Voices in Education

Moving Beyond Conversations: Why School Equity Focus Must Begin with Systems and Leadership
Imagine for a moment that components of education were parts of a car. If the body of the car represented the schools, and the wheels of the car represent the curriculum, then certainly, the engine of the car would represent teachers, and the driver of the car would be a school leader! In schools across the U.S. and other countries, I have encountered highly motivated and highly qualified teachers who want to achieve school equity and cultural responsiveness, and who truly wish to help the most underserved students in their classroom. How troubling would it be if teachers wished to become more equitable and culturally responsive but were hampered because there is no clear-cut equity vision and plan that is endorsed by district and school leaders?

Educational leaders cannot do this alone, and must deeply rely on voices, perceptions, and cultural intuitiveness and sensibilities of student, parents and the communities they serve. In fact, all stakeholders—school leaders, teachers, community members, and students—should contribute to this vision, and to processes and systems in a school. This stakeholder involvement should be representative, and should rotate across the most vocal and the hardest-to-reach stakeholders from each group. Leading schools through this representative stakeholder involvement and community engagement should be at the center of school leadership!

While conversations and personal narratives about race and equity are important, equity work hardly ends there. School leaders must learn how to shift systems and resources in their organizations to match their equity visions. Equity and cultural responsiveness should never be thought of as static or attainable, but rather as a shifting, dynamic series of processes that should always be sought; the goals and vision are merely a guide and fixture around which the conversations can occur. In fact, equitable and culturally responsive school leadership must move far beyond leading critical self-reflection, and into other leadership behaviors; in my new book, Culturally Responsive School Leadership (2018), I argue that it must encompass community engagement, instructional leadership of curriculum and instruction, and affirmation of student identity in a positive school culture and climate.

In my earlier research with Drs. Gooden and Davis, we found that the scholarship on culturally responsive school leadership can be summarized into four core areas as summarized here. I expounded on these all of these areas in my newest book, Culturally Responsive School Leadership, but one central theme runs throughout: the role of community knowledges, experiences, perceptions, and intuitiveness in promoting cultural responsiveness. It is this reliance on the community genius that allows for equity to truly take place in schools. Not enough can be said about the role of community—persons, resources, experiential knowledge, perceptions, cultural intuitiveness and sensibilities, and the leadership of students, parents and community members should not only be welcomed in school, but they should be at the center of school reform. This book looks at how school administrators can lead this process.

Below are a few of the ways school leaders can partner with communities to improve cultural responsiveness that I offer in my recent book. I show that leaders of schools—in partnership with families and communities—must also be the leaders of equity:
  1. Find out what is important to the community. Become involved with and advocate for these values even if they are not related to ‘school’ (Do not attempt to lead the effort; instead, follow the community).
  2. Use school resources to enable community members to have a constant presence in your school.
  3. Use school resources to facilitate a non-disruptive presence of teachers and staff in the community.
  4. Take an active anti-racist and anti-oppressive stance, particularly on issues relevant to your students’ community.
  5. Be honest with students and families about how you (e.g., leaders, teachers, the school) have been complicit in oppression, and convey to them how you are trying to become better. Ask for their help.
  6. Find ways to have a representative community voice; do not engage exclusively with the most vocal, visible, or engaged parents, or the most representative minoritized communities. This will take work and new strategies.
  7. Publicize and visualize how you have listened to student and community perspectives, and how you have included these perspectives school policy as well as classroom pedagogy and curricula 
—Ch. 6 of Culturally Responsive School Leadership (2018)

To return to my earlier analogy, if the driver of the car is the school leader, and the car is the school, then certainly the road holding the car is the community! In order for us community folks to thrive, we need reliable, culturally responsive schools. But in order for us educators to be culturally responsive and equitable, we really need the insights and co-leadership of ‘representative’ members of the communities we serve!
Khalifa, M. (2018). Culturally Responsive School Leadership. Harvard Education Press: Cambridge, MA.
Khalifa, M. A., Gooden, M. A., & Davis, J. E. (2016). Culturally responsive school leadership: A synthesis of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 1272-1311.

About the Author: Muhammad Khalifa is the Beck Chair of Ideas in Education at the University of Minnesota. He is author of Culturally Responsive School Leadership (Harvard Education Press, 2018) and is President and CEO of the Culturally Responsive School Leadership Institute (crsli.org).