Equity-Focused Leadership: What Does it Look Like in Action?

Education leaders who are serious about equity are continuously learning and pushing themselves to grow into better, more effective change agents. Here are five equity-driven leadership actions to implement today.
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Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss

How do you know when you see equity-driven leadership in action? What does it look, feel, and sound like? When it comes to leading for change and moving towards a vision of greater racial justice and equity, there is no shortage of literature and professional development opportunities in education.

As a New Leaders alum and former school administrator of 11 years, I coach school leaders to advance equity and excellence in their schools. Working together, we identify and discuss evidence of how equity plays out in their day-to-day leadership actions. Our goal is to turn theory into practice.

School leaders who are serious about equity are continuously learning and pushing themselves to grow into better, more effective change agents. Here are five equity-driven leadership actions that I’ve seen work. You can implement them in your school today.

1. Promote a mindset in all members of their team that all children can learn at exceedingly high levels

An equity-focused leader intent on building mindsets goes beyond professing: "ALL children can learn." They collect and review lesson plans with an eye on historically underserved student populations, such as students in Special Education or those who are English Language Learners. Leaders who ensure lessons are aimed at supporting and reaching these groups know how critical it is that all lesson plans are not only based on core content standards, but reflect the intellectual depth that students deserve. Equity-focused leaders know that these populations need specialized instruction that address their unique needs as well as consistent and daily access to grade-level work that is engaging and meaningful.

2. Create an inclusive environment that allows all faculty, staff, parents, and students to feel safe, valued, cared for, and seen  

A school leader intent on reaching and connecting with the most historically underserved youth in their building work to redesign systems to ensure these students are connected to the school. One highly effective strategy is the “Wall of Names'' activity. It involves printing the full names of every child in the school and posting them on a wall at a staff meeting. Staff then cross off the names of students they can personally attest to knowing deeply. Whatever names are left uncrossed become the focus of conversation and next steps for connection.

Put simply? “It feels good to be heard” as New Leaders alum Daniela Anello shared about her school. They found a way to reach families through weekly personal phone calls, intentionally and explicitly including all staff, not just teachers, but also cafeteria workers and other often overlooked staff members.

3. Provide all students access to effective, high-quality curricula that are both academically rigorous and culturally responsive/relevant

A school leader intent on ensuring cultural responsiveness and relevance in the classroom knows their community deeply and models how to address the issues and events affecting their students. This might take the form of a thoughtful newsletter addressing the latest news headlines that continue to cast light on racism playing out in the community. Or in the opening remarks of a staff meeting that connects a recent trauma in the community to the urgency and heart of the agenda for professional learning and collaboration that day.

In the aftermath of the insurrection on the US Capitol, New Leaders Chief Program Officer Michele Caracappa recommends making these critical leadership moves a daily practice in schools.

4. Create systems and structures that equitably distribute resources

A school leader intent on equity relies on data to inform resource distribution. What do leaders do when a small group of parents shows up to demand separate gifted and talented classes for a select group of students? Equity-focused leaders start with student data and use this as a launching point to engage in dialogue that takes a critical look at the resources available, the kids being served, and how to ensure whatever outcome is decided upon matches the school-wide vision, values, and student need.

In an equitable school, the group with the loudest voices in the room and the most cultural capital doesn’t necessarily end up with the extra resources. Instead, they participate in a series of community meetings and processes with all stakeholder groups. And the school leader grounds the decisions that need to be made in student data, putting the most historically underserved students at the center of discussion.

5. Consider the impact of their decision-making and policies on historically marginalized groups

A school leader intent on prioritizing equity makes an effort to seek out the voices of traditionally underrepresented groups on decision-making bodies: from staff who are paid hourly and often not present in staff meetings to the parents working multiple jobs who are unable to attend evening events or accompany their children to morning drop off.

Equity-focused leaders make this a regular part of their decision-making practice. It might take the form of having the explicit norm in every meeting to “recognize and consider the voices of those who may not be in the room” and developing structures to shed light on and ensure proper representation of those voices. Phone banking and family surveys conducted by a trusted community member or staff are also useful tools for gathering multiple perspectives.

In summary

The above examples are just a small sample of the vast number of opportunities there are in a school leader’s day to embody equity-driven leadership and move towards greater racial justice in our school systems. Students, staff, and families are constantly watching and looking to school leadership to guide the way.  

When school leaders make equity an explicit and visible priority, it permeates throughout the school culture and offers a clear path forward towards hope, healing, and transformational results for the student learning experience.

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Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss

Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss

Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss is a New Leaders cohort 8 alum and has served as a school principal, assistant principal, and educator in the Bay Area for eighteen years. She now serves as a program director with New Leaders on the California team.

Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss

Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss

Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss

Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss

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