5 Questions K12 Leaders Should Ask Themselves to Advance Equity

An equity-focused education leader asks the tough questions that challenge and dismantle the systems and practices that don’t serve everyone at your school. These self-reflections can help initiate those conversations.
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Blog date
1/16/24
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As education leaders, you’re committed to the success of all students and you show this commitment in a variety of ways. You guide the development and implementation of a shared vision for learning—a vision that includes high expectations for every student. Part of this responsibility includes advocating for and increasing equity in your schools and districts. 

Educational leadership includes a responsibility to be what Dean of the University of Southern-California’s Rossier School of Education Pedro Noguera calls “guardians of equity.” This guardianship means asking the tough questions, challenging models that aren’t working, and calling out inequities, even when it’s uncomfortable—and even when that means challenging ourselves. 

This work calls for an even deeper dose of self-reflection. Building on our initial set of self-reflection questions, we’ve uncovered five additional questions educators can use to further strengthen their leadership practices around equity-focused leadership and accelerate student achievement. 

What is my “equity mindset?” 

To truly be equity-centered leaders requires a mindset shift. Author and educator Baruti Kafele says it best: to take equity past its buzzword status, the key is to truly go beyond “doing equity” to “being equity.” 

Author and educator Baruti Kafele says it best: to take equity past its buzzword status, the key is to truly go beyond “doing equity” to “being equity.”

Kafele goes on to explain that “being equity” requires constant self-reflection and internal examination of how educators interact with students—and how they seek to meet their learning and social needs not only where they are, but as they are. The key to doing that, he says, requires developing an “equity mindset.”

In Kafele’s words, an educator with an equity mindset is one who “considers the academic, social, and emotional needs of each learner in a student-centered, culturally-responsive, culturally-relevant, barrier-free” space. Within that space, he says there are three components to consider. While Kafele talks about these components through the lens of students, we’re adapting his principles in the context of your entire school community: 

  • Individuality: Are all members of your community visible? Kafele gives the example of students who might be physically present in the classroom, but don’t have “presence” because they don’t feel seen. 
  • Cultural identity: Is the cultural identity of all members of your community accentuated or denied? Families and staff come from and face different realities. They need reminders and acknowledgements of their own backgrounds in their school environments.
  • Voice: Are the individual voices of your community distinct or obscure? Are their perspectives, contributions, and communication styles valued? Are they able to find—and use—their own voices?

Think of your equity mindset as something you cultivate not only for yourself, but to help others in your schools and districts adopt as well. 

What does equity mean to our school or district in addition to achievement?

It can be easy to view equity through the lens of achievement. After all, achievement metrics are typically the indicators behind school improvement efforts. However, as author Linda Darling-Hammond notes, a one-dimensional focus on achievement scores can cause harm to equity work. True equity work is multi-dimensional, taking into consideration not only achievement but elements of identity, power, and access.

True equity work is multi-dimensional, taking into consideration not only achievement but elements of identity, power, and access.

To ensure educators are viewing equity through a variety of lenses, Darling-Hammond suggests education leaders ponder the following questions: 

  • How can our schools and districts ensure that what students learn appies to their real lives? How can we give students chances to use their cultural and linguistic resources and different ways of thinking in the pursuit of learning? 
  • How can our schools and districts ensure students have a voice in classroom discussions and curriculum contributions?
  • Do all of the students in our schools and districts have access to high-quality teachers, a rigorous curriculum, adequate classroom supplies and technology, appropriate classroom sizes, and extra support for the students who need it?

True educational equity exists at the intersection of not only achievement, but identity, power, and access. When that reality is adopted, it can further help education leaders in cultivating their equity mindset. 

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Am I continuing to recognize my own biases and assumptions? 

Think about your own perspective on equity as if it were an eyeglass prescription—it can be clear at first, but as time goes on, there are new ideas and ways of thought that get added in. Just like a prescription needs to be checked and changed on a regular basis to ensure clarity, so do your own biases and assumptions. (We all have them.)

Robert Feirsen and Seth Weitzman, authors of From Conflict to Collaboration: A School Leader’s Guide to Unleashing Conflict’s Problem-Solving Power, have a few suggestions on how to continually examine and overcome biases and advance more equitable outcomes: 

  • Take the time to study a problem. When you’re under stress or have a never-ending to-do list (sound familiar?), the brain takes shortcuts around its cognitive processes—that means less exploration, and as a result, more stereotyping. As principal, when you take the time to gather and study relevant information, it creates the conditions that are necessary for unrestrained thought.
  • Designate a “bias buster”: In your next team meeting or 1:1, assign a person the role of “bias buster.” This person’s responsibility is to probe the way of thinking in the room, asking questions like, “What might be the unintended consequences of thinking this way?” or “What are we not considering?” 

Gender, cultural background, lived experiences, and professional identity—these are the identities and aspects of our lives that provide an entry point for understanding how we view issues of equality and equity. Revisiting often is key, as our perceptions will always shift and evolve. 

Think about your own perspective on equity as if it were an eyeglass prescription—it can be clear at first, but as time goes on, there are new ideas and ways of thought that get added in.

How am I responding to the potential biases of others?

Helping others be aware of their own biases is another responsibility education leaders have. As you know, this can be tricky. Naming this publicly is much more likely to make people feel defensive or ostracized than it is to inspire them to change their behavior. 

One way to effectively respond to and name biases as they arise is to ask people to clarify or reconsider a comment they’ve made in a genuinely curious way. Here are a few options that you might use, courtesy of writer and speaker Stephen M.R. Covey. These can be changed depending on whether you’re talking to an adult within your community or a student:

  • “I’m not sure I understand. What do you mean by X?”
  • “How did you come to that conclusion about X?”
  • “I know you didn’t mean it this way, but some might find your comment hurtful.” 
  • “I realize that some people might be okay with that term, but I’m uncomfortable with it. Would you be open to using Y instead?”

These questions and statements give you an opportunity to name both biases that might come up in conversation, while also making your own feelings obvious. 

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What are the steps I’m taking to build trust within my school community? 

Equity work isn’t something that just happens. There are specific conditions required for it to occur; the most important being a culture of trust within your school community. And psychological safety—the shared knowledge and belief among your teachers, staff, parents, and students that it’s okay to express ideas and concerns and speak up with questions without fear of negative consequences—is a foundational element of creating that trust. 

Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor and author who coined “team psychological safety” says the term means “permission for candor.” When individuals within a school or district feel psychologically safe, they’re more likely to share their unique perspectives and lived experiences, call out prejudice, and actively contribute to creating a culture of belonging—all key aspects of trust.

When individuals within a school or district feel psychologically safe, they’re more likely to share their unique perspectives and lived experiences, call out prejudice, and actively contribute to creating a culture of belonging—all key aspects of trust.

As you’re thinking about how to build more trust in your school or district, ask yourself the following questions

  • How can I make it safe to not know? For some in your community, “not knowing” might pose a threat to their competency, so establishing a culture of learning can make it feel safe to admit that they may not know the answer right now—but are willing to find out.
  • How can I make it safe to need more? Your community will likely need more resources as they’re learning about equity—whether that’s more training, more learning, or more collaboration. You might not be able to fulfill every need, but making sure your community knows they can ask can build trust. 
  • How can I make it safe to question? Disagreeing or questioning often puts all eyes on the person doing it—which can make your community feel like they’re under a microscope. Giving permission to disagree and talk about the challenges as well as the opportunities can help to build a “speak-up” culture.
  • How can I make it safe to fail? Exploration around doing things differently takes time. Treating exploration and innovation like the steps to new solutions that they are—rather than a waste of time if ideas aren’t fully baked—gives your community more confidence to bring unfinished ideas to the table, knowing others will be able to build on them.

Giving your school community the opportunity to explore, make mistakes, disagree, and learn together will build collective confidence and foster professional learning—both of which help you get further faster with your equity work. 

Disrupting inequities means understanding our relationships to them

We know that advocating for equity often means disrupting many of the inequities that have been part of our K12 education systems for decades. And collectively as school leaders, we know we won’t be able to break down these barriers if we don’t continue to examine them—not only within ourselves, but our school community as a whole. 

Asking these kinds of tough questions is no doubt uncomfortable. But these are the questions that will lead to action—and action is what educational equity truly requires. For more on how to take action, read: Listening As a Catalyst for Advancing Educational Equity.

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