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Future of Education: Leading for Equity

Leaders from three large and diverse public school districts share their insights about leading for racial equity.

This event was live-streamed on September 24. 

While the pandemic and racial justice movements have called new attention to racial inequities that exist in America’s school systems and beyond, school leaders have always been deeply aware of these disparities.

In a conversation that began with an acknowledgement of that shared understanding, Superintendents Brenda Cassellius of the Boston Public Schools; Joseph Davis, Ed.M.’00, Ed.D.’08, of the Ferguson-Florissant School District; and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Janice K. Jackson offered insights and inspiration on how to move forward — how to keep working toward racial equity, especially amid the current crises.

The conversation — part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Future of Education series — was moderated by Senior Lecturer Jennifer Cheatham, co-chair of the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) and herself a former school superintendent in Madison, Wisconsin.

“You have been working tirelessly to lead your communities through this crisis while simultaneously exploring opportunities to make positive change,” Cheatham said of this group of leaders. “While it is hard to look ahead when we are embroiled in the current crisis, we must do so if we are to have any chance at realizing the hopes and dreams of this generation of young people and the generations that follow.”

Over the course of the conversation, the leaders spoke openly about the challenges they faced in their settings and how they continued to operate and make decisions that centered racial justice. The panel also explored the importance of curriculum, inequities in science and mathematics, the structural injustices created by policies, and how to think about and measure success.

A few key takeaways from the conversation — of value to all educators and leaders — are spotlighted here.

Call Out Equity Explicitly

If leaders want to advance racial justice and eliminate systemic inequities, they need to make that a clear goal, one that educators at all levels are working toward and using to guide decisions. “What I’ve done in my role is not only name equity as a focus explicitly because, although it’s always been a part of the work we’ve done here in CPS, it wasn’t called out explicitly,” said Jackson. “Now, it’s called out in our mission and vision for the district, in our strategic plan where we identify specific goals towards equity.” Jackson has also created an equity office to address underlying, systemic barriers to success.

Be Bold

“We have to stop waiting and putting it to the next generation,” Cassellius said. “Someone has to stand up and be courageous. We need to rally everybody. This is coordinated, all-hands-on-deck work, because schools can’t do it alone.” Cassellius encouraged leaders to step up to the plate and to take on the responsibility of driving equity work forward. “Kids aren’t going to get what they need if you don’t stand in the gap for them, if we don’t put together the connections for their families… We allow this to happen generation after generation for poor children, especially for poor children of color, and poor Black children.”  

Practice and Teach Forgiveness

While close attention should be paid to curriculum and instruction, Davis recognized that there’s an intangible, almost unmeasurable quality to success and growth in racial equity work as well. As many people and communities carry hurt and anger because of racism and injustice, learning to feel empathy and build connection between people is key. “We need to teach forgiveness… Forgiveness can’t be forgotten, because so many of us have been wronged in so many different ways, and we carry that toxicity with us. We need to learn to forgive people so we can move on, and that allows you to engage and to grow in ways you couldn’t before.”

Davis added later in the conversation that those in positions of power need to be ready to take up the call to action and be ready to set an example in this work. “It may not be your fault, but it is your fight,” he said.

About the Future of Education series:

The Future of Education is HGSE’s Centennial discussion series, meant to explore less-visible ideas and solutions, share new knowledge, and foster constructive conversation about the most important issues in education. Throughout 2020, these convenings will dig deep into critical topics and big-picture ideas, with scholars, practitioners, and thought leaders from across and beyond the education sector.

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