How to Provide Leadership for Educational Equity

By Brian Soika

A teacher demonstrates leadership for educational equity by helping a student with class work
Leadership for educational equity refers to increasing student access through systemic change. It’s an important career goal for anyone who aspires to create more opportunities for historically marginalized students. 

If you want to turn your aspirations into action, follow the guidance of Akilah Lyons-Moore, EdD. An Assistant Professor of Clinical Education at USC Rossier, Lyons-Moore completed the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership (EDL) program so that she could educate other teachers.

Learn how the EDL program prepares you to advance equity in schools.

In a recent conversation, she shared her advice for how to make leadership for educational equity an achievable goal in your career.

Let Your Passion Guide You

Figure out how you can best serve students by identifying what motivates you. Lyons-Moore notes that her path to teaching began with a passion for community organizing. Eventually this led to her first education role helping at-risk students. 

If you’re a current teacher who wants to drive foundational change, identify leadership roles that will allow you to promote educational equity. For example, you may want to help create curriculums, or perhaps make policy decisions in a high-level administrative role. 

Define What Equity and Leadership Mean to You

Be clear about the segment of students you aspire to help. Equity specifically focuses on addressing the needs of historically marginalized individuals, as they are typically under-served by educational institutions. 

You should also understand how equity work “begins with understanding how one’s identity will shape interactions with students, families, and the institution in which you work. Your identity and positionality intersect in ways that will play out in the classroom, often in very subtle ways,” says Lyons-Moore.

Additionally, how do you see yourself as a leader? You will need strength and wisdom to navigate administrative challenges, as well as an unwavering commitment to students.

Acknowledge the Challenges of Leadership for Educational Equity

Promoting equity can be challenging. Your colleagues may feel uncomfortable dealing with topics such as race, gender and access, even in institutions committed to change. Or they may acknowledge that there’s an equity problem, but lack the will or resources to address it. 

Identifying Barriers to Equity

As you become an educational leader, you need to be able to identify ways in which your organization may be thwarting progress. USC Rossier’s Center for Urban Education (CUE) lists some common institutional obstacles to advancing equity: 

  • Not knowing how to talk about race
  • A lack of racial equity indicators
  • Failing to set racial equity benchmarks
  • Not having a set of racial equity best practices
  • Lacking procedures to assess the ways in which policies, practices, and initiatives undermine racial equity.

Build an Equity Action Plan

If you want to demonstrate leadership for educational equity, communicate your commitment to the cause to senior members of your institution. If they share your goals, work with your colleagues to develop an action plan. You will need their support to be successful.   

CUE has created essential practices for educational leaders to close the racial equity gap at the system level. Consider how you might apply them as a leader at your institution.

  • Set specific goals by race and ethnicity. 
  • View racial inequity as a structural problem (rather than a cultural problem attributed to historically marginalized populations).
  • Adopt CUE’s Percentage Point Gap system to calculate equity gaps and the number of additional students by race and ethnicity that need to complete specific attainment benchmarks.
  • Initiate an equity assessment of your institution’s current policies and initiatives.

Visit CUE’s page on closing racial equity gaps to view the complete list.

Learn About Your School’s Community

In order to provide an equitable learning environment for your students, you need to know more about where they live. 

“Schools are like an extension of the community,” says Lyons-Moore. Learn about the local issues impacting residents, and listen to students’ concerns and preferences. Understanding their social context will help you better serve them, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the community. 

It’s also important to consider your racial, cultural, ethnic and linguistic identity in relation to your students, as well as your perceived identity. These factors may play a role in how you relate to them and vice versa. 

Stay Motivated by Reviewing Your Goals

Pursuing educational equity is a worthwhile commitment, but you will likely face challenges and setbacks along the way. It’s helpful then to always remember why you’re doing it in the first place.

Leadership for educational equity goals:

  • Improved academic performance for historically-marginalized students
  • A heightened sense of empathy for others
  • A stronger connection to an academic community
  • Improve students’ understanding of systems and structures within society
  • Inspire students to work towards significant structural change
  • Reduced bias toward others

Do the Work

Before you can become a leader for educational equity, you need to prepare yourself. If you currently teach and want to set immediate goals, review best practices for improving equity in your classroom, and consider how you can address the range of your students’ needs

You should also surround yourself with people who are pursuing equity goals as well. This might be colleagues or even a group of friends. Discuss your interests, objectives and backgrounds, and look for ways in which you can learn from them. 

Read About Equity

Lyons-Moore also recommends the following authors and books to gain more foundational understanding of equity:

  • Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms, H. Richard Milner
  • Dreamkeepers, Gloria Ladson-Billings
  • Stamped From the Beginning and How to Be an AntiRacist, Ibram X. Kendi
  • Lisa Delpit
  • Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
  • Stephen D. Brookfield (for writings on critical reflection)

Commit to Critical Self-Reflection

Because equity work requires analysis of institutional structures, you have to consider your own role in those structures. “The work begins with us,” says Lyons-Moore about aspiring equity leaders. “In order for us to [advance equity], we must continuously do the work within ourselves.” 

Critical self-reflection is an intensive process. As you reflect on your power and privilege, you may find that you implicitly support biased systems that limit opportunities for others. The goal of reflection is not to induce shame, but to increase your awareness. As you become more aware, you can grow into a stronger leader for equity.

Drive Systemic Change With a Doctoral Degree

Senior leadership at an institution or school district has the most direct impact on equity policy.

School administrators shape curriculums, influence hiring practices, establish accountability standards and more. 

If you want to affect systemic change, then a doctoral program may be a smart idea.

Lyons-Moore earned her EdD degree from USC Rossier’s Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership (EDL) program. “Race and equity are at the core of the curriculum,” she notes, adding that the program’s diverse cohort helps you understand the different backgrounds of others (an experience that’s critical to equity work). 

Find out how the EDL program can empower you to make a difference and elevate your career.

Become an Equity Leader