What School Leaders Must Learn About Equity

ESSA offers an opportunity to improve cultural competency

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Just as towns and cities across the country are grappling with racial and ethnic tensions and divisions, schools and districts, too, are trying to figure out how to help students navigate these same conflicts. Racial inequities already lie deep within our education system: Black students are 14 percentage points and Hispanic students 11 percentage points less likely than their white peers to graduate from high school in four years, according to a 2013-14 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. The gaps start in the earlier grades, where black students on average score two grade levels below and Hispanic students 1½ grade levels below their white classmates on standardized tests, according to a 2016 Stanford University study.

Consider how race affects different aspects of school operations, curriculum and instruction, hiring and teacher-assignment practices, resource allocations, and discipline policies and practices. If we don't get this right, generations of Americans will continue to struggle. What kind of strategies and action plans might help school and district leaders begin to correct these and other inequities?


Of course, this level of analysis is hard, and the conversations are hard. They require skills that are not innate in every principal or superintendent. This work of racial literacy calls for intentional self-reflection and open and honest conversations about race and biases with staff, students, and families. School leaders need in-depth, hands-on, and customized training to create more-equitable learning environments for all students. While most principal-development programs and quick-hit workshops might touch on diversity, they rarely offer the depth of guidance needed to make real change.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which goes into full effect next fall, offers states and districts a great opportunity to use federal Title I and Title II funds to give district and school leaders powerful coaching on racial literacy and cultural competency. Despite the Trump administration's recent move to delay implementation of ESSA rules for up to 60 days, recently confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testified that she would follow the initial regulation timeline, allowing states to continue developing their plans for turning around struggling schools.

With its underlying theme of equity, increased flexibility for states and districts to shape their school improvement plans, and greater allowance for investments in school-leader development, the law is our nation's chance to start growing school leaders focused on equity. For example, some states, in their ESSA plans, are considering how to make teachers more representative of the students in their classrooms by changing how they develop, recruit, select, and place teachers of color.

"A school or district leader cannot help others address their biases until she is able to recognize and talk about her own."

Both the national Professional Standards for Educational Leaders and the Model Principal Supervisor Professional Standards (the accepted national industry standards for educational leaders) now include equity and cultural responsiveness as core standards. Superintendents from districts across the country have told us they want and need effective training on confronting and remedying institutional biases, such as actions that display the ideology that students of color are inferior to their white classmates. It is up to states and districts to create opportunities for district and school leaders to learn how to start this work and to develop the capacity to keep it going at their schools.

So what does this kind of school and district leadership development look like? As coaches to district leaders, we at the NYC Leadership Academy have found that educators are most likely to develop strong racial-literacy skills when they get experiential training that covers critical awareness in consciousness, culture, and context.

A school or district leader cannot help others address bias until she is able to recognize and talk about her own. So the first critical step—consciousness—involves becoming aware of one's own biases, understanding how life experiences have shaped those biases, and how they have affected interactions with students, families, and teachers, as well as their leadership decisions. We have seen effective training push leaders to own up to and challenge their own racial biases.

We have also seen district leaders play a critical role in helping principals develop and maintain a strong school culture. Research has found that schools where students feel safe, engaged, and connected to their teachers often have narrower achievement gaps. Principals have more influence over their schools' culture than anyone else in the buildings, and they need guidance on promising practices and strategies, and latitude from the district to try new approaches to address inequities. Equity training supports district leaders in grappling with questions: How should a principal respond when there is a racially charged incident at school? How can I hold my principals accountable while allowing them to take chances and discuss issues of race openly without fear of retribution?

Finally, equity training can teach school and district leaders how to assess and navigate their schools' contexts. Schools are shaped by the history and politics of the community—by the school budget, tax base, and demographics. Strong professional development can help school leaders think through how national events—from the 2016 election to the Black Lives Matter movement—are permeating their schools' walls.

Equity training teaches district and school leaders to take a systemic approach to leading. As state education agencies work with school districts on their state ESSA plans, we urge them to include programs and initiatives that will produce principals and district leaders who can lead for equity and access. Only then will all students have a shot at getting the best academic experience to prepare them for graduation and beyond. And only then will we, as a nation, have a shot at leveling the playing field and ending educational inequities.

Vol. 36, Issue 21, Page 18

Published in Print: February 15, 2017, as How ESSA Can Teach School Leaders About Equity
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