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Striving for Equity: District Leadership for Narrowing Opportunity and Achievement Gaps

reviewed by Marc Brasof & Rebecca Bennett - September 12, 2016

coverTitle: Striving for Equity: District Leadership for Narrowing Opportunity and Achievement Gaps
Author(s): Robert Smith and S. David Brazer
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612509371, Pages: 192, Year: 2016
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Striving for Equity: District Leadership for Narrowing Opportunity and Achievement Gaps examines work on shrinking gaps in achievement and creating high quality learning opportunities for minority students in the United States. Authors Robert Smith and S. David Brazer have close to sixty years of experience combined as K–12 educators and administrators and now work together in the educational leadership program at George Mason University. Smith’s career involves leadership and experience as a founding member of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), a consortium of districts focused on addressing the achievement gap, and Brazer previously developed change frameworks. Both of these experiences and ideas appear to be instrumental in the development of this work. Challenging the idea that the current education system in the United States is broken, Smith and Brazer argue this notion implies the system cannot be fixed or that positive changes are not occurring. “The main problem with the ‘system is broken’ argument is that it creates a sense that all public schools are hopelessly flawed – that they merely warehouse students and provide paychecks for teachers and administrators who go through the motions with minimal effort each school day” (p. 1). An achievement gap exists in education where some students do not receive equal learning opportunities and resources. Typically such gaps have correlated with socioeconomic status and academic outcomes. The authors want others to see that there are educational leaders engaging in long term strategic planning to improve education for all students. These are leaders who recognize that the education system is not always consistent or fair and are willing to do something about it.

At the center of this book is a study of 13 superintendents who participate in MSAN, an organization focused on eliminating the achievement gap. These leaders came together with a mission of understanding and developing strategies to help their most struggling students. MSAN was founded with the idea that school districts with shared interests and characteristics working together with university partners could fashion a research agenda directed at practices designed to resolve the most important, persistent, and challenging problem faced by U.S. schools (p. 13).

Started in 1999, members of MSAN meet annually to discuss organizational concerns and current practices. Illinois superintendent Allan Alson initiated the development of MSAN by inviting superintendents from moderate-sized, diverse, well-resourced inner-ring school systems from across the country. Conversations and collaborations with educational system leaders and researchers resulted in many initiatives to study and reduce imbalances in achievement related to race and ethnicity.


Brazer and Smith develop a framework derived from organizational learning theory to study the processes and impacts of leadership focusing on inequalities in school systems. This framework is based on the idea that "meaningful and lasting change occurs when organizational performance gaps are deeply understood and addressed by changing constraints imposed by the status quo” (p. 43).

The authors also use Argyris and Schön (1974) to introduce the idea of undiscussables. These are topics we choose not to talk about when referring to structural and sociocultural constraints inhibiting systems from minimizing the achievement gap. Before real work can begin, these undiscussables must be acknowledged and brought to the surface. Once acknowledged, new variables governing individual and collective action can be established. The superintendents at MSAN work to implement four governing variables: high expectations for all students, high quality instruction, access for all to rigorous teaching and learning, and parental and community involvement.

The authors also identify several key strategies MSAN superintendents employ to trigger organizational learning: illuminating the achievement gap with data, holding difficult conversations across stakeholders, and establishing a clear vision and strategy for the district. Superintendents find that using data to clearly identify problems makes stakeholders more willing to admit to and openly discuss the disadvantages that school structures and culture have on the achievement of minority students. As a result, MSAN superintendents choose to make all information available to the public via publications, meetings, and presentations so that inequities and the underlying beliefs contributing to them can be recognized and addressed by all stakeholders. Through this process, superintendents are able to put into place policies and processes to shift governing variables.


Smith and Brazer find that the stability of an organization impacts the implementation of policies, procedures, and its ability for change. Even with appropriate planning and strong interventions to reduce achievement gaps, all of the superintendents encounter threats jeopardizing improvement and growth. Smith and Brazer categorize these threats into four broad themes: structural, political, human resource, and symbolic. School leaders need to be aware of these possible threats and address those that arise or efforts for change will be unsuccessful.

Structural threats include features of the organization like roles, goals, policies, rules, and procedures impacting the ways that ideas and programs are divided and implemented. Disagreement within the district about how to work towards making changes that will contribute to closing the achievement gap is one clear indication of a structural threat. While widely recognized as contributing to achievement gaps, the idea of open conversations on student demographics has not always been popular. Although most school leaders recognize “the importance of out-of-school factors in creating and perpetuating gaps in opportunities and achievement, and engaged in discussions regarding the degree to which they should be addressed” (p. 107), the discussion of these factors and their influence is sometimes controversial. Some educators feel open discussion is necessary, while others see it as a way for schools to shift blame and deflect responsibility.

Bringing together differing personalities and opinions can create power struggles and force negotiation and compromise. Such outcomes can be a political threat to addressing inequities. Even though most of these districts have adequate funds, there is often disagreement on how these monies should be spent. More affluent and influential families sometimes support initiatives targeting equity as long as it does not mean programs where their own children would be affected.

Human resource threats encompass relationships between stakeholders and conflicts that may surface. One common conflict among participants is whether discussions related to race and achievement should be paid attention to or given priority. Superintendents find some educators and community members believe colorblindness is acceptable under the guise I don’t see color. However, Smith and Brazer find that discussions about stereotypes and racial privilege are essential for illuminating the effects of these beliefs on perpetuating the achievement gap no matter how tough these conversations may be.

Finally, the authors identify symbolic threats. Superintendents are unable to work on systematic change and improvement if most of the stakeholders involved do not believe there are problems, “if a district’s stories, myths, rituals, and ceremonies depict the status quo as positive and working for all students, then that message represents a direct threat to working on equity” (p. 139). For instance, MSAN superintendents often find themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing to convince stakeholders that segregation and inequities are real and present problems. As such, Smith and Brazer’s work on understanding the threats contributing to achievement gaps from the positionality of the superintendent is a useful analytical framework for system change leaders.


Much of Striving for Equity focuses on how MSAN superintendents tackle the achievement gap impacting racial minorities across a wide range of districts. Smith and Brazer highlight important initiatives, strategies, and processes for shifting systems to focus on inequities.

Fiscal stability and personnel are noted as important features to the success or failure of systems of change, “strong school organizations that have access to resources and skilled and motivated personnel are far more capable of organizational learning that leads to improvement of achievement gaps than those threatened by a lack of funding and/or shallow pools of expertise” (p. 61). As previously mentioned, all superintendents involved come from districts with adequate funding. However, being skilled in the redirection of these resources during times of recession and economic unrest, such as the use of Title I money on programs to improve teacher and student interactions, helps these educational leaders continue work towards achievement gap reduction goals. At the same time, superintendents find that merely allocating funding or boosting employee motivation provides only short term gains towards closing the gap unless true organizational learning is also taking place.

Improvements in education cannot be complete without the support of teachers, “improving teachers’ skills, knowledge, and classroom practices was critical to both narrowing achievement gaps and ensuring that promising approaches to teaching and learning would be sustained over time” (p. 91). Implementing common curricula across the district and appropriate professional development are some of the interventions involving teachers. One superintendent describes her district as “a ‘system of schools’ as opposed to a ‘school system’” (p. 93) due to the lack of common curricula across these learning environments. In many districts, the absence of uniformity creates schools functioning with their own agendas and students not receiving the same rigorous standards and expectations across the entire system. At times teachers resist change, but these superintendents work to gain their support and involvement.

As the authors demonstrate, out-of-school factors have a tremendous impact on student achievement. The authors discuss research on the difficulties schools face in improving these external factors such as poverty, healthcare, language barriers, and violence. However, they maintain that educators are not entirely powerless. In one district, a school-community partnership fostered by the superintendent results in many children enrolling in and receiving free healthcare. Many superintendents also facilitate courageous conversations with teachers and administrators that environmental forces should not negate the need for raising learning expectations. In turn, superintendents support efforts to bring capacity building professional development to schools. Some superintendents unilaterally eliminate academic barriers for students interested in taking Advanced Placement courses, apparently without any negative impact on student outcomes. Superintendents are unwavering in their efforts to communicate to their systems that all students deserve equal access to quality education and advanced programs, despite out-of-school factors.

With the common goal of eliminating achievement gaps and implementing positive change for all students, the superintendents chronicled in this book share their ideas and practices for researchers and practitioners. Whereas we only scratch the surface discussing Smith and Brazer’s work, Striving for Equity is rich with examples about creating “opportunities for students who traditionally have been excluded from the best their systems have to offer” (p. 146).


Striving for Equity is a collection of inspiring stories with a powerful conceptual framework guiding analysis of change efforts. That said, this work has noticeable limitations for practitioners and researchers. Double-loop learning, the basis of the author’s educational change framework, is a concept worth drawing from business organizational theory. Current sociocultural conditions and structural arrangements undermine professional learning and organizational change in schools. As a result, double-loop learning becomes necessary (Mitchell & Sackney, 2011). As the authors state, change leaders need to uncover and discuss the undiscussables with appropriate stakeholders. These necessary conversations provide an opportunity to shift unproductive values, beliefs, and actions of individuals, groups, and organizational structures and processes. While data driven and experienced, these superintendents do not have all the information necessary for making change processes effective. They also do not have expertise in each area where change is necessary. Striving for Equity illustrates this theoretical and normative limitation.

The design of the research that is included is limited to the insights of 13 superintendents. The ideas presented, which apply organizational learning principles to system-wide changes, are an important contribution for educational change processes. However, mapping double-loop learning outcomes requires further investigation, especially when it comes to changes constraining assumptions, values, beliefs, behaviors, and structures. Superintendents courageously tackling undiscussables and implementing structural changes without examining the changing perceptions of teachers and administrators limits the authors’ arguments of the presence of double-loop learning. For example, one superintendent’s push for a consistent, common curriculum across schools to address inequities in student outcomes can undermine individualized accommodations and the flexibility required to create inclusive and responsive instruction (Shapiro & Gross, 2013). Standardized testing and curriculum have created conditions impacting access to high quality curriculum and subjects such as social studies and art (Center on Education Policy, 2007). Similarly, the Common Core State Standards initiative is built on faulty and untested assumptions (Mathis, 2010). That is not to say that curricular coherence is poorly informed. However, it is important for researchers to examine the experiences of teachers and administrators during this transition, collect evidence that illustrates changes to their assumptions and beliefs, and present educators’ critiques. Without investigating teachers’ and building-level administrators’ perceptions, we cannot fully understand the depth of changes. We also do not know if employees feel coerced to make these changes, which could undermine capacity building goals. For instance, one superintendent from this study engages in a similar curriculum initiative and experiences a massive teacher exodus. Funding limitations could have made it impossible for the authors to examine a wide range of perspectives. However, confirming changes in assumptions and behaviors of the superintendents could have been investigated through observation of important meetings and documents, thus increasing validity of the presence of double-loop learning. Such critiques are not unwarranted given that one of the authors is a founding member of MSAN.

These criticisms aside, the authors surface some of these same issues in the final two chapters. Our hope is that practitioners will take the time to read and digest the final chapter on future research opportunities. As other educational leaders consider applying these inspiring examples of school change to their own systems, it will be imperative that they internalize these lessons. Notwithstanding these issues, Striving for Equity challenges system leaders to hold informed dialogue that challenges our assumptions about the causes of inequities in schools with a wide spectrum of stakeholders.



Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Center on Education Policy. (2007). Choices, changes and challenges: Curriculum and instruction in the NCLB era (Vol. 5). Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.

Mathis, W. J. (2010). Effective reform tool? Boulder, CO & Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/common-core-standards

Mitchell, C., & Sackney, L. (2011). Profound improvement: Building learning-community capacity on living-systems principles. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Shapiro, J. P., & Gross, S. J. (2013). Ethical educational leadership in turbulent times: (Re)solving moral dilemmas. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 12, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21639, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 7:05:10 PM

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About the Author
  • Marc Brasof
    Arcadia University
    E-mail Author
    MARC BRASOF is an assistant professor of education in the School of Education at Arcadia University. There, Dr. Brasof teaches in the educational leadership and teaching and learning department and directs secondary social studies and English education. Dr. Brasof’s most recent scholarship, Student Voice and School Governance: Distributing Leadership to Youth and Adults highlights the role of youth-adult partnerships in school change processes.
  • Rebecca Bennett
    Arcadia University
    E-mail Author
    REBECCA BENNETT is a special education teacher at Bucks County Intermediate Unit and doctoral student in the Educational Leadership program at Arcadia University. Her research interests include co-teaching, autism spectrum disorder and special education law.
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