Courageous State Leadership for Educational Equity – Daunting, but Necessary

This is part one of a three-part blog series about the “Promoting Deeper Learning through Equity, Diversity, and Personalized Learning” Study Tour to Oakland, California. Click here for part two and three.

Loretta Goodwin, AYPF Senior Director

Equity in education does not just happen automatically. That was a key message I heard over and over again from various people on AYPF’s recent study tour, focused on Deeper Learning and equity, to Oakland, CA. As we listened to presenters, trip participants, and school staff, I realized that we need to become much more explicit about embedding equity into all our work in schools.

What is needed to ensure equitable practices in schools? While acknowledging that this work needs to happen at many and varied levels, I am going to focus on the state level.

I fully agree with Glen Price, Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction at the California Department of Education, who emphasized that what is vital is courageous leadership. A necessary first step is realizing that there is a problem with the way we have been serving (or not serving) all students. Glen stated that it was important for him and his team to realize that “what we had been doing had not been getting to equity goals.” One way they strove to correct this was to tackle state policy around funding education, particularly for disadvantaged student populations. Recently the state has shifted to a Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). The passage of this landmark legislation, adopted in 2013, shifts California from a complex school finance system to one focused on equity, transparency, and performance through the LCFF and related Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). The changes represent a major shift in how California funds local educational agency (LEAs). Under the new funding system, most state categorical programs are eliminated. Instead, LEAs will receive funding based on the demographic profile of the students they serve and will be expected to meet enhanced accountability requirements.

Although there remains a long way to go, there is now a clear and explicit focus via LCFF on ensuring support for economically disadvantaged, English Learner, and foster youth – all in keeping with the state’s equity vision. On the accountability front, the state has developed the California School Dashboard to track continuous improvement. To ensure a deliberate focus on equity, an equity report is incorporated at the top level of that dashboard. To create a culture of continuous improvement for all districts and schools, the CA Department of Education is ensuring that staff members are engaged and taking ownership of this focus – from the executive team, to the leadership team and more. This part is critical because, as Glen noted, “we can have the best ideas, but if we can’t engage people, we won’t get anywhere.”

Engaging people in discussions about equity is challenging. Scott Jones, the Special Assistant to the State Superintendent at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, shared how they are addressing this important issue. They have an equity and ESSA council, and have required equity training for all their staff. The topics they are focusing on include color blindness, privilege, micro-aggressions, etc. They also have voluntary training, inviting people to learn about LGBT youth, or social justice. Utilizing Glen Singleton’s book, Courageous Conversations about Race, they are learning how to have difficult conversations about race in a state department that is predominantly white. Additionally, the state department has recently started recruiting people of color.  As they make policy, they are using a policy analysis tool that requires them to ask what the policy will do for ALL students. Admittedly, for some staff this work is very scary, and some do not see the relevance of this equity focus to their day-to-day tasks. As Scott summarized their current work, he noted that they are “flexing the equity muscle, and working to build it every day.” Over the past year, this topic has become a more daily part of their conversation, and now they are ready to conduct an equity scan, examining how equity is being addressed in all their departments.

Creating and supporting courageous leaders for equity is no simple task. We have to constantly be asking how we can ensure that we have the right people as leaders in both our schools and state agencies. How do we bring different people into the pipeline, and develop them as leaders? How do we nurture advocates of rethinking teacher credentialing, and developing teacher leaders who can facilitate student learning and have high expectations of all students? How can we support leaders who challenge providing schools with funding based on seat time, and seek to change that funding formula?  How can we recognize that we need to talk about implicit bias and the use of trauma-informed practices alongside a focus on content and transferable skills? How can we challenge the provision of deeper learning-like projects primarily for students in Gifted and Talented programs, but not for other students?

While addressing equity takes courage and persistence, states are being assisted in their efforts by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Their recent paper, Leading for Equity: Opportunities for State Education Chiefs, sets out 10 commitments to help state education chiefs take action to promote equity in education for all students. The commitments start with prioritizing equity through setting the vision and targets.

What we saw on this study tour were schools addressing equity issues head on – but the challenge remains that only a fraction of students have access to these kinds of schools. How do we make equity more systemic, providing all students with access to equitable learning environments and systems of support? How can we help state agencies see that they need to prioritize equitable education? The heavy lift will require courageous leaders to step forward and take on this important work. It will require a very intentional focus by every educator to systematize an equitable learning environment for all students. It will require those who care deeply about equitable education to make their voices heard by state leaders. In closing, I leave you with this challenge, paraphrasing one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:

What are you doing with your one wild and precious life to advance equity?


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.