Our work with partner districts and schools over the past three decades has confirmed that it is not a lack of intention that prevents us advancing equity. Almost everyone we have met along the way wants to make a difference in the lives of children. They don’t always agree on the how, but most often their espoused intention is the same.
But misalignments between our intentions and our systems leads to failure as we try to address systemic racism and implicit biases. Like, for example, when we launch an initiative, program, or instructional approach but fail to provide adequate time to prepare adults or determine levels of readiness. The systems we have are perfectly designed to get the results we are getting. We fail when our systems are not aligned to our purpose.
The past two years of the pandemic have uncovered major system failures. While most of our attention has been focused on rethinking our operational systems — like going from almost 100 percent in-classroom instruction to 100 percent remote instruction overnight — our systems designed to advance equity; support students, adults, and families; develop leaders; and, most importantly, improve teaching and learning have been shown to be ineffective, or just plain broken. Everyone — adults, students inside schools, and families and communities — are tired, and just trying to get through the school year. Many have serious concerns about the future.
Our systems need rebuilding. And, here is the good news. In the next year, if we start now, we have the opportunity to rebuild our systems — to start over. We had the resilience to persevere in the face a global pandemic. We can make our systems work for us if we design them to advance an equity agenda for all of our students, and we commit to our agenda over time.
In Equity Warriors: Creating Schools that Students Deserve, we share research and experienced-based strategies, protocols, processes, and other specific actions that district and school leaders use to address challenges within existing systems.
But how do you begin? Here is our answer: Reach agreement on the equity agenda that is right for your community.
Having an equity agenda means sharing a clear vision of what equity means to your community and developing a set of strategies to achieve the vision based on readiness and preparedness.
Begin by inviting a cross-section of people from the community to share what equity means to them. Some say that equity is access to opportunities such as rigorous teaching and learning. Others say equity is increasing funding and resources for students who need more support services. Some say it is having grassy playgrounds or classrooms within permanent structures rather than portables. Rather than judging people, use their responses to define the equity agenda and begin to evaluate their readiness for change.
For example, we might think that families, administrators, and teachers who see equity as having grassy playgrounds are missing the point. They are not. The state of school facilities is a highly visible way districts and schools demonstrate that they value students and the educators who serve them. Facilities send a message.
Until we ask the question and sift through the responses, we can’t be certain that our vision and our strategies are on the right track. Communities will reject well-intentioned vision statements — and the messengers — if they are disconnected from the perceived realities.
Readiness and preparedness are different. Educators might be ready to tackle a challenge, and, depending on its complexity, that might be enough to guarantee success. Still, we have learned the hard lesson that advancing equity requires us to have the tools to prepare others who may not be ready yet.
Follow up the first step by creating a “guiding coalition” of key partners and influencers, including students. The coalition will:
- Deepen understanding of the system’s strengths and obstacles by selecting and reviewing data that tell the story of student experience;
- Name the problem to be solved and strategic opportunity gaps;
- Define the equity outcome that is clear, sensible to the head and appealing to the heart; and
- Name metrics as part of your definition that measure progress toward your outcome.
Effective equity agendas are specific to the context — including the student population, community expectations, and climate. Engaging others in collecting and analyzing data and defining the equity agenda helps deepen understandings, creates buy-in, and generates alternative strategies. A guiding coalition assembles ambassadors who will carry the message to key constituencies even as its members are helping you craft effective strategies for moving forward. Successful solutions balance the right amount of aspiration with what is possible in the short-term. Long-term success depends on creating buy-in around a vision and strategies.