Leadership Through an Equity Lens

How an adopted brother's struggles prompted a superintendent to confront the power of white privilege and build an inclusive learning environment
BY MATT UTTERBACK/School Administrator, November 2017

Matt Utterback
I grew up in a small town on the Oregon coast in a family of educators. My grandfather was a high school assistant principal, and my father was a high school counselor.

I was raised middle class with the privilege that comes with being male, white and the son of well-educated parents. I knew the dominant community norms and used them to my advantage. Unlike many in our communities today, college always was a likely option for me.

When I was 9, my parents adopted a 7-year-old boy from a Korean orphanage. My brother Jon was one of the few people of color in our community. From my brother’s perspective, no one else looked like him or sounded like him, and it was likely no one in our community had shared many of his experiences. Jon settled into our neighborhood elementary school and quickly learned English.

However, as my brother approached his early adolescent years, his struggles began to emerge. He began making statements such as “No one understands me” and “No one looks like me.” These were the first signs we were losing him. These struggles of identity were quickly followed by behavioral issues and poor academic achievement. My parents sought professional help and tried different schools, but nothing was successful. We continued to lose him.

When my brother was 18, he asked my parents if he could return to Korea. However, because Jon did not have a degree or any career training, he was not welcomed back to his native country. Being rejected by both his native and adopted countries, my brother asked to move to Hawaii where there was a larger Asian population. My brother made this move, but the years of enduring significant marginalization and rejection in his young life had taken their toll, and Jon completed suicide. We had lost him.

Affirming Identity
What I know today that I didn’t know 30, 20 or even 10 years ago is that while many would say they had the best intentions of supporting my brother, the community, the school system and I, as his brother, did a poor job of affirming his identity and honoring his history and culture. Instead, dominant systems worked tirelessly to get Jon to conform to the white-majority norms and customs. Clearly, the result of these efforts was devastating.

Twenty years after my brother’s passing, I began to unpack his struggles and his story. I viewed my brother’s actions through the lens of my white identity. When I did this, I was incapable of seeing the reality of his experiences as an outsider.

While I had experienced the stark reality of my brother’s passing on a personal level, I had not recognized the impact of ignorance and racism on my brother’s life. I learned my whiteness matters, and I began to understand the power, privilege and responsibility that comes from being a white male with rank.

Stepping outside of my reality and expected norms wasn’t easy or comfortable, but it was essential. It was essential in my recognition that a person’s life is meant to be lived authentically without having to wear masks or costumes hiding one’s true self.

Strength Assets
Much of our success in our school district has been the result of our school system embracing equity and creating inclusive learning environments for each student. Equity is not about treating everyone the same. That is equality. Equity has us look at each student as an individual, affirm his or her identity and build upon the strengths each student possesses.

I don’t think my brother’s story is all that different from the stories of many individuals in our schools today. The harder we try to make students fit into the white-dominant community, the harder they resist and ultimately suffer. When students, parents and colleagues have to conform to majority standards and customs, they are detrimentally impacted.

Today, despite the best of intentions, we still lead school systems where a student’s gender, skin color, home language and family income level continue to be the predictors of who does and does not graduate from our schools.

Our school systems continue to perpetuate both opportunity and achievement gaps for many of our student groups. The Center for Educational Leadership out of the University of Washington believes the “nexus for eliminating the achievement/opportunity gap lies in the development of leadership capacity — specifically, nurturing the will to act on behalf of the most underserved students while increasing leadership knowledge and skill to dramatically improve the quality of instruction.”

We are the leadership required to make a difference for our students. It rests on our shoulders and within our sphere of influence to eliminate the opportunity and achievement gaps that exist for so many of our students.

Matt Utterback, superintendent of the North Clackamas School District, joins in during recess at Milwaukie Elementary School in Milwaukie, Ore.

Six Principles
As educational leaders, how do we cultivate equity in our schools and classrooms? This is a question that deeply resonates with me because it presents a challenge for those of us charged with improving student achievement. It took me years to understand that in leading my North Clackamas colleagues, my role was to help them recognize that privilege matters in questions of equitable access to education.

We wrestle with the issues of privilege, white-dominant culture and expectations in our school system. We’ve found a strong interplay exists among instructional practices, equity and leadership. At the intersection of these concepts lie six principles that we can follow that have a profound impact on our students — especially our traditionally under-served populations.

» No. 1: Our job as educational leaders is to improve our ability to notice, acknowledge and promote the replication of strong instructional practices.
This is about knowing what quality instruction is and what it is not. It is about learning and being an expert in the teaching and learning continuum that serves as the basis for teacher evaluation.

We know students will miss out on powerful life opportunities if they are not successful learners. Research tells us the single biggest factor in student achievement is teacher quality. The second is educational leadership. Our primary job as school leaders must be the improvement of instruction.

Many of the best instructional practices promoting equity are already occurring within our classrooms. Modeling and replicating those practices is a critical component of professional learning. Leaders charged with the task of leading instructional improvement must know — through an equity lens — what effective and high-quality teaching looks like.

» No. 2: We must identify and change our practices and beliefs so that each child knows she or he is expected to succeed.
We must recognize that our students can’t and won’t rise if our expectations are low. We must hold firm to the belief that all students are expected to be able to realize their potential. This includes establishing high standards and making it clear to students what the criteria are for meeting them.

We must avoid overpraising for mediocre work. Students perceive this as a sign of lower expectations and another reason not to trust feedback. We must normalize help-seeking behaviors — especially for our boys. We must share with students our views that intelligence is malleable. When students learn this, they demonstrate higher academic motivation, behavior and achievement.

» No. 3: We must learn who our students are and focus on where they want to go.
Relationships are critical. We must learn about our students as individuals and embrace our role in helping them develop and discover their identity. We must convey a fundamental belief in each student that he or she can develop their intellect and their critical capacity to think. We do this when we build relationships with our students and recognize the racial, cultural and economic differences that impact a growth mindset.

We do this when we talk about race and the building of a student’s racial identity. We must build in time to listen to our students — to learn their hopes and fears. In North Clackamas, we’ve used student affinity groups to listen to our students’ stories and acknowledge their experiences.

To assist our staff in being able to talk about race, every staff member is expected to attend a two-day, race-focused equity training. In addition, our teachers have the opportunity to participate in a full-year instructional equity cadre. When we share in these types of experiences, when we hear the voices of our students and staff, we learn about each other and we are compelled to change our practices.

» No. 4: We must embrace an equity commitment.
As students enter our nation’s classrooms each day, they are doing so under a cloud of vulnerability, fear and confusion. The daily hurtful rhetoric in our communities and across our nation has the potential of producing alarming levels of anxiety among children of color and inflaming gender, racial, religious and ethnic tensions in our classrooms.

As educators, we must be committed to protecting our students, families and each other. This means interrupting when we hear or see offensive words and acts and com-municating daily to each student that we will protect, advocate for and value them equally no matter their race, gender, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, language or ethnicity.

When we take these actions, we model for our students what we want to hear and see from them. One of the most powerful skills we can teach our students is to engage in respectful conversations. This is the foundation for civil discourse. When we allow our students to listen to one another and when we create space for multiple and diverse perspectives on various issues, we develop competent and critical thinkers.

» No. 5: We should use our leadership to create inclusive learning environments for each student. 
I am proud of our school board and proud to be the superintendent of a school district that is not only talking about equity but is bringing equitable practices into our operations, our classrooms, our resource allocations and the lives of our students.

Our district took a stance and publicly committed to this important work through policy. We have an equity policy because, like all school districts, student success in North Clackamas is currently predetermined by race, gender, ethnicity, culture, poverty, language and disability. We cannot accept this, and that is why we commit to continuous improvement, knowing that our work is never done.

» No. 6: We should consider our ethical and moral obligation to take action.
Despite this obligation, it’s often easier to settle for a simpler, quieter path. We must not give lip service to education equity, only to accept the status quo. We say we want to be a school system that provides access and opportunity for each student, but in the interim, we keep using the same practices and systems we’ve always used.

This strategy isn’t working for a significant number of our students. As educational leaders, we need to take care of what is most important and not keep the same old routines.

Sharp Gains
Building from these six principles has had a profound impact on student achievement in North Clackamas. Graduation rates are up 14 percent in the past five years, nearly 90 percent of freshmen are on track to graduate at the end of their freshman year, and our district boasts some of the highest attendance rates in Oregon.

Taking these actions has a cumulative effect that creates a culture of success. When we repeat these actions, it creates momentum. When we build momentum, we positively impact the trajectory for each of our students, allowing them to reach their full potential.
MATT UTTERBACK is superintendent of the North Clackamas School District in Milwaukie, Ore., and the 2017 National Superintendent of the Year. E-mail: utterback@nclack.k12.or.us. Twitter: @nc12super

Additional Resources
Matt Utterback recommends the following informational resources that his district uses to move the equity work forward in the North Clackamas schools.

» Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Beacon Press, 2007

» Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond, Corwin, 2015

» Everyday Antiracism Getting Real About Race in School edited by Mica Pollock with multiple contributors, The New Press, 2008

» Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise by Stephen Fink and Anneke Markholt, John Wiley & Sons, 2011

» Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit, The New Press, 2013

» AASA Equity Website

» National Equity Project, Oakland, Calif.

» Oregon Center for Educational Equity, Portland