Sharla Horton-Williams, Ed.D.
School Leadership for Social Justice | SLSJ.us | January 2021
“It’s storytime, friends!”
When I taught pre-kindergarten, my students would stop everything and squeal and dash to the carpet as soon as they heard those words. They sat there, criss-cross applesauce, bubbles in their mouths, on their assigned carpet square with anticipation. They knew they were about to hear a great story.
We may not all teach pre-kindergarten and read stories on the carpet, but we all have a story to tell. The story we are going to talk about today, though, isn't about magic snowmen or talking dogs or two curious and inquisitive friends taking a fun trip to the park and discovering - and entering, of course - a secret passageway into the future. The story we are going to talk about today is the story of oppression, inequity, racism, abuse, injustice, and inhumanity. Whew. When you string those words together, it sounds like a horror story.
It actually is a horror story, but it is not some fictional story constructed in the mind of an imaginative author. This is the real story of Black children in America’s education system constructed by an oppressive, inequitable, racist, abusive, unjust, inhumane system.
“Show me your data and I will show you your racism.”
I shared this quote by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings in another blog. The data tells the story of Black students in our schools. And it is not a pretty story at all. Again, from my last blog, here are some national statistics that elucidate the rampant racism in our education system:
Black preschoolers are four times more likely to be suspended than white students in preschool (US Department of Education, 2014)
Black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than white boys (US Department of Education, 2012)
Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls (US Department of Education, 2012)
Black students performed 26 points below white students in 3rd-grade reading (National Association of Education Progress, 2019)
Black students performed 27 points below white students in 8th-grade reading (National Association of Education Progress, 2019)
Black students performed 25 points below white students in 4th-grade math (National Association of Education Progress, 2019)
Black students performed 32 points below white students in 8th-grade math (National Association of Education Progress, 2019)
Only 73% of Black students complete high school in four years compared to 87% of white students (US Department of Education, 2018)
Black and Hispanic students are three to ten times more likely to have unqualified teachers than students in predominantly white schools (Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy, 2011)
Some people would look at this and immediately deduce that there must be something wrong with Black students. Or Black families. Or Black communities. I don’t remember much from my graduate statistics course, but I do remember this: correlation does not equal causation. To see this data and to immediately think about what’s wrong with Black anything or anybody is incredibly problematic - and racist. Please don’t check out yet. I’m not calling you a racist. Please keep reading.
You may not be racist. Here’s the problem: even if you are not racist, the system is. This data, my friends, is simply institutional racism at work. It is the direct result of years - decades even - of systemic and structural racism in schools. This data tells the true story of our education system. The truth is, American schools were not designed to educate Black children; that was not their historic purpose. But today, our education system exists to provide a free and appropriate education for students through grade 12 - including Black students. Black students, though, remain the least likely to receive a high-quality education in our schools.
Social justice school leaders recognize the reality of inequity in schools. They also have a fierce determination to upend it. Further, they are deeply committed to the students in their schools, understand the power they have to impact student learning, and maintain a clear, laser-like focus on student achievement. To be an effective social justice school leader, you must hold these critical mindsets around commitment, confidence, and clarity.
What exactly does this commitment, confidence, and clarity look like in practice? The following three statements reflect the beliefs and corresponding behaviors of social justice school leaders.
I believe that the performance of Black students in my classroom or on my campus is not a reflection of their ability, but of the systemic inequity and educational oppression. Therefore, I avoid using any deficit language to describe my students, their families, and their communities, and I maintain high expectations for everyone in my school community. I remind my students of their brilliance, and I actively and consistently listen for and correct any deficit language and thinking among all members of my school community.
I believe that I am the right person to disrupt this inequity and that I have what it takes to achieve exemplary outcomes for Black students in my school. Therefore, I am decisive and confident in every decision I make, and I make every decision in the interest of my students first.
I believe that educational equity is rooted in educational excellence. Therefore, I am first and foremost an instructional leader. I am aware of and work to improve my teachers’ pedagogical expertise. I am aware of my school’s data (disaggregated by race), and I have a concrete action plan to achieve exemplary outcomes. Further, I monitor this plan regularly and adjust the action steps as necessary.
Surprisingly, #3 is an area of significant concern. Not all school leaders regularly disaggregate and review student data by race. Not all classroom teachers regularly disaggregate and review student data by race, either. And not many actually use the existing data to monitor student progress, write improvement goals, or develop and implement classroom or campus action plans. Worse, some have lofty, inclusive vision statements like, “ALL students will experience academic success,” yet they have absolutely no idea how their Black students are performing.
I have good news, and I have bad news. I’ll give you the bad news first: You cannot be an effective educator or educational leader without regularly reviewing, reflecting on, and responding to student performance and achievement and performance data. Wait. There’s more bad news. Sorry. Without regularly reviewing, reflecting on, and responding to Black student achievement and performance data, you may be a racist leader. No, I’m not calling you racist, but by not addressing the inequity in academic performance, you are perpetuating racism, oppression, and injustice in your school.
Now, for some good news. Finally. You can become a strong instructional leader and begin your journey of social justice school leadership by doing one simple thing: Read your story. Your story is written by your data. How are Black students in your school performing academically? How are they performing relative to their white peers? Pause. A word of caution: Be careful not to fall into the relative performance trap. White student performance is not the measure of excellence! Equity and excellence are not determined by how well Black students are keeping up with white students. If everyone in your school is reading three grades below grade level, there’s a larger problem at play - but that’s another blog for another day. I digress.
Reading your story sounds simple - and it is! It’s simple, but incredibly powerful. What this does for you is give you the clarity you need to define and drive your instructional leadership through a transformational lens. Instructional leadership is simply leading with a strong focus on student achievement; the transformational lens is leading this way because you are on a mission to radically change outcomes for Black students.
Now that you know what needs to ground your leadership, here are four starting steps to move forward for equity and excellence:
Review your disaggregated data. Know your data. Know what’s happening in your school. Know how teachers are teaching. Know how students are performing. Know which students are being suspended. Know which students are excelling.
Reflect on this data. I mean really, really reflect on it. Ask yourself the why behind the what. Why are certain groups outperforming others? What teachers do they have? What opportunities do they not have? How is instruction being designed and delivered? Check out this article and use the 10 Questions for Ensuring Equity in School Discipline that may help with this analysis.
Resist the urge to offer deficit explanations. Any gaps in Black student performance are not because of Black students. Nor their parents. Nor their community. Period. Go back to #2 and dig deeper.
Respond to the data. Data do not lie. Data tells a story, and that story is reality. Knowing the data, though, is not enough. What will you actually do with the data? Until you make an actionable, responsive plan that you regularly monitor, you are not yet leading for justice.
The current story that your data is telling may not be ideal - it may even be scary, but there's still time to write a new story for your Black students. They deserve it, and you can do it.
REFLECT AND RESPOND:
What is the story of Black students in your school?
Where are the most glaring inequities? Discipline? Student achievement? Special education?
What are three practical actions toward anti-racist school leadership can you take right now to reverse the trends?
Ready for a more thorough evaluation of your leadership for equity, check out this equity assessment. Visit the SLSJ website for a downloadable version.
THE SLSJ DOMAIN TRIANGLE:
What new knowledge did you acquire?
What beliefs did this information challenge? How were your beliefs shifted?
What leadership behaviors will change as a result of this shift in beliefs and new knowledge?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams has a 20-year career in early childhood and PK-8 education and is
committed to achieving educational excellence and equity for all students - especially Black students who have historically been underserved in education.
She has served as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in private, public charter, and traditional public schools. Sharla earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University, where her research focused on the role of the school leadership in closing the opportunity-achievement gap.
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Citation: Horton-Williams, S. (2021, January). It's Story Time. So, What's Your Story? School Leadership for Social Justice.