As more school districts engage in equity-focused professional learning, we are unsurprisingly seeing some tension and pushback as their teams grapple with this work.
Anti-bias efforts are painful, emotional, and complicated because they are about changing mindsets and behaviors. They are about realizing how deeply each of our backgrounds and life experiences color our perceptions of each other, particularly of those who have been historically marginalized — people of color, low-income families, immigrants, English language learners, students with disabilities. They are about understanding how those perceptions shape our beliefs and our actions. They are about reflecting on disparities like why, as research has found, white teachers at times hold their Black students to lower expectations than their white students, or why students living in poverty are more likely to drop out of high school than wealthier students.
Effective anti-bias professional learning makes a difference for educators and students. A critical first step is self-reflection. When we examine our deepest truths and learn to notice those misconceptions, we can begin to catch ourselves in the act of having a bias and work to think and act differently. We can then lean on our reflections to speak out about bias and work with our teams to determine what needs to be done to dismantle harmful systems and structures. As anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo, a white woman, has said, real change happens when white people change their understanding of what it means to be racist, when they realize they are part of a larger system of racism, and then “act on that understanding.”
This work is not technical—the problems and their solutions are not immediately clear. Equity work involves adaptive challenges that require intentional learning, dedicated time, a tremendous cultural shift, hard work, and uncomfortable emotions.
Given this discomfort, it is unsurprising that tension and pushback have arisen from anti-bias, equity-focused work in school systems across the country.
I have seen white educators feel crushed, lost, confused, and isolated by the realization that they take for granted the ways that being white privileges them at the expense of people of color. White educators who have gone through anti-bias professional learning tell me how hard it was to hear from their colleagues of color the daily challenges and insults they face purely because of the color of their skin – the lessons they must teach their black and Latinx sons about how to interact with police officers; of being followed by a security guard while shopping; of being presumed to be a secretary rather than a superintendent when showing up for a meeting.
Meanwhile, in equity-focused learning, people of color at times feel silenced, invisible, or weary at the unmasking of biases, stereotypes, and misunderstandings about their experiences, researcher Derald Wing Sue has found. I have seen that firsthand.
Equity work requires courage and stamina. “When you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear—their daily habits, tools, loyalties and ways of thinking,” wrote researchers Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky. But if we no longer can live with the fact that students of color are disproportionately less likely than their white peers to have effective teachers and to graduate from high school in four years, to name just two of the many inequities plaguing our schools, then we must do this work.
The tensions that have arisen and will continue to arise in districts across the nation need to be appropriately addressed with clarity and transparency, but they cannot be allowed to detract from the long-term vision of an equitable education for every child.
Our school systems must continue their steady drumbeat of addressing disparities in a range of ways and levels of readiness without running from the critical need to take action.
System leaders who adopt the following research-based NYC Leadership Academy equity leadership dispositions can transform their systems over time.
Disposition 1: Reflect on personal assumptions, beliefs and behaviors
Disposition 2: Publicly model a personal belief system that is student centered and grounded in equity
Disposition 3: Act with cultural competence and responsiveness in interactions, decision-making and practice
Disposition 4: Confront and alter institutional biases of student marginalization, deficit-based school, and low expectations associated with race
Disposition 5: Create systems and structures to promote equity with a focus on race
Getting through these five levels is not easy. In fact, I hear time and again that leaders and teams get stuck in the first disposition, staying in reflection mode and not moving to action. It is when we act that the work is hardest to swallow — because it means change.
While districts leading equity work inevitably encounter challenges, we have seen districts do a remarkable job of pushing past those first couple of dispositions. They have used their equity learning to challenge the status quo and begin to make systemic change – such as by examining how students are accepted to Advanced Placement classes or how students are assigned to schools. This is how you make sustainable change that will persist long after a district superintendent’s tenure ends.
This is how you stop systematically forcing another generation of children of color to fight an uphill battle for access to the education they need and deserve to excel.
Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.
President & CEO
Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & CEO of The Leadership Academy. Nancy joined The Leadership Academy in 2014 and has served as National Leadership Designer and Facilitator, Vice President of District Leadership, and Chief Strategy Officer. She was named President & CEO in July 2018 and continues to serve as an executive leadership coach and facilitator for school systems across the country. She was a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow, and in February 2020 was named among the 100 most powerful education leaders in New York by City & State New York. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker for local and national education organizations and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership and equity for national publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, and Hechinger Report.
Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy also led the successful effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school. She was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrator’s Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. Prior to her tenure with The Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification.
Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program and is a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy. She served on the national board of the Coalition of Essential Schools for more than a decade. She is an instructor at NYU and frequently teaches at the Harvard Principals’ Center institutes for School Turnaround Leaders, Urban School Leaders, and Race, Equity, Access, and Leadership. Nancy is a member of the Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) Board of Directors and serves on the Latinos for Education teaching team.