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It’s not enough to be passionate about social justice. School leaders can’t make positive change unless they know how school systems really work.

By Joshua P. Starr

I recently attended a meeting with about 40 people involved in K-12 public education at multiple levels: academics, state and district leaders, heads of nonprofit and advocacy groups, CEOs of education start-ups, and others. One very well-regarded professor from a prestigious university gave a presentation about an approach to teaching school administrators how to lead with an equity lens. This professor has an excellent body of research on race and equity issues in education, a powerful public voice on the issue, and the backing of major funders and a university. What the professor lacks, however, is an intimate, insider’s understanding of how school systems actually work. And in fact, anybody who has spent significant amounts of time in school- or district-level administration could give you a handful of reasons why the professor’s approach would be impossible to implement as planned. For instance, the professor made various suggestions for training principals but never considered the importance of having leadership standards, creating a contract and evaluation process commensurate with the equity training, or defining the role of principal supervisors in ensuring that the newly trained principals are enacting what they’ve learned.

I applaud the professor’s intentions and the desire to focus the work of school leadership on the promotion of equity. But intentions and desires are no substitute for a clear-eyed understanding about how school systems function. To have any real effect at the local level, it’s not enough to be committed to social justice; you have to know how and why the system operates as it does and exactly how some interests win out over others. And I want to be clear that while the above example is about an outside partner, there are many who interact more closely with the system, such as funding authorities and school board members, who suffer the same ignorance.

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Let’s look at some concrete examples of how school systems protect privilege, starting with who gets to make decisions.

Throughout the country, elected school boards set policies and budgets that affect public school students. (Some systems have mayoral control or elected boards, but they’re few and far between.) So what does it take to become a school board member? First, you need time to attend meetings. When I was superintendent in Stamford, Conn., we had committee meetings multiple nights a week in addition to full board meetings a few times per month. This was convenient for board members who didn’t work or who worked a regular 9-5 schedule and could attend meetings after finishing their day jobs. But for people who worked anything other than 9-5, or who were single parents, or who had trouble finding reliable childcare, this meant board membership was more or less out of the question. According to the most recent Kids Count report, 35% of children live in single-parent families, and 29% of children live in households where the parents don’t have secure employment. In other words, for significant numbers of public school parents — those whose children are most likely to need strong supports and services from their school system — board membership is unlikely to be a realistic option.

To have any real effect at the local level, school leaders must know how and why the system operates as it does and exactly how some interests win out over others.

Further, in many districts, running for school board requires money and a social network, and the seat often serves as a stepping-stone for those who have the resources and ambition to run for higher office. Also, the outsized influence of the teachers’ union in many local school board races requires a candidate to be a known and acceptable quantity to a powerful and trusted voting block. Increasingly, too, school board races have attracted attention and funding from political organizations, such as the prounion and procharter school groups that made the recent Los Angeles school board election the most expensive in history. Thus, the best supported and most well-funded candidates may be handpicked political operatives, leaving ordinary parents and community members hard-pressed to compete.

Lacking representation on the school board, only the most well-connected of those parents and community members are likely to have much influence when it comes time, for example, to redraw school attendance zones, decide where to locate new schools, pass the annual budget, or allocate funds to school sports programs. Or consider an issue that came up in my own experience as a superintendent: An incredibly vocal, wealthy, and influential minority of largely white parents organized to push for a later start time for middle and high school students. I agreed that it might be a worthwhile change, so I commissioned a cost analysis of the proposal, which revealed that it would add at least $25 million to our annual operating budget. However, we had been flat-funded by the county council for a number of years, and I couldn’t see a way to come up with that kind of money. Plus, we were facing a myriad of other pressing demands, including the need to support an increasing population of vulnerable students and to train teachers to meet rising academic standards. In sum, while I agreed that the later start time would be beneficial, I concluded that it wasn’t an urgent enough priority to pursue, given the cost. Over the subsequent months, though, this group of parents flexed its political muscle and eventually pressured the school board to overrule my decision and make some shifts to the school schedule. To this day, few other members of the community are satisfied with the change, but that’s how it goes — the people who write the rules tend to be the people with the most power.

Assigning teachers    

When it comes to matters of equity and privilege in the public schools, few issues are more symbolic of the challenge than fights over teacher assignments. Historically (and as researchers from Stanford University recently documented in one city, echoing findings from many previous studies), school systems have tended to assign teachers with the least experience to work with the students who need the most help, while assigning the most well-regarded veterans to work with the strongest students. On numerous occasions, equity-minded principals have challenged this norm, arguing that they should have some authority to make their own decisions about teacher placements. Inevitably, though, those principals find themselves buffeted by a mix of pressures, both from within the school and from without.

For example, consider the struggle that’s likely to follow if a school’s most experienced and renowned high school English teachers — who have always taught Advanced Placement and honors classes to juniors and seniors — are reassigned to teach grade-level English to 9th graders. The parents of the students in the upper-level classes (who tend to be a disproportionately white and more affluent population) have always expected these teachers to work with their kids. When they hear that this might not happen, they begin to lobby the principal, superintendent, and even the school board to prevent the change. Meanwhile, the teachers themselves rebel against the decision; they don’t want to develop new lesson plans, update their teaching practices, or work with needier students. They might even initiate a grievance process with the union, arguing that the school’s long-standing assignment patterns should override the principal’s contractual right to place teachers wherever she likes. In turn, the district human resources team will have to step in, and the process of reassigning these teachers will slow to a crawl. In short, the principal may be in the right, both morally and legally, but the status quo has a way of digging in and holding on.

Nor is it just the local leader who confronts such realities. Inequities are baked into a lot of state-level political and legal frameworks, too. Recently, for example, Rebecca Sibilius and her team at EdBuild produced a report on 47 new school districts, scattered across more than 20 states, that have been created mainly at the behest of affluent white residents who wanted to secede from larger districts that serve large numbers of low-income families — mostly black and Latino — and keep their tax dollars focused on their own children. The creation of these districts may be a glaring example of white privilege in action (and of public education treated as a private commodity rather than a public good), but no matter how outraged state education leaders may be, they can do nothing unless and until their legislatures change the statutes that permit groups of parents to secede from larger school districts.

Leaders who want to organize for equity and social justice must know precisely how the system works and who it’s designed to privilege. I’m not naïve enough to think that having this knowledge is enough. Formal power, state and federal regulations, and political dynamics will all confound a leader’s ability to rewrite the rules. But a good place to start is to learn the details of how one’s educational system actually functions.

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va.

Originally published in September 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (1), 40-41.

© 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.