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School & District Management Opinion

Equity-Focused Leadership Is Risky. Do It Anyway

By Demond A. Means — September 17, 2019 4 min read
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As the Negro spiritual encouraged the elders, “Don’t you get weary.”

Education is a form of social policy—a means by which society distributes power and privilege. Superintendents are held professionally accountable and morally responsible to fine-tune district programs and practices to ensure all students have access to a quality education.

As teacher Cornelius Minor writes in We Got This. Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be, “Any time an operating system—like a school or curriculum—consistently fails a specific subset of people, there is not something wrong with the people (in this case, children). There is something wrong with the system, the institution, or the curriculum.” As superintendents, we must ensure the system works for all children. If achievement is low, the superintendent must improve the school system. This is what equity looks like from the perspective of the superintendent.

Recently, equity-minded superintendents have been ostracized in their local communities for championing the work of systemic change. Superintendent Dennis Carpenter in Lee’s Summit, Mo., has endured such endless threats in response to his equity plan this year that law enforcement had to provide him with security protection.

Advancing an equity agenda as a superintendent can be socially, politically, and professionally dangerous."

In Nashville, Tenn., Superintendent Shawn Joseph’s productive tenure working to support historically marginalized students was prematurely cut short this April by the school board. In Washoe County, Nev., Superintendent Traci Davis—who received an award for her commitment to equity from AASA, the School Superintendents Association, in February—was removed from her post under questionable circumstances in early July. All three were the first African-American superintendents to serve in their respective districts.

The challenges of equity-minded school leadership are not limited to African-American superintendents. Several years ago, Superintendent Melissa Krull was embroiled in a significant battle to integrate her district’s schools in Eden Prairie, a suburb of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. In this case, the resistance to her commitment to equity transcended her race, as she is a white female.

Advancing an equity agenda as a superintendent can be socially, politically, and professionally dangerous. As the former chair of Wisconsin’s statewide task force on the achievement gap, a member of the AASA governing board, a commissioner to the Education Commission of the States, and a superintendent for the past decade, I understand the challenges and opportunities of leading through an equity lens. Even in the liberal enclave of Athens, Ga., I have been under constant scrutiny for my unwavering commitment to systematically reform our school district to meet the needs of all students, particularly students of color.

I currently serve a school district with a high poverty rate among children of color and a total student population of approximately 73 percent students of color.

According to the 2015 Program of International Student Achievement (PISA) from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, U.S. students were in the middle of the pack based on performance. However, when the data are disaggregated, white students ranked among the top performers, coming in just behind Canada and Finland in average reading scores. African-American students ranked toward the bottom, with average scores below Malta and the Slovak Republic. These data should prompt a national call to build our nation’s schools so that they indeed serve every student well.

But even in light of the obvious need to build equitable practices in our nation’s schools to provide a fighting chance for our most vulnerable students, superintendents who endeavor to build such systems are being ostracized and criticized for their efforts. In the face of such immense criticism, it can be easy for us to “get weary” and give up the fight. However, I challenge my colleagues not to give up. We must be even more committed to our equity work on behalf of our students during these treacherous times.

Equity-minded leaders must develop a national agenda to address the needs of our children. This agenda will make it more difficult for equity’s overt and covert opponents to successfully ruin the careers of moral, ethical, and equity-focused educational leaders attempting to address the country’s original sin: the inequitable treatment of people of color.

There is a pressing need for superintendents to create a national professional learning community to support one another in advancing the work of eradicating systems that impede learning for all students. In the age of President Trump, equity-minded superintendents must unite to strategize on how we can better advance this critical work in our districts and support one another when attacks are levied against equity warriors across the country.

In collaboration with Shawn Joseph, who now teaches at Fordham University, and Richard Milner of Vanderbilt University, I am proud to announce a gathering of equity-minded superintendents to develop a national community to advance critical equity work. This new coalition, Superintendents Advocating for Equity, will hold its inaugural meeting this November on Vanderbilt’s campus.

During these times of dissension, we need each other more now than ever before. Equity-minded superintendents, please be encouraged. As the Negro spiritual stated, “Mourn and never tire, There’s a great camp meeting in the Promised Land.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Perils of Equity-Focused Leadership


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