Strategic Reshaping of Culture to Advance Equity
The co-authors of Equity Warriors discuss organizational redirection to enable school staff to find their place in the work and accept responsibility
BY GEORGE S. PERRY JR. AND JOAN RICHARDSON/School Administrator, November 2022

George Perry, center, an education consultant, says defining equity can be a lengthy process but having a common language to describe the work is a prerequisite. PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGE PERRY JR.
Advancing equity to the point where the learning of each student matters relies on having an organizational culture that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion. The work begins when leaders work with their community to define what equity means in the school district. What follows involves creating an equity vision, designing strategies to achieve the vision and identifying systems and structures to monitor progress.

Achieving an equity agenda is a journey.

Education leaders know how to design multiple strategies to achieve whatever goal they have in mind. But if the district and school’s culture doesn’t embrace the end target, then those strategies will wither long before they can take hold.

We’ve learned this lesson the hard way, after working for three decades with more than 30 partner districts and more than 100 schools serving diverse student populations. Advancing equity is possible if you build systems and structures that influence organizational culture.

Infusing Purpose

Progress and sustainability always depend on the organization’s culture. Edgar Schein, in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, says although leaders are responsible for creating, managing and sometimes destroying cultures, culture is the result of complex group learning that is only partially influenced by leadership. Because organizational cultures are expressions of beliefs and values, advancing equity through a district and a school requires redirecting cultures that reinforce the way things are.

So how do leaders influence culture? They begin by recognizing that districts and schools are more like communities and less like organizations. In communities, members come together because of shared values. Their membership is voluntary — think of the way we choose the neighborhoods where we live or the religious communities that we join. Those are purposeful communities.

Purposeful communities name aspirational beliefs, values and dreams, and the commitments they will make to each other. They recognize and build upon their strengths. Effective communities have efficacy.
The equity agenda is lost if adults in the community do not believe their daily efforts, individually and collectively, make a difference in the lives of students. Leaders make a concerted effort to help each community member see they are contributing. Thinking of districts and schools as communities gives purpose and lets members see they are contributing to a common goal.

Defining Values

Leaders begin by defining their district’s values. The most effective leaders engage others in defining shared values specific to their context, including the student population, community expectations and climate. District and school leaders work together to define shared values and build shared understandings.

Engaging adults and students in collecting and analyzing data and defining the equity vision helps deepen understandings and create buy-in. Engaging others in contributing to the vision and values reinforces that reaching agreement on shared purpose, taking responsibility for making decisions and acting consistent with our values shows we are a community that appreciates each member.

Once a vision and values are clear and explicit, leaders can calculate the school and district’s readiness to act on the vision. Effective leaders do so by personalizing the messages to make their point. The superintendent of a 33,000-student urban district in the Southeast did so in this way.

At the traditional gathering at the start of the school year, the superintendent used his opening message to make his values real to administrators. After a few celebrations, he introduced 30 rising kindergarteners, all dressed in their best clothes. As 5-year-olds are, they were cute and full of joy, and the audience greeted them with applause. He told the children they were going to play a counting game and asked the administrators to watch carefully.

He asked all of the students to take two steps forward. Then he asked 20 of the children to take one more step forward. Then he asked 15 of those 20 students to take three steps forward. Next he asked eight students to take three more steps forward. He again asked the audience to look closely at the children, as he thanked the children for helping him play this game. The children departed to thunderous applause and smiles.

When only the adults remained, the superintendent observed that we want all children to start their education journey with so much joy and enthusiasm, with so much hope and promise. But as they step through the grades, differences are observable. The first step represents the attainment of 3rd-grade reading proficiency, and the data at that time showed about a third of students fall behind.

The next step is passing algebra by the end of 8th grade, and another 25 percent fall behind. Finally, by high school, a little more than 50 percent of entering 9th graders graduate on time.

Using children to tell the story touched the hearts as well as the heads of administrators. They began to understand that improving opportunities for all children was a personal challenge for the superintendent. When he reviewed numbers, he saw children’s faces.

Being Prepared

Being explicit about expectations and shared values enables leaders to assess the readiness of the culture to embrace the values. Readiness is one piece of the puzzle. Simultaneously, effective district leaders prepare staff for making change.

Readiness and preparedness differ. Educators might be ready to tackle a challenge and, depending on its complexity, that might be enough to guarantee success. Still, we have learned the hard lesson that advancing equity requires us to have the tools to prepare others who may not be ready to act yet.

The central office in a large urban district in the Northeast created classroom libraries to supplement its culturally responsive and sustaining education curriculum. The classroom libraries contained books on topics representative of the district’s student diversity. Many administrators and teachers were eager to integrate the relevant materials into their curriculum and grateful for the additional resources.

Though ready, many staff found they were unprepared to discuss questions about racism, bias and gender identity and had not created the conditions necessary to prepare students and their families to engage thoughtfully in the learning. Some parents and community members questioned the grade appropriateness of the content or the authors’ point of view. Others objected to materials based on their personal beliefs. In some cases, introducing these materials polarized teachers and families and undermined their efforts to create community.

Integrating Coherently

Advancing equity requires sustainability. District leaders sustain their work by aligning policies, systems and structures to values explicit in the equity vision and supporting school leaders to do the same.

Aligning is action when it sews together systems and structures. In our new book Equity Warriors, we describe 69 moves district and school leaders can take to advance equity depending on their context. 

Experience has taught us that alignment is an important step on the way to building coherence. Coherence across systems and structures comes from integrating new ideas into the culture. In other words, if we are clear about our purpose and we are clear that policies, systems and structures are closely linked to our purpose, more often than not we are successful in advancing and sustaining equity.

Ultimately, advancing and sustaining equity requires school leaders — those closest to students — to take action that brings alignment and coherence. Here is one example.

The professional journey of a principal of a middle school in a large Midwestern district — whom we will refer to as Ron Brown — was unpredicted. He was a highly regarded senior district administrator. With just a few years before retirement, he volunteered to become principal of the middle school, which served a neighborhood overwhelmed by poverty, violence and high rates of cancer due to environmental conditions. Despite a decade of attention and resources focused on improving instruction, the middle school remained one of the lowest performing in the state.

Brown breathed life into the school. He tightened operations to provide a safe learning environment. He pushed teachers with his charismatic style and decisive comments, letting teachers know he expected more from them than they had shown. When a teacher had compassion and worked for the kids, Brown found resources for that teacher, but he made life difficult for those who did not respect and believe in students.

Brown knew the transition would take time and that inexperienced teachers who were filling vacancies might be intimidated or feel unsafe when realities from the neighborhood spilled into the building. After explaining his vision and expectations, he asked new hires to promise to stay for three years to provide continuity for students. Teachers said remembering that promise carried them through discouraging moments.

Brown’s expectations came with social and emotional supports for adults. He initiated incentive awards, student recognition events and programs that recognized teachers and caretakers of students. Students wrote about adults they admired and read their stories at celebration events. Brown sent a daily newsletter containing announcements, recognitions and resources. He visited classrooms, observed teaching and talked with students. He expected teachers to use the professional learning resources. He reorganized counselors so they could know students better.

When he retired after three years, alignment had taken place. Student performance on state testing had increased significantly. It marked an important beginning in changing the school’s culture.

Staff and students trusted him. They knew what Brown valued by what he expected and inspected. He was certain about the values and the culture he was trying to build and less rigid about the steps to be taken. The middle school was on the road to coherence by forming a culture that valued learning from doing, focusing on progress and accepting mistakes made along the way.

Acting Consistently

District and school leaders advance and sustain their equity agenda by redirecting their organization’s culture. Leading with vision and shared values enables others to find their place in the work and to take responsibility. Assessing readiness and preparing to act consistent with the values builds confidence and efficacy.

Aligning and bringing coherence to systems and structures over time binds a community in common purpose. It can be done. It is being done every day. We have seen it.

GEORGE PERRY JR. is an education consultant based in Scituate, Mass. Twitter: @DrGeorgePerryJr. JOAN RICHARDSON is a veteran education journalist. They are co-authors of Equity Warriors: Creating Schools That Students Deserve (Corwin, 2022).