Leaders must ask if their vision of student success reflects what Black and Latinx families say is most important.

  • Originally published in Education Weekly by Jennifer Cheatham & John B. Diamond — May 10, 2021
  • This is the second of three essays by Diamond and Cheatham about leading for racial justice.

Jennifer Cheatham & John B. Diamond

Jennifer Cheatham is a senior lecturer on education and the co-chair of the Public Education Leadership Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a former superintendent of the Madison school district in Wisconsin. John B. Diamond is the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education and a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. A sociologist, he studies the relationship between social inequality and educational opportunity.

School district leaders committed to leading for racial equity are manifesting their commitment in observable and potentially powerful ways, but these efforts risk superficiality.

To use a construct that is likely familiar, educators might think about the work unfolding across each of Lee G. Bolman and Terrence F. Deal’s Four Frames of Leadership: structural, human resources, political, and symbolic. District leaders are making structural changes by establishing cabinet-level, equity-related positions and equity offices. They are investing in human resources by training district employees on understanding implicit bias and systemic racism. District leaders and their school boards are taking advantage of new political windows of opportunity by examining third-rail issues that affect Black and Latinx students disproportionately, like school safety policies, including the role of police in schools. We also see district leaders making strong symbolic statements in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives and most recently against Asian hate.

We want to highlight something less visible, beyond initiatives, political moves, and public statements. We want to talk about the ways of working necessary to create organizational cultures that root out racism and dismantle white supremacy (meaning white control of power and resources and beliefs in white superiority and entitlement), focusing on how district leaders define success, make decisions, and learn. For every district that declares that it is becoming an anti-racist organization, the daily habits and routines that define it will determine whether that is true.

These observations are born out of our own evolution as leaders. We have both spent much of our careers honing our ideas about continuous improvement and collaborative inquiry through research and practice alike. While we are certain that disciplined organizational routines are essential for progress, we can see now that the goal setting, the decisionmaking, and the action that comes from structured inquiry are constrained by the white-supremacist culture in which they are situated. Without a more explicit focus on deconstructing the ways of working that reinforce systemic racism, we believe the routines we have preached will continue to produce the same inadequate problem definitions and the same inadequate solutions, keeping us stuck in a cycle that reproduces racism and outcomes that fall along racial lines. Even when some of the outcomes are positive, the results are incremental at best.

For every district that declares that it is becoming an anti-racist organization, the daily habits and routines that define it will determine whether that is true.

Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that our ways of working and learning need to be anchored to a more robust definition of success that moves far beyond vows to narrow and close opportunity gaps. Our definitions of success have been too shallow in their understanding of culturally responsive teaching and untethered from what matters most to Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students and families. As a result, our related goals have too often been dismissive of students’ need for belonging and healthy identity development and aloof to necessities like access to technology, historically accurate and representative curricula, and teachers who match the race and culture of their students. School districts must define success with the community they serve, not for them, and align that vision to a broader set of goals to which they can hold themselves accountable. The vision and goals matter because all our related routines hinge upon them.

We have also learned that the ways we create policy, enact procedure, and make daily decisions must continuously be interrogated with an anti-racist lens. To be sure, more districts have begun to adopt equity policies that institutionalize a set of critical questions that must be asked by board members and administrators when making major decisions, but these practices need to be much more widespread. In their book, Anti-Racist Educational Leadership and Policy, Sarah Diem and Anjalé D. Welton argue that “in order to confront … racist policies systemically, educational leaders need to be willing to dismantle the racist ideologies, structures, and processes linked to these policies.”

Diem and Welton provide a step-by-step protocol for decisionmaking that can guide our cycles of review and reflection. Most important, new routines for policymaking and decisionmaking must ensure that the lived experiences and perspectives of the students and parents directly affected by these practices inform them. We need careful, methodical work to dismantle the structures of white supremacy and more robustly define success.

In the Madison, Wis., school district, for example, during Jen’s tenure as superintendent, the leadership team knew that we would not be able to reach our vision and goals for a racially just district without overhauling our human-resources policies, practices, and decisionmaking criteria. So we reviewed the HR department’s daily operations from top to bottom, starting with recruitment, screening, and selection of new employees. At the same time, we worked with collaborative design teams from the University of Wisconsin and the district to build a partnership called Forward Madison, which emphasized professional learning at key career stages, like new teacher and principal induction, mentoring, and instructional coaching. These teams helped redesign taken-for-granted practices in ways that foregrounded racial justice at every stage. Even more important, our ongoing cycles of reflection, which centered the voices of educators of color themselves, pointed to critical missing pieces. While we had some success in hiring more Black and Latinx teachers and administrators, for example, we realized that more energy needed to be placed on these teachers’ well-being, belonging, and agency to facilitate their retention.

To serve our students, our disciplined approaches to continuous improvement and organizational learning must be reimagined with a focus on uprooting racism. We cannot do this work halfway or piecemeal. Only expansive visioning, anti-racist decision-making, and new learning will allow us to follow through on our stated commitments to racial justice.