5 keys to equity leadership for today’s K12 decision-makers

Equity in education is every school and district leader’s job. Yet, too often definitions are buzzy and lack practical application.
JuDonn DeShields
JuDonn DeShieldshttps://www.powermylearning.org/
JuDonn DeShields is the chief program and strategy officer at the national education nonprofit PowerMyLearning. He has worked as a teacher, principal and district leader within the Washington, D.C. area.

The work of equity leadership is to ensure that race and socioeconomic status are not predictive of a student’s success in life. A leader I admire says, “Absent equity work, it is too easy to predict a young person’s life trajectory and outcomes based on their skin color or zip code in which they were raised.”

Equity in education is every school and district leader’s job. Yet, too often definitions are buzzy and lack practical application. If we struggle to define equity, how then can we operationalize it, especially as leaders?

As a former educator, principal, district leader, and now program officer with the nonprofit PowerMyLearning, I’ve experienced many seats at the table when it comes to equity leadership. Here are five equity-driven actions I’ve seen work to define equity and contextualize it within the realm of school leadership.

1. Define equity by identifying inequity

Leaders often struggle to define equity beyond “giving students what they need to succeed.” It may sound contradictory, but an equity leader is adept at identifying examples of inequity in their community. Doing so allows leaders and their teams to co-create specific strategies to dismantle these inequities and reverse their impact on student success.

School-level outcomes, broken down by student subgroups, are a powerful starting point. Equity leaders know and own their school’s most alarming data points. They can not only articulate which student groups are in the most urgent need but also the school-wide strategies in place to support them.

Examples of sub-group data points to consider:

  • College-going and persistence rates
  • Students enrolled in AP and Honors courses
  • Chronic absenteeism
  • Reading proficiency in the early grades
  • Standardized test performance
  • Graduation rates
  • Suspension rates

Starting from square one can be daunting. Working with an external organization with expertise in equity audits can be worthwhile for districts needing direction.

2. Co-create your ‘why’ with your community

At its core, equity leadership is in direct opposition to the status quo, requiring significant courage and capacity to create change. All too often, the broader community is excluded from the process of defining and participating in equity work. This is more than a missed opportunity; communities beyond the four walls of schools and district offices must shape and carry the water of equity work.

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To develop a clear understanding of who students are and what they need in the classroom, leaders need to first listen. Go into the community to conduct listening tours and empathy interviews. Home visits, while usually conducted by teachers and social workers, are incredibly illuminating for principals and district leaders, too. Being present with the community, in the community, ensures that leaders tap into the vast cultural capital necessary to capture the hopes, dreams, needs and priorities of the communities and students they serve.

Beyond listening and implementing feedback, equity leaders think critically about how to involve community stakeholders in the process of both creating and enacting equity strategy. For far too long, people—especially folks of color—have been disempowered because they haven’t been included.

When a community is denied a seat at the table, we create inequity in real time. Equity leaders communicate, “If we’re going to do this, you have to be at the table with us. You have to have a voice and you have to be meaningfully included in the work.” While it might slow the process, an inclusive approach to equity work ensures that it goes further and deeper.

3. Ensure cohesion and coherence

The promises of deep equity work demand one band, one sound. While there are multiple layers of leadership working toward closing equity gaps, leaders ensure that their efforts are working in concert for maximum impact.

Where disparities exist between Black and brown students and their white peers, equity leaders mobilize their teams around the “why” to identify root causes and what’s in the locus of control for the school community to address.

Equity is not the work of one individual nor is it a singular initiative. Strategies should stretch from family engagement to curriculum design to mentorship and how schools handle student conduct. While targeting specific outcomes, equity work is holistic and attends to the entirety of the student experience.

4. Create a system of collective ownership

Equity work doesn’t happen overnight. It also doesn’t happen with one team or department. At the school level, if you’ve designed a strategy to increase reading proficiency for Black boys in grades K-2, what is the responsibility of the parent, teacher, instructional coach, and principal in actualizing this goal? How do your collective efforts complement individual actions to ensure a deeper level of impact over time?

Without collective ownership, equity strategy is relegated to minimally impactful initiatives serving as a Band-Aid for much deeper-rooted and far-reaching problems.

The same is true at the organizational level. Increasingly, school districts are moving away from a singular office of equity to an approach that uses an equity framework or policy to delineate specific commitments across the organization. Equity work has to live and breathe in curriculum and instruction, food service, and, most especially, in the superintendent’s cabinet.

5. Strengthen your sustainability

The good news is that there is funding available to help with equity advancement in the classroom. Districts just need to know how to find it. Many districts source grants at the organizational philanthropic level. One example is the Wallace Foundation, now working on an equity-centered principal pipeline initiative.

District leaders can consult the U.S. Department of Education Equity Action Plan, but it takes time and energy to chase down these grants and steward them. It’s more than finding funding: it’s finding funding that aligns with your strategy. Finding and winning large philanthropic grants is competitive but as with equity work itself, it’s absolutely worth the effort.

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