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February 1, 2022

Getting Beyond "Stuck" on Equity in Schools

School leaders can't wait to envision the finished equity puzzle before working on the main pieces.
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In any endeavor, it's easy to find ourselves doing a lot generally—and nothing specifically. This is especially true in equity work in schools. Many of us were, in our preservice training, exposed to seminal works by Gloria Ladson-Billings, Geneva Gaye, and Luis Moll. Writers like these underscored the importance of understanding our students as cultural beings from communities with rich intellectual traditions. Such thinkers emphasized that to create equitable learning environments, understanding students' backgrounds must be core to our practices.
However, many educators have found the gap between scholarship and practice in the area of culturally inclusive education is particularly wide. Realities in K–12 schools don't make the application of asset-based pedagogy easy. Other areas of practice are more tied to concrete actions we can monitor and adapt. In daily collaboration with colleagues, we work toward simpler, more agreed-on definitions-concepts like backwards planning and data-informed instruction often become more solidified through daily practice. But asset-based pedagogies are undersupported and therefore practiced less, so racial equity for our students gets moved to the periphery.

Gaps in Understanding and Practice

In search of shared language on equity with colleagues, many of us use the terms culturally relevantculturally responsive, and culturally sustaining while lacking clarity on their exact meaning. But these mutually reinforcing, overlapping ways of thinking about learning can become a shapeless set of ideals—things we want to be true of our learning communities but haven't defined clearly enough to be able to make true. If you're like me, you have colleagues who nod fervently in discussions on the importance of racially affirming learning spaces but are unable to describe such spaces.
As leaders, we know that saying "I know it when I see it" may mean that we admire a particular set of practices, but don't know how to coach teachers to adopt them. Our field and our training as school leaders hasn't pushed us to spot gaps in racially affirming teaching practice. Although we're compelled by our training, experiences, and values to invest in educational equity, we have difficulty getting our hands around what, exactly, to do. Small wonder many district leaders say racial equity is very important to them but feel ill-equipped to address it (Arundel, 2020).

The Power of One Step

As caring adults come to a common understanding and vision for equity, they will quickly be confronted by the complexities surrounding actions needed to realize that vision. But even as the complexity begins to sink in, it's better to take one concrete step that's likely to bring actual change than spend months discussing the ideal step. For instance, in 2016 I led the academic program for the Acero Charter Schools network in Chicago that primarily served Latino students. The network had been started by Latino community organizers 20 years before. While the schools had an impressive "for us, by us" ethos, very little of that had translated into the curriculum. Some of us leading the schools wanted our students to have many opportunities to engage with narratives and histories that reflected their identities. Unsatisfied with available curricular resources, we decided to design our own units centering on the Latino experience.
This was difficult work, in part because there was no roadmap for it, but also because of all the questions it raised from peers in various roles: Do you think teachers are ready to teach those units? Do you have consensus from the principals? Have the unit designers 'done their own work' that will allow things to move forward productively? My answer to all these questions at the time was, at best, sort of or a qualified yes. Others' skepticism that we could be ready to design, test, and iterate on curriculum was reasonable, and the interconnectedness between various elements involved in the change was rightly identified. But rather than accepting the advice I often heard from colleagues to "go slow to go fast," I responded with my own skepticism that if we didn't at least take a step, however imperfect, toward meeting our students' needs, we would never get unstuck.
It was clear to me that the piece of the puzzle most under our control was the curriculum. I was intolerant of the situation that a network of schools built to serve the Latino community didn't have curriculum that reflected that community. The path forward was challenging, and willingness to move forward with one piece of the puzzle when others hadn't been clearly identified produced more than a little cognitive dissonance . That dissonance was preferable, however, to the reality that with the existing curriculum, our network's 99-percent Latino population might never read the Latino authors their schools were named for or engage with the inspiring Latino histories they deserved to know.

I knew that if we didn’t at least take a step, however imperfect, toward meeting our students’ needs, we would never get unstuck.

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Evan Gutierrez

Taking that one concrete step also freed up a lot of actions. What started with one summer teacher cohort doing curriculum design led to more comprehensive curriculum work. Curriculum maps led to units of study, which led to teacher pilots, which led to professional learning. The work of our network ultimately led to partnerships with other organizations, which led to powerful applications of the curriculum-designing framework we had developed (Gutierrez, 2021). Units centering the Latino experience led to units honoring the particularity of being Appalachian or centering Black and LGBTQIA narratives.

Questions for Getting "Unstuck"

None of these exciting developments were predictable at the outset. The only thing that was clear when we first decided to build the curriculum was that we lacked answers to many key questions. It would have been understandable if we'd decided to wait for the whole picture to become clearer before making any curriculum decisions—but I'm glad we didn't.
The interconnectedness and complexity of equity work make taking action on one facet at a time very difficult. At best, it makes for a messy creative challenge; at worst, it becomes an excuse for inaction. It's easy to get stuck in an adults-only discernment loop, where adults discuss the interdependency and intricacies of equity in schools. Education leaders can endlessly discuss how and where to start, whether or not we're ready, how stakeholders might react and so on. When we're in that loop, the real impact on our students remains just a point on the horizon.
Education leaders' choices about where we spend our dollars, our minutes dedicated to professional learning, and our social capital matter immensely. In this light, I encourage education leaders wary of getting stuck as they try to make true changes leading to equity to ask themselves two questions: "What is the right concrete next step for my community?" and "Does that step put us on a path to directly impact students' experiences?"
Answering the first question involves knowing what you can change in your role and your context. You may or may not have a lot of control over hiring and recruitment, curriculum, or instructional coaching. But there is usually an area where you have control. As a leader, if you can say that you have control over one or two factors, let that fact lead your thinking toward a concrete next step you might take. You don't need full control over all the connected puzzle pieces to make progress toward equity. Choose the function that's closest to your locus of control and run a few scenarios relating to that area by a critical friend or two. Some leaders may have direct control over more than a few functional areas and may be considering holistic redesign. But even in instances where whole-school redesign is politically possible, leaders must still choose a place to start, an area of practice to define and design first even if multiple changes will be implemented simultaneously. Generally, where whole-school redesign isn't organizationally or politically possible, there's still enormous opportunity to make an impact. The invitation is the same for leaders in both contexts: choose a functional area (like PD or curriculum) and design for equity and excellence. How quickly you might enact change on the next functional area varies based on your context. The invitation to bold leadership does not.
Now consider what "next action" will most impact your students. For each of the areas just mentioned (hiring, curriculum, etc.), there exists a path to directly impacting students' learning experiences. There is also an alternative path to an adults-only loop. In the case of the need for a more student-relevant curriculum, a path to direct impact might include buying or designing units of study that authentically reflect learners' identities, running a limited pilot of these resources in the fall semester, and designing PD sessions run by piloting educators to inform a larger rollout of those units in the spring. With this path, the math for impact inside one academic year is straightforward: y students (in pilot classrooms using the culturally relevant units) + z students (in rollout classrooms using these units) = amount of students potentially impacted by the new units/lessons.
This is an intentionally reductionist approach to thinking about impact, but it's a helpful foil against the adults-only loop. In this example, an adult-focused path might include assigning a committee do a comprehensive audit of the existing curriculum and offer their analysis in the fall; having leaders review the audit and discuss whether to revise, redesign, or buy alternative curriculum; and assembling another committee to consider the options and make a recommendation in the spring. The only unit of measurement to inform an impact analysis for this example is "hours of conversation among adults." Even the possibility of direct impact on students' in-school lives has been put off until the next academic year. (Those familiar with this kind of adults-only loop are rightly dubious of that impact happening even then.)
An additional layer we could add to our analysis of impact is knowledge gain: What do the people involved understand now that they didn't before? In the direct student-impact scenario, leaders might measure gained insight by gathering survey data from teachers in pilot and rollout groups about which units worked well or their feeling of preparedness following professional development. In the second, adult-only scenario, it's likely the time-consuming audit would reveal only things most faculty members already understood to be true about the current curriculum and the challenges of introducing a new one. The skeptics will still be skeptics, the true believers still certain. The whole group won't have received new data to spark conversation or transformational insight.
There is another important question for the leader who wants real progress to ask: Has this action had impact before? While all learning communities are unique, none are so singular that we can't learn from one another. There is an evidence base that can inform our choices. Consider what the research-based answer to this question would be for two strategies (shown here as "headlines" about research findings): hiring practices and curriculum reform:
  • Teachers of color benefit students of color. Analysis of existing research suggests that increasing teacher diversity positively impacts student outcomes, particularly for students of color. These analyses also point to specific examples of programs that have been effective, pitfalls to avoid, and effect sizes one might expect (Carver-Thomas, 2018).
  • Representation in curriculum matters. Research points to significant gains made by students engaged in sustained curricular programs that are designed to center their experiences and provide alternatives to the dominant narrative (Dee & Penner, 2016).
For both examples, it would be possible to take action in response to the "headline" without referring to the evidence base. But posing this third question to anchor change efforts on the evidence positions the leader as a shrewd consumer of advice and a savvy decision maker. Equity efforts without a clear connection to an evidence base may be steps with no credible path to impact.

Fitting Pieces Together

The suggestion to "go slow to go fast" seems to urge education leaders to know how the puzzle will fit together before putting any pieces on the table. This striving to pre-imagine the entire outcome is a learned behavior for many of us; sharing plans without thinking through all the implications leaves us vulnerable to criticism, even open to accusations of incompetence. We've learned to wait until comprehensive plans can be made and buy-in has been won, even if that means moving at a glacial pace.
There is an alternative, which I term go small to go big: make wise bets on one high-impact action a leader launches quickly with small groups of colleagues. Engaging our colleagues as co-solvers of the problem rather than receivers of the master plan is powerful. I urge leaders facing the complex puzzle of equity to start putting a few pieces on the table, then learn and iterate quickly as part of a learning community. There will be ambiguity, but at least we won't be stuck. And our students are waiting on us.

Arundel, K. (2020, Oct. 26). "Most superintendents say they're 'not very well prepared' to lead race, equity conversations." Learning for Justice.

Carver-Thomas, D. (2018). Diversifying the teaching profession through high-retention pathways. Research Brief. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Dee, T., & Penner, E. (2016). "The causal effects of cultural relevance: Evidence from an ethnic studies curriculum. CEPA Working Paper No. 16-01." Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Gutierrez, E. C. (2021). A new canon: Designing culturally sustaining humanities curriculum. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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