A Guide for Leaders Creating Equity in School

Becoming a Transformative Leader: A Guide to Creating Equitable Schools 
By Carolyn M. Shields
(Routledge/Eye On Education, 2020 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Chris Dransoff

Becoming a Transformative Leader is a follow-up to a 2018 edition by Carolyn M. Shields and includes more “how to” elements of implementing what the author calls Transformational Leadership Theory (TLT) – really a call to addressing issues of equity and justice in our schools.

Shields uses eight tenets to frame her explanation of TLT. The eight are:

  1. Accepting the mandate for deep and equitable change
  2. Changing mindsets
  3. Redistributing power in more equitable ways
  4. Balancing public/private good
  5. Democracy, emancipation, equity and justice
  6. A focus on interconnectedness, interdependence, global awareness
  7. Balancing critique and promise
  8. Exhibiting moral courage

The author makes the case for each of these tenets and suggests some practical ways to examine them more deeply with colleagues and to assess progress toward achieving them. She offers guiding questions, surveys, situational examples, activities and more as tools to assist in reflecting on and analyzing the tenets. In the process the author provides some theoretical basis for the work as well as practical necessity.

It is hard to argue the needs for equity, fairness, justice, etc. in our schools, much less in our society. Shields bases her TLT on the assertion that in our schools (and likely beyond) there is a pervasive failure to acknowledge power, privilege, and cultural norms of exclusion, and a need to address their underlying assumptions (p. 9).

Challenges in implementing TLT

It should come as no surprise that addressing such issues can be challenging. While Shields states leaders should “expect conflict,” I do not think she addresses this realistically enough. This is perhaps the primary shortcoming of the book: the lack of acknowledgement of how much time and effort challenging the “system” will require, in the ways Shields promotes, while still “doing school.”

From experience, I can attest that Shields’ TLT tenets are not accomplished in one meeting. They are not strictly academic. They involve examining beliefs – often deep-seated beliefs. Not only does this take time; it takes skilled facilitation. It is messy, emotional and often very uncomfortable.

One principal’s experience with TLT

The book concludes with a chapter from a principal committed to TLT tenets who was given a “turn-around” school to lead. She had a full year to plan, learn the community culture, and hire a new staff, etc. before opening the school. She described the reality that once the school opened it was not immune to serious challenges.

She shared shortcomings encountered related to issues like justice with student discipline, teacher mindsets about students, and instructional support for teachers. She also admitted to making some assumptions about her faculty’s acceptance level of her vision, i.e., espoused beliefs vs. lived actions. And this, with a full year of “getting ready.” Imagine the challenge most school leaders would face trying to do this while also “doing school.”

Shields makes a strong case for equity and justice in our schools and the need to rise above the system status quo. Beyond even our schools, one could argue hers is a mandate for a nation to do better. In many ways, she advocates for standing the system on its head.

This book clearly frames the many factors that impede equity in schools. It has the potential to encourage important conversations within communities, school districts, and individual schools to examine current realities regarding equity and to develop priorities for growth. This volume would be especially helpful to those aspiring to be school level leaders, for district or school leadership teams, or for any individual or group committed to leveling the playing field in American education.

So, where does this leave us?

I think it depends on your perspective. The challenges presented in this book can seem overwhelming and out of reach. They can seem absolute. Rather than think of the tenets as an all or nothing, I think it is better to think of the tenets and equitable schooling as being on a continuum – the goal being to move on the continuum in a positive direction. We can assess our current condition and make a plan to move ahead.

Using a swimming pool analogy, we can take zero-depth steps, sticking a toe in the water; we can walk in to our ankles, knees, waist or shoulders; or we can go in the deep end. The steps we take will depend on many factors, but Shields believes staying out of the pool (doing nothing) is not an option. Neither do I.

Chris Dransoff is a retired 43-year educator who worked in both public and private schools with 36 years as an elementary and middle school principal. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Northeastern Illinois University and a Doctorate from Loyola University Chicago. He takes pride in mentoring school leaders and is devoted to practices that foster student ownership and engagement in the learning process, and promote meaningful teacher collaboration.


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