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Principals Need Help Building Anti-Racist Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — September 23, 2020 9 min read
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The twin daggers of the coronavirus pandemic and the national protests over race and policing that erupted after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis have made deeply rooted inequities harder to ignore.

As principals face another year leading teachers and, more importantly, students who’ve lived through both of these traumatic and cataclysmic events, some experts argue it’s not enough for school leaders to say they’re committed to social justice or to creating equitable schools: To meet the moment, they must be explicitly anti-racist.

No beating around the bushes, they say. No embracing umbrella terms like “achievement gaps” or “inequitable outcomes” that provide comfort to some but impede the difficult and often uncomfortable work of both exploring one’s own racial identity and then actively rooting out policies and practices that disproportionately affect Black and brown students.

Anti-racist school leadership is about becoming more racially aware and developing the skills to “dismantle racism and the connected oppressions,” said Mark Gooden, a professor of education leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. Importantly, it’s about taking action.

Are principals prepared to be anti-racist leaders?

Many may be well-intentioned, but the short answer is no.

One reason is that most university-based preparation programs have not explicitly prioritized anti-racist school leadership. While prep programs may offer a course or two on equity, schools and communities, or culturally responsive leadership, they’re often near the end of the program, giving the impression that they’re optional or not as important as the rest of the syllabus, said Bradley Carpenter, an associate professor of educational leadership at Baylor University, who has worked on explicitly anti-racist programs at the University of Louisville and the University of Houston.

Whether those courses are even taught in preparation programs is largely dependent on whether university faculty see them as worthy of including in the syllabus, according to Anjalé Welton, a professor in the educational leadership and policy-analysis department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her colleagues.

That haphazard approach is never going to cut it if we expect principals to become anti-racist leaders and create more just, equitable, and fairer learning environments for their Black and brown students.

“What’s so frustrating is that racial-equity work is deemed as something that is ad hoc, something I tackle after I have all the other school-improvement-related needs,” Welton said of how some school leaders approach the job. “This should be the centerpiece of what you do. This should be what it is about. It should be the driver of what you do.”

It’s also imperative that principals running schools with small numbers of Black and brown students or no students of color have exposure to this kind of leadership training because those students are going to live and work in a multicultural world, Gooden argued.

Principals, teachers, and district leaders want to do this, according to an exclusive, nationally representative Education Week survey. Preparation, the survey confirms, is scarce: 82 percent of educators in that survey said they had not received anti-racist or abolitionist professional development in their preparation programs. And more than half—59 percent—said they had neither the training nor the resources to support the implementation of an anti-racist curriculum. Only 14 percent said they had both the training and resources to do so.

How do you bridge the gap between will and skill, and what can preparation programs do?

Programs must rebrand to be explicitly anti-racist, Carpenter said.

It starts with how programs recruit candidates: They must proactively seek leaders who are committed to leading anti-racist schools and support those school leaders with coaching, professional development, networking, and other development opportunities after graduation.

University faculty should be hired from diverse backgrounds and include those with expertise in teaching about race, white supremacy, and inequality. Professors should look like the students in the districts they are serving. But like much of K-12, education leadership faculty is still very white. That’s not to say that white professors can’t effectively do this work. Baylor’s Carpenter is white and has been working on anti-racist leadership programs for about eight years.

Districts and university partnerships must also change. Are universities recruiting candidates that also look like the students in the districts they will serve?

82% of educators had received no anti-racist or abolitionist professional development in their preparation programs.

Examination of critical race theory (the relationship between racial categories and institutional power), race, and racism should be threaded throughout the curriculum, not relegated to a single course at the tail end of the program. Each course should help educators adopt or adapt anti-racism approaches, Gooden said. For example, a study of school finance should help school leaders explore the inequitable distribution of school resources—from actual dollars to the placement of the most qualified teachers. Data courses should equip school leaders with the skills to uncover and untangle racial inequities in schools, including in Advanced Placement courses, discipline, and mainstreaming of special education students. Policy courses should deepen understanding of the history and legacy of housing segregation, including redlining and exclusionary-zoning practices, that still determine present-day school funding and attendance zones in many communities.

Adding a course or module on facilitating conversations on race, racism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness is also essential. This work requires a specific skill set, and many principals, who will have to lead difficult and uncomfortable conversations with their staff, are not equipped to do it.

Prep programs have a lot of work to do, the UW-Madison’s Welton said.

“We need to be upfront about whiteness and white supremacy,” she said. “We need to help educators understand how they function and how whiteness and white supremacy are tethered to anti-Blackness and other ways in which we pathologize racially minoritized groups and communities.”

As anyone knows, changes in academia can move slowly, but some programs have evolved in recent years to make social justice, equity, and anti-racism more prominent in the curriculum. The key, Carpenter said, is hiring the right people and having the backing from the top—deans and provosts who’re committed to training anti-racist leaders and investing time and resources into developing new syllabi and experiences for aspiring school leaders.

Otherwise, well-intentioned professors can feel like they are swimming against the tide and will have limited impact.

Until most education programs double down on creating anti-racist leaders, what can eager principals do?

Know, first of all, it’s more than just reading a couple of books, Welton warned.

It takes time and it has to be repeated—over and over. It’s uncomfortable—both for the principal, who may be examining their own identity for the first time, and the teachers and staff who’re going to be asked to do so. And there will be pushback, especially from those who see the world through race-neutral lenses or are wedded to colorblindness. People may leave. They may think the principal who is asking them to think critically about race is the one being divisive—or even the one being racist, said Gooden of Teachers College.

Said Welton, “It’s about everyone being committed and bought into doing the headwork, really doing the important reflective work about their own identity, their attitudes that they bring to the table. But also not just doing that work but constantly reflecting on how systems, structures, norms continue to reproduce racism within schools—who are they serving, who are they not serving—and continuously doing that work and not letting it just be a single moment.”

Until anti-racist leadership training becomes more widely available, school leaders can do some things immediately, according to some experts:

• Read widely on what it means to be an anti-racist leader.

• Ask yourself: What does it mean to be a white, Black, or Latino, Asian, or Indigenous person? What privileges do or do not accompany that identity?

• Connect with an expert in anti-racist leadership as well as other principals who are doing this work. Having a like-minded group of leaders for mutual support and problem-solving can be a tremendous asset.

• Review curriculum, building- and district-level data, and school policies with the goal of rooting out inequities. Review textbooks to ensure that they represent the student body—and the country—and not simply default to whiteness as the norm. Examine hiring practices that may intentionally or unintentionally privilege one group of candidates over others.

• Develop skills to speak with staff about race and racism.

• Engage staff. Be vulnerable and share with your staff the steps you’re taking to become more racially aware. Facilitate discussions and professional development on race, race neutrality, and colorblindness, and provide materials on anti-racism to staff.

This is not a solo journey, nor can it be accomplished in a vacuum."

• Be open to discussing racist incidents that occur inside and outside of school with students.

• Don’t assume you know what to do. Ask the community—especially parents and students—what they need and how you can improve. Let them be an active part of the process, beyond once-a-year climate surveys.

• Develop a network of support outside your school district. “If you don’t have a network, you’ll hit an emotional and psychological wall,” Carpenter said. “You are going to trend toward burnout and fatigue.”

In a profession where much of the workforce is white—78 percent for principals and 79 percent for teachers—the work of creating anti-racist schools cannot be left to Black and other educators of color. For this effort to be truly transformative, white educators must get on board.

“White school leaders really need to be deeply reflective every time they are making a decision,” Welton said. “They need to be reflective about how their own white privilege and overall whiteness play into the decision they are making.”

This is not a solo journey, nor can it be accomplished in a vacuum, according to the experts. Principals need to know that their superintendents and school boards will have their backs when those who have historically wielded power and privilege feel threatened. They also need committed teacher-leaders, political leaders, and community power brokers on board.

In order to get over that hurdle, school leaders must be “willing not to capitulate to the very vocal privileged faction of the community,” Welton said. “They need to be willing to do what’s right for those who have been grossly underserved in their community.”

How do you evaluate whether you’ve been successful?

The evidence should be visible in discipline and suspension data, staff hiring, student placement in higher-level courses, and how connected students and communities feel to their school.

But Welton said that commonly used accountability measures will not capture the full scope; principals’ long-term commitment to the work is also an important barometer.

“Six months from now, are we still doing this work?” Welton said. “Are we still committed to continuously checking our policies and structures and asking ourselves questions about who we not serving and who we are serving well? That should be your metric.”

Sources: Anjalé Welton, Mark Gooden, Bradley Carpenter, and Decoteau J. Irby, and the following publications: “Leaders Changing How They Act by Changing How They Think: Applying Principles of an Anti-Racist Principal Preparation Program” by Mark A. Gooden, Bradley W. Davis, Daniel D. Spikes, Dottie L. Hall, and Linda Lee; “Preparing Antiracist School Leaders in a School Choice Context” by Sarah Diem, Bradley W. Carpenter, and Tiffanie Lewis-Durham; “School Leadership and Racism: An Ecological Perspective” by Jeffrey S. Brooks and Terri N. Watson; and “When Good Intentions Only Go So Far: White Principals Leading Discussions About Race” by Jason Swanson and Anjalé Welton.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2020 edition of Education Week as Principals Need Help Building Anti-Racist Schools


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