures fight for equity and are often judged by those with privilege as being unnecessarily angry, inappropriate, or prone to overreaction. So if we are going to interrupt inequitable realities at the personal level, the school level, and the system level, how might we support or facilitate this? Leadership is key. Cultures of equity need competent leaders who will assist all staff to engage in this transformative work. In short, we need to develop “equity leadership competencies” (see: https://www.tdsb.on.ca/About-Us/Equity/Equity-as-a-Leadership-Competency, developed by Superintendent Jeewan Chanicka and staff).

In equity cultures, leadership is shared, and influence is exerted by many in the school and/or district, not just by those who hold formal leadership positions. This is crucial because the voice and experience of those most harmed or impacted may not be represented by those who hold formal leadership positions. Leadership teams are required to facilitate space for those voices that are most silenced and/or ignored. By focusing on those students who are most underserved, leaders create brave spaces where each educator is assisted to challenge their own bias and to look for patterns in their school’s data to uncover any barriers that may exist in schools that impact certain students’ success. Cultures of equity are also supported by a school board or district that understands that systemic discrimination exists such as who gets access to which programs, who is suspended the most, or who is over-represented in special education programs or programs that do not normally lead to positive outcomes after high school.

At all levels in equity cultures, educators are willing to be uncomfortable by engaging not only in these discussions but to commit to change and to be accountable that the change actually happened. This accountability is the most important and yet the hardest component. Our intentions are simply not good enough; rather, our collective impact is what matters. Cultures of equity understand this, and by admitting that we have failed certain students continuously, leaders must work with the entire staff to change this reality. More importantly, just as authentic learning is uncomfortable because it causes us to change, creating a culture of equity is exceedingly uncomfortable. Resistance is not an option in this work because we must be accountable for the harm that has been caused. A culture of equity figures out ways to invite everyone to this transformation and makes it clear that we will be held accountable for our impact, which means that all of us in education need to be emphasizing this message.

Equity is a leadership competency, and this reality must inform how school and system leaders are prepared for and supported to fulfill their important roles. These leaders set direction in their schools and their systems that tackles the bias and barriers and acknowledges the power and privilege that negatively impacts certain students. They build relationships of trust because they are willing to be vulnerable while doing this work realizing that their own identities play a part in how they lead. For example, white leaders who are challenged by others because of their white privilege, or black leaders who may be navigating the expectations and/or judgments others are placing on them because of the color of their skin, or gay leaders navigating how much to share about their personal experience with their community cannot ignore their own identities in the process of leadership. This equity competency allows leaders to assist teachers to change their instructional program so that oppression and racism is reduced and is very willing to engage students’ identities in the classroom. These leaders communicate clearly and often to their communities regarding who is underserved, why they are underserved, and how this gap will be closed. These leaders monitor improvement and take responsibility when conditions do not improve for all students while still holding high expectations and ensuring excellent learning opportunities for all.

It would be wonderful if cultures of oppression and discrimination could be eliminated; however, this sadly is probably not realistic since there most probably will always be students who are underserved, even if this population changes over time. Rather, cultures of equity can respond because they never lose sight of who is underserved, they remain knowledgeable about oppression, and they never stop engaging in the important analysis of student outcomes so that more students experience success. Cultures of equity require leaders who are willing to engage in the process of unlearning and relearning in light of what we know about racism and discrimination, and they are able to create the conditions for all to engage in this learning as well. Without an authentic and transparent commitment to learning and accountability, which allows educators to know more and then change practice, we will not be able to change outcomes for many students from racialized backgrounds who may not always experience the access they require to learn effectively in public schools. Impact is always the bottom line in equity cultures.

Nothing is neutral. In complex human systems, assume that privilege exists and is unfair and detrimental to some. Understanding whose voice, experience, and identity is more accepted and included helps us to confront things so that those who are often excluded and ignored explicitly or implicitly are able to exert their voice and experience. Underserved students will be dramatically more successful when it comes to learning. Most importantly, the learning of all students will benefit. When extreme inequity exists and persists, all levels of society are negatively affected (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2018).

Learning cultures have made some progress; equity cultures have not. We call this a lopsided and deeply problematic flaw relative to system improvement in education and in society. Success is about effective instruction and deep learning (the learning culture), AND it is about how the background and identities of students influence their learning (equity cultures). Strong learning and strong equity fosters well-being. Whether or not educators are cognizant of both learning and equity cultures will influence the extent to which certain students will be left behind who otherwise could have succeeded.

Most crucial, our central message is: Always ask the question of how each of the two cultures affect each other. Both cultures are currently hampered because they are not working in tandem. We need learning and equity cultures feeding each other. Such a development will enable the vast majority of students to achieve, including those who currently do well in the current system, and society will be significantly better off. Incidentally doing well academically in the existing system does not mean you do well in life (but that is another post).

About the Authors

Michael Fullan, O.C., is the global leadership director of New Pedagogies for Deep Learning and a worldwide authority on educational reform with a mandate of helping to achieve the moral purpose of all children learning. A former dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto, Michael advises policymakers and local leaders around the world to provide leadership in education. Michael received the Order of Canada in December 2012. He holds honorary doctorates from several universities in North America and abroad. Connect with Michael on Twitter.

John Malloy is director of education (superintendent) for the Toronto District school board. Prior to this role, he was director of education in the Hamilton-Wentworth District school board and assistant deputy minister/chief student-achievement officer for the Province of Ontario. Connect with John on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.


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Fullan, M., Quinn, J. & McEachen, J. (2018) Deep learning: Engage the world Change the world. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin Press.

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Noguera, P.(2019) Beyond the schoolhouse: Overcoming challenges and expanding opportunity for black youth in LA County. Center for the transformation of schools: UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

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Toronto District School Board (TDSB). (2019) TDSB Equity leadership competencies. Unpublished document.

Warren Little, J. (1990) The persistence of privacy. Teachers college record. 91 (4), 509-536.

Wilkinson, R, & Pickett, K. (2019) The inner level: How more equal societies reduce stress, restore sanity and improve everyone’s well-being. New York: Penguin Press.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.