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February 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 5

Paving a Coherent Path to Equity

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Many equity efforts fail because adults don't share a vision of what disrupting inequities requires. School leaders can fix that.

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EquitySchool Culture
February 2022 Chism header image
Credit: JING JING TSONG / TheiSpot
Equity is a goal that remains elusive in our schools. Many U.S. schools that engage in the process of improving their students' academic or behavioral outcomes end up identifying a narrative along racial lines—where data show Black and Brown students sitting at the lower ends of performance. While the mission in U.S. schools is to ensure all students can access their full potential, our known history invites us to think deeply about the level of systemic marginalization that exists in our schools.
Although the recent dedication in many schools to confront inequality provides hope, the path to reach equitable conditions remains nuanced. Leaders must be mindful of the complex nature of the work when developing solutions for how their schools can embark on a path that leads to transformational change around equity. And first, they must strive to ensure that all adults in the school share a common understanding about equity work. As I have discovered in my work, this is commonly not the case, and this lack of shared understanding poses a major barrier to real progress.

Well-Meaning Teachers, Misaligned Beliefs

Some years ago, I coached John, a middle school principal in his fourth year of leadership. His school, located in the Midwest, had 73 teachers and support staff and approximately 700 hundred students (with 58 percent being students of color and a 63 percent receiving free or reduced lunch). During one coaching conversation, John shared his frustration about the racial disparities he saw in his school when looking at trends in academics and behavior. As we talked things through, I asked John to explain the vision statement his school had created around equity and how he knew the staff was clear about the desired direction. John took a binder from behind his desk to show me the equity statement created during his first year. He recalled how staff had co-constructed this vision and communicated collective buy-in for this effort.
I asked John if he was up for the challenge of performing an environmental scan that would help him gauge the current level of staff buy-in and get a better sense of whether the team was generally moving in an aligned direction. As part of this scan, John went on a "listening tour," asking slightly more than a third of his teachers the same three key questions.
Below are the questions and selected responses from three teachers, which were representative of other responses John heard:
1. What is your current perception of our equity statement? (In your own words, what is it saying to you?)
  • Jenna: It means every student deserves an opportunity to learn in a safe environment.
  • Louis: It says to me that we must give all students what they need, so they are successful.
  • Tamara: It means that we have to support the challenges faced by our students and families.
2. How can we best position ourselves to live out this statement within our environment?
  • Jenna: We need to … protect students who show up to learn every day. It is unfair to allow students with behavior concerns to disrupt learning for everyone. It would help to provide more Tier I and Tier II [behavioral intervention] strategies.
  • Louis: We need to provide more resources for students who struggle academically. Some students need support beyond the textbook. We don't always know where or have the time to look.
  • Tamara: We need more counselors and resource support for students and their families. With our students' social and emotional challenges, they need someone to talk to; teachers can't always be that person.
3. What do you sense about the collective commitment held toward our equity statement?
  • Jenna: Some staff has lost commitment because we don't see changes in student behavior.
  • Louis: I think there is a commitment with most staff; however, some are frustrated with the lack of effort from students.
  • Tamara: Some staff believe they aren't equipped to handle the emotional challenges of some of our students.
As John reflected on these results, he shared his surprise that some staff members, like Jenna, advocated for strategies focused on fixing students. Many comments ignored the role adults play in equity issues. He'd hoped more teachers would have recalled past conversations about adults removing barriers. And John was concerned by many teachers' perceived lack of commitment to the equity statement.
I agreed with John's concerns—but something else also caught my attention. Although the perceptions shared by each teacher weren't in themselves unreasonable interpretations, they expressed ideas and strategies that didn't collectively show awareness of the need to disrupt the systemic marginalization reflected in the school's data.

Coherence: The Essential Element

In bringing transformational change, leaders must recognize one aspect of why schools' attempts to achieve equity frequently fail—because they lack coherence. Fullan and Quinn define coherence as a common depth of understanding (individually and collectively) about the purpose and nature of improvement work. John's listening tour revealed that teachers at his school needed a deeper understanding of the goal of educational equity and the level of action required to get there. Because the systemic marginalization that leads to inequities is a generally hidden part of any culture, to disrupt the marginalization of certain groups within a school culture, adults must have an agreed-upon, in-depth understanding of the following:
  • The meaning of equity: People's actions generally align with their beliefs. It's vital to establish among everyone a common understanding about the meaning of equity.
  • The inequity existing in the environment: Significant change starts with awareness. Those within the school culture must be knowledgeable of who is currently being marginalized by the school system or its traditions. This requires honest conversations that don't shy away from the facts.
  • How systemic marginalization occurs: It's not enough to know where inequities currently show up; educators must also be able to discover root causes and realize which actions and conditions do—or might—perpetuate inequity.
  • The level of advocacy needed for disruption: Everyone must understand the role they play, be centered around what it means to be an advocate for equity, and be willing to assume this role (for instance, by learning about personal biases).
So what approaches help leaders achieve staffwide coherence about equity and how we get there? Working with the three questions John posed, let's consider effective actions a leader who finds him or herself in the same position as John can take.

1. Teachers' Perceptions of the Vision

The question What is your current perception of our vision/equity statement? gives insight into how various teachers' thoughts or perceptions align (or don't) with the vision. Leaders should commit to helping staff establish a commonly understood definition of equity by frequently having staff air their opinions and goals and calibrate the vision for equity as needed. However, any equity definition should be grounded in meeting individual needs, meaning the shared definition must acknowledge that all students or circumstances aren't the same. When seeking a unified definition, guard against generalizing approaches that avoid needed conversations about race. Invest time discussing the school's beliefs around equity. Talk frankly about the state of learning opportunities for different racial groups and what adults in your school feel a more equitable "future state" should look and sound like.
After the environmental scan, John and I discussed the importance of building coherence through long-term staff-engagement strategies that he would implement purposefully, monitoring progress as he rolled them out. His first action was to leverage a whole-staff meeting to discuss various data (academic, behavioral, climate surveys, etc.), highlighting the marginalization of different student groups that the data showed existed within the building.
To guide exploration, John posed questions like What's your initial reaction to the data? and What does our data reveal about the experiences of various race groups relating to behavior and academics? (What story is it telling?) Pondering what the data revealed generated insightful comments like, "The story is that our Black students are spending more time out of the classroom than they are learning. They cannot be successful academically if there is a lack of connection to the school." John also had the staff, in small groups, respond to the question: Do any current conditions support the marginalization shown by this data? This helped teachers think about systemic—and correctable—barriers to the goal of all students being treated appropriately and fairly. One group responded, "Looking at our climate surveys and the rate of suspensions, one thing might be our code of conduct."
These discussions helped John begin to establish coherence by calling attention to the inequity existing in the building, specifically racial disproportionality in areas like disciplinary referrals. John then guided teachers and staff in capturing their thoughts on what an equity-driven culture would be like. Small groups reacted to these prompts, keeping in mind the data just reviewed:
  • If we effectively address equity, what would a newsworthy headline about our school sound like in 5–10 years?
  • What specific actions are we taking or should we take if we're committed to living out this headline? What is our role?
  • What's our current reality in moving toward this vision? (What "roadblocks" are holding us back?)
Here's a (partial) response from one small group, with answers considering various stakeholders:
Future Headlines:
  • Staff: School Solves National Crisis! Data now shows that teachers at ___ Middle School have eliminated all racial gaps.
  • Students: A Trusted System. Students at ___ Middle School have found a connectedness to school and are meeting their full potential.
Actions we are taking/should take:
  • To strengthen staff learning: Learning about personal biases, looking at specific practices that prevent access for students, monitoring our data for signs of change.
  • To increase student well-being: Seeking to form a relationship with each student and learn about their experiences, making sure every student has a safe environment to learn, embracing cultural differences.
  • To work with the community: Inviting the community into our school to provide input, learning about families' needs, positioning parents as leaders in our schools.
  • Time for PD; lack of support from some parents.

It's important to gather and understand the big ideas or themes staff share about equity and school practices.

Author Image

Dwayne Chism

What's important to take away from this activity, initially, are the big ideas or themes staff share about equity and school practices. Leaders should continue to leverage teachers' responses to find commonalities in reactions, understand differences of opinion, and learn more about the challenges teachers identify. This can be done over time by refining the actions that staff members suggest. One theme, and suggested action, found in John's school was to take a closer look at how inequitable practices are enforced across the building. To help refine this action, teachers discussed specific practices they believed were creating marginalization and steps they might take to change those practices. This type of grappling strengthens the unity behind the vision.

2. Examining How We Live Out This Vision

Asking how school adults should position themselves to live out the vision statement gets at educators' beliefs regarding their role in strengthening equity. It sheds light on where each individual places urgency. Use strategies that require getting to the root cause of systemic inequities. Because there can be a wide range of beliefs surrounding the causes of the problem, pose questions that encourage staff to consider the possibilities or "what ifs." For example, a leader might ask:
  • Assuming race was a factor in the challenge(s) identified, what race-related narrative is communicated or perpetuated by our current practices and realities?
  • How are we as educators contributing to these inequities? Are there other factors?
  • What actions on our part would help remove these barriers?
Working through this investigative process is vital to establishing measures and actions that align with the actual needs. Exploring root causes, and teachers' roles, develops the deeper understanding needed for coherence.

3. Checking in on Collective Commitment

Asking about staff members' sense of the collective commitment toward the equity vision gets at the sense of unity staff feel and perceive. This opens the door to learning whether staff members feel accountable for acting on and working to fulfill the vision. A perceived sense of unity is imperative to sustaining individuals' commitment to the goal. Creating well-functioning collaborative structures and having honest discussions around the equity vision enhances this sense of unity.
As the school begins to take action toward greater equity, make time and space for teachers to process the schools' new direction. John formed cross-curricular equity teams to monitor the desired actions and progress toward envisioned "headlines" within the school. Having cross-curricular teams allows his staff to maintain sight of the bigger picture beyond grade-level or curriculum silos and helps each staff member identify their role. During meetings, cross-curricular teams discuss buildingwide progress through the lens of the agreed-upon headlines (future state) and identified challenges. Figure 1 shows how one team explored key questions at a meeting.
February 2022 Chism Figure 1

Avoiding Roadblocks

While these approaches help build coherence in working toward equity, leaders also need to avoid common roadblocks that often stall movement.
  • Teacher turnover and lack of long-term planning. Turnover is a serious threat to coherence on equity work. Leaders need onboarding processes that integrate new staff into the established culture, including the equity focus. During hiring screening and hiring, talk through the dispositions candidates should have that would best work with the current makeup of staff and support the equity vision. Establish a mentoring process that helps new staff members learn the culture quickly, to sustain forward progress. Clear succession planning should exist.
  • Infrequent communication. Articulate the vision frequently and clearly. If staff aren't clear on aspects of the vision, they will make assumptions to fill in the gaps (and we know what happens then). Purposefully incorporate the vision in everything you do so people come to see it as a way of being, not something "separate." Communicate beliefs in staff meetings, memos, coaching conversations, and other places.
  • Low teacher efficacy. Pay attention to the beliefs staff members hold (individually and collectively) about their ability to influence student outcomes and equity within the school. If you realize many teachers have a lower sense of efficacy, increase your leadership presence (your visibility), provide timely feedback on teachers' progress, and identify and celebrate quick wins to build confidence.
  • Leading solo. Don't get in the habit of making decisions on your own, then "telling" staff. If staff is to advocate for equity effectively, they must discover for themselves existing inequities and the need for action. Leaders can guide them through such self-discovery, then build opportunities for shared leadership toward equity.

Leadership Tip

As your school begins to take action toward greater equity, make time and space for teachers to process the school's new direction. Having cross-curricular teams allows staff to maintain sight of the bigger pricture beyond grade-level silos.

An Emotional Attachment

When striving to establish a shared way forward for school improvement, it's easy to falsely assume everyone involved comprehends the heart of the mission. But achieving equity is complex and goes beyond simply "doing the work"; there must also be an emotional attachment to the goal. This attachment comes by way of coherence, which brings a deeper understanding of equity and the "why" behind equity efforts. When individuals feel emotionally tied to any purpose, they make a more substantial commitment to do what it takes; they invest more time in developing the necessary skill or will to achieve the goal. Approaches and processes like those described here can help all school adults get on the same path toward equity.
Note: All educator and student names are pseudonyms.

Reflect and Discuss

➛ In your experience, what are the major barriers to coherence in school equity initiatives?

➛ Chism says it's vital to establish within a school "a common understanding about the meaning of equity." Is there a common understanding of equity in your school? What actions might help foster a shared understanding?

End Notes

1 Fullan, M., & Quinn, J. (2016). Coherence: The right drivers in action for schools, districts, and systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Dwayne Chism is the Dean of the School of Education at Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska. He supports equity work at the local, state, and national levels and works to support the development of current and aspiring leaders of color across the United States. Chism previously served as a principal supervisor, principal, and teacher. In 2018, he founded Shifting Perspectives, LLC, to help schools navigate diversity to create equitable conditions for learning.

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