Leading Together / Overcoming the Inertia of Inequity - ASCD
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March 1, 2021

Leading Together / Overcoming the Inertia of Inequity

Individual change is a starting point. But it must be matched by organizational change.

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Our schools consistently underserve certain students. Amid increasing recognition of this fact, many educators are taking matters into their own hands: They're reading books about anti-racism, taking courses on equitable learning, and connecting with colleagues to deepen their understanding of the problem and the role they play in it. They are reassessing their practices, scrutinizing resources, and critically reflecting on their instructional decision-making processes. These individual efforts are necessary but insufficient: Black and brown students continue to achieve at lower rates than their white peers because our schools are inequitable by design.

For real change to occur, individual and organizational efforts must happen in sync. Yet today's schools tend to be relatively rigid systems; changes in one part of the system are often resisted by other parts of the system. If individual change is not matched by organizational change, equilibrating forces take over. In one famous example, major organizational changes to reduce class size in Tennessee had little impact where teachers did not also make instructional changes in their classrooms.1 More commonly, schools find that introducing teacher leadership roles into the structure of school leadership without corresponding changes to existing administrator roles can cause conflict and frustration that sets schools back.2

Efforts to build individual capacity without commensurate organizational development can be ill-fated since structural or cultural features of the organization often stand in the way of putting that capacity to work. Teachers who learn to critically examine their instructional materials for bias, for example, are limited in making a difference if they find they are not supported with the time, training, or funding to adopt or develop stronger materials. A focus on getting teachers to change without equal attention to how the organization needs to shift to make that change possible and powerful will result in stasis.

A District on the Move

This pattern was familiar to educators in the Waltham Public Schools in Massachusetts, a district of 10 schools outside of Boston with a diverse student population of about 6,000. The district's educators had been learning about equity for nearly a decade through continuous professional development. This work led to rich conversations for most, new mindsets for many, and classroom innovation for some. What did not change were the structures and systems surrounding hiring, support systems for struggling students, and equitable access to student-centered and representative curriculum. Changes in instructional practice, inconsistently distributed across the system, led to only minor changes in student outcomes.

After uncovering this discrepancy, the district adjusted its approach to include systems change alongside instructional change. Part of this work included engaging a districtwide coalition of teacher leaders and administrators in cycles of inquiry to identify what all adults in the district needed to learn and do together to advance equity. This group sought not only to identify necessary instructional changes but also districtwide barriers that stood in the way and plans to address them. As a result, the team produced a three-year professional learning plan designed to balance educators' individual capacity-building needs with districtwide priorities.

The plan set in motion structural and cultural changes and empowered teachers who had been exploring equity in their classrooms to be part of that systems-level change. For example, one inquiry team in the coalition, concerned about the performance of special education students, worked with principals at their schools to create more efficient schedules for students and service providers. They also drafted proposals for district budget additions that would reduce strain on special education support staff.

Learning to Learn

In reflection, three conditions seem critically important to ensuring a school district—as an organization— can learn along with individual educators on the path of advancing equity.

1. District leaders must work in vertical teams to build a shared vision of equity. This is especially challenging: Because we have not yet achieved equity as a society, we don't really know what it looks like. Therefore, district leaders must use data to describe and widely communicate the current inequities in the system. This will help establish a clear, shared understanding of the problem and cultivate a commitment to addressing it (the Waltham Public Schools called this a "Mutual Moral Imperative"). District leaders must then make space for educators—with the input of their students and families—to decide what equity means, looks like, and feels like. Conversations about equity should also be embedded in school and district team meetings and should be informed by the work of scholars via shared readings, podcasts, videos, and guest speakers.

2. District leaders must ensure educators have the data routines they need to make timely, evidence-based decisions. Equity work demands that we remain attentive to persistent patterns across groups of students, and that we do so in a way that is both timely enough to respond and rich enough for reflection. Since this work is important, it must be made easier. Educators must be able to access the data they need in just one or two spots so they can easily compare data indicators, and there should be routines at the team, school, and district levels to support regular data inquiry dialogues with educators who know the students behind the data points.

This requires a district-level investment in tools, personnel, time, and training. The payoff is that administrators will be able to learn from these teams about systemic inequities—instead of leaning on individual people of color, within and outside of the system, to point them out—and then make diagnostic decisions about changes needed.

3. District leaders must cultivate a culture of critical friendship. It can be too easy to avoid critical conversations: to look at student work or classroom instruction and only point out the positives, to look at gaps and talk only about factors beyond our own control, or to bury observations of stark reality under unrelated platitudes. Talking about what we really see in our students' work or naming our problems of practice aloud requires vulnerability. So, too, does responding with growth-oriented questions and proposals for new approaches. District leaders must model vulnerability and support school leaders—both administrators and teacher leaders—to do the same, and they must cultivate relationships that give all permission to be warm demanders of each other. Compliance culture is the enemy of equity; we need educators to be willing to say what needs to be said and to hear what's being said.

Change is hard for anyone, and even harder for organizations, but change is the new normal. Schools need to be nimble enough to respond to the insights of educators, not once but in an ongoing way. District leaders play a key role in creating conditions that ensure our districts, like the educators within them, are lifelong learners.

End Notes

1Glass, G. V. (1982). School class size: Research and policy. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

2Berg, J. H. (2018). Leading in sync. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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