Jan 7 2015

Eliminating persistent achievement gaps in America's schools requires educational leaders who can plan for the inevitable pushback that equity-focused policies engender, two University of Washington College of Education professors argue in a new paper published in the journal Leadership and Policy in Schools.

Thomas Halverson, co-author of the paper and a senior researcher with UW's Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, said leaders need to be strategic about the planning and execution of sustainable equity-focused policies.

"Leaders need to first build a broad base of support, both within and outside the district, for reforms," Halverson said. "But they also need to anticipate and plan for the initial support of these reforms fracturing and dissipating within specific factions of the community as they begin to be successful."

"Exploring the Politics of Differential Resource Allocation: Implications for Policy Design and Leadership Practice," co-authored by Halverson and Marge Plecki, associate professor of education, is based on a two-year case study of a medium-sized school district's efforts to address changing demographics of families in the district and widening achievement gaps between students.

While many school districts initially adopt policies aimed at eliminating gaps between different populations of students, Halverson and Plecki note these policies are frequently scrapped and forgotten even when they show initial promise.

Turnover of district leadership and 'reform fatigue' felt by both school staff and community members are problematic, but perhaps more significant is pushback to reform efforts that eventually comes from groups that historically have had the advantage within the district. Halverson and Plecki use the term Margin of Perceived Competitive Advantage to describe this pushback.

"When a group of people sees that their economic or social advantages are starting to be eroded by these policies, their support for them will diminish," Halverson said.

District leaders can take proactive steps to counter this pushback, but the authors argue that few are well prepared to manage the tricky politics of pursuing great educational equity.

"Equity-focused leadership practice must go beyond dependence on the heroic leadership of individuals who happen to possess unique traits, energy levels and abilities, as well as persuasive personalities," Halverson and Plecki write in their paper. "Equity-focused leadership is most evident when collective, strategic actions are taken by leaders and communities that build system-wide knowledge of the types of equity challenges that exist, marshal resources to address inequities, and sustain a continuous dialogue and course of action in support of long-term, sustainable strategies that will improve outcomes for all students, particularly for those most in need."

Halverson and Plecki's case study is part of a broader UW study involving four urban districts and 14 schools in three different states that examined the connection between leadership, leadership support and student learning.

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Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications

206-543-1035, dwunder@uw.edu