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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2

Leading Schools in a Highly Polarized World

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Why some progress around equity is better than none.

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Credit: John Holcroft / Ikon Images
It cannot be denied that, just as political discourse has lost its civility in many communities, educational discourse is now much more argumentative, accusatory, and personalized. In a national survey of public school teachers, 91 percent reported feeling caught in the crossfire of a culture war (National Alliance, 2023). Similarly, half of the 300 school leaders responding to a CRPE/RAND survey (2023) reported that polarization around LGTBQ+ issues, critical race theory, and COVID-19 was interfering with their ability to educate students. One-third of the respondents said that educators in their district have received written or verbal threats about politically controversial topics.
In this context, leaders must realize that, despite their deep commitment to equity, many people in the school community have different views, and some will have deeply entrenched opposition to what they see as "woke" initiatives. Both ends of the political spectrum reside in even the bluest and reddest communities. In my largely Democratic state of Maryland, for example, the far-right gubernatorial candidate for governor received about one-third of the votes in 2022. Looking at the results more closely, he received votes in over 99 percent of the state's precincts—drawing support from every school community in the state.
Educators have never before been mired in this level of political drama. For new equity-focused leaders, navigating a fractured community can be especially challenging. But I do see a viable path forward. To reduce the likelihood of setting off alarm bells that can be a diversion to—and even stop—growth, leaders must become proficient in several competencies:
  • Empower a guiding coalition reflecting diverse community perspectives.
  • Depersonalize initiatives by centering them on changing (or building on) embedded school, district, or community-based systems.
  • Help concerned stakeholders move beyond the belief that education is a "zero-sum game" and that, if some students benefit, others automatically lose.
  • Frame your messaging strategically.
These under-the-radar moves aren't a retreat from leaders' commitment to dramatic improvements in educational equity; they're a way to incrementally work toward sustainable change. Given today's fractured political climate in many communities, carefully considered steps like these may be required for some progress to be made. And, in this environment, some progress is better than none.

1. Empower a Guiding Coalition

Guiding coalitions of diverse stakeholders have the power to provide on-the-ground advice and direction as new initiatives in a school are planned and implemented. This support could help allay some political tensions that may develop both within and outside the building as reforms are rolled out. New leaders may want to start assembling a guiding coalition as part of their 100-day onboarding plan.
While it may be tempting to fill this group with folks who share the leader's views, this is a shortsighted approach that will lead to difficulties down the road. Instead, new leaders should intentionally recruit a diverse group of influencers from inside the school and from the community, people with the potential to explain and promote the school's initiatives to others.

Publicly reflecting on what is in the best interest of every student has the potential to widen participants' perspectives to the diverse needs of the whole student community.

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Once the group is established, leaders can start the work by having coalition members discuss what they want their children and—this is a key understanding—what they want all children in the community to know and be able to do when they leave school (the school's values and vision) and the major steps the school must take to enable all students to be successful (the school's mission). This process of publicly reflecting on what is in the best interest of every student has the potential to widen participants' perspectives beyond their own children to the diverse needs of the whole student community.
Enough time should be provided so coalition members can mount a broad campaign to obtain community input into the development of the final vision, mission, and goals statements. Every initiative that the school takes after this to "live the vision" should refer back to these values and goals. Credit for reforms should always go not to the school leader, but to the inclusive guiding coalition and broad community input that they obtained.
In a Kappan article on addressing community concerns about critical race theory and other divisive issues, education professors Emily Hodge, Francesca López, and Joshua Rosenberg explained:
As fraught and frustrating as these conversations can feel, research suggests they also present a chance to communicate in a way that makes progress toward a widely shared, democratic vision of education. Responding with these visions in mind can go a long way with many people who raise concerns and questions about the controversies surrounding schools. (2022)

2. Interrupt Inequitable Systems

To effectively interrupt and replace firmly entrenched systems, new leaders need to depersonalize new initiatives. First, savvy leaders must recognize that most families and staff who were at the school previously will be the same people that they will be working with in the future. Therefore, it can be disastrous for a new leader to degrade or criticize past efforts, conditions, or individuals, even when "off mic" and in private situations.
Instead, leaders should position all reforms as the logical next step in taking the school's earlier progress to the next level. Comments from new leaders such as, "We are standing on the shoulders of the giants before us in this school who paved the way for these efforts" go a long way to validate the current work of staff and begin to diffuse objections to next steps.
Second, savvy leaders need to center reforms not on changing individuals' beliefs, but on interrupting embedded systems that are driving the school's actions. In the 1960's, W. Edwards Deming, the father of the continuous quality improvement philosophy, wrote that 94 percent of issues in the workplace are systemic, and recent research from Praslova (2023) supports Deming's thinking. Systemic factors embedded in organizational cultures and processes continue to be the primary cause of critical workplace issues.
The concept of "systems" in complex organizations such as schools, however, may be difficult for many stakeholders to conceptualize. One way to understand systems is to scrutinize the "five P's" that are deeply embedded in every school and district:
  • Priorities
  • Policies
  • Procedures
  • Practices
  • Programs
These "five P's" may come from the federal government, the state department of education, or the school district. But without deep examination, inequities within these systems could easily remain unnoticed and accepted as "the way we do things around here."

Examples of Inequitable Practices

Some examples of inequitable systemic practices found in schools and districts that have surfaced in the literature or have been shared with me by educators earning their administrator certification in my leadership classes include:
  • Scheduling practices in which the so-called "best" teachers always teach the advanced classes, resulting in the more inexperienced teachers working with students perceived to be the toughest to motivate.
  • Giving priority to the wishes of the adults in the building when developing the school schedule, instead of the needs of the students and community members, such as scheduling parent conferences right after school when most caregivers are working.
  • Scheduling practices that do not prioritize providing time during the school day for teacher teams to plan collaboratively and dialogue about assessment data.
  • Basing the composition of long-term intervention groups solely on standardized test scores, effectively resulting in student tracking.
  • Including students and community members in school improvement team conversations, but then discounting their suggestions as unworkable.
  • Policies requiring that teachers follow a curriculum pacing chart that isn't responsive to the needs of the school's students.
  • Funding policies resulting in transportation not being available so that all students can participate in after-school or evening events, enrichment opportunities, and interventions.
  • Policies prescribing very rigid criteria for student admission to advanced courses, often based on standardized test scores.
  • Curriculum content or instructional practices that aren't relevant to students' needs or to the school community's culture.
  • Rigid curriculum policies with course sequences constructed so that, for example, a course selected by parents when their children are in 5th grade determines the extent to which students can enroll in advanced courses in high school.

Inquiry Process to Surface and Address Inequitable Practices

To bring unnoticed but potentially inequitable systems out in the open, novice leaders should emphasize their role as learners and capitalize on their "newness" by asking questions in a low key, nonthreatening manner:
  • "Help me to understand …"
  • "What are we trying to do when we …"
  • "Tell me. Why do we …?"
  • "What has … resulted in? Is that what we hoped would happen?"
  • "What impact has … had on our students?"
  • "What students are benefiting when we …? What students are not benefiting when we …?"
  • "In what specific ways are some students not able to take full advantage of our school's good work because we …?"
  • "I wonder. What if we …?"
Evidence of possible inequitable practices should also be collected from a wide variety of data sources in the school community, and stakeholders from outside the school can lead this evidence gathering (Safir & Dugan, 2021). Throughout this process, leaders should listen for stereotypical thinking, inaccurate generalizations, and false assumptions in the justification of current policies, procedures, practices, programs, and priorities that could be addressed by systemic reform. Even though many issues are often unique to a school's population, new leaders can benefit from seeking allies in the district and networking with other schools that are wrestling with similar challenges.
As possible systemic modifications surface, leaders will want to run ideas by guiding coalition members to gather feedback about the extent to which the proposals are consistent with the values and vision agreed upon earlier. One option for a slow rollout would be to schedule a 60- or 90-day field test of new initiatives or changes in a few classrooms, providing the opportunity to identify needed modifications and determine the extent of resistance that might arise. This way, leaders can address issues before they derail schoolwide initiatives.
It is essential that leaders reaffirm multiple times and in many different forums that this inquiry approach operates under the assumption that people in the school are working as hard as they can, but systems can always be improved.

3. Move Beyond a "Zero-Sum Game" Mindset

A "zero-sum game" mindset is based on the notion that if one segment of the school population receives added services or attention, then the other parts are cheated.
In a recent Education Week interview, school reform expert Michael Horn noted:
Far too many people think that the answer to improving education lies in privileging one group that has been historically disadvantaged over others. No matter how well-intentioned a policy is, parents who see their children as being on the losing end of the change will use their power to fight back and shuttle the reform. If you want change, you have to pitch and shape things in terms of the progress that each parent and student desires. (Hess, 2022)
In response to zero-sum thinking, savvy leaders may want to identify an overarching concept that has support among stakeholders as a theme around which to structure new initiatives. One such concept is differentiated instruction.
Berman (2023) suggests that the common ground for most parents and community members is wanting all students—regardless of race, economic status, gender, or country of origin—to feel included and be successful. Differentiation or another approach that is research-based and typically well-received in the community could be presented to operationalize what stakeholders said they wanted for all children during the vision-development process.

4. Frame the Changes Strategically

How leaders frame change matters. It matters a lot. Leaders should avoid describing new initiatives as designed to enable one student group to "catch up" to another. Instead, reforms should be framed as a way for all students to achieve greater proficiency, making it less likely that the school will be perceived as pitting groups of children against each other for time and attention. It is difficult for stakeholders to oppose reforms that focus on every student learning more.

Reforms should be framed as a way for all students to achieve greater proficiency.

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Stakeholders are far more likely to absorb messages using stories than if the same information is presented only in facts and figures. Along with sharing overall achievement scores and trends, new leaders should put faces to the data by recounting success stories featuring diverse students and their families benefiting from the reforms. Particularly persuasive for educators might be stories about students who struggled in the past but who are now thriving, thanks to the new program. To ensure consistent messaging, leaders should craft a three- to four-sentence "elevator speech" for staff to use when questioned about a new policy by community members.
Depending on the community, common sense suggests it might be good when describing reforms to avoid certain trigger words that may not be fully understood, could be perceived as inflammatory to some segments of the community, or could be interpreted as indoctrination. Terms like the racial-wealth gapmarginalizedantiracistdiversityequity, and inclusion may fall under this category. Instead, savvy leaders can emphasize the connections of the proposed initiatives with the foundational skills of reading, writing, and math that all students need.

Progress Over Perfection

These are not the only steps that new leaders must take to move reforms forward, but they are a start. Unfortunately, they are not foolproof, and contention can still arise. But it just makes sense, in today's highly volatile political environment, for leaders to do everything possible to reduce misunderstandings that can doom an initiative even before it gets started—and possibly be the end of a promising new leader's career.
In today's polarized world, educational equity is not all or nothing, as some advocates suggest. Incremental change can be effective in addressing the urgent needs of students now, while positioning the school for further progress. Leaders should carefully push what is possible.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ As a new leader, how could you frame change as a way to build on the school's past initiatives?

➛ What steps could you take to counteract "zero-sum" thinking when it's demonstrated in conversations by parents and other stakeholders?


Berman, S. H. (2023, February). Reclaiming the narrative. School Administrator80(2), 26.

CRPE & RAND. (2023, January). Navigating political tensions over schooling: Findings from the fall 2022 American School District Panel survey.

Hess, R. (2022, October 20). How education can get beyond zero-sum schooling: An interview with Michael Horn. Education Week.

Hodge, R., López, F. A., & Rosenberg, J. (2022, October 24). How to respond to community concerns about critical race theory. Kappan.

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (2023, June 23). New survey from the Harris Poll and National Alliance: Listen to your teachers!

Praslova, L. N. (2023, January 10). Today's most critical workplace challenges are about systems. Harvard Business Review.

Safir, S., & Dugan, J. (2021). Street data. Corwin.

Ronald S. Thomas prepares new leaders as a faculty member in the Department of Instructional Leadership and Professional Development at Towson University. He has been a teacher and administrator in three Maryland school districts.

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