As a BetterLesson instructional coach, I work with administrators who are determined to make schooling more equitable. Despite the health and technological considerations brought on by COVID-19, these leaders and others want to seize the moment of increased awareness of racial injustice by working to dismantle the institutional racism present in education.
This summer, I also facilitated many BetterLesson Virtual Workshops, including on topics like leading for equity, culturally-responsive teaching, trauma-informed practice, social-emotional learning, and developing family partnerships. In those, principals and district leaders have been asking: What policies perpetuate inequity? How can we replace them with policies that promote equity? How can we systematize equitable practices so they are not “one-time” strategies? How will we know if we are successful? And, as with all uncertainties, leaders are asking: What is within my locus of control?
As a leadership scholar, my response to each of these questions is shared leadership. Shared leadership gets diverse stakeholders involved in the decision-making process. In a school that practices shared leadership, policies are co-created by students and their families, teachers, staff, and administrators. I prefer this term to the more popular “distributed leadership” because while distributed leadership includes teachers in leadership, it stops short of sharing leadership with students and parents. Additionally, the word “shared” is centered on what Mary Parker Follet calls “power with,” whereas “distributed” maintains a hierarchical sense of “power over.”
How can we improve educational equity?
First, let’s define equity. Equity is about everyone getting the resources or opportunities they need to thrive. Determining how we can make schools more equitable first requires us to identify where the system is not equitable. If we as leaders knew the answer to this, we would have already changed the system. To address the needs of our community, we will need to ask the various stakeholders in our communities.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley says, “The people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power.” Many students and families have been excluded from conversations about school policy. BetterLesson’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Afrika Afeni Mills has written about the far-from-inviting feeling family members experience when schools do not treat them as partners. Shared leadership asks us to listen more than we talk. So, the first step in identifying how our schools can improve equity is identifying who can provide answers: families and caretakers, students, teachers, school staff, and perhaps members of the larger community.
What policies perpetuate inequity?
Encouraged by this year’s renewed societal commitment to eliminate institutional racism, educators have been increasingly focused on identifying and dismantling the policies that perpetuate educational inequity. This could apply to a range of issues: from state-level funding formulas to policies around the placement of students into Advanced Placement or Special Education, provision of more accurate and representative curricula, punitive discipline policies, problematic dress codes, or how students are graded. Where legal change is difficult, schools have leveraged the power of advocating as a group, like the New York Performance Standards Consortium who came together to change standardized testing requirements for their students. In our Virtual Workshops on systematic racism, we ask teachers to consider what inequitable policies they might experience in their own context - for example, in one Virtual Workshop a teacher questioned the educational value of a policy that prevents Black female students from wearing headwraps. While removing inequitable policies like these are important steps, we also need to make sure we are including stakeholders in the creation of future policies.
How can we replace inequitable policies with policies that promote equity?
Research tells us organizations benefit from improved decision-making when multiple stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process (Kusy & McBain, 2000). If we want to be more equitable, we need the students and families who have been historically marginalized by inequitable policies at the policy-making table. The policies are important, but how they are created and whose voices are involved in the creation process is how we ensure new policies don’t continue to perpetuate inequity.
How can we systematize equitable practices so they are not “one-time” strategies?
Creating shared leadership structures that inform the school’s decision-making process is a powerful way to systematize the school’s commitment to equity. If each time a policy is created, parents, students, and teachers are part of the process, this communicates to stakeholders their voices are truly valued. Furthermore, given all the uncertainty of this school year, how decisions are made is one thing that is within a leader’s locus of control.
A great example of democratic power-sharing in action is Constitution High School. This report highlights the ways in which students are co-creators of school policy. The decision to share power is a powerful step towards educational equity. Logistically, researchers have identified several things to consider when creating shared leadership structures:
Embrace radical collegiality.
Fielding (2001) defined “radical collegiality” in relation to students, but it’s useful for our work with families and caretakers as well. Basically, it refers to the idea that educators learn and become more effective when they see students (and families) as partners and they share responsibility for student success. This mindset is critical to the success of any organization rooted in shared leadership. A necessary precursor to this mindset is seeing all stakeholders through an asset-based frame, something we talk about in our Virtual Workshops on student-centered learning and family partnership. One teacher in a workshop on family partnership shared an example of how she applies this idea. She starts each conversation with caretakers by saying, “You know your child more than anyone.”
Create small groups.
Research has found groups larger than about 15 members can become unwieldy and ineffective (Calvert, 2004; Pautsch, 2010). As much as possible, stakeholders should be represented equally, with a slightly higher percentage of students to reduce the ratio of adults to students, which has been known to overwhelm and, thus, silence students (Osberg, Pope, & Galloway, 2006).
Clarify the governance structure.
Explicitly state how and to what extent power is shared. Identify which types of decisions will be made solely by the school’s administrator(s), and which types of decisions will be shared. Clarify what is needed to move forward with a decision (e.g., majority vote, unanimous agreement). Determine leadership team members’ responsibility to communicate with the stakeholders they represent (e.g., weekly, only to get feedback on major policies). For example, the leadership team may draft a new policy and want to get feedback within one week from all stakeholder groups so they can vote to approve the policy the following week.
Members of the leadership team should receive the support needed to enable them to communicate regularly with the stakeholders they represent. Many teachers have created tech tool training videos that are shared with families and students so all stakeholders can create and send out a survey using Google Forms or communicate asynchronously using an app like Voxer or an LMS like Google Classroom.
Collect and use quantitative and qualitative data.
Decisions made by the shared leadership team should be based on data. Sometimes, we will look at student data like grades or test scores. Other times, that data will be survey data in which stakeholders share their degree of belonging in the school or the extent to which they feel their voice is valued. Students may self-report their level of engagement in class. A school leader in one of the Virtual Workshops I facilitated highlighted the importance of having ongoing data streams, suggesting their school may start regular “listening sessions,” in which administrators and educators simply listen to the perspectives, needs, and ideas of families and students.
Meetings should be held consistently, at the same time and in the same place (whether that’s the same physical location or the same virtual room) if possible, to avoid confusion that may exclude members from participation in the meeting. While trying to find a time that works for families, students, and educators can be difficult, Dana Mitra (2006) highlights what can happen when we don’t consider a particular stakeholder group. She found a school that took pride in its shared leadership model but held leadership team meetings during the school day, which forced the student representatives to choose between class or participating in the meeting. This practice seemed to send a message that students were “nice to have” members of the team, not “need to have” members.
How do I practice shared leadership this year?
Many educators are entering this year determined to do a better job of communicating with students and families. I suggest we instead try to focus our efforts on partnering with students and families. Our students’ families have a lot going on this year (as we all do), so if, at first, it’s challenging to get in touch, I invite you to consider this finding from shared leadership researchers, Carson, Tesluk, and Marrone: “When team members feel recognized and supported within their team (social support) they are more willing to share responsibility, cooperate, and commit to the team’s collective goals” (2007, p. 1223).
Shared leadership can feel scary at first, as we fear what will happen if we give up control. But successful leaders who have come before us note the power in developing a community of peers. Ella Baker, a staunch supporter of shared leadership during the U.S. civil rights movement has said, "I have always thought that what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership in others." Mary Parker Follet (1924) addressed leaders’ fears that power was a zero-sum game, by writing, “First, by pooling power, we are not giving it up; and secondly, the power produced by relationship is a qualitative, not a quantitative thing” (p. 191). She later wrote that sharing power is generative, that confronting and integrating different ideas “means a freeing for both sides and increased total power or increased capacity in the world” (pp. 301–302). We bring people to the decision-making table by honoring each member’s voice and provide the support necessary to enable them to share ideas with us.
If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend one of our newest Virtual Workshops for leaders, “Caregiver Connection: Setting Up Systems to Partner With Families.” This workshop highlights the need for an asset-based mindset towards students and families to do this work, walks participants through systemic examples of family partnership, and provides a template for leaders to build a plan using research and data to inform shared school decisions.
Lindsay Lyons is an educational consultant who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation, create curricula grounded in youth activism, and build capacity for shared leadership and racial and gender justice. Lindsay taught in NYC for 7 years, holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog, Time for Teachership.