Equity Allies: How School Leaders Can Promote Equitable Educational Opportunities

By Jessica Rigby, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, College of Education, University of Washington–Seattle, and Lynda Tredway, Senior Associate, Institute for Educational Leadership, Dec 15, 2014

To address the continuing disparity in achievement outcomes between white students and their black and Latino counterparts, the U.S. Department of Education in July 2014 launched the Excellent Educators for All initiative, a response to recommendations of the Equity and Excellence Commission report (written by a collaboration of scholars, teachers, union leaders, state and local officials, and education reformers and advocates). The three equity-focused components of the initiative―educator equity plans, Educator Equity Support Network, and educator equity profiles—are aimed at ensuring that all students, regardless of race and family income, have access to excellent educators.

What this initiative means in practice for school leaders, who play an essential role in school improvement, is still undefined. But we decided to do some research on principals who are making equity a priority in their schools. In addition, we have written a book chapter titled “Actions Matter: How School Leaders Enact Equity Principles” in the upcoming Handbook of Urban Educational Leadership (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

To explore what equity looks like in practice, we analyzed 30 hours of videotape showing 10 principals’ daily work in one urban West Coast district. These principals specifically grounded their leadership actions in an equity framework to make good on a core value: moving toward a just and democratic society in which all students, regardless of race or family income, are given equitable opportunities for educational success. We call these principals “equity allies” because they pay attention on a daily basis to equity as a grounding principle.

We looked at the important components of infusing equity into leadership practices, and we encourage state leaders, district supervisors, and principals to consider these three recommendations to guide their work in placing equity at the center of school reform efforts:

  • Use explicit language about equitable outcomes in conversations and actions.
  • Communicate clear next steps for individuals involved in the equity actions.
  • Connect small “micro” issues to “macro” context, framing equity as a larger social issue.

From our research, we offer three examples to illustrate these recommendations.

Use Equity Language Intentionally. The principals we observed considered the role of equity in everyday situations and explicitly tied equitable outcome language to each situation. For example, in a parent meeting, a principal communicated to parents the importance of the school’s bilingual vision for all students, explaining how it helps all K–12 students’ access to college and career choices. She illustrated the point by organizing the parents in mixed-language groups to introduce each other.

Communicate Clear Next Steps and Expectations. The principals in our study considered what next steps would increase equitable outcomes and expressed detailed expectations about how everyday classroom scenarios could be turned into enhanced learning opportunities for all students. A quote from one principal talking with one of his teachers illustrates this expectation: “This may be a class with lower math skills, but in other classes I see you call on all of your students to answer questions. I would suggest you get in the habit of telling [students] to turn to a partner [to discuss a math problem] and see if that increases their opportunity to learn math.”

Translate “Micro” Issues to “Macro” Context. The principals in our study considered how equity could be framed as part of a larger social issue (rather than a one-time event), and they cast the issue in this larger context when communicating about it to staff. For example, a principal connected student placement to a larger conversation about the disproportionate percentage of African-American and Latino boys identified for special education. She said: “We see this is related [to special education], but we need to integrate that carefully because it is part of our larger focus on disproportionality. When we look at our identification for special education, we need to keep it clear that we are talking about something larger in terms of over-identifying our boys.”

What do these findings mean for education leaders and policymakers?

First, we need to move beyond the rhetoric of closing the achievement gaps and be very specific about what it means to work toward equitable school outcomes for all children. Second, our study illustrates clear and actionable ways to “enact equity” in leadership practice for principals and the supervisors who coach and evaluate them. In fact, we suggest that these practices should be embedded in the new draft ISLLC leadership standards as part of the descriptions of what it looks like to be an equitable school leader. (Note that these standards are currently in a review period before final revision later this year.) Finally, we challenge education leaders and policymakers to move beyond the typical “should do” language of leadership standards and guidelines. Instead, we urge them to be more specific about what equity looks like in practice when writing and implementing standards.


Now it’s your turn. We want to hear your thoughts:

  • How can education leaders be prepared and supported to systematically focus on equity outcomes?
  • How do education leaders in your district enact equity values to address goals for educational excellence?

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