By Sheryl Petty, Movement Tapestries and Management Assistance Group

Systems capacity building approaches that drive both equity and excellence can transform the most daunting challenges educators, students and communities face.[1] From implementing the Common Core (or other state standards) and new assessment systems to evaluating the efficacy of teachers and administrators, partnering in skillful ways with parents and communities, allocating resources efficiently and equitably, and ensuring that curriculum and instruction deeply reflect the wisdom of multi-ethnic communities, equity-centered capacity building brings a set of strategies and perspectives that deepen every approach to school system improvement. The Equity-Centered Capacity Building Network (ECCBN) was formed to unite efforts and share resources and strategies with educational leaders and change agents in school systems and communities across the U.S. [2]

ECCBN sees the purpose of education as to help youth and adults reach their full potential and use their strengths to support thriving communities. This requires varied skills, including academic, social, emotional, cross-cultural, multi-linguistic, self-efficacy and change agency — competencies that promote multifaceted college, career and life readiness and reflect broadened notions of “success” when equity and excellence are skillfully combined.

Many seek to show the interdependency of equity and excellence, but few resources exist that illuminate the intricacies of implementing rigorous, evidence-based approaches to equity, quality, cultural responsiveness, and partnership with students and communities in a process of continuous reflection and improvement. Too often, approaches to transforming systems are bifurcated, and support for effective implementation is available from a fragmented field of capacity building providers who compete for the finite resources that schools, school systems and states can access.

Attention to continuous improvement cycles and culturally responsive practice (for example) are core competencies for any capacity building provider. Yet, the core competencies of equity- and excellence-driven systems improvement approaches require understanding the equity implications of systemic change. For example, in areas such as opportunity-to-learn (including student placement, resource distribution, disciplinary policies and practices, school climate, and strategic use of time), or assessment and accountability systems, understanding how the dynamics of power, race and socioeconomics influence perception, communication, data analysis, decision-making, intervention design and implementation, and the internal and external politics of school system functioning is essential and requires many years of on-the-ground, in-system expertise to adequately address. These areas related to race, power and socioeconomics too often combine with the technical challenges of building adequate assessment and evaluation systems and developing and adopting effective, equitable policies, to stall even the best transformative intentions.

Lack of collective comfort and rigorous skill with these combined competencies is undermining the urgent transformations needed in our schools, systems and communities. There is much work to do to:

  1. introduce these rigorous but fragmented communities of practice to one another,
  2. develop the courage and humility to seek out and access one another’s expertise to benefit students and school systems, and
  3. urge the funding and policy worlds to incentivize joint, complementary approaches.

A Field-Building Strategy

Organizations providing capacity building are often prompted to expand and incorporate approaches into portfolios of services without adequate staff capacity, funding, support for long-term partnering across expertise areas, or deep expertise in newly added focal areas. The funding world can incentivize capacity builders to strategically learn from and complement one another’s expertise, instead of promoting a field that competes to support school systems and garner funding. Given the great need and demand for educational improvement, this field-building strategy for capacity building is a core component of transforming systems. It requires skillfully connecting the following (sometimes overlapping, sometimes fragmented) capacity building communities of practice:

  • Equitable, Cultural and Relational: these approaches focus on organizational culture; values, beliefs, expectations and relationships; context, history and politics; cultural responsiveness; authentic community partnership; power analysis and analysis of structural inequity patterns and practices as they relate to every aspect of school system functioning
  • Structural and Technical: these approaches focus on continuous improvement; the process of planning and systems change over time; collaboration structures for systematic, joint reflection; structural arrangements, including strategic use of time; systems thinking and understanding; and technical evaluation metrics that support these areas
  • Functional: these approaches focus on the core functional areas of school systems such as curriculum, instructional practice, socio-emotional learning for youth and adults, human resource management, finance, student assessment systems, and communications, among other areas.

Each of these communities of practice works in rigorous, evidence-based ways. When pursued in their most robust manner, they include teachers, principals, students, school site and central office staff, system leaders, boards, parents/families and communities working collaboratively to successfully undertake their systems change work. We can evolve our collective understanding and standards as a field such that only capacity building approaches that skillfully combine these three domains could be considered “high quality,” as these three areas are not mutually exclusive, and actually require one another to function well.

This volume seeks to contribute to this expanded understanding of capacity building and to inform effective implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as well as efforts such as the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity Initiative focused on educator quality. It illuminates many existing approaches to supporting schools, systems, communities and states in the U.S. The authors work within and across capacity building communities of practice, combining and blending these areas of expertise to provide the highest quality support.

This volume will support the work of:

  • practitioners working inside school systems at all levels with a lens toward whole systems improvement;
  • capacity builders and technical assistance providers, particularly those who are struggling with or seeking to blend these domains of practice;
  • funders supporting capacity building efforts;
  • policymakers and policy advocates seeking to deepen their understanding of effective and sustainable approaches to change; and
  • community organizers and community capacity builders who are partnering with school systems toward equitable transformation.

Structure of the Volume 

Drawing on experience across multiple states, systems and the federal level, Janice Jackson (formerly of the National Equity Project; former Deputy Assistant Secretary, US Department of Education) and Monette McIver (The Dana Center, University of Texas) open the volume with a focus on the opportunities and challenges facing school districts when undertaking systemic change initiatives with a focus on equity and excellence.

Peter Senge (Sloan School of Management at MIT and SoL Education Partnership) and Mary Scheetz (Waters Foundation; former Assistant Superintendent) follow this with examples of organizational culture change and adult transformation in systems, including socio-emotional literacy and cultural responsiveness for educators. Shelley Zion shares state-level perspectives and approaches to capacity building for supporting school systems within and across states.

Sonja Brookins Santelises (The Education Trust; former Chief Academic Officer, Baltimore City Public Schools) then shares with us part of Baltimore’s journey toward implementing the Common Core Learning Standards with a focus on equity, quality and rigor. Elizabeth Kozleski and Molly Baustien Siuty (University of Kansas) follow with a focus on requirements in preparing and developing effective teachers who address marginalization.

Bradley Scott (Intercultural Development Research Association, Texas) discusses the history, impact, current state of and possibilities with regional Equity Assistance Centers around the country. Yvette Jackson (National Urban Alliance for Effective Education; former Executive Director of Instruction and Professional Development, New York City Public Schools), focuses on the core of instructional practice, curriculum, student voice and the relationship between cognition, culture, expectations and beliefs. June Rimmer (Center for Educational Leadership, University of Washington; former Chief Academic Officer) discusses approaches to principal development, capacity building and support.

Larry Leverett (Panasonic Foundation; former Superintendent) ends the volume with a focus on the role of boards and governance in effective, equitable implementation and system capacity building, and the capacity building needs of governance bodies.[3]

Our goal in this introductory volume is to describe some of what we’ve learned as capacity builders working collaboratively with our colleagues to transform schools and systems across the country. Our approaches integrate equity and excellence across the work of many, many programs and partnerships with schools, systems and districts nationally. We invite your energy and expertise as we work together to deepen our ability to support development of the capacities each person needs for their own fulfillment and to contribute to a thriving, healthy society.


We are grateful for the generosity of The Education Trust in providing communications support for the publication of this volume. Managing Editor Robin Harris, Vice President of Government Affairs and Communications Deborah Veney, Vice President of K-12 Policy & Practice Sonja Brookins Santelises, Senior Web Editor Anneliese Bruner, Production and Design Assistant Allie Nambo, Administrative Assistant Ebony Daughtry and Communications Director Nicolle Grayson have been invaluable in their patience, expertise and commitment to the production of this volume. Thank you!


1. Sheryl Petty, “Supporting Sustainable Improvement in School Systems: Capacity Building for Equity and Excellence,” in Opening the Doors to Opportunity for All: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future, Select Series Essays from the AIR Research Roundtable on Equity and Opportunity in Education (Washington, D.C.: The Equity Project, American Institutes for Research, January 2015), 64-74, available at:

2. The Equity-Centered Capacity Building Network (ECCBN) was formed to unite the efforts and share resources and strategies among equity- and excellence-centered capacity builders and to increase the visibility and impact of capacity-building approaches that promote deep and sustainable school and systems change. Network members include the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education; the Center for Culturally Responsive Urban Education at the University of Colorado, Denver; the Equity Alliance at Arizona State University; University of Kansas Special Education Department; the Panasonic Foundation; the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA); the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium; the Delaware Valley Consortium for Excellence & Equity; the Education Alliance at Brown University; (and recently the National Equity Project). Network members currently consist of regional and national organizations with: a focus on transforming whole school systems, in addition to individual schools; targeted approaches to equity, excellence and cultural responsiveness deeply embedded into every aspect of their work; local credibility as well as national reach and influence; a strong desire to work collaboratively; and a track record of success with school systems locally, regionally and nationally. Future membership anticipates including local individual and institutional capacity builders, as well as other regional and national providers who meet these criteria.

3. Follow-up volumes will include perspectives on areas not covered in this introductory issue, such as excellence- and equity-centered approaches to data and assessment, educator preparation and development, and community capacity building from colleagues such as Oona Chatterjee and the Center for Popular Democracy, and others.

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Sheryl Petty has worked in educational systems change and organizational development for 20 years. Her expertise includes equity-driven change process design and facilitation, cross sector field-building, strategy development, strategic planning, alliance building and network development, education equity assessments, qualitative research, visioning and coaching. She has been a high school teacher, program manager, executive director, and consultant to districts, nonprofits, foundations, universities and schools. Dr. Petty is a consultant through Movement Tapestries, a senior consultant at Management Assistance Group (Washington, D.C.), an associate consultant with Movement Strategy Center (Oakland, California) and was most recently a Principal Associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

Dr. Petty’s current work comprises field- and movement-building and promotes aligned approaches across a number of education sectors, including practice in school systems, capacity building, policy, research, community organizing, educator preparation and development, messaging and communications, mindfulness and contemplative practice. A fellow at the Mind and Life Institute and a past fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Sheryl has co-designed and facilitated trainings and planning processes with consultants, practitioners, staff and boards nationally and internationally. She holds a B.A. in Mathematics, an M.A. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology, and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and Change. Dr. Petty’s focus is on supporting the alignment efforts of practitioners and advocates to unleash our most vibrant selves and improve our collective life