Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Real Value of Equity Directors for Districts

How districts can invest in equity that’s more than symbolic
By Decoteau J. Irby — November 17, 2022 6 min read
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Any district that’s serious about improving students’ education opportunities, experiences, and outcomes has an equity director who is supported and respected as an essential part of the district leadership team. As these equity directors take up the struggle of redressing long-standing school inequities, it’s time we acknowledge the scope and importance of their role.

In 2017, my colleagues Ann Ishimaru, Terrance Green, and I implemented a study to learn more about district-level equity positions. We initiated the study because we each personally knew people working as directors but were not aware of any peer-reviewed research about the role. As we conducted interviews, we were excited to learn about the new approaches and priorities equity directors contributed to improving schools.

Many of our colleagues in academia and in districts—including some equity directors themselves—didn’t share our enthusiasm. They scoffed that equity directors were doomed to fail in their efforts to enhance districts’ capacities to improve student learning experiences and outcomes. Some went so far as to claim districts hired equity directors to distract from an inability to close racial disparities in opportunities and outcomes.

I can understand why some district leaders and scholars view equity directors as merely symbolic. The position first gained popularity as a knee-jerk response to episodic anti-Black violence rather than bold vision, proactive goodwill, or even acknowledgment of long-standing education inequities.

Early adopters invested in district-level equity reforms after the unjust deaths of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Mike Brown, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and many others. Then, as Trumpism emboldened racial hostility, xenophobia, and sexism, districts invested in equity consultants to help their employees and teachers make sense of what was happening. The most committed districts created district-level equity-director roles to carry forward and build on the work that DEI—for diversity, equity, and inclusion—consultants started.

Black Lives Matter protests following the 2020 killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery spurred an increased adoption of the role. Districts reprised older versions of the roles, upgrading them from specialist to director, chief, and superintendent status. Larger urban districts created equity offices comprised of directors, data and policy specialists, and interns.

Yes, district equity-director hiring is often reactionary. But this makes the role no less legitimate, important, or meaningful. We could certainly focus on districts’ rationales for creating the roles, but a more useful exercise is to focus on actions.

In reality, the work of equity directors is essential for improving the educational opportunities of marginalized students. They develop, update, and guide the implementation of district equity and nondiscrimination policies. They implement restorative-justice reforms. They support HR hiring and retention initiatives to increase teacher diversity. They design and lead professional learning about culturally responsive teaching and anti-racist instruction. They form community and business partnerships to ensure students are supported beyond the school day. They listen to and respond to the needs and wants of marginalized parents and students.

With the dizzying pace of recruitment for equity directors, districts that have not yet invested in the role—or have done so only symbolically—will lose out. The most talented equity directors are now at work fine-tuning the role.

So why would a district that espouses a commitment to equity have not yet made this district-level equity-leadership investment in its own future?

Some districts argue that equity reforms should be integrated into the responsibilities of existing leaders. This is understandable but a grave limitation. When equity leadership is “in addition to,” instead of a priority, it gets placed on the back burner. And far too often, the people who are given the additional responsibilities do not have the capacity, expertise, or confidence to lead for equity.

Other districts have convinced themselves they don’t need dedicated equity leaders because “equity is everyone’s work.” This is another limitation. This belief often means that people—superintendents, principals, community-engagement officers—who are passionate about supporting underserved students must tackle this work without official recognition, adequate compensation, or access to channels of power.

They must rely on relational influence and goodwill to lead improvement. When those relationships go south or these equity champions leave, progress halts. In the highly structured organizations that school districts are, having everyone be responsible for improving the educational opportunities of marginalized students often translates to no one being responsible.

In the past few years, a wave of Republican-led, conservative organizing has also deterred many districts from hiring equity directors. Board members and administrators who openly support students of color have been pushed out of their positions and, worse, subjected to harassment and death threats.

Districts that already have an equity position officially and meaningfully embedded in the leadership team are more resilient against this opposition. It is easier to oust a superintendent or a single equity leader than it is to dismantle the fruits of their leadership, by undoing established school-community partnerships, stopping schoolwide restorative practices, disbanding student unions, rewriting district policies, closing gender-neutral restrooms, and persuading teachers to stop using racially affirming books and culturally responsive instructional practices.

Equity leadership is in large part about increasing district and school organizational capacity. Critics of the position fail to appreciate all that the role entails, especially the nature of how these directors “seed” equity ideas and processes that often show up later, in times of crisis.

Before the pandemic, for example, equity directors throughout the country created family-engagement and -outreach strategies that districts were then able to deploy more broadly to meet student needs during COVID-19 school closures. Equity officers have also developed equity policies that over time reshape district practices ranging from procurement and hiring practices to school renaming approaches to the creation of inclusive restroom facilities. The inability of critics to identify equity directors’ contributions leads to blanket assessments about their lack of importance and potential.

By shifting our focus from districts’ intentions to districts’ actions, we can begin to consider how investments in equity leadership contribute to equity for all students. Of course, we can only ask these questions about districts that welcome equity directors as an essential part of the district leadership team. In other words, the ones that have acted as though they are serious about educational equity.

We all should now call on districts to invest in search and hiring processes rather than rename current roles and add on responsibilities. We should encourage districts to provide generous resources and institutional supports to people that fill the role so they can contribute to improvement.

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