Leading Together / Educating Ourselves for Equity - ASCD
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November 1, 2018

Leading Together / Educating Ourselves for Equity

Learning our way to more equitable schools.

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The achievement gap has been a focus of educators' concern since the Coleman Report (1966) first drew attention to it more than 50 years ago. All children can learn, but all students don't—and which students don't learn can too often be predicted by their race, gender, language, family income, and parents' education. These trends persist in subgroup breakdowns of NAEP scores, state tests, district assessments, and classroom-based student work. But they are not inevitable. In fact, they have been averted in cases where school leaders—including teacher leaders, principals, and others—have worked together to support job-embedded, teacher-powered professional learning for advancing equity.

The issue of inequitable outcomes is a seemingly intractable problem because its root causes are so embedded in our system: Our beliefs and unconscious biases determine our actions and practices, our actions and practices inform how our systems develop, and our systems reinforce the beliefs that shaped them, effectively constraining any efforts to change. An attempt to overturn inequities in schools must address change at all three levels (Berg & Gleason, 2018). In schools, teacher leaders, including all teachers who share concern for students beyond their own classroom, are uniquely positioned to help their colleagues explore unconscious biases, adopt new professional practices, and translate classroom wisdom into equitable student-centered policies. Principals are uniquely positioned to uphold the value of this work and to facilitate teachers to lead in these ways. Therefore, teacher leaders and principals must coordinate their efforts.

Making It Worth the Risk

To truly address inequity, we must commit to changes that carry some risk. Under what conditions would educators, who have significant investment in current beliefs, practices, and systems, agree to reconsider them? The content of the essential conversations that must happen among staff—which include difficult conversations about race—heightens the risk: What if I say the wrong thing? What if I offend someone and they challenge me? Or worse, what if I offend someone and don't realize I have done so? The conversations can only be authentically approached in a culture of psychological safety, which teacher leaders and principals together can cultivate.

Psychological safety is described by researchers Amy Edmonson and Jeff Polzer as a "climate where people recognize their ability and responsibility to overcome fear and reluctance to speak up with potentially controversial ideas or questions" (2016). It requires a culture in which staff members are willing to make themselves vulnerable and risk making mistakes. It also requires a culture in which members feel confident that the potential reward is such a strongly held and shared value that potential failure will not have negative consequences, but be lauded as worth the risk. Teacher leaders are well-positioned to support the first requirement, and principals the second.

Reshaping Beliefs, Practices, and Policies

Our current inequitable education system is virtually protected from change because it is shaped and continually reinforced by our beliefs and unconscious biases. If educators were willing to examine their beliefs and confront the biases that they—and we all—have, change would be possible. In context of a shared, explicit commitment to advancing equity, teacher leaders must foster deeper relationships with and among faculty, challenge their colleagues' thinking, and initiate conversations that are difficult but lead to increased trust. The nonhierarchical and nonevaluative relationships teacher leaders tend to have with their colleagues allow teachers to more readily hear their questions as expressions of curiosity, not blame. For their part, principals must not only commit to the hard work of re-examining beliefs and biases, but also elevate this work as a shared value and create conditions to support it. If systems are going to be transformed, teachers can't elect to opt-in. Principals can engage all educators by allocating the time and space for necessary conversations, demonstrating that honest risk taking will be rewarded, and participating with authenticity in the dialogue themselves.

As we interrogate our beliefs and biases, we can begin to reshape the actions and practices that are the result of them. Teacher leaders, working alongside their teacher colleagues, can go first and be the lead learners as they question and alter aspects of their professional practice. If I really believed all students can learn, how would I approach our math goal? How can I adjust my practice so each student can achieve at a high level? To answer such questions, teacher leaders might, for example, engage in action research to critically examine the impact of their homework policies on students' self-talk or solicit colleagues to join them in collaborative inquiry to hone formative assessment practices capable of revealing each student's needs. Teacher leaders can be models of courage and agency as they make their learning and reflections visible to their peers. Leading in these ways positions teacher leaders to anticipate their colleagues' questions as they guide them in making parallel changes and foster a culture of collaborative professionalism (Hargreaves & O'Connor, 2018).

Principals must ensure this work is not seen as an add-on, but a lens through which high and worthwhile goals are pursued. Our goal isn't just "equity"; our goal is equitable reading outcomes, equitable graduation rates, and so on. And, since principals see the big picture—the school's goals in context of district goals, the school's history, pending changes, and potential internal and external resources—they can meet their teacher leaders' efforts on the ground with an equal effort to ensure coherence and support.

Changed actions and practices inevitably will expose systems and policies that also need to change. Teacher leaders, with experience in their own classrooms as well as across them, are often able to see both the macro and micro view of a system. They are able understand the logic of a policy and anticipate implementation concerns. They can bring an informed voice to the work of creating more student-centered systems and policies. And, they are best able to do so when principals have used their unique authority to uphold teachers' voices, to establish teams charged with collaborative decision making, and to share leadership.

We have a lot of learning to do before we can realize the promise of educating all students to high levels, regardless of their zip code or demographics. It begins with believing all educators can learn and leveraging all stakeholders as assets to ensure that learning can happen. By virtue of their respective roles, teacher leaders and principals each play an essential part in creating the conditions necessary to educate ourselves for equity.


Berg, J. H., & Gleason, S. C. (2018). Coming together for equity: Reworking beliefs, actions, and systems through professional learning. The Learning Professional, 38(5).

Coleman, J. S., Campbell, E., Hobson, C., McPartland, J., Mood, A., Weinfeld, F., & York, R. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity (the Coleman report). National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED012275.pdf

Edmonson, A., & Polzer, J. (2016, September 6) Why psychological safety matters and what to do about it. Re:Work (online). Retrieved from https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/how-to-foster-psychological-safety

Hargreaves, A., & O'Connor, M. T. (2018). Collaborative professionalism: When teaching together means learning for all. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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