Education governance and the importance of equity-centered leadership

By David B. DeLuz, CSBA Director, Strategic Initiatives and Development

Since its inception in 1933, CSBA has been, at its core, about leadership and governance. Our work preparing education governing board members and governance teams to address the diverse needs of today’s students in the face of a rapidly changing world has increasingly focused on the role of the school board in creating conditions for student achievement.

The School Board Role in Creating the Conditions for Student Achievement highlighted research on the efforts that significantly impact school district improvement. Among those factors most important in driving district improvement, effective boards stay focused most on: setting a vision and goals for student achievement, establishing a districtwide system that offers some degree of autonomy, data-driven decision making, a district culture that supports student achievement and strong community partnerships, and investing in capacity and stable and effective leadership. This is a difficult enough task for districts that are performing well. But what about those districts that are struggling to serve all students, and that, despite their best efforts, have persistent achievement gaps for their low-income, minority, English learner and foster youth students?

Additionally, the report recommends that board members should place equity front and center. “Research indicates that boards in high-performing districts and those that close achievement gaps demonstrate a shared commitment to ensuring a high-quality education for every student, set goals and policies that foster learning for all students, and develop goals for faster growth for high-need students (coupled with equitable investments).”

The question is how? How do school board members put equity “front and center”? Well, one answer rests in the need for board members to do their job well. When placing equity front and center, board members should consider the following:

Setting the vision

Do not treat equity as an add-on, stand-alone value — It should be central to the mission of your work as a local educational agency. Model and communicate norms and values that reinforce the importance of equity in student achievement. Define equity; develop and communicate a ‘theory of action’ (how we are doing what we are doing); get consensus and model it. Explain the concept of equity as it is to be applied in your district, why it’s important for your LEA to address (specifically), how you will address it and what it will mean for ALL students.

It is also important to develop a deeper understanding and broad agreement on key issues, terms, strategies, goals and metrics. What is equity? How is student achievement defined? What does success look like? What measures will we use to determine success? Getting agreement on these concepts and measures up front helps in the development of a common language of success and an agreed-upon set of expectations so that progress can be effectively evaluated.

Districtwide culture of student achievement and partnerships

Developing a districtwide commitment to a culture of equity and achievement is essential to achieving success. Establishing a culture that embraces the principles of equity and achievement requires strategic leadership from the governance team, which includes the board and the superintendent (and his or her senior staff).

An equitable culture is established by moving from agreement to both personal and corporate commitment, which might include the establishment of board policies and resolutions declaring such a commitment. It also requires district leadership to be united in active and effective engagement with key stakeholder groups, including parents, students and the community at-large to share the vision and expectations for local schools. It’s also important for board members and school leaders to cultivate relationships among both allies and potential adversaries, listening to their concerns and engaging them in finding solutions in which they have a role. Building bridges of opportunity and engagement among all stakeholders is a constant effort for leaders, and board members and the governance team are key to accomplishing this important task.

Finally, investing in these efforts (with staff time and resources) helps to signal to stakeholders the significance of your commitment.

Data-driven decision making

Data is KEY! From CSBA’s New and First Term Board Member Orientation to its Masters In Governance trainings, CSBA emphasizes the need for board members to “know your data” — understanding the current and historical performance of your key student groups and using it to drive decision making.

Investing in values

There is a huge difference between “talking” about the principle of equity and putting it into action. One of the clearest ways to align thought with action is to clearly reflect your equity goals in your budget and expenditures. By doing so, people see your effort (and your values) as they are expressed through the budget.

Align equity goals and resource allocations in a way that clearly and transparently communicates that investments in all student groups (while also highlighting investments for those students that are identified as ‘underserved’) is key to reinforcing the trust and relationships being developed by the governance team. Budgets are simply tangible articulations of an organization’s values and priorities. A budget that highlights investments in equity and academic achievement reinforces the building of trust and cooperation between school leadership and key stakeholders within the community.

The impact of equity-centered leadership

The benefits of equity-centered leadership are tangible and significant. By exercising equity-centered leadership anchored in a clear, shared vision; reaching an agreement on goals and outcomes based on data; and clearly articulating the action plan highlighting the equitable investments being made, public schools have an opportunity to achieve greater success simply by reducing resistance and increasing alignment of inputs, goals and outcomes. These actions further increase the level of trust and transparency in the district, while also increasing accountability for results. In the end, equity-centered leadership is critical to increased understanding and trust — which only serves to improve the prospects for increased student achievement.

Governance — and the leadership that comes from the governance team — is central to establishing a culture of success for student achievement in public education. Likewise, the principle of equity now occupies a central place in efforts to improve student outcomes for California’s more than six million children in public schools. CSBA continues to encourage education governing board members to lead with equity-centered leadership and strives to prepare our members to lead in an increasingly complex and diverse environment in today’s public schools. By focusing on equity-centered leadership, California school board members can help meet the promise of public education in the 21st century.