Using Equity-Centered Capacity Building to Advance School System Improvement

By Janice Jackson, National Equity Consultant, California; and Monette McIver, Dana Center, University of Texas at Austin

Public schools are a key institution for preparing the nation’s youth to participate in democracy, enter the economy, make a living wage and live a fulfilling life. Consequently, stakeholders at every level — classrooms, schools and districts/charter management organizations — are obliged to model equitable strategies that make the needs of all the stakeholders in the internal and external district community, a priority. Equity-driven capacity building is expressly attuned to who is being served and the social, political and cultural context in which the organization is situated. Meaningful use of the lens of equity requires leaders to continuously ask, “Who is being well-served, and who is left out or harmed by the policies and practices of the organization?” Leaders for equity are committed to interrupting policies, practices and procedures that, explicitly or implicitly, perpetuate unequal outcomes for children who are furthest away from opportunity.

The work of interrupting entrenched systems often requires redefining “success” and reframing how we understand problems and develop solutions. And although student academic success is important, it is not the only way success should be evaluated. The school organization must also look at the psycho-social development of students, the engagement of employees and families in setting the vision and direction for the system, and the way policies, practices, procedures and inclusion practices are applied to the achievement of the vision.

This article draws on our decades-long experience and research working in school systems around the country.

This article draws on our decades-long experience and research working in school systems around the country. We discuss how to utilize and move beyond solely technical and structural approaches to improving school systems, and how to blend such approaches with a focus on the social, cultural and political dimensions of systems change.

Implementation Challenges to Using an Equity Lens in Districts & Approaches to Capacity Building at Multiple System Levels

School Boards and Governance

Elected school boards govern most district systems. As such, board membership can change dramatically. Several school boards in Colorado recently underwent significant shifts in political makeup, resulting in major shifts in policy, ranging from altering curriculum to promoting school vouchers (Healy, 2014; Hess & Eden, 2013). The voucher program initiated by the Douglas County School Board would permit parents to use taxpayer funds to enroll students in private schools, but the program was met with significant opposition. In fact, the program awaits a Colorado Supreme Court judgment.

As another example, school boards may champion education philosophy that conflicts with the prevailing beliefs of district personnel, and as a result, district staff members may disagree with the direction of the school board, and such disagreements may result in public conflict and high turnover of teachers, school administrators, superintendents and other staff, often resulting in turmoil. For instance, the Jefferson County School Board attempted to modify its history curriculum, moving away from a focus on Advanced Placement content to one more aligned with the school board’s proposed direction that some interpreted as a rewrite of history by eliminating attention to dissent and emphasizing obedience. The backlash the Jefferson County School Board received became a national spectacle, with students skipping class and protesting in the streets; a vision reflected in the national news for several weeks in Fall 2014 (Healy, 2014).

In some districts, this type of change can mean that strong leadership is missing, important decisions needed to improve the school system languish, and a general lack of direction ensues. In this last example, the school board relented, but the long-term effects of this and other decisions are still not known.


Some school districts once characterized by inclusivity and diversity, within and across schools, are now more focused on encouraging greater use of charter schools and vouchers (Layton, 2014). To be sure, charter schools and vouchers offer many students and families access to types of schools and education opportunities that may not be associated with all public schools ordinarily. But while these alternative education settings give students and parents options, they often are not accessible to all students in the system, particularly those with limited financial means or students with various learning disabilities. A district may offer an array of charter schools, but too often it is up to the parents to provide transportation to and from these systems. Further, charter schools have been roundly criticized for selective enrollment, even though this observation has been challenged in a variety of settings (Angrist, Pathak & Walters, 2013). An equitable system would give students and parents clear and easy access to quality programs that fulfill the promise of academic success for all students. 


 For some time, Heifetz and Linsky (2004) have considered the technical challenges education leaders face. In their view, technical challenges, though numerous, are routine and can often be solved through the collective knowledge of experts or of those in leadership positions. A district-level example is the effective use of resources to meet student needs. A district’s capacity to hire teachers and administrators, as well as to purchase textbooks and technology, is based largely on funding from available tax revenue. While school funding formulas vary from state to state, most formulas are based on available tax revenue, including property, state income and sales taxes. Districts with a limited tax base often have access to federal dollars to augment their funding sources, but these are the districts that serve student populations with increased needs associated with poverty.

This additional funding is helpful, but given the depth and range of social and emotional supports that districts must attend to, education leaders do not often have the freedom and resources to focus on critical and enriching extracurricular activities similar to their counterparts in more affluent districts. As such, additional funding in neighborhoods living in poverty must be used in ways that are not necessary in affluent communities. In addition, districts serving communities with high poverty often struggle to generate the revenues needed to attract and keep a strong teaching force, administrators and support staff. Further, rural and small districts may have limited access to a strong teaching force by virtue of their remote locations, and administrators find that they must wear multiple hats.

Approaches to Capacity Building

In spite of these obstacles, districts must carry on with the work of educating students. Toward this end, districts engage in a number of practices to build the internal capacity needed to support quality education. These capacity building activities occur at classroom, school and district levels. Research demonstrates that quality teachers in every classroom positively affect student achievement (Dean, Hubbell, Pitler & Stone, 2011). Even more, school leaders who encourage school-level collegiality and professionalism among their teaching force create a respectful environment conducive to ongoing professional growth and development (Marzano, 2003). And finally, district leaders who appreciate the length of time needed for substantive change set challenging and achievable expectations for improvement. These district leaders also provide resources such as time for collaboration and funding that enable teachers to visit peer classrooms.

The following sections briefly describe several of the pivotal activities for using an equity lens grounded in excellence at each of these levels: classrooms, schools and systems and governing bodies.

Whether or not a state is using the CCSS or another set of standards, they should be clearly articulated and used as the benchmark for student learning.

Back to Top


The Role of Standards

In most states, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are the new bar for what students should know and be able to apply at the end of a given grade. Whether or not a state is using the CCSS or another set of standards, they should be clearly articulated and used as the benchmark for student learning. The following questions should be addressed by the leadership and staff:

  • What are the expectations of students that undergird the standards?
  • How are the standards similar and different from what was expected of students in the past?
  • What is required of me to ensure that students master the standards?
  • What training and support will teachers and school administrators be provided to support the effective implementation of these standards?
  • What are the strengths and needs of our specific students — by racial, language, socioeconomic and other key factors — that will come into play in implementing the new standards?

Learning About Students and Social-Emotional Development

Using an equity lens and perspective, teachers must hold high expectations for each of their students and demonstrate their belief in each student’s potential. These expectations should also be based on a significant and growing understanding of each student’s strengths and challenges, academically, socially and culturally. This response is deeper than surface level differentiation. It means knowing the “stuff” of each student’s life and using it to engage students in learning. It also means paying attention to the multiple parts of each student’s identity as the student sees himself/herself. Our identity is socially constructed and goes beyond our physical features. Educators are required to pay attention to the protected classes as defined by the federal government, yet identity encompasses these and additional areas, including: race, class, gender, socioeconomic level, family history, religion, sexual orientation, language, disability, migration status, ethnicity, geography/region and cultural practices.[1]

Supporting students’ socio-emotional development promotes the competencies students need to successfully navigate school and life. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)[2] defines five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. According to CASEL, this skill-building is most effective when teachers work to embody these skills themselves, and when they incorporate social and emotional learning skills into academic lessons as well as in separate lessons specifically focused on the development of social and emotional skills. In addition, it remains essential to students to develop a strong sense of self and learn about working with people who may be different than themselves not only in widely diverse school systems and communities, but in all communities.[3]

Expanded Uses of Data and Deeper Student Engagement in Learning

Gathering data needs to be an ongoing process, including robust information about students: what they understand, their interests, what they can do with what they know, what they need to learn and how they learn. Once gathered, this information can be used to shape instruction. This ongoing process of data gathering should also be done in partnership with students so that they begin to understand how they learn and how they can continue to improve. Engaging students in this way helps build a sense of agency in their learning process in deeper ways, by no longer focusing solely on the actions of teachers and other adults.

Instructional Practice

Well-trained and competent teachers significantly affect student academic success. Teachers have a collection of instructional strategies at their disposal that positively affect student achievement (Dean, Hubbell, Pitler & Stone, 2011). In addition to using standards as a guide star, learning about students, adult and youth socio-emotional development, and deepened uses of data, these categories of instructional strategies include:

  • Setting objectives and providing feedback
  • Reinforcing effort and providing recognition
  • Cooperative learning
  • Cues, questions and advanced organizers[4]
  • Non-linguistic representations[5]
  • Summarizing and note-taking
  • Assigning homework and providing practice
  • Identifying similarities and differences[6]
  • Generating and testing hypotheses[7]

While effective use of these strategies can increase student achievement, teachers must be vigilant in their use. For example, simply putting students into groups does not constitute cooperative learning. As Dean and colleagues (2011) explain, cooperative learning must include support for skill-building in positive interdependence (i.e., skills for effectively working in teams) and individual accountability. Without these essential elements, cooperative learning may actually interfere with student learning. Such professional practices as multiple professional learning opportunities and classroom observations can encourage greater fidelity to this and other classroom instructional practices.


Seeing and Being Seen: Supporting Adult Learning

The school principal is a key element in successful schools (Sebring, et al., 2006). The school leader must have a deep understanding of his/her role in supporting the development of a school environment in which all members are clear about the purpose of their work and have a shared vision of success for their work in support of students. Staff who share the same grades and subjects should have a common understanding of high-quality instruction that leads students to mastery of the content and its application (Johnson, 2015). Visiting classrooms during the school day provides site leaders with an essential window into what is actually happening for children and adults in the building, by witnessing teachers’ instructional strategies and students’ responses. Seeing and feeling the flow of classrooms provides information about practices and outcome patterns for students and enables leaders to plan and guide staff in continuous improvement.

Professional development (PD) activities can also then be shaped around real needs and not around topics that don’t address a specific school need. Too often topics for professional development are chosen based on the ideas circulating at professional conferences or are centrally driven (i.e., the “flavor of the month”). They are not customized to the needs of particular school staff. Classroom visits enable site leaders to determine appropriate and meaningful supports for teachers and staff as well as discover strengths that can be shared across the school. Engaging educators in meaningful and research-based professional learning opportunities can improve student outcomes. Districts, schools and individual educators must monitor use of learning from their professional development experiences in thoughtful and structured ways. Even more, the “lag time” between professional learning opportunities and the measurable impact on teacher practice and student learning varies, often taking extended periods of time to realize a meaningful effect. Changing one’s teaching practice takes time. A teacher needs to try what is learned in professional development, receive feedback from colleagues and school leaders, assess its success with students and make needed adjustments.

Another important aspect of improvement at the school level is monitoring the implementation of instructional strategies learned in PD to ensure fidelity to the practices as well as their effectiveness on student achievement. Instructional practice should be enhanced as educators engage in one or several professional learning experiences, such as professional learning communities; “lesson study,” that is, collaboratively writing lessons, reviewing the lessons in action in classrooms, and then debriefing the lesson to highlight strengths and areas for improvement; and/or online classes. It is important to determine the depth and spread of implementation and to gather data about how the strategies learned during professional development experiences impact student learning. Hence, it is essential that all who are affected by professional training clearly understand what practices they will be expected to implement, why those strategies will improve practice, how to implement the strategies, and when specific milestones that support implementation should be met. As implementation is reviewed, a monitoring plan should include what and how implementation data will be collected and a clearly defined decision-making process for making adjustments.

Marzano (2003) further noted that collegiality and professionalism have a positive effect on student achievement. A focus on these areas recognizes the importance of staff support for one another and the expertise that staff members bring to the school. School leaders establish the norms for how all staff members will manage their conduct and behavior, encourage teachers to participate in and contribute to decisions and provide the resources and expectations for professional learning activities (Dean & Parsley, 2010).

Collective Responsibility for Student Learning, High Expectations & Relevant Curricula

A great deal is known about what it takes to develop and maintain a school with high achievement for its students. Critical is a sense of shared responsibility across the school for the success of each and every child, no matter their background or classroom. Diamond, et. al., (2004) noted that most of the literature about teachers’ expectations for student achievement was presented as an individual endeavor. Building on the work of Lee and Smith (1996) and others that put forward the notion of collective responsibility for student learning, the education field is now more aware of the role of race and social class in shaping teachers’ expectations for student performance, as well as teachers’ sense of their own role in influencing student success. Diamond et al. found that in schools with high numbers of African American students and students living in poverty, expectations held by teachers for students were lower and a sense of collective responsibility for the success of all students was lower than in schools with high numbers of students from advantaged groups. Educators we’ve worked with over the years have expressed a similar concern about the prevalence of deficit- vs. asset-based thinking about students of color and those living in poverty.

Principals should also attend to staff culture and promoting a “safe space” for staff to discuss any areas of concern. This approach to culture-building celebrates successes and looks honestly at difficult challenges that are social, cultural and political.

Back to Top

To move from an individualistic approach to teaching to one of shared responsibility, principals can structure time for staff to work together to develop shared values, deepened understanding of students’ strengths, gifts and lives, shared knowledge about their work, and encourage staff to be thought partners for one another. Knowing that collaboration does not happen on its own, principals can introduce teachers to tools and protocols to support the collaborative process. The principal can ground these opportunities in adult learning theory and give thought to the learning needs of the teachers as individuals and as a collective.

Principals should also attend to staff culture and promoting a “safe space” for staff to discuss any areas of concern. This approach to culture-building celebrates successes and looks honestly at difficult challenges that are social, cultural and political. Too often, there are unmentionables or elephants in the room that prevent honest conversations, such as the over- or underrepresentation of certain subgroups of students in disciplinary actions, special education, gifted and talented classes, and the distribution of resources across students, schools and neighborhoods. Site leaders carry responsibility for developing and supporting an environment that provides a sense of psychological safety for adults and children to put the unmentionables on the table. Staff can be guided through frank conversations about and with the children and families the school serves, and high-quality professional development can also include teaching about structural and systemic inequity, and how privilege and power impact educator practice and perceptions of students and their families.

Furthermore, opportunities can be provided for staff to learn about the cultures of their students. Teachers can invite children and families to share stories of their lives outside of school, and in this way, the world of the children and families is brought into the learning process. A powerful way to do this is through parent/family teacher conferences where children participate. These conversations can be structured to go beyond children’s academic progress. Parents can be invited to share stories about their family and community, and children can speak about their experience of learning and of school. Storytelling is a powerful way to create safe space for deeper conversation, relationship-building and for people to learn about one another’s assets and incorporate that knowledge into the learning process.

Knowledge of children’s lives should be incorporated into the work of classrooms beginning with the physical environment and moving into the instructional strategies used by teachers.[8] The curriculum should be culturally responsive, designed around the students in the classroom, and include resources that help them learn about their own culture and the cultures of others. Literature, art, history and social studies are strong first steps, including having books, stories and visual art that demonstrate to children the richness of their own cultures. Extending this representation to science, mathematics and all subject areas is important for telling the stories of people from a variety of identity groups who have contributed to knowledge in the content area being studied. All children should see connections to their own lives in all school-wide curricula.

Diversity of Instructional and Assessment Strategies

Site leaders can support teachers in using data to determine the most appropriate instructional strategies to be used with students in their classrooms, and ascertain how the school is progressing as a whole through the implementation of these strategies. Teachers should be provided with opportunities to share instructional strategies and receive feedback on their lesson plans and tasks that are assigned to students. Interdisciplinary teaching and project based learning enable students to see the connections across content areas and deepen their learning (Blumenfeld et al., 1991). Students engaging in group work learn from each other. A variety of experiences to assess student learning can easily be built into the projects, including standardized tests as one of an array of progress measures.[9]

There should be a shared understanding of how to assess student learning that includes real-time assessments that allow students to relish what they have learned, and to revisit places where they are not yet clear. A notion of continuous improvement and learning from one’s mistakes becomes an important part of learning for youth and adults. All students can be provided with opportunities to select ideas they would like to explore and opportunities for enrichment. Students can then be supported to realize what they know, where they are uncertain, and how to close the gap.

Building a Staff Representative of Students and Their Families

In schools using an equity lens and grounded in excellence, the staff and community are involved in the selection of new staff members. While staff can be broadly diverse, there is a commitment to bring on individuals that are representative of the community and who have a deep understanding of the challenges the school is facing. There is an additional commitment to search for innovative individuals who think in new ways to uncover solutions to the challenges the schools face. There is a shared responsibility for the introduction of new staff to the building and planned support as they become members of the school community. It is important that they understand the current culture, but are not afraid to raise questions when inequities become apparent, to help the school culture become more equitable and high quality in support of every student.

Matching Teachers’ Expertise and Skill With the Children They Teach

While longevity in the system or the school is used to make teacher assignments to grades or classrooms, teachers’ expertise and skill sets should drive placements. These skill sets should include the technical aspects of curriculum design, and assessment for and of learning, as well as culturally responsive instruction and assessment approaches, drawing on students’ lives and strengths in the teaching process, and effectively partnering with families. The district/charter management organization’s (CMO) best teachers should be placed with students with the greatest academic and support needs, and these (and all) teachers should be given the supports they need to provide a quality education for each and every student in their care. Attention should be given to which teachers are most skilled at guiding struggling students to mastery, as determined by data from student feedback, formative assessments and standardized tests. Such teachers also build relationships with students and their families, in addition to ensuring that instructional strategies are matched to student strengths and needs. The skills and approaches of the most successful teachers can also be shared with other staff to support building their capacity and efficacy with struggling students.

Engaging Families and Community as Partners

Site leadership should have a deep understanding of the children, their families and the local community. They must set clear expectations that these are collective partners in children’s success and the success of the school. This perspective has not been held by the majority of educators in the past. Site leaders must demonstrate what such a commitment to partnership means and work with staff to develop and implement policies, practices and procedures that welcome authentic engagement with all stakeholders. Representatives of families can have positions on a school’s site council or instructional leadership team. Structures and protocols can be used in meetings to create safety for student, family and community members to participate as equal partners with staff. School leadership and staff can develop opportunities for parents to learn from teachers what children are expected to learn and how parents can support that learning.[10] The Common Core and other state standards are a mystery to many parents. Several districts are using “Parent Academies” in which family members meet with teachers and experience lessons that the teachers are using with students in their classrooms. Participants report that they better understand what their children are learning in school and how they can support them at home. They also talk about the value of connecting with other parents and families. The teacher makes clear what knowledge and skills students are learning and why they are important. They also explain the strategies that they are using and discuss what families can do at home.

District / Charter Management Organization (CMO)

District/CMO leaders must be clear and unwavering about teaching and learning as the core work of school systems. Senior leadership provides supports for principals/school site leaders and teachers in improving their practice. No matter what role an individual at the district level holds, each role must be considered in relation to how it supports the work of teachers, classrooms, and the mastery and thriving of each student.

Clarity About the Meaning of High-Quality Instruction and Support

Senior leadership leads the district’s discussion and understanding about the meaning of quality teaching, including: what one should expect to see from teachers and students when visiting classrooms; how we know what students understand and what they can do with what they know; and to what degree implementation of successful practices is taking hold across the district. Senior leadership provides supports for principals/school site leaders and teachers in improving their practice. For instance, they work with site leaders, teachers and the community to provide sample lesson plans that are culturally relevant, as well as access to supplemental materials to support those plans.

Using the Lens of Equity

The use of an equity lens must be at the foundation of a district’s work. This means that all levels of the system should be clear about the meaning of equity in relationship to their own roles. Keeping the community context in view as system-wide decisions are made is of paramount importance, which includes taking into account the various demographics of the children and their families (e.g., race, class, neighborhood differentials and power dynamics). In addition, continual attention should be paid to looking for patterns of unequal outcomes of district policies, practices and procedures, particularly in such areas as disproportionality of implementation of the discipline code of conduct, assignment to Special Education, and “disfavored”[11] students in higher level classes.

A Systems Approach

Leaders must see that the district/organization develops, implements and evaluates the policies and practices for building a stellar workforce. In particular, there should be an appropriate system for recruiting, inducting, developing and evaluating school site and district leaders and staff; district/organization leadership should place a premium on individuals who understand the community context; and schools should be supported to develop a diverse and collaborative workforce.

Reducing Siloing Across Departments: Improving Coherence & Collaboration

Often districts/CMOs function in silos, with each department focused on its own work without regard to how it relates to the district’s core purpose of learning and teaching. In many districts, the individuals who supervise school principals report to a different cabinet member than the individuals who are guiding curriculum and instruction. This can contribute to a lack of coordination about what schools are expected to do around teaching and learning. Those who supervise principals may not be tying their conversations and supports to the expectations of the curriculum and instruction leaders. In order to shift the siloed approach, top leadership needs to set clear expectations and provide professional development and coaching support to help staff transition in how to accomplish their work using more collaborative approaches. Senior leadership can begin by supporting principal supervisors, as well as directors of curriculum and instruction, including encouraging ongoing dialogue between these two groups, given their critical role in the core mission of school systems and supporting schools. Principal supervisors should engage with principals about the system’s districtwide strategies to improve instruction and increase student achievement. Those in the curriculum and instruction department should be informed on an on-going basis by principal supervisors about what they are noticing in the implementation of the district’s strategies.

Another method used to support breaking down silos is cross-functional teams. In solving problems or generating new plans, bringing together individuals from different parts of the district to share their expertise increases the likelihood of high-quality solutions. It opens the possibility for strategies that push against the current way of doing business and deriving solutions that may have a broader benefit. Making this approach effective requires supporting staff in learning tools and protocols that enable all members of the team to participate with equal voice, no matter status or position. It means giving attention to power relationships and how they often play out, leaving some individuals voiceless. Successful districts often begin this approach by initially using a facilitator until staff develop proficiency to guide these complex discussions and planning processes on their own.

Individuals whose work is not directly involved in the teaching and learning process should be able to articulate how their work contributes to success for students. For instance, those who work in accounting should focus on getting resources to schools in a timely way by streamlining cumbersome systems for ordering materials and supplies that can distract site leaders and teachers from their focus on instruction. Transportation is another critically important area. The system for getting students to school on time requires regular review to ensure that all students are being served well and to find areas that need improvement. Families’ concerns about transportation inefficiencies should be taken to heart, as they understand first-hand whether the system effectively supports their students.

Equitable Distribution of Resources

Equitable distribution of often limited resources is essential. Too often, district and site leaders are expected to accomplish more than their budgets allow. System leaders must have a set of guiding principles for distributing resources that is not driven by goals for “equality” of general funding — i.e., equality without consideration for varied students in widely differing starting places. These principles must be driven by student strengths and needs.

Back to Top

Equitable distribution of often limited resources is essential. Too often, district and site leaders are expected to accomplish more than their budgets allow. System leaders must have a set of guiding principles for distributing resources that is not driven by goals for “equality” of general funding — i.e., equality without consideration for varied student strengths and needs rooted in widely differing starting places. These principles must be driven by student strengths and needs. While this is easily understood, it is very difficult to implement in highly politicized school communities, because it means that resources should not always be distributed to all schools in the same way. Schools with the greatest needs should be provided more resources than schools with students who have fewer unmet resource needs.

Districts must have a commitment to meeting the basic needs of all students. This can become a battle between parents who are privileged and parents who are marginalized and have limited financial resources. Unless district leadership is willing to risk disfavor with those who are in positions of power and influence, and seeks to engage them as allies in the well-being and thriving of all students in a school system, the well-documented pattern of resource inequity will continue. For instance, districts that have attempted to de-track schools and classrooms are often met with opposition from parents whose children had been assured a seat in higher level classrooms or the highest achieving schools.[12] There can be discomfort for district leadership when resources are distributed more equitably in a system. As political battles are common, a different approach requires courage.

Defined Autonomy Between Schools and System-Wide Goals

Waters and Marzano (2006) identified five district leadership responsibilities that have a positive impact on student achievement: collaborative goal-setting; non-negotiable goals for achievement and instruction; board alignment and support of district goals; monitoring goals for achievement and instruction; and use of resources to support achievement and instruction goals. In addition to these, defined autonomy focuses on the degree to which a district provides school leaders with the flexibility to make building-level adjustments to meet the needs of students. Defined autonomy makes it clear that districts must set both non-negotiable goals for student learning across schools, as well as provide school building-level leadership with the autonomy and support to identify and implement their own strategies for achieving these goals, given their student populations, families and communities.

Assessing Progress & Success

Districts use tools to assess how the system is doing at the classroom, school and district level. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland has designed the OpenDataMCPS[13] to provide information on performance, budget and facilities to keep track of areas of growth and areas that need attention. District and site leaders use the information in this system for regular conversations about how well they are moving toward achieving the district and school goals. The LEAD Tool[14] developed by Education Northwest is a web-based tool for leadership teams to self-assess how well they are using equity as a lens in serving all of the district’s children and families. Both of these tools focus on outcomes for children and families, as well as how well the district is operating overall.

School Board/Trustees of the CMO

Board members/trustees set and monitor policy implementation as well as approve the allocation of resources across the system. Along with the superintendent/CEO, whom they are responsible for hiring, they set the vision and mission for the organization. A key aspect of that vision is the commitment to be an organization in which equity is core to the quality of the work. Engaging with employees, families and the community to understand the importance of this commitment is shared with the superintendent/CEO and other district leaders. They also monitor for evidence that the district’s goals are being met and look for patterns of inequitable opportunities and outcomes.

In hiring the senior leader, the board/trustees need to look for an individual who shares this commitment and knows how to model leading with an equity lens. This leader should have demonstrable know-how in creating an environment where an “equity lens” is seen as the “way we do our work,” not an add-on or a unique and siloed initiative.

As boards/trustees guide the work of school systems, they also are key to community relationships and opportunities for on-going, two-way communication and authentic dialogue. Listening campaigns, where meetings are facilitated and real issues are discussed with the community to share ideas and suggestions, can provide insight about what is most important. New ideas can be generated and incorporated into the district’s/school system’s plans, the community feels heard and in authentic partnership. When done well, this work fosters positive relationships, mutual support and long-term partnership between the district and community.

The Limitations of Structural and Technical Approaches Alone

Many school districts use structural and technical approaches to their school improvement challenges that rely on expertise based on practices from the past. The challenges confronting systems today require expertise with a nod to past practice, using what remains relevant and positively impactful, with a search for solutions that are derived from deep dialogue and partnership with those being served. Some examples of these combined approaches are the following:

  • Many leaders begin by changing the district’s reporting structure without attending to the relationships and functions needed to bring about significant change. If a leader decides to reorganize or restructure, he/she has to look beyond the lines of authority on the organizational chart. To solve problems and accomplish the organization’s goals, he/she should attend to the informal structure and incorporate what people really do. This work also includes attending to the highly political nature of restructuring in terms of history, relationships and cultivating readiness for change.
  • Effective leaders attend to organizational alignment and, in the era of the CCSS, commit to learning and teaching as the system’s core work. Too often, however, insufficient attention is given to deeply engaging with and understanding students and their families as essential to implementation of the new standards.
  • “Best practices” gleaned from other districts are often implemented without understanding the foundational principles of how they were implemented in another context, and hence the potential relevance is lost as a result of failing to tailor the approaches to a new community.

Such challenges as these often lead to failed implementation and frustration when the intended results are not seen. Without an understanding of historical context and the cultures in the community, and without attending to the deep partnership, relationships, trust-building and collaborative structures needed, challenges facing school systems are misinterpreted, and thus the solutions devised are less effective. For these reasons, we recommend additional focus on the following areas to complement our discussion above.

Core Values and Guiding Principles for the System

Senior leadership in a school system must articulate a set of core values that are developed and agreed upon with the full range of stakeholder groups in the community. These values should be broadly shared and used to guide the system’s work. While academic research can help with analyzing district challenges, the experience and values of the community should be considered alongside it. Time should be made available for regular reflection across stakeholders at all levels of the system, internal and external, on progress in meeting the goals as well as how people are experiencing the organization.

Shared Sense of Accountability for the Learning of All Students in the System’s Care

When a system makes it clear that its core work is learning and teaching, the meaning of this idea needs to be discussed with all employees and stakeholder groups. People will need the opportunity to make sense of what is expected of them in their role. A good example of this is a school district where all employees are engaged in conversations about what the CCSS are and how their work contributes to the implementation of the standards, no matter an employee’s formal role in the district. Opportunities are provided for parents to learn about the CCSS and what this means for their children’s learning. Several districts use Parent Academies in which teachers and parents share information about the standards and lessons that are being taught. Boston Public Schools, Miami-Dade County, and Washington, D.C., are using this approach.

Regular Communication With Families and Community

Districts can also host “listening campaigns” where they invite families and community, employees and students to give feedback about their experience of the system. Open invitations are issued to participate in gathering and analyzing information from various stakeholders. The data and the meaning that is constructed from the data are made public. Examples of this process are facilitated around the country by organizations such as the National Equity Project, based in Oakland, California; World-Trust in Oakland, California; The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University; and The Interaction Institute for Social Change in Boston, Massachusetts. These organizations use structured protocols to engage participants in dialogue to analyze and collectively make shared meaning of qualitative and quantitative data. District leadership is in significant conversation with all stakeholders to advance vision, goals, priorities, strategies, and analyze impact and next steps to improve school systems for the long-haul, in partnership with and support of students, their families and communities.

These blended approaches — structural, cultural, technical, social and political — are suggestions for using a more well-rounded approach to transforming schools and systems to ensure a quality education for all children. Context always matters.


Angrist, Joshua, Parag Pathak, and Christopher Walters, “Explaining Charter School Effectiveness,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 5, no. 4 (October 2013): 1-27.

Blumenfeld, Phyllis et al., “Motivating Project-Based Learning: Sustaining the Doing, Supporting the Learning,” Educational Psychologist 26, issue 3-4 (1991): 369-398.

Dean, Ceri, Elizabeth Hubbell, Howard Pitler, and B.J. Stone, Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement, second edition (Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2012).

Dean, C. & Parsley, D. (2010). Success in sight: Introduction to school improvement – Research-based influences on student achievement. (facilitator manual, module 1, segment 1.3). Denver: Mid–Continent Research for Education and Learning.

Diamond, John, Antonia Randolph, and James Spillane, “Teachers’ Expectations and Sense of Responsibility for Student Learning: The importance of Race, Class, and Organizational Habitus,” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 35, no. 1 (2004): 75-98.

Healy, Jack, “After Uproar, School Board in Colorado Scraps Anti-Protest Curriculum,” The New York Times, Oct. 3, 2014,

Heifetz, Ronald, and Marty Linsky, “When Leadership Spells Danger,” Educational Leadership 61, no. 7 (April 2004): 33-37.

Howard, Tyrone, Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms (New York: Teachers College Press, April 2010).

Marzano, Robert, What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action (Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2003).

Hess, Frederick, and Max Eden, “A Suburban Colorado County Tests the Limits of Education Reform,” National Review, Sept. 17, 2013,

Johnson, Joe, “Developing Schools of Achievement for African American Students,” at The African American Regional Education Alliance Conference, Oakland, California (San Diego: National Center for Urban School Transformation, San Diego State University, 2015).

Layton, Lyndsey, “In New Orleans, Major School District Closes Traditional Public Schools for Good,” The Washington Post, May 28, 2014,

Lee, V. E., & Smith, J. B. (1996). Collective responsibility for learning and its effects on gains in achievement for early secondary school students. American Journal of Education, 104(2), 103-147.

Nichols-Barrer, Ira, Brian Gill, Phillip Gleason, and Christina Clark Tuttle, “Does Student Attrition Explain KIPP’s Success?” Education Next 14, no. 4 (2014): 62-70.

Sebring, Penny Bender, et al. “The Essential Supports for School Improvement. Research Report.” Consortium on Chicago School Research (2006).

Waters, J. Timothy, and Robert Marzano, School District Leadership That Works: The Effect of Superintendent Leadership on Student Achievement (Denver: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, 2006).

Whitmire, Richard, “Inside Successful District-Charter Compacts,” Education Next 14, no. 4 (2014): 42-48.


[1] See for example G. Gay, Cultural Competence & Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Practice and Research, (New York: Teachers College Press, 2000).


[3] See for example Y. Jackson, Pedagogy of Confidence (New York: Teachers College Press, 2011).

[4] Material that teachers use to prepare students for learning. This might include telling a story, asking students what they know about the topic, and drawing connections to previous learning.

[5] Using visual images (e.g., pictures, movement, physical models) to represent information.

[6] By making comparisons and categorizing information, learners solidify their understanding and can more easily integrate new information into existing knowledge.

[7] Which encourages critical thinking and problem solving, skills highly valued in college and careers.

[8] See for example J. Banks et al., “Diversity Within Unity: Essential Principals for Teaching and Learning in a Multicultural Society,” Phi Delta Kappan, (2000): pp. 196-203.

[9] See for example:

[10] See for example the following: 1); 2) A. T. Henderson and K. L. Mapp, “A new wave of evidence,” The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement (Austin, Texas: National Center for Family & Community: Connections with Schools, 2002); 3) A. T. Henderson, ed., Beyond the bake sale: The essential guide to family-school partnerships (New York: The New Press, 2007); and 4) Tarek Chebbi, “The Parent Academy in Miami-Dade County Public Schools: Second Interim Report 2006-2007” (Miami, Fla.: Miami-Dade County Public Schools, 2008)

[11] A term used by the organization “E3” (Education, Excellence, Equity, to describe students who are often ignored by adults and for whom there are low expectations.

[12] See for instance: J. Oakes, A.S. Wells, M. Jones, and A. Datnow, “The social construction of ability, cultural politics, and resistance to reform,” History of Multicultural Education Volume 2: Foundations and Stratifications, (2012): 293.



Back to Top  •  Table of Contents   •  Download PDF


Janice Jackson, Consultant, former Senior Associate, National Equity Project

Janice Jackson is an independent systems change consultant. Most recently a Senior Associate at theNational Equity Project (Oakland, California), she is the former Executive Director of Stanford University’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE). She also worked previously at Harvard University, where she provided support for its Urban Superintendents Program and other leadership development initiatives such as a Wallace Foundation-funded leadership project for states and urban school districts. Jackson has been a faculty member and researcher at two universities, working in areas ranging from teaching and teacher education to leadership development. She has deep experience in supporting and running schools and school systems, including having served in the leadership cadre of three major urban school systems (including Boston) and as a consultant to many others. She has also worked in the policy arena at the federal level, as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education in the Clinton Administration. Jackson has also worked as a board member or consultant for a wide variety of major education organizations that support professional development, academic, social and emotional learning for students, and the pursuit of equity.

Monette McIver, Manager, Higher Education Services, Dana Center, University of Texas, Austin

Dr. Monette McIver serves as the manager of higher education services, providing leadership, guidance, and continuity across all higher education resources offered by the Center. In this role, she leads the Center’s national higher education developmental mathematics reform initiative, the New Mathways Project. Dr. McIver supports the ongoing effort to work at scale within Texas and develop and implement a plan for expansion to other states.

Dr. McIver has more than 20 years of experience in education. She most recently served as a consulting director for the Center for Systems Transformation at McREL International, where she oversaw and supported work in school and systems improvement. She led projects designed to increase the capacity of schools, districts and state departments of education to systematize improvement efforts. Prior to this position, Dr. McIver was a supervising principal consultant for McREL, leading projects focused on improving achievement for K–12 students. She facilitated and managed training opportunities at the school, district and state levels that focused on systemic change, leadership, strategic use of instructional strategies and curriculum development. In this role, Dr. McIver supported schools and districts with implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Dr. McIver was also an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She conducted research in the area of writing and writing instruction and taught courses related to elementary writing and writing instruction. Dr. McIver holds a B.A. in Mathematics from Spelman College, an M.A. in Elementary Education and a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Colorado at Boulder.