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Wednesday / October 17

The Need for Culturally Courageous Leadership

In my work with school districts throughout the United States, I have found sincere, well-meaning efforts to provide educational services that facilitate equitable achievement by all students, especially those who are historically underserved. Too often, the results are spotty at best. Even when test scores, graduation rates, or classroom teaching dramatically improve, the gaps remain in most districts between the educational outcomes experienced by Black and Brown students compared to other student groups. In many districts, there are passionate and creative efforts being undertaken. There is a strong sense of urgency. Very long hours are being spent by educators at every level to “get it right.” But the gaps remain.

There are many factors that impact whether equitable learning opportunities occur, and in many districts there has been limited success when trying to change the district culture and structure to make them more responsive to diversity. Many school districts do a lot of “equity talk” in public pronouncements, policies, and equity/strategic plans. However, there is a continuing gap in educational outcomes, and not just test scores, between student groups. Many districts work hard, but not smart.

Most plans do not include statements on how equity work should be undertaken. Nevertheless, changes are needed in how people work together on equity at the district level.

Make It Personal    

What do you think school district leaders should be doing in order to improve the educational outcomes of historically underserved students?

District conditions impacting equity

There are three major variables impacting equity decisions at the district level:

  • The equity consciousness in the district, which includes awareness of, attitudes about, and responses to particular human differences that influence reactions to inequitable opportunities.
  • The politics of implementation, which includes the degree of trust, alliances, power relations, turf issues, and competing methods for correcting inequity. These factors all influence how decisions are made. The ‘politics’ impact communication and collaboration norms. ‘Sacred cows’ and ‘elephants on the ceiling’ related to equity initiatives are also products of the politics.
  • The school district structure determines assigned work and the interactions people have when doing their work. Structures are designed to influence behavior and work relationships. They include processes that influence whether, what, and how any equity issues receive attention.

These variables are interdependent and highly interactive. They influence each other. A district’s superintendent and executive cabinet members have the greatest influence on all three variables.

Popular equity initiatives are increasing the number of underserved students in AP or gifted classes, in after school academic support programs, and in courses required for meeting the qualifications to apply to four year colleges. However, not enough scrutiny is given to what happens in these programs, which may not be exemplars of culturally responsive instruction. Equity initiatives may be undertaken without adequate attention to the district’s equity consciousness, politics, and structure described above.

Make It Personal    

When thinking about the politics associated with trying to implement equity initiatives in your work environment, what are some ‘sacred cows’ no one wants to challenge, or ‘elephants on the ceiling’ everyone tries to ignore?

District scenarios reflecting district conditions

Henry is an area superintendent and most of the low performing schools he supervises are populated by low income second language learners. He doesn’t collaborate with district equity leaders, saying he wants to protect his staff from pressure to try integrating anything else into common core instruction, even though some principals in his area have asked for help on equity.

Catherine is a district director in charge of student advocacy, including equity, ethnic studies, LGBT, restorative justice, and race/human relations programs. She is trying to work collaboratively with her peers in charge of curriculum, professional development, and supervision of schools, so equity initiatives are considered when developing wrap around services for schools. She hasn’t been successful.

Aerieka is a district executive director in charge of district professional development for common core curriculum priorities. She feels all equity training should be under her instead of being a separate department. She doesn’t engage in joint work with district equity staff.

Ronald is an executive director of all common core subject matter programs, and feels that because of current pressures there is no longer a need for equity to be located in a separate department. Without input, he decides if and when to promote integration of equity priorities into curriculum and instruction.

Make It Personal    

How do the scenarios of Henry, Catherine, Aerieka, and Ronald remind you of any attitudes, concerns, and actions in your school district?

The Need for Culturally Courageous Leadership

Culturally Courageous Leadership (CCL) is a major means for improving the equity ‘walk.’ The focus is achieving systemic equity implementation through changes in district culture and structure. All district divisions are supported and held accountable for actions and outcomes consistent with equity values, goals, and objectives.

Culturally Courageous Leaders:

  • Take risks to raise consciousness about any cultural and structural racism impacting students
  • Influence others’ attitudes, values, principles, and behaviors related to the pursuit of equitable learning opportunities
  • Facilitate consensus on an equity vision of personal and organizational transformation needed
  • Orchestrate expansion of communication channels and ongoing feedback between persons
  • Expose and challenge attitudes, policies, structures, and practices that are barriers to equity
  • Educate, inspire, motivate, and empower others to become culturally courageous leaders
  • Mediate conflicts, build trust, and judiciously use leverage
  • Strengthen relationships and alliances through inclusive collaboration across human networks
  • Participate in non hierarchical joint work with colleagues to plan and foster systemic implementation of equity initiatives
  • Develop and use performance based criteria, i.e. qualitative metrics, to improve accountability of all programs and persons re initiatives to achieve equitable learning opportunities and outcomes

In addition to the above characteristics, culturally courageous leaders proactively share information about how their racial/cultural background has influenced their identity, equity lens, and commitment to equity.

Make It Personal    

As described above, in what ways are you a culturally courageous leader? Why do you think systemic implementation of equity should be or not be a major priority in school districts?

Tips for Success in Equity Initiatives

My experience is that the very nature of culturally courageous leadership requires readiness for misrepresentation and purposeful attempts to destroy the credibility of equity initiatives and leaders trying to achieve them. Here are tips for minimizing obstacles and enhancing success.

  • Make sure you know the district conditions impacting equity before taking any public actions related to achieving equity.
  • Define your core values and how they will affect others. Don’t make untested assumptions, develop relationships, and take the pulse of opinion makers who can greatly influence the reaction to and support of your leadership efforts. Your communication network is very important, and should include your potential adversaries.
  • Don’t attempt to take on too much when you go public; successful attempts at small changes will increase the likelihood of later success on larger changes sought. You cannot be a lone ranger trying to do it all by yourself. CCL is a collective undertaking that requires constant dialogue.
  • Consider phasing in and/or piloting your equity strategies before you go “whole hog.” Establish feedback loops to keep you constantly informed and responsive to the perception of your efforts.
  • Study the complexities associated with changes you seek. Do your research on what you are attempting to do, such as change in communication and problem solving norms, and what efforts have been attempted in the past. CCL must be customized to your specific context. You may make mistakes, but can recover more easily when you have contingency plans if initial plans don’t work.
  • Practice balance between requiring changes in work relationships to support systemic equity and allowing complete discretion of individuals to decide how to proceed.
  • Don’t demonstrate disrespect for those who resist your equity agenda; it could compromise your credibility because you will be seen as not practicing the attitudes and behaviors being promoted.

Everyone may want to sound and look good re their commitment to equity, but not be willing to provide  Culturally Courageous Leadership. For desired outcomes to be achieved, district leaders may need  to   strengthen their leadership savvy before trying to implement changes in district functioning.  Using performance based criteria and providing performance feedback on equity work are two district conditions urgently needed.

So, how are you doing in ‘walking’ your equity ‘talk?’

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Written by

Dr. John Robert Browne II, a former administrator at both county and school district levels, and university lecturer, is CEO and executive coach for Third Millennium Enterprises. He specializes in providing consultation, coaching, and training for the development of culturally courageous systems and leadership for equity. His book, Walking the Equity Talk: A Guide for Culturally Courageous Leadership in School Communities, was published in June of 2012.

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Latest comments

  • Another thought, you might want to use the characteristics of culturally courageous leaders in my post to determine whether you are trying to play that kind of role. Other assessments for personal use are in my book.

  • There are some districts and schools around the nation where some degree of culturally courageous leadership is practiced, as defined in the blog, but not nearly enough when it comes to such needed initiatives as in-depth joint work at the district level on equity, use of performance based rubrics for feedback and coaching, and dealing with any sacred cows and elephants on the ceiling that may exist, such as funding, curriculum content,scheduling practices, and use of time.

  • I ask myself, where are those courageous leaders now. Must I look for them even now; 2016. I must not only look for them, I must be one of them.

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