Equity & Diversity Opinion

Educational Equity Isn’t All or Nothing: The Case for Incremental Change

In some politically polarized communities, a step-by-step approach can work when other approaches do not
By Ronald S. Thomas — August 19, 2022 5 min read
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I sense a profound disappointment these days among many political and educational progressives because, so far at least, the return to school after the pandemic has not resulted in a new paradigm of equity, diversity, and inclusion, as they had hoped. In a recent Education Week commentary, Renee Owen noted that, for a good number of educators, “optimistic images of not going back to normal have morphed into dystopian disarray.”

For other school folk, however, the post-pandemic attitude seems to be, if it worked before, at least for the majority of students, it is fine now. The argument is that keeping things stable is the best that can be done, considering all the unknowns.

Given this dynamic, superintendents and principals have a choice. They can either wallow in the frustration of missed opportunities to interrupt and replace inequitable practices on a grand scale or use every chance to move forward in smaller steps.

Such incremental change implies moving one step at a time, thereby allowing more opportunity for real-time data collection and analysis, unlearning skills and learning new ones, and reducing the emotional impact of change.

I am a realist but also a person of action. As a former district administrator, I’ve been responsible for designing and implementing changes for equity that some vehemently opposed. In the highly polarized environment of some communities, moving the needle slowly over time affords the best opportunity for leaders to successfully shepherd positive change. Leaders don’t have to make 180-degree changes but can right-size their moves school by school for long-term success.

This will probably not be what those working and living in communities that have suffered under decades of inattention, insufficient funding, and lack of culturally relevant programs want to hear. Many are justifiably fed up with deeply embedded systems that too often have benefited affluent, white, and suburban children at the expense of children of color. More power to communities where bold actions for equity can now occur.

But, given the divisions in other American communities, the best that can happen, in the short term, might be incremental improvement.

This can mean revising the curriculum so that it is more relevant for students whose culture has been neglected in the past; changing school schedules so that all students, regardless of ZIP code, will receive enrichment and remediation during school; permitting teachers to deviate from the curriculum-pacing guide to address students’ needs; and recasting admission to gifted programs so it is not dependent solely on standardized-test scores.

It just makes sense, in the highly volatile political environment of some communities, to reduce possible upfront misunderstandings that can doom an initiative before it even gets started.

In some communities, even some of these modest steps must be taken carefully and cautiously, lest educators be caught in political whiplash.

What approach should school-based leaders take to do the right thing for all students but not set off alarm bells of protest?

If leaders involve diverse stakeholders in program planning and implementation, cultivate allies, adjust their marketing strategies, and strategically use their understanding of the current political reality, every community can move toward greater fairness, even in these difficult times.

For example, before proposing replacing inequitable policies or procedures with more equitable ones, leaders should seek to understand the original purposes and goals of the current practices. Principals will want to ask lots of questions of their staff in a nonthreatening manner. “Help me to understand. What was this program intended to do? Why do we . . . ? Why do we . . . ?”

Digging deeply into the roots of inequitable practices and finding out which students are being hurt and in what specific ways will be invaluable in crafting reforms.

Armed with this information, school leaders will want to empower respected in-school influencers and community leaders as part of the guiding coalition for improvements.

Framing the changes matters a lot. One alternative is framing the initiative as addressing not achievement gaps between student groups that differ by race, ethnicity, or income, but gaps between all students and excellence. In this way, schools will not be setting up community and parental groups to believe that they are in competition with each other for special treatment or resources for their children. It is difficult to oppose an initiative focusing on all students learning more.

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Image of balance.

Skillful marketing is also essential. One helpful tool is to craft a three- or four-sentence mission narrative for the upcoming reform, with perhaps a simple graph or table and including specific language that stakeholders could use as their “elevator” speech when asked by community members, “What is going on at that school?” The hard work of staff and community in the past should be acknowledged, even if it has not produced impressive results.

School-based leaders know not to use educational jargon in explaining initiatives to parents and others. But in particularly polarized communities, principals will also want to think carefully about the use of words such as “marginalized,” “anti-racist,” and “inclusivity.” These are terms that segments of the public may not fully understand or incorrectly interpret as left-wing indoctrination that may also result in taking resources from their children or holding them back academically. Instead, savvy leaders will emphasize the connection of the new initiatives with academic goals and foundational skills that all students need.

These suggestions are not denying or perpetuating problems. It just makes sense, in the highly volatile political environment of some communities, to reduce possible upfront misunderstandings that can doom an initiative before it even gets started.

It is certainly justified to want immediate and substantive change to systems that never worked for those on the margins and give scant attention to diversity or inclusion. But given the current divisive political makeup of some communities, that might not be possible right now.

In some places, incrementalism just might succeed where other approaches will not. Rather than stand still, leaders can push forward step by step, with equity always the goal.

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