Almost two years after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, school districts continue to struggle with the ways it has disrupted teaching and learning. Unmet social and emotional needs, staffing challenges, and lack of funding all continue to present impediments for those who teach, lead, and learn in schools.
For school and district leaders, these challenges have led to substantial calls to improve America’s public schools and to do so for equity. Yet, what does it mean to improve schools with and for equity? Depending on history and context, equity can hold different definitions across a school district.
In our research, we’ve seen diverse responses when asking leaders from the same district, “Which leaders and schools in your district are advancing equity?” If you ask 10 administrators, you’re likely to get 10 widely different answers. Moreover, their answers aren’t always backed up by district attendance, achievement, and school climate data. Why does this matter?
Equity Has a Far-Reaching Impact on the School System
Variation in how district officials identify equity-centered leaders has broader implications for how equity-work is pursued, who gets positive recognition, and who receives additional support. After all, how can the school system be improved if a variety of people view it differently, and how can equity-centered leaders be developed if there’s no district-wide consensus on what a model equity-centered leader knows and does? Variation in who is considered an equity-centered leader may reflect a lack of a unified equity-centered vision.
With the new year upon us, many school and district leaders will reflect on the changes they’d like to see. This time can inspire district and school leaders to refresh, re-energize, and re-envision what equity and excellence mean in their specific contexts. Based on our research and experience working with school leaders, we propose five potential steps in the process of identifying, building, and furthering equity-centered leaders in the new year.
1. DEFINE EQUITY FOR YOUR CONTEXT
It’s important that leaders don’t take it for granted that everyone within their district or school conceptualizes equity in the same way, or that their understanding of equity is shared across the system. For example, Portland Public Schools has developed an equity statement that clearly defines the concept within the district and helps set the objectives and goals of equity work. What does equity look like in your context? How will you recognize equity in your school or schools throughout the district?
2. PURSUE EQUITY AS MORE THAN ACHIEVEMENT
Focusing on an equity mindset is a first step in helping district leadership systematically identify contexts and leaders that are equity centered. However, many approach equity only through the lens of achievement. Achievement scores often dominate school improvement efforts.
As Linda Darling-Hammond states in her book The Flat World and Education, an overly restrictive focus on achievement scores can be detrimental to equity and students’ holistic well-being. More recently, scholars have attuned us to the ways that equity is multidimensional, incorporating elements of identity, power, achievement, and access. When defining and pursuing equity in your school or district, consider the following:
- Identity: How can/might our school/district ensure that what students learn applies to their real lives, not just the “real world” as textbooks or teachers define it? Do our teachers give students a chance to use their cultural and linguistic resources, such as other languages and dialects, as well as different ways of thinking?
- Power: How can/might our school/district ensure that students have a voice in classroom discussions and curriculum contributions, as well as teachers who enable them to apply what they learn through reflection and critiques of society?
- Access: Do all of the students in our school/district have access to high-quality teachers, a curriculum that aligns with rigorous standards, adequate classroom supplies and technology, manageable class sizes, and support for students who need it outside of class time?
- Achievement: Has our school/district defined measurable outcomes for students at every grade level, such as scores on standardized tests, class participation, patterns of course taking, and inclusion in college or career pathways?
True equity exists at the intersection of all the factors that promote our students’ access, achievement, identity, and power. When districts define and approach equity as more than achievement, it can produce a mindset that pushes us to eliminate inequities in our work.
3. DEVELOP A GRADUATE PORTRAIT
It’s important for equity work to extend beyond a narrow emphasis on academic achievement. In a world dominated by test scores and accountability ratings, this can be a difficult challenge for leaders.
According to Panorama Education, which provides open source survey instruments for schools, a graduate portrait “represents a school district’s vision for the 21st-century skills, character traits, and/or social and emotional competencies that students need to succeed in college, career, and life” and can help leaders foster a holistic vision of school success.
4. INVOLVE TEACHERS, STUDENTS, AND PARENTS
If equity work reflects only the voice of district or school leadership, it’s neglecting an opportunity to engage teachers, students, and parents in ways that facilitate community-driven change.
This active engagement could occur in person or virtually. For instance, solicit input during faculty meetings; parent-student town halls; or parent-student-teacher focus groups, district-wide surveys, or empathy interviews. School improvement is a community endeavor, and that starts with a community-driven and -owned vision for school and student success.
5. IMPLEMENT ONGOING DATA-DRIVEN OBSERVATIONS
With a community-developed graduate portrait and a transformational definition for equity as their North Star, school and district leaders can review their systems, identify the bright spots, and address areas for improvement.
School districts can partner with equity-driven organizations like the LiberatED Way powered by AUSL to design student and adult criteria aligned with their definitions of equity and excellence that are encoded in their “graduate portrait.” This information gets bundled into observation rubrics that leadership teams can use when observing schools and classrooms. By calibrating on criteria aligned to their graduate portrait and observing teaching and learning together, leaders can develop district-wide understandings of equity-centered leadership.
In the end, no specific step is a magic bullet. Establishing equity-centered district and school leaders is a process of identifying problems, analyzing them within your specific context, and continuously improving the goals and strategies along the journey to help you reimagine schools so that every child may reach their full potential.