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Race-Conscious Ethics in School Leadership: From Impersonal Caring to Critical Responsibility


by Michael G. Gunzenhauser, Osly J. Flores & Michael W. Quigley - 2021

Background/Context: This research is informed by leadership theory and care ethics and how these theories intersect with race-consciousness. This study contributes to the emerging literature on race-conscious leadership ethics that supports building capacity for equity leadership.

Purpose: The authors explore the intersection of race-consciousness and leadership ethics, studying how leaders explain their practices for increasing equity, their leadership ethics, and their sense of responsibility and personal capacity to address racial achievement disparities.

Participants: The participants are 22 school leaders: 20 principals and two school district officials from 14 urban and suburban school districts in a metropolitan region in one northeastern state.

Research Design: This article draws from a semistructured interview study, based on Seidman’s three-component interview design but combined in a single interview: history, focus, and reflection. The authors follow a constructivist, exploratory design to develop interpretations and a three-part conceptual framework.

Data Collection and Analysis: Semistructured interviews allowed the researchers to engage participants in deeper explanations and captured the leaders’ lived experiences through their subjective points of view. Analysis proceeded through a collaborative coding and memo-writing process among the three authors, each contributing distinct historical and racial identities and professional backgrounds.

Findings: Finding a broad range of perspectives about race and its significance for the experiences of children in school settings, the authors identify variations in moral perspectives that play out in differential views of caring and responsibility, especially when leaders talked about the racial and socioeconomic diversity among their students and how they address inequities in opportunities and outcomes. The authors explore four themes: (a) community-based caring, (b) tough-love/tough-luck caring, (c) color-evasive caring in “fortunate communities,” and (d) caring with minimal responsiveness. Many principals, especially White principals in schools with a small percentage of students of color, maintain a color-evasive perspective and demonstrate “impersonal caring,” with abstract and technical concern for student performance. Race-conscious principals demonstrate caring that takes on different forms, denoted by more marked elaboration of “critical responsibility” for children of color. Between these two perspectives are varied attitudes and perspectives.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Greater attention is needed for continuing ethical cultivation of school leaders. Across themes, there are multiple routes to developing capacity for race-conscious leadership ethics, through engaging in deeper reflection about personal history, expanding one’s understanding of what it means to care across difference, critiquing one’s color evasiveness, and learning from colleagues who demonstrate collective responsibility.

Theory and empirical research on school leadership ethics have long explored the role that moral perspectives can, do, and should play in leadership practice. In their theoretical arguments, Thomas Sergiovanni (2009), Robert Starratt (2004, 2014), Michael Fullan (2011), Lynn Beck (1994), and Kenneth Strike (2006) were early proponents of PK–12 school leadership as moral leadership. With the rise of accountability policy and subsequent attention to more equitable educational practices, these authors, as well as others, have argued that leadership practices that promote greater equity should be grounded fundamentally in caring moral perspectives (Shapiro & Gross, 2013; Starratt, 2014; Stefkovich & Begley, 2007). For the past 15 years, theorists and empirical researchers have grounded equity leadership in race-conscious and culturally responsive leadership practices (Diem & Carpenter, 2012; Flores & Gunzenhauser, 2019; Gooden & O’Doherty, 2014; Khalifa et al., 2016; Oplatka, 2014; Touré & Thompson-Dorsey, 2018), and a need has been identified to link educators’ experience of race and ethnicity and their experience of caring (Louis et al., 2016). Researchers of school leadership have also expanded the meta-ethical bases for these discussions, applying broader and recent ethical theory, specifically drawing from critical, feminist, and critical race theory (Bass, 2009, 2012, 2016, 2020; Witherspoon & Arnold, 2010).


Taking these developments together, we have come to appreciate how race-consciousness may play out in educational leadership ethics for equity. This work operates at the intersection of these ideas—race-consciousness, leadership for equity, and leadership ethics—to explore how school leaders from varied districts in a single county in a Northeast state ethically ground their work toward equity. Specifically, we examined the leadership ethics of care as it intersects with consciousness of race and social class. Nearly all the 22 school leaders in the exploratory study talked about the importance of caring for children and building relationships. However, most striking over the interviews were the varied explanations for how and why principals cared for the children in their schools. Consistent with caring theory (Noddings, 1984), several principals indicated that building relationships was the most important part of being an educator and that principals should help teachers foster positive relationships with students and families. Beyond that commonality, we noticed some significant departures from the near-consensus on the importance of caring when race and class entered the conversation. Differential views of caring and responsibility appeared along with variation in perspectives on racial diversity. Principals with a more fully developed race-conscious perspective conveyed a rich, collective notion of responsibility for children that their colleagues without a race-conscious perspective lacked.


Many principals, especially White principals in schools with a small percentage of students of color, maintain a “color-evasive” perspective (Annamma et al., 2017) and evidenced “impersonal caring” (Code, 1995), with abstract and technical concern for student performance. For principals with race-conscious attitudes, caring for children of color took on different forms, denoted by more marked elaboration of responsibility. We argue that this variation in perspectives represents an ethics gap in school leadership practice, and we argue for the importance of race-conscious leadership practice for equity. We provide evidence for the fruitfulness of broad-based discussion and exchange among school leaders about the intersection of race, personal history, and collective responsibility.

 

We first present a broad overview of the literature on moral leadership and culturally responsive leadership. To ground our analysis, we merge the works of Biesta (2004), Code (1995), and Bass (2009, 2012) to create a conceptual framework for race-conscious leadership ethics. We then share information regarding the method and data source of this study. Next, we explore four critical themes: (1) community-based caring, (2) tough-love/tough-luck caring, (3) color-evasive caring, and (4) caring with minimal responsiveness. Finally, we discuss our findings and the implication for future research on leadership ethics of care concerning working with racialized and low-income students.  


LITERATURE REVIEW


In this section, we draw from research in the areas of moral leadership and culturally responsive leadership practice. For the most part, these literatures have developed independently of each other during the last few decades. As Starratt (2014) has argued, investigations on social justice leadership have largely been taken up without much consideration for ethical theory. We incorporate some notable exceptions and build some new connections.


MORAL LEADERSHIP


The moral leadership literature draws from varied models of professional ethics to argue for more equitable educational practices. These diverse models provide rich resources for analyzing the variation in the ethical grounding of equity-minded practices. Thomas Sergiovanni (2009), a key figure in promoting moral leadership, argued that school principals must combine management expertise with values and ethics. For several decades, Michael Fullan (2004) has argued for moral purpose in school leadership, including a significant argument that school principals have the moral imperative to lead “deep cultural change that mobilizes the passion and commitment of teachers, parents, and others to improve the learning of all students, including closing the achievement gap” (p. 41). Subsequent work has argued for more collective responsibility among teachers and leaders to foster more equitable opportunities in school communities (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012; Hargreaves & O’Connor, 2018).


Strike (2006), Biesta (2004), and Starratt (2004, 2014) are three educational theorists who also advocate for fundamentally ethical responses to accountability pressures faced by school leaders. They argue for principled, caring, and justice-based approaches to school leadership grounded in responsibility. Strike has grounded his arguments in the rights of individuals for self-determination and the responsibility that school leaders have to serve all children, highlighted by public school accountability policy. Going further, Biesta (2004) has made an important distinction between managerial accountability built on economic relations, and professional responsibility built on pedagogical relations. Biesta urged a shift in emphasis from the impersonal relations reinforced by test-score accountability. Taking a similar approach, Starratt grounded his arguments in the significance of caring for persons in ways that respect their needs and desires. Starratt (2014) has argued that ethics provides a stronger, more sustainable foundation for social justice work to complement the rights-based and political grounding more commonly used by leadership theorists.  


Exemplified by the work of Starratt (2004), caring appears consistently in the moral leadership literature and has found its way into professional leadership standards (National Policy Board for Educational Administration [NPBEA], 2015). In addition to milestone work on the concept of caring in education (Noddings, 1984; Thompson, 1998; Valenzuela, 1999), recent work has defined and even measured caring practices among school leaders to show caring’s relation to caring communities, with a potentially indirect relation to student achievement identified (Louis et al., 2016). In their work on multiple domains of caring in educational leadership, Jean Shapiro and Jacqueline Stefkovich (2010) advocated for comprehensive attention to ethics of caring, professionalism, critique, and justice. Carol Mullen (2017) demonstrated the value of this multiple paradigm approach in her own principal preparation program. Mullen found that most leadership students tend to focus on caring and professionalism but neglect justice and critique. In a related study, students noticed that caring was a theme in their leadership preparation program, but social justice was limited to one course (Gerstl-Pepin et al., 2006).  


As several educational researchers have argued, educators who avow caring ethics fail to care when they ignore difference as relevant to caring practice because of socially bound conceptions of caring (Thompson, 1998) and subtractive assumptions about the value of students and their experiences (Valenzuela, 1999). Limitations in leaders’ experience across differences contribute to caring orientations that assume deficit perspectives about students and families who are not part of the dominant culture, race, and class. Research into leadership preparation programs bears out the resilience of dominant perspectives on caring when issues of equity and social justice are not integrated into leadership curricula and experiences (Gerstl-Pepin et al., 2006; Mullen, 2017).


RACE-CONSCIOUS LEADERSHIP


Although caring now appears alongside attention to racial bias and striving for culturally responsive practices in the most recent leadership standards (NPBEA, 2015), earlier versions sidestepped race and racism, promoted race-neutral practice, and conveyed deficit perspectives about children of color (Davis et al., 2015). Attention to race-consciousness in leadership standards reflects an expansion of a research base among leadership schools that have paid increasing attention to education for social justice.


The evasion of race and racism in educational practice has a long historical legacy, grounded in Supreme Court interpretations of the constitutionality of preferential treatment based on race (Annamma et al., 2017). Evading race and racism—or, in an earlier formulation, enacting colorblindness (Bonilla-Silva, 2014)—is the result of denial of history of White supremacy, disconnecting one’s individual actions from the structures of domination that operate to privilege actors who deny the continual effects of racism. Rather than passively “colorblind,” those who evade race and racism have strategies to enact their color-evasiveness and to position themselves as both powerful and morally justified:  


Those espousing a color-blind racial ideology are individually positioned as racially enlightened while simultaneously reproducing power and inequity in a system of white supremacy. It is the systemic violence of racism that impacts our daily lives, not just through individuals but also through institutions. The racial ideology of color-evasiveness allows for an understanding that this failure to address material conditions is not passive, but purposeful. (Annamma et al., 2017, p. 154)  


Subini Annamma et al. (2017) illuminated color-evasiveness as intersectional, purposeful, and willfully ignorant: “To avoid talking about race is a way to willfully ignore the experiences of people of color, and makes the goal of erasure more fully discernible” (p. 156).  


Authors writing in the major journals in educational administration have since the 1990s explored many aspects of race and racism in school leadership, expanding understanding of leadership for social justice (Oplatka, 2014). As Izhar Oplatka argued, social justice has a relatively recent presence in school leadership research, and as of 2010, much work remained to be done on articulating how attention to race and racism contributes to social justice leadership. Influential developments have come from wider discourse about educational inequities, including arguments for advocacy leadership (Anderson, 2009), justice-oriented practice (Ladson-Billings, 2006, 2013), and culturally sustaining pedagogy (Paris, 2012).


The literature on culturally responsive school leadership is clear on the significance of race, racial difference, and antiracism as areas of expertise and concern. Making use of various conceptual frameworks, including Black feminism, critical race theory, social justice leadership, and antiracism, school leadership researchers have provided evidence for the significance of race-consciousness in leadership practice (Brooks & Arnold, 2013; Dillard, 1995; Gooden, 2012; Khalifa et al., 2013; Khalifa & Briscoe, 2015; Theoharis & Haddix, 2013). Allusions to ethical practices pervade this research, and ethical foundations are implied in the commitments of race-conscious leaders to families, children, and communities of color (Theoharis & Haddix, 2013). In their review of how race and racism are ignored in educational leadership practices, Khalifa et al. (2013) noted the cultural relevance and historical significance of community engagement in communities of color:


The value of collective wisdom and community-based pedagogical spaces [Douglas 2012a] is not a novel concept for people of color—a people who have consistently drawn on extended kin constructs and community-orientated learning environments to buttress the miseducation and alienation from mainstream schools. (p. 507)


A related line of inquiry has attended to caring leadership that is also culturally responsive. In their synthesis of recent literature, Khalifa et al. (2016) argued for the value and empirical grounding of culturally responsive school leadership, including the crucial role of knowing one’s students, caring for them, and making sure they know that their teachers and principals care for them. As suggested by emergent work in race-conscious school leadership research (Bass, 2012, 2020), knowing how to care for all children is not systematically evident in school leaders (Khalifa et al., 2016; Louis et al., 2016).


In a field of study that has increasingly turned to ethical principles and culturally responsive practices, some researchers are notable for their focused attention on race-conscious leadership ethics (Bass, 2009, 2020; Witherspoon & Arnold, 2010). As explained next, this work forms a portion of the conceptual framework for the study. Bass (2012) built from her interview studies with African American educational leaders to demonstrate ethics grounded in a Black female standpoint and Black masculine caring (Bass, 2016). Through empirical research and reflection on professional practice, Bass and her colleagues positioned the educational difficulties that African American students face as largely external, contextual, sociopolitical, and sociohistorical challenges instead of internal deficits within African American students themselves. Bass asserted that this understanding calls for an ethic of care as a moral imperative for all educational leaders who seek optimal development for African American students. One example of how this ethic of care would function for African American students is in acknowledging and confronting how the underfunding of the schools they attend limits their opportunities to learn and excel academically. An educational leader who acknowledges and confronts the myriad obstacles that undermine their social and academic achievement would demonstrate a race-conscious ethic of care (Bass, 2016).


CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK


The conceptual framework used in this study was guided by our purposeful bridging of the work of ethics scholars Gert Biesta (2004), Lorraine Code (1995), and Lisa Bass (2009, 2012). Drawing together the concepts of collective responsibility, genuine caring, and ethic of care in the work of school leaders leads to a unique conceptual framework for analyzing how school leaders describe their practice and the ethics that grounds it. Integrating the works of Biesta, Code, and Bass into a framework facilitates the ability to show gaps—some of them large and systemic—in leadership ethics, pointing a way forward by shedding light on the ethics and practices of leaders who enact collective, race-conscious, and caring concern for all students.


Applying a poststructural ethics lens, Biesta (2004) argued that a bent toward managerial accountability strongly evident in schools in the advent of high-stakes accountability systems is “deeply problematic” because it erodes relations of responsibility in schools (between and among students, parents, and teachers). Under managerial accountability, the primary relation becomes the relation between the school and the state. The state holds the school to account for its scores—a chiefly economic relation. Although accountability policy is ostensibly based on democratic ideals—the general uplift of educational quality and greater equity in access to strong educational experiences—the ideals are compromised when the pedagogical relation is replaced by this economic relation (Biesta, 2004). This relation is marked by the concern the school has to protect itself from the threat of being labeled low-performing, reconstituted, or closed.


Biesta (2004) asserted, “[The] inevitable conclusion is that the culture of accountability has dramatically changed the relationships in the educational landscape,” where it is “very difficult for the relations between parents/students and educators/institutions to develop into mutual, reciprocal, and democratic relationships, relationships, in other words, characterized by responsibility” (p. 249). Because accountability for scores replaces responsibility for children, combatting the economic and competitive relations encouraged by accountability systems requires a greater sense of collective responsibility for the education of all (Biesta, 2004; Gunzenhauser, 2012).


Responsibility implies genuine caring. Code (1995) argued that those who demonstrate “impersonal caring” hold beliefs embedded in their own, limited experience. Impersonal carers do not embed knowledge about the needs, interests, and lived experiences of those in their care and may act in ways that project their own interests, concerns, or biases (Code, 1995). Impersonal carers “seek to colonize their targets, oblivious to the possibility that those ‘targets’ might experience the proffered caring as insulting and invasive; that it might be destructive of practices and institutions that matter to them” (p. 104).


Code’s (1995) approach to moral epistemology shows the importance of moving beyond empty gestures of impersonal caring to practices that direct the ethical carer to learn through relation about the experiences and perspectives of others. Following Code, in education, we would not expect simply a view that caring is important to be all there is to know about caring (as if caring were a slogan). We would expect caring to involve developing meaningful relations with others, escaping one’s own limited view, and challenging our biases and assumptions about students in our care.


Meanwhile, we draw from the work of Bass (2009, 2012), who has developed ethical frameworks that specifically address race-conscious educational leadership practice. Extending the work of Nel Noddings (1984) and bell hooks (1994) on caring, Bass (2009) articulated a Black feminist and Black womanist caring in school leadership. In her ethical theory, Bass demonstrated ethics from a unique Black female standpoint (Bass, 2012), characterized by caring, risk, and opposition to patriarchal disciplinary practices (Bass, 2009). Bass (2009) offered “new perspectives to feminist care-focused frameworks by including intersectionality (race, class, and gender) into the conversation,” where a distinct definition “of care is being passionate about helping others to the point of forsaking justice for care” (p. 630).


The three components of the conceptual framework—responsibility, impersonal caring, and race-conscious leadership—come together in our analysis of the possibilities for race-conscious leadership ethics. These concepts guide our exploration of leaders’ perspectives on ethics and contribute to our argument for a move toward a collective, race-conscious notion of responsibility for school leaders caring for the educational experiences of all children.


METHODS


This article draws from interviews with 22 school leaders working in 14 school districts in a metropolitan region in one northeastern state. In the larger study from which these interviews were drawn, we sought leaders’ perspectives on gaps in achievement and opportunity, their use of data to identify and address gaps, and their moral and philosophical grounding about their equity-based leadership practices (Flores, 2018; Flores & Gunzenhauser, 2019, 2021). The interview design adapted Seidman’s (2013) phenomenological interview method to a single semistructured interview with three components: history, focus, and reflection. Semistructured interviews allowed the researchers to engage participants in deeper explanations and capture the leaders’ lived experiences through their subjective points of view (Seidman, 2013). Moreover, the design of the interview protocol included specific questions about students of color. For example, the interviewer asked these questions: What value do Black and Latina/o students bring to your school? What are the skill levels of the teachers who work with a diverse population of students? How do you use data to support your diverse population of students? Conducted in 2014 and 2015, each interview lasted between 50 and 90 minutes.


Participant recruitment followed the purposeful approaches of both network and chain sampling (Merriam, 2009). For network sampling, we used both the first and second authors’ connections with school principals in leadership roles and a list of graduates from our university’s principal preparation program. Recruitment began with an email invitation to take part in a research study “to learn what educators think about the achievement gap, how they respond to the achievement gap, and how the achievement gap affects their educational practice.” We recruited 19 participants through the initial network recruitment sample and added three additional participants through chain sampling.


We also sought maximum variation from the population of school leaders in the region. We found it valuable to gain variation in perspective in order to generate emerging theory using “different and varied data bearing on a category, while yet finding similarities among the groups” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 56). We attempted a systematic variation of school grade level; socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial diversity of student population; school leader race, ethnicity, and gender identity; and school locations (urban and suburban) within one county (see Table 1). This approach allowed us to explore the phenomenon more completely and to contextualize emergent theory about how school leaders interpret their work with students of color.    


Table 1. School Leader Characteristics Sorted by Theme

Participant

Gender

Race

Position

Type of District

Level of school

% students of color*

% free/ reduced lunch*

Community-based caring

Scarlett Johnson

Female

Black

Principal

Urban

Elementary

76–100

90–95

James Smith

Male

White

Principal

Urban

Elem/Middle

76–100#

80–85#

Maya Gaffney

Female

Black

Principal

Urban

Elementary

26–50

80–85

Arthur Lawrence

Male

Black

Principal

Urban

Middle/High

26–50

60–65

Allison Edwards

Female

Black

Principal

Suburban

Elementary

< 5

10–15

Tough-love/tough-luck caring

Dennis Gable

Male

White

Principal

Urban

High

26–50

55–60

Emma Badell

Female

White

Principal

Urban

Middle

26–50

70–75

Scott Abbott

Male

White

Principal

Urban

Middle/High

26–50

60–65

Michael Labette

Male

White

Principal

Urban

Middle/High

10–25

60–65

Bill Roberts

Male

White

Principal

Urban Charter

High

51–75#

65–70#

Color-evasive caring in fortunate communities

Jack Maddon

Male

White

Principal

Suburban

Elementary

10–25

45–50

Dan Gibson

Male

White

Principal

Suburban

Elementary

5–10

25–30

Paul Eaby

Male

White

Principal

Suburban

Elementary

< 5

< 5

Peter Ingram

Male

White

Principal

Suburban

High

< 5

10–15

Laura Foster

Female

White

Principal

Suburban

Elementary

< 5

10–15

Logan Sanders

Male

Biracial

Principal

Suburban

Elementary

< 5

< 5

Kevin Labby

Male

White

Principal

Suburban

High

< 5

5–10

Caring with (minimal) responsiveness

Andrew Baker

Male

White

Principal

Suburban

Elementary

< 5

< 5

Elizabeth Ida

Female

White

Principal

Suburban

Middle

< 5

5–10

John Hall

Male

White

Principal

Suburban

Elementary

5–10

15–20

Ella Klein

Female

White

Director

Urban

District

51–75^

65–70^

Ethan Knight

Male

White

Superintendent

Urban

District

51–75^

65–70^

Note. To protect the identities of participants, names listed are pseudonyms, and percentages of students of color and of students on free- and reduced-price lunch are indicated as ranges.

*School data collected from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data for the 2013–2014 school year.

^The high school data are used to represent the district.

#The school’s state profile data are used for these two charter schools.


Gunzenhauser and Flores were the research team for the design and data collection portion of the study, and Quigley joined the research team to develop this article. We bring distinctly different racial and ethnic identities, professional backgrounds, and subfields within education. Gunzenhauser is a White male ethicist and educational philosopher who worked in secondary and postsecondary education in the Southeast and has been a professor for 20 years. Flores is a Latino male educational leadership scholar and new professor. He graduated from urban public schools, taught in an urban public high school, and was an educational specialist for a state department of education in the Northeast. Quigley is a biracial (Black/White) educational sociologist and leadership scholar who was a student in the schools in the region where the study took place and taught high school there for 13 years before becoming a professor.


Data analysis for this article began with several meetings to review memos and previous papers about the larger project. In initial meetings, we familiarized ourselves with the data and established a focus for this article intersecting race, racism, and ethics. The team then undertook a multistep process of coding, memo-writing, categorization, and recoding to establish the four main themes in the Findings section and to build an explanatory conceptual framework (Emerson et al., 2011; Merriam, 2009; Saldaña, 2016). We started our analysis without specific hypotheses about the ethical frames we were expecting to find. Table 2 provides examples of the analysis process by theme, moving from interview excerpt (pulled out via focused coding), open codes, and analytic statements. In Table 2, open codes came from the excerpts, and analytic statements are samples across the entire transcript.


In the first step, we conducted focused coding on all 22 transcripts for concepts related to our focus, including race, racism, diversity, ethics, morality, and responsibility. Second, we open-coded for emic meaning within excerpts that emerged from focused coding and in additional excerpts that might help explain the views expressed in the focus-coded excerpts. To begin the collaborative coding process, we picked a single interview transcript to independently code and then compared codes. Rather than expecting interrater reliability, we anticipated productive discussion about varied interpretations of the data, based on varied positionalities, conceptual frames, and familiarity with the interviewee. Individual coding then proceeded following fruitful discussion and the expectation for future complexity of interpretation.


This two-level coding process led to a third step: writing analytic memos about each respondent. Each memo contained analytic statements tied closely to the interview transcript, using a method of analysis drawn from Emerson et al. (2011). Each author was responsible for a third of the transcripts, and numbers of analytic statements ranged from four to 19 for each respondent. We began to build thematic categories about the respondents’ intersection between race and ethics from the analytic statements, informed by a developing conceptual framework. In the fourth step of emic analysis, close reading of the respondents’ perspectives led us to return to our literature bases and search relevant literature on moral leadership, caring, and culturally responsive leadership. “Care” and “caring” were prevalent terms in the interview transcripts, and once we looked for their presence, absence, and usage in each transcript, a variation in caring orientations emerged—a variation also found in prior research and theory.


Table 2. Sample of Data Analysis Process for Four Themes of Ethic of Caring

Community-Based Caring

  

Sample Excerpts From Scarlet Johnson

Open Codes

Analytic Statements

“Parents treat me well because I treat their kids well, but I also represent the system and privilege.”

“It is all about giving back, paying it forward constantly, to nurture and care for each other.”  

“I am telling you my kids are resilient, they're top, they're inquisitive, they want to learn and they are learning to love each other, they're community among themselves, they are a family. And so, I love them, I love being here with them.”

Not looking down on children

System & privilege

Community

Love

Kids are resilient, inquisitive

Kids are learning to love each other in community

Education is a vehicle for giving back, paying forward, nurturing and caring for each other.  

The point of literacy is to find your voice and to get it heard.

The school is embedded in the community and is focused on serving the community.  

Sometimes parents tell her she doesn’t understand.  

Not looking down on children is very important; teachers need to be held accountable for how they talk to children.

Tough-Love/Tough-Luck Caring

  

Sample Excerpts From Emma Badell

Open Codes

Analytic Statements

“A good word to describe them sometimes would be needy, because we are the safe haven for them. As I said, because of families, the community, and a lot of what’s going on in the community, we are the stable force in their family, in their lives.”

“I have no problem calling in teachers and speaking to them about various things—their interactions with kids, their interactions with parents. I don’t have a problem with that.  I don’t have a problem with calling them in if their kids aren’t performing up to where they should.”

Deficit

Needy kids

Savior mentality

School as safe haven

Tough love for students

Tough love for teachers

Calling people in/out

She believes it’s important to form relationships with kids and families.

She believes many kids and families have negative attitudes about education.

She makes a distinction between district kids and “transient” kids.

Some kids are scared of her, say she’s “tough but fair.”

She’ll call out (or call in) teachers for inappropriate interactions with students.

She’d like to have more minority teachers and thinks it’s a shame they don’t.

Note. Open codes in this table are from the transcript excerpts. Analytic statements relate to the excerpts but include sample statements grounded in the entire interview transcript.



Color-Evasive Caring in Fortunate Communities

Sample Excerpts From Paul Eaby

Open Codes

Analytic Statements

“I jump in to teach music and I am not a music teacher, but I love, I love the kids and that’s what needs to happen.”

“This is a school community that is well supported by the families of the community, highly involved and invested in the things that we do here.”

“I cannot do it alone as a school leader. I need my teachers to teach, I need students to come in and be ready to learn, but that ready to learn happens at home. And those parents being involved with kids, their own children is vital.”

Love the kids

Jump in when a teacher is sick

Kids are ready to learn

Parents make kids ready to learn

Highly involved community

Culture and students of color are valuable in the abstract, because he wishes his school were more diverse.

Families, even those of low SES, are strongly supportive of education, and that is the key to the success of the school.

The kids are well behaved and highly engaged in their learning.

He cultivates good parenting with workshops.

He knows all students by name and protects them with a safe environment.

He’s focused on a challenging, complete, rich curriculum with a lot of arts instruction.

Caring With (Minimal) Responsiveness

  

Sample Excerpts From John Hall

Open Codes

Analytic Statements

“Here you have an African-American that’s from the city and they’re not doing well academically. So you professionally should take an interest in that, should start staying, ‘What can I do professionally to help them learn?’”    

“This community is a little more highfalutin…. You [have] more vocal families in this community, and they don’t want their kids mixing in with the other [neighborhoods].”

“Now we’re at a point where we have all these different ethnicities that are unfamiliar to us now coming in..., ‘how are we going to assimilate them into our culture or the big melting pot that they claim we are?'”

“You have a student that comes in, they can’t speak English… you take a little more time and you work with them. You get them active and into the classroom…. You don’t make them feel like an outsider.”

Vocal parents

No (SES) mixing

Take interest in kids and their backgrounds

Professional interest in difference

Assimilation, melting pot

Take more time

Get kids active

The neighborhood sees itself as superior to others in the district, reflected in teachers’ impatience with some students.

Community engagement is limited to working with parents and local government officials (mostly vocal ones).

He is beginning to think of responsibility, necessitating a shift in the mindset of educators to adapt to their students’ needs and interests.  

His previous experience in working with a diverse group of students and special education conflicts with what he is experiencing in his school.

Where his teachers see issues with students’ behavior, he does not feel the same.

Educators need to incorporate students of color and English language leaders in order to learn from them.


Emic interpretation and theory building led us to our conceptual framework, which we used to refine the meaning of each category and to choose language that would credibly map onto the words and perspectives of the participants. In our fifth step, we did another round of focused reading of the interview transcripts to flesh out the categories. After this additional reading, we moved to a sixth step: deliberation about which interview excerpts fit into which thematic category. We discussed whether each respondent would necessarily have to fit into just one category. Eventually, we decided that a respondent would fit just one category, not as a definitive characterization of that person, but instead as a way to more accurately depict the meaning embedded in that category. When respondents are listed in Table 1 by thematic category, each is listed within the category that their words most helpfully describe. Although the analysis comes from the respondents’ perspectives, the categorization is about their words shared in the interview, not necessarily the respondents themselves. As summarized in Table 2 and explained in the Findings section, these analytic distinctions are significant, but they also overlap. The findings are exploratory and warrant further study.


Each step of the analysis and writing process was greatly enhanced by the team’s diverse perspectives. Team coding helped to surface the distinct interpretations that each member brought to the data, to build conceptual clarity, and to establish standards for warranting interpretations in the data, which led to more effective focused coding of subsequent transcripts. The collaborative process, conducted both in person and over long distance, made creative use of our positionalities, experiences, and conceptual frames. Gunzenhauser brought his experience with ethical language and theory to focus on the moral content of language and possibilities for alternative explanations from diverse meta-ethical traditions. Flores contributed his attunement to the presence and absence of race in discussions about school practices, as well as his tacit knowledge gained from having built rapport with respondents in the interview process. Quigley contributed his critical race analysis perspective and his attunement to language—both race-conscious and color-evasive—that leaders in various settings employed to explain and/or obfuscate their practice. We argued over conceptual categories, word choices, and alternative theoretical explanations to arrive at the interpretations presented in this article. As such, these findings are bounded and informed by an extended process, leading to conceptually rich, confirmable, and credible findings firmly grounded in a collaboratively interpretive approach (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).


FINDINGS


Findings for this article focus on the moral grounding of school leaders’ perspectives on race-conscious leadership ethics. We chart the landscape of variation in school leaders’ talk about leadership for equity when racial difference enters the conversation. In this section, we summarize the variations found in how leaders talked about caring, choosing four themes in the data: community-based caring, tough-love/tough-luck caring, color-evasive caring in “fortunate communities,” and caring with minimal responsiveness (see Table 2). Although these themes sometimes overlapped in the perspectives of our participants, for the most part, they were found uniquely in particular individuals.


Rather than making judgments about the moral worth of these school leaders, this approach helps to illuminate distinctions in how leaders talked about their practices and how they ethically grounded them. Themes are suggestive of how these differences can be meaningful to practice, but with limited access to the actual practices, the emphasis here remains on the leaders’ words, assuming their words reflect important ideas and their capacity for practice. As we show next, part of the interpretive challenge was that many school leaders left their foundational ethical stances largely unarticulated. For many of these school leaders, their talk drew from taken-for-granted notions of fairness and meritocracy. However, leaders who talked about their practice from a race-conscious perspective were much clearer in their ethical stances toward students of color and low socioeconomic status, and this theme helped establish a way forward. The shades of difference across the other caring themes suggest varied approaches for building greater capacity among leaders who did not demonstrate race-conscious leadership ethics.


COMMUNITY-BASED CARING


Leaders who ground their work in a race-conscious perspective bring a community-based approach to caring: They examine patterns of oppression and domination, challenge power relations and taken-for-granted processes, and identify steps for corrective action on behalf of the students, families, and communities whom the school serves (Chandler & Kirsch, 2018). These leaders go beyond simple recognition of racialized opportunity gaps toward an articulated sense of critical responsibility for eradicating patterns of oppression and mitigating against the negative impact of opportunity gaps in their schools.


One principal, Scarlet Johnson, conveyed a manner of caring for her students that went beyond anything else we found in terms of the closeness of her relationships with her students and the complexities with which she described her sometimes-contentious relationships with parents in her school. Johnson is an African American principal of an elementary school in a high-poverty, predominantly Black neighborhood where she grew up and where her mother still lives. Nearly all students are Black, and nearly all qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch (see Table 1 for demographic detail of respondents and their schools). “Parents treat me well because I treat their kids well,” she said, “but I also represent the system and privilege”; sometimes parents tell her that she does not understand their situation. Her understanding of the perception many parents hold of the unequal power dynamic between the community and the school represents an important critical awareness in her caring. It is important for her that her students understand her commitment to them. Caring is material, historical, and cultural in her context, and she encourages similar dispositions in her teachers. “Not looking down on children” is very important, and “teachers need to be held accountable for how they talk to children.” For her, education is about “nurturing and caring for each other” and a “vehicle for giving back.”


This caring also plays out in how she approaches the curriculum. Two examples are in literacy and social studies. The point of developing literacy, she said, “is to find your voice and to get it heard.” Finding one’s voice requires an understanding of how and why one’s voice has been marginalized in the first place. Understanding one’s own marginalization and how to challenge the social structures that maintain that marginalization reflects a critical awareness. As such, the critical awareness in Johnson’s caring is represented in her focus on the development of critically literate students.  She has a waiver from her district so that her teachers do not need to teach the scripted curriculum provided to other schools.  Teaching social studies includes making sure that her children learn African American history beyond key facts and figures in history, “so that they might understand the long history of resistance and achievements.”


Johnson’s work with teachers, students, and parents is a practice grounded in an ethics of commitment to children, their community, historical knowledge, and cultural sustainability. Among our sample of principals, Johnson most clearly demonstrated the deep personal caring that Code (1995) argued is necessary for understanding across difference. Not only does Johnson care to know about the children in her school, but the needs and interests of the community also inform her practice; she seeks ways to care for children in ways that are culturally appropriate and socially just (Bass, 2012). For Johnson, her commitment is a direct reflection on her, considering her educational and personal history as a Black woman living in the city, attending schools, and being variously mistreated and praised by teachers. She said she understands that for some children, “school is something that is done to them” because that is what she experienced through a good portion of her early education; it wasn’t until a teacher praised and supported her that she believed herself to be capable. This ethical framing of her practice, born out of struggle, was only partially evident in other school leaders in the sample.


Likeminded to Johnson was Maya Gaffney, also a Black woman, a principal in a middle school with 80%–85% of students qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch. Interviewed just after her first year as a principal, Gaffney set out to build a culture of pride in her school. She considers seriously the responsibility to provide a holistic education to all children and studiously avoids blaming parents. Unlike some principals in the study, Gaffney readily shared the demographics of her school, including enrollment numbers of refugee students. When asked about subgroups in her school, without looking at any data, she shared, “We are now 30% White, 30% African American, probably 25% Nepal[ese] . . . 15% . . . Hispanic community . . . and we have a small population of students who are from Somalia . . . 1 or 2 [from] Uzbekistan . . . and Iraq.” Gaffney demonstrated a community-based caring by possessing a pulse of the rich diversity in her student and family communities. Where some members of her staff saw deficits, she saw assets and willingly tackled issues she encountered both formally and informally. Any system that impeded student learning needed to be changed:


I am not doing my job [as] an instructional leader, of making observations and giving teachers feedback to grow their practice. . . . And if I feel that if there is a teacher who I wouldn't want my child to be in that classroom, then they are not appropriate for the students here, and that is typically my barometer.


Gaffney attributed a lack of student growth to missed opportunities for teacher approaches and perspectives and ultimately saw her responsibility centered on what was good for her students. Also, she extended her community caring into the same area of interest and responsibility for her own family, adding, “I have to approach the school budget as if it’s like my paycheck for my house.” In short, Gaffney saw herself as a change agent rather than a component of the system, placing culture and race at the forefront of her leadership.


For these principals, responsibility for the success of students went beyond the limitations of the system in which they worked. They were called to transgress the rules and structures laid out by their district. For both, this notion of responsibility was historically embedded and fundamentally political, and they spoke of their students as sources of knowledge (hooks, 1994). African American identity and heritage was a topic of consideration for understanding the communities in which they worked and meaningful sources of content for a curriculum that went beyond the standard, limited inclusion of important dates and facts and toward an exploration of antiracist struggle and resilience.


For one of the Black male principals, Arthur Lawrence, positionality was important and invited our consideration of Black masculine caring (Bass, 2016) as a frame for understanding his ethical grounding. Lawrence led an urban middle/high school with 60%–65% of students qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch. Just under half were students of color. Although we would need more data to make a full analysis of the Black masculine caring of Lawrence, there were some compelling indications that the caring he exhibited had some distinct features. For starters, Lawrence understood that he was a role model for the Black male students in his building and described the importance of presenting himself as a highly capable “no-nonsense” leader as a way to counter pejorative stereotypes of Black males (Beachum & McCray, 2016).


Lawrence referred to achievement disparities between White and Black students and other students of color and acknowledged a sense of responsibility to remove barriers and provide opportunities for success. He explained his commitment to putting the best teachers in front of underserved students as evidence of his sense of responsibility to provide them with opportunities and address inequities. Lawrence articulated a commitment to addressing inequities:


Our focus on educating and providing all of our students with the right amount of support needed to be successful . . . no matter where they are from, no matter their previous experience . . . given the right amount of support and the right amount of time, they can certainly achieve at a high level.


Lawrence espoused a consciousness that race is a determinant in disparate achievement outcomes, but he did not articulate the same commitment to transgress on behalf of his Black students in the same manner as Johnson and Gaffney, who described their willingness to risk their very positions, if necessary, to challenge structural barriers within their own educational systems.


Another example of this theme was Allison Edwards, an African American female principal in a suburban district with mostly upper-middle-class families. The percentage of children on free- and reduced-price lunch in her school (10%–15%) was larger than the percentage of students of color (less than 5%). Edwards’s ethical stance was expressed in strong terms. She was an “other mother” who believed in social, emotional, and educational nurturing. She argued that she will do what is right for her students and will push teachers to be more culturally competent to work with students of color.


At the same time, it also appeared that Edwards’ context provided limited opportunity to engage in day-to-day struggles for pushing for more equitable educational practices. Unlike the other community-based caring school leaders in urban schools, Edwards did not draw from her positionality as a Black woman and leader in her interview. And while she was resolute, she did not evidence the same righteous indignation of the other participants in this theme, leaders who more clearly acted out of a moral imperative to challenge racial educational disparities. Although she was an advocate for students against systemic inequities, Edwards seemed more closely aligned with advocacy leadership (Anderson, 2009), seeking greater resources and support for all marginalized students with respect to “principled caring.” In a suburban setting with relatively high levels of resources and fewer students living in poverty, Edwards’ race-conscious caring seemed less justice-oriented in practice (Ladson-Billings, 2006, 2013; Strike, 2006) than that of the other leaders whose words helped articulate this theme.


TOUGH-LOVE/TOUGH-LUCK CARING


In some schools with low-income or mixed-income populations, leadership ethics played out with more impersonal caring, especially when it came to the experiences of children of color. The paired theme of “tough-love” and “tough-luck” caring captured perspectives of school leaders who expressed caring and concern for their students, but with a range of interest in and knowledge about students different from themselves, and limited capacities for action.


One intriguing example was Emma Badell, a longtime middle school principal in a high-poverty district; the student population was about 50% White and 50% African American, with 70%–75% of students qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch. Badell emerged for us as a tough-love and color-evasive carer. A White woman, she advocated for her students in an atmosphere of declining educational resources, fighting for their opportunities and offering programs and services to expand access to children and parents. She provided an example of facing budget cuts. Instead of accepting a cut from district leadership, she argued for a specific cut that the district high school should take instead.


This high-poverty school is in an urban area outside the city center that has faced challenges from charter school competition, a declining tax base, a less competitive salary schedule than surrounding districts, and a demographic shift as families move to this more affordable area from gentrified areas in the city center. Forming relationships is very important to Badell, and three meals a day are now offered to all students, with afternoon activities built around in-school dinner times. In this environment, she highlighted that her school is a safe haven, conveying in these words a deficit perspective on children and families:


A good word to describe them sometimes would be needy because we are the safe haven for them. As I said, because of families, the community, and a lot of what’s going on in the community, we are the stable force in their family, in their lives.


There was a gap in her knowledge about student interests and parent concern for education. For example, when she offered greater access to college preparatory courses and established new after-school programs, the number of students and families wishing to take advantage of them surprised her. As a veteran leader in the district, she had several examples of negative views to share about families’ views of the value of education. She positioned some families as not valuing education, and some students as not understanding the value of subject matter. She maintained regular contact with parents and strove to be responsive to their calls. Although at times she had caveats about not wanting to generalize, she tended to paint with a broad brush. She had particular frustration for “transient” students, who moved in and out of the district frequently. Her stories suggested that she had developed a personal style that she characterized as tough and fair in an environment of relative scarcity and challenge.  


Badell seemed to have similar relationships with teachers. She called them out (or into her office) for interactions with students or parents that were inappropriate. She wanted teams of teachers to figure things out, but she said she sometimes threatened to tell them what to do if they did not figure things out or did not get along. The school has a near equal number of White and Black students, but few teachers of color. She considered this a shame; the school has started a mentoring program with people in the community, and she hoped to be able to draw in more people of color. She acknowledged the cultural dissonance between her predominantly White faculty and her poor and 50% minority student population but still maintained a deficit perspective of this student population and their families.


Although present in the community, Badell seemed disconnected from the lives of the students of color in the community, especially those living in poverty. She was undoubtedly concerned with the care and welfare of her community of students and parents, but from how she talked about her community and her practices, there was no evidence of race-consciousness in her leadership practice. Her caring, in other words, seemed to come up against a racial barrier and did not reflect a sense of critical responsibility for the students of color in the community she served.


Working with a similar student population, White high school principal Dennis Gable had a similar tough-love caring approach. At times, he seemed more cognizant of the importance of race and racial difference, but his approach toward understanding students and families was more attuned to socioeconomic challenges than racial identity or challenges that students and families faced because of racism. His focus was on building relationships with his students and pushing his teachers to do the same. Poverty was the singular concern for his practice, and he was also challenged by losing funding to charter schools, a growing transient population, and the lack of a diverse teaching force. He seemed resigned to the lack of diversity, noting that it was difficult to compete with wealthier districts when hiring teachers.


A third principal, Scott Abbott, illuminated a different perspective on this theme, more of a “tough-luck” approach, with capacity and interest at a lower ebb. Abbott was a White principal of an urban high school; 26%–50% of his students were children of color, and 60%–65% qualified for free- or reduced-price lunch.  He grew up in a predominantly White context and did not attend schools with many students of color. He seemed to accept low expectations for students while acknowledging the contexts of poverty that these low-performing students lived in. He described his school as a combination of “haves and have-nots.” Abbott had very low expectations of the “Black subgroup” at his school, especially Black males, and applied a kind of social reproduction perspective in being content with the high-achieving students scoring well enough for his school to continually achieve “adequate yearly progress” in the state accountability system. He believed that parents with low educational attainment lacked the social capital to know how to get their kids to and through college, but he did not see his school, himself, or the teachers as being responsible for providing insights or tools.


Although Abbott talked about personal accountability a great deal, he did not articulate his own ethical responsibilities as a leader to serve students from varied backgrounds and to hold others (i.e., teachers) accountable for increasing life chances for marginalized students. In one passage, he said, “I had a teacher tell me . . . she wanted to be better at teaching Black males how to read . . . that is a subgroup of kids that are notorious for struggling in school.” The teacher went on to ask for resources to improve her capacity, but Abbott interpreted the request as impossible to fulfill, despite the availability of literature, resources, and professional development in his county that could have responded to the teacher’s stated interest and demonstrated need. There was no sense of urgency or a plan for intervention, although Black males, and Black students in general, continue to score low on the standardized tests. He did not seem to be a culturally fluent leader, nor did he seem to think he needed to be more critically cultural or race-conscious.


COLOR-EVASIVE CARING IN “FORTUNATE” COMMUNITIES


In many cases, principals evidenced caring attitudes but neither race-consciousness nor culturally responsive leadership. These principals were caring, but their caring was color-evasive, and responsibility for students of color was nearly absent. For some principals, there was a theme of “fortunate” communities—principals expressing that they felt fortunate to have students and parents with high educational standards, involvement, and achievement; these were often settings with high levels of wealth. Several principals who shared this perspective took pride in knowing the names of all the students in their buildings, even in very large buildings, and advanced rigorous methods of instruction and high standards for performance.


With an explicitly student-centered approach, elementary principal Laura Foster nevertheless claimed no expertise in cultural competence, and in her mostly White setting, she had not been challenged to diversify her student-centered philosophy. For her, fairness was important:


I just mean they have to like you as a person, and they have to know that you care about them. So I think the students know that I care about them and that I want what’s best for them. And I think they think that I’m fair. I mean, sometimes, obviously, as the principal I have to discipline them, but I think that, by and large, they think that what I do is fair.  


Like Foster, who led a school with fewer than 5% students of color and 10%–15% qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch, most of the White principals in the sample led predominantly White schools in suburban districts and had little to say about racial competence (Flores & Gunzenhauser, 2019).


For this theme of “fortunate” communities, the principals credited a good deal of the success of the school to the involvement and expectations of the parents who sent their children to school there. The clear implication was that there were imagined “unfortunate communities” that lacked parent involvement and expectations. For many of these principals, caring and responsibility were tied to equality, reflecting variously spirits of meritocracy, effort, and striving. In many cases, the school leaders avoided race talk and did not convey race-conscious approaches to engaging their students. In most cases, the principals had only ever worked in high-income and upper-middle-income settings. An example was Kevin Labby, who led a high school with 5%–10% students of color and less than 5% students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. He revealed a capacity for responsibility; for example, he stated, “You want to give them every opportunity. And that is sort of the value, is presenting options and giving kids; you want to be able to give them all, regardless of background, access to the best.” His practice did not demonstrate this value in action, though. There was no discussion of race in his school; he left that to the academic training that teachers received in their teacher preparation programs, and the school offered no professional development for current teachers.


Meritocracy was an explicit value for Peter Ingram, a White high school principal in a predominantly White district with 10%–15% students of color and less than 5% students qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch. A racial incident at his school led to an outside organization conducting interventional meetings at his school, which he described as “powerful.” Students who are in the minority have important voices, he said, and he counted on them “to tell [him] what they need.” Locating responsibility partly in this role but largely placing it on the students of color seemed consistent with his philosophy of education. Evoking some of the spirit of “tough-luck caring” described earlier, Ingram spoke about “our forefathers and pioneers” who “did the hard work, and no one was there handing it to them.” Without the memory of racism and colonialism to contextualize his recollection of U.S. history, Ingram used this rationale to support the value of discovery-based learning. He was an advocate of learning by doing and hard work; students should “roll up their sleeves and do the work.” He wanted his teachers to connect with each student, to “get kids hooked into something that they can succeed at” or to “help them get material in a different way that they’re not getting.” At the time of the interview, he was enthusiastic about an African American teacher he had hired for the following year, who he anticipated would “help kids find someone that they can connect with.” Although Ingram could speak to the “power” of a racial training that was part of an external intervention, these other comments conveyed a level of personal responsibility that would be inconsistent with culturally relevant leadership (Khalifa, 2018).

        

In more affluent suburban contexts, most White principals hewed to more fully color-evasive perspectives. Jack Maddon was the principal of an elementary school with 10%–25% students of color and 45%–50% qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch. Maddon recognized the problem of educators’ creating and believing certain generalizations, sometimes as a result of using data to focus on subgroups. He was careful to self-correct his statements. For example, in discussing how the low-SES group of students scored lower on testing, he quickly shifted his language by adding, “Not all of them, of course. I don’t want to generalize.” He did it again when talking about the parents of low-SES groups. He highlighted his perspective that parents of low-SES students lacked belief in the importance of education, and he followed the statement with, “Again, it’s like a lot of them want the best for their child, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say.” Further, he lacked a perspective about race and culture. When asked about how he supported diverse students with data use, he highlighted low SES and high SES to identify “diverse.”


His lack of perspective about race and culture also was apparent when he addressed the unfairness of how his school was judged in the state accountability system: “You’re blaming schools for all the ails, that may come from their home, or whatever. And they don’t want schools to blame variables . . . I would love if they could make the parents more accountable, as well.” Maddon’s language seemed to convey the conflicting pressures for accountability (for scores) and responsibility (for children) that Biesta (2004) highlighted as so problematic. Although Maddon seemed to understand the contextual and societal factors that create opportunity gaps and hamper poor students of color with respect to academic achievement and performance on tests, he wavered toward blaming parents, suggesting an incomplete commitment to responsibility.


Maddon demonstrated his responsibility toward addressing issues in his school with a disciplinary framework based on justice. He revealed a challenge with some teachers who could not seem to connect to the perspective of some students. His recognition, however, did not lead to action. Although he identified a need, something was stopping him from enacting a caring response. He stated, “Sometimes I want to take the whole group down there and let’s visit some houses, and visit some kids. ’Cause it really brings perspective to it.” In contrast to some other principals (such as Gaffney), however, he had not implemented any professional development for his staff that would provide them with the opportunities to experience the cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005) of his racialized and marginalized communities. While he critiqued others for their lack of knowledge about students and families, he also did some blaming of his own.


CARING WITH (MINIMAL) RESPONSIVENESS


Among the suburban principals were several with varied emergent race-conscious perspectives, in contrast to the color-evasive caring evidenced in many of their colleagues. For these leaders, the opportunities were more limited for enacting responsible caring for students of color, although in some of these settings, student populations were changing, and principals found themselves preparing teachers to be more responsive. As this theme suggests, there was capacity among some suburban principals for race-conscious caring. This capacity is significant for schools experiencing changing demographics and for countering the invisibility that isolated students of color may experience in predominantly White schools—and/or the hypervisibility when it comes to discipline issues or exoticizing them athletically or artistically (Duncan, 2002; Ellison, 2013; Quigley, 2013; Quigley & Mitchell, 2018).


Like many of his colleagues, building relationships was the approach for elementary principal John Hall, who led a school with 5%–10% students of color and 15%–20% qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch. In contrast to some other school leaders in suburban districts, Hall drew his appreciation and values for diversity in students from his previous experiences working in a more diverse district. According to Hall, students of color “bring a lot to the classroom,” and teachers need “to find a way to incorporate those students, their backgrounds, their beliefs, their cultures into what you’re doing in the classroom”; he openly shared his belief that “racism or prejudice . . . still exists a lot today.”


Hall acknowledged his responsibility to challenge teachers’ deficit perspectives about students. In this predominantly White school, an increasing number of students were becoming eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch, and teachers were complaining that students weren’t performing as well as in the past. This played out in discipline, as he attempted to guide teachers to rethink their instructional practices rather than blaming students or too quickly resorting to special education referrals when other approaches had not been tried. He similarly encouraged teachers to be active in their attempts to engage students and families, providing examples of how the notion of responsibility he articulated often required persistence on the part of teachers.


For principals leading predominantly White schools, it was not evident that appreciative views about children of color translated to community-based caring. At times, these leaders sounded color-evasive. For example, when asked about the skills of his predominantly White teaching staff with his African American students, Hall said, “To me, it’s common sense, and anybody that’s a teacher should have those skills to work them,” and to “me personally, color and race and that stuff doesn’t matter to me. It’s more, what are we going to do for that kid?”


Thus presents the complexity and limitations found in participants who demonstrated caring with (minimal) responsiveness: understanding of racial difference and systems of oppression does not imply culturally responsive leadership or success building capacity for culturally responsive practices among school personnel. As a theme distinct from color-evasive caring and community-based caring, caring with minimal responsiveness captures a gap between openness to race-conscious caring and practices that enact commitment to corrective action.  


DISCUSSION: RACE-CONSCIOUS ETHICS FOR COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY


The varied expressions of caring among principals suggest a widely varied capacity for race-conscious leadership among our respondents. In this section, we draw some connections across these varied forms of caring to suggest what it may mean to build race-conscious ethics into school leader practice. Our findings reinforce Starratt’s (2014) suggestion that researchers in educational leadership strengthen their ethical grounding for social justice leadership. In this section, we argue for an ethics of collective responsibility, grounded in the connected experience of difference and the quality of caring relations. We suggest potential routes for strengthening ethical foundations that may address leaders’ failings and improve capacity.  

 

EXPERIENCE AND COMMUNITY CONNECTION MATTER


Race-conscious leadership ethics is a challenge for school leaders without backgrounds and experiences engaging racial difference. In short, experience matters, in terms of both positionality and professional background. School leaders’ positionalities in terms of race and gender are part of their dispositions and ethics, especially when their positionalities contribute to asset-based perspectives on the communities in which they work. Echoing Yosso’s (2005) articulation of community cultural wealth, positionality and background experience provide context for appreciating and engaging assets in communities and set up distinctly different relations of caring. A community-based sense of caring, evident in the interview with Johnson, is an embodied ethic with continuity between her prior experience and current context. Even with her knowledge and community connection, community-based caring is still challenging work.  Among the principals in this study, embracing the material, historical, and cultural aspects of caring means continuing to listen to parents and children and not to assume that prior experience guarantees understanding and connection. Evident from this analysis, caring is neither neutral nor universal in its application; its enactment is informed by power relationships, personal and cultural history, and social context.


In our study, several of the African American female principals grounded their dispositions differently than the other participants did, and their thoughts about caring included specific, evident reflections on their positionality as African American females (Alcoff, 1988). The dispositions toward an ethic of caring recall Bass’s (2012) work with African American female school leaders. Evident in our data is the theme of “other mothering” found in Bass’s analysis in the claiming by these principals of the students as their own. Also evident is the theme of an ethic of risk: These women all took principled stances in support of their students and felt called to transgress district rules and structures. Each explicitly indicated that they were willing to lose their positions on principle, a stand that Bass referred to as putting “care before justice.” Black masculine caring seems salient for at least one African American man in the study, reflecting Bass’s (2016, 2020) more recent work and suggesting nuance and expansion of possibilities for caring leadership. In the example of Arthur Lawrence, making sure he appears to his students as an effective leader and making sure that he does not perpetuate stereotypes are vitally important to him in his approach to race-conscious managerial care, especially for his Black students looking to him as a role model.


Such analyses reinforce the significance of prior experience for a school leader’s orientation toward caring.  As our analysis suggests, school leaders whose positionalities are aligned with dominant culture also draw from their experiences to define their caring, but they evidence color-evasive perspectives on responsibility for children. Embracing positionality is, of course, not always part of the experience of a principal of color, and school leaders from White and majority-culture backgrounds have experiences that contribute to their disposition toward caring (see Table 1 for exceptions). But especially for the White principals with limited experience living and working with people of color, dispositions toward engaging and caring for students of color are difficult for them to even articulate, suggesting the lack of capacity for culturally responsive leadership found in related research (Khalifa et al., 2016). As we explore in the next section, it is an open question as to how these leaders may build on their understanding of caring when they lack experience and community connection.


IMPERSONAL CARING RELATIONS


The genuine care called for in the literature is quite often lacking among the principals who evidence minimal or no culturally responsive caring. In contrast, we have many examples of school leaders who exhibit more generic forms of caring that are impersonal (Code, 1995), which we characterize earlier as tough-love caring, tough-luck caring, and color-evasive caring.  Caring in these cases is either not race-conscious or minimally race-conscious, and although leaders embrace caring, they also convey deficit and victimization perspectives about children and families. There are also contexts in which challenges to educational equity are readily apparent, and we might expect robust efforts from school leaders, as advocates for equity, to close gaps. However, in some of these settings, especially in contexts with sizable populations of both White and Black students living in poverty, school leaders come across as ineffectual; in these cases, we suppose that a lack of well-developed positionality leads to a lack of recognition of gaps, and either inaction or ineffective action. In these cases, there seems to be a lack of willingness to engage race as a significant area of difference in opportunity, with neither context nor disposition to guide the building of capacity.


The clear danger of impersonal caring is the perpetuation of erasure of people of color and their experiences (Annamma et al., 2017; Thompson, 1998). Articulating one’s position as color-evasive reinforces the position of power of the school leader and defies the stated intention of caring by allowing inequities based on the racialized status quo to perpetuate. In these ways, impersonal caring provides ethical cover to leaders who declaim racism yet allow racism to perpetuate itself through their actions and the institutions for which they are responsible; this echoes the insight from Bonilla-Silva (2014) about “racism without racists”—that racism continues to operate despite its disavowal by powerful actors.


Analysis of the care ethics of these leaders suggests further extension of the situatedness and particularity of caring as a concept, highlighting the insight of Noddings (1984) that caring is relational and contextual. Not all forms and expressions of caring are effectual, and caring is always embedded in material, historical, and cultural context. The quality of caring relations is of utmost importance, and, as a growing body of literature affirms, leaders with knowledge, experience, and dispositions to engage students in respectful and culturally responsive relations are vital (Khalifa et al., 2016; Louis et al., 2016).


CAPACITY FOR COLLECTIVE MORAL RESPONSIBILITY


Close analysis of interviews suggests multiple possibilities for why the responsibility for student learning looks so different in the words of leaders who practice community-based caring. Our study suggests that school leaders bring to their practice varied dispositions toward educational inequity, and in a prior article, we described those dispositions as dispositions toward gaps in achievement and opportunity (Flores & Gunzenhauser, 2021). School leaders with a fully developed disposition toward educational inequality talk about the achievement gap differently, and the ways in which they talk about it (sometimes as an “opportunity gap”) signal a capacity for action. This disposition is an example of capacity for collective moral responsibility. These school leaders take a well-articulated ethical position that they have a moral responsibility, grounded in collective action, to attend to gaps in opportunity. Their dispositions help them to recognize gaps, identify what needs to change (e.g., teacher attitudes that their practices are fine because they work for most kids), and build a community to take collective action for change.


In contrast, some other school leaders lack knowledge or capacity that would enable them to care more genuinely. This may happen in cases in which leaders see themselves in caring roles but lack community connection or race-consciousness. This form of impersonal caring represents a gap between stated ethics and its enactment. Following Noddings’s (1984) discussion of the importance of reciprocity for sustaining caring relations, these leaders may find themselves to be worn-out saviors, unsure of why their efforts aren’t successful. Impersonal carers, in other words, lack meaningful connection with their students, and their caring attempts are not completed. They may then blame students and families for not receiving their efforts rather than connecting more deeply to learn from others about their needs and interests.   


School leaders with a primary emphasis on test scores focus primarily on gaps in achievement and ground their work in an ethic of accountability. Falling prey to the predominant economic relation of high-stakes accountability systems (Biesta, 2004), leaders make measured achievement more important than student needs (Gunzenhauser, 2012; Starratt, 2014). Leaders in this situation subvert the pedagogical relation that Biesta placed at the center of education. This impersonal caring is a managerial form of care. It is not surprising, then, that leaders focused primarily on achievement gaps had little to say about ethics or caring. For many leaders, ethical language was notably absent from their discussions of equity-minded practices. Instead, these leaders tended to rely on an abstract, principled notion of fairness and the educational system as meritocratic, providing rationales for inequities in educational outcomes based on student effort, background, or family support.   


These school leaders suggest a generic, perhaps Kantian or deontological ethical framework based on principles of fairness (as suggested by Peter Ingram in his invocation of the pioneers and hard work). Or, for those with color-evasive perspectives, they may position themselves (consciously or not) as racially (and morally) enlightened (Annamma et al., 2017). However, for the most part, such an ethical framework is left unarticulated by these school leaders and would be merely inferred. Speculating from our data and connecting to prior research (Gerstl-Pepin et al., 2006; Khalifa et al., 2016; Mullen, 2017), we suggest that these abstract principles may inform leadership ethics precisely because they are taken for granted in conventional practice. As taken for granted, they are nevertheless systematic and powerful. Such views may remain unarticulated in principal preparation programs but nevertheless influence practice. When tied with race-evasiveness, as they often are, these expressions of impersonal caring perpetuate inequality and hide that perpetuation in ongoing leadership practices.     


IMPLICATIONS


In addition to the conceptual conclusions we draw about the significance of experience, genuine caring, and collective responsibility, our exploratory findings have some purchase for school leaders wishing to build the capacity for equity leadership in their practice and for school leadership faculty for integrating ethics and race-consciousness into leadership preparation programs. For at least two reasons, our findings suggest that school leadership practice and preparation are overdue for the integration of ethics and race-consciousness. First, leaders with well-developed race-conscious leadership ethics talk about their practice in ways that are promising for building capacity, not only for their leadership practice but also for the practices of their teachers and school communities. Second is evidence of largely unarticulated leadership ethics among those leaders who do not demonstrate race-consciousness. These findings suggest opportunities for new practices and new ways of thinking about expanding race-conscious and ethical leadership practices in communities. These opportunities are vital for further inquiry and intentional practice, as we recognize the grave risk of inaction and the importance of a fervent commitment to comprehensive action.


We recognize that more work is needed to inform leadership preparation with ethics and perspectives toward equity-minded educational practices (Louis et al., 2016). Varied approaches may be needed to cultivate race-conscious leadership ethics, suggested by the distinct themes of tough-love/tough-luck, color-evasiveness in fortunate communities, and minimal responsiveness. For example, in communities with high proportions of poverty and students of color, race-conscious practices and community-centered interventions are likely to be more important for building capacity in the school (already present in the community) and making caring more genuine.


Additional research could focus on how leaders enact race-conscious caring in varied school contexts, especially considering the prevalence of impersonal caring in predominantly White and low-poverty schools in this sample. In communities with smaller numbers of children of color, color-evasive principals could question their assumptions of universal (impersonal) caring and end the erasure of racial difference. School leaders across contexts and school districts within this one county could learn from each other and work for equity collectively.


Our analysis suggests that significant attention be devoted to the cultivation of dispositions, particularly dispositions toward students who have historically experienced a gap in educational opportunities. If school leadership preparation programs cultivate an ethic of collective moral responsibility, it could enable leaders to work past impersonal caring.  Based on the experiences of our respondents, personal history and experience in diverse educational contexts need to be more centrally considered, along with concerted efforts to grow those dispositions in relation to other colleagues. School leaders may learn by example from colleagues for whom positionality and experience across difference have led to race-conscious leadership ethics. With regard to leadership preparation programs, as the revised national leadership standards assert, caring practice and a clear moral vision of the purpose of education should inform the conceptual model of any school leader preparation program (NPBEA, 2015). We suggest that a richer sense of caring as collective responsibility, as opposed to more technically minded accountability (caring as impersonal caring or managerial care), be a guiding ethical principle for program design. In summary, we have the following specific implications.


Make ethics part of addressing justice in the gaps. In the discourse about how school leaders address gaps in opportunity and achievement, evidence suggests that moral grounding of professional practice is a fruitful area for discussion. Our findings suggest that there are significant and noticeable differences in ethical grounding and that addressing ethical grounding in leadership preparation and practice is warranted.


Deepen ethical analysis in future research. In our exploratory interviews, just a few prompts in the interview script addressed these topics directly, and the provocative nature of our findings requires deeper engagement and further theoretical elaboration. Further research could explore ethical frames more extensively to address more directly and deeply the three areas of positionality, genuine caring, and collective responsibility. Diversity of ethical grounding across ethical traditions, to include non-Western meta-ethics, is also promising.


Foster equity leader collectives. During our data collection and analysis—and echoed in Flores’s and Quigley’s professional development work—it became clear that equity leaders in the community studied here are interested in strengthening connections with each other and expanding the reach and sustainability of collective moral responsibility. Some share similar struggles within and across school districts. The work is often done in isolation, and these leaders may benefit from more formal collective arrangements, particularly if they are participant led.


Study models of race-conscious leadership practice. We have found in our sample distinct practices that operate within the confines of school district policies and structures, despite limitations that some policies and structures impose. Some school leaders have developed resistance and sustainable practices that researchers and other practitioners would benefit from studying in greater depth. There are also possibilities for principal preparation programs learning from specific leaders’ practices.


Cultivate race-consciousness in professional development. The variation in positionalities studied in this research project suggests that school leaders of all racial, ethnic, and gender identities would benefit from studying theoretical and practical instantiations of race-consciousness. Leaders of color and White leaders in our sample may benefit from continuing engagement in race-consciousness and learning about leading practices that emerge from race-consciousness.


Address racial difference head-on in principal preparation.  Models of school leader preparation programs exist that address racial difference directly. In the larger region in which this study was undertaken, there is some work in this area and appreciation for its value, but it has not been systematically or comprehensively explored. Educational leadership standards have evolved to include the importance of addressing racial difference and racism, and principal preparation programs could fruitfully engage future leaders with experiences embedded in the abilities and ethical perspectives of existing leaders with the most to offer in terms of race-conscious leadership practices. Some evidence from our study and prior research supports the idea that building on leadership students’ beliefs about caring shows promise (Mullen, 2017).  


CONCLUSION


As an exploration into race-conscious leadership ethics, this study suggests a new professional agenda to address the needs of communities, building on strengths in current practice and strengths in communities that may be going untapped. Significantly for the context in which we have studied this phenomenon, schools across various settings could benefit from increased capacity for race-conscious leadership ethics as states and regions may work collaboratively to address gaps in opportunity for children. The conceptual framework we used to analyze these principals’ perspectives brings together three related concerns: (a) collective responsibility for the education of all children, (b) genuine caring that comes from engrossment in the particular needs and interests of all students, and (c) race-consciousness that acknowledges the rich possibilities that come from respect for the histories, contexts, and experiences of students. As public schools in the United States continue to become more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity (Frey, 2015; Mordechay & Orfield, 2017), it is increasingly incumbent on leaders to be prepared to engage all children who make up their communities, to be vigilant against the pressures to devolve their caring responsibility in favor of managerial accountability, and to build stronger, more educationally sound communities.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 2, 2021, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23583, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 12:40:16 AM

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About the Author
  • Michael G. Gunzenhauser
    University of Pittsburgh
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL G. GUNZENHAUSER, Ph.D., is an associate professor and associate chair of Educational Foundations, Organizations, and Policy in the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a philosopher of education and qualitative research methodologist who studies ethics and epistemology in relation to social justice in education. His work includes the book, The Active/Ethical Professional: A Framework for Responsible Educators (Continuum, 2012).
  • Osly J. Flores
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    OSLY J. FLORES, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on race-conscious school leadership, school leaders of color, ethical leadership, and supportive practices toward graduate students of color. He is co-author of “Advancing Equity-Based School Leadership: The Importance of Family-School Relationships” in The Urban Review (2020); he co-authored “The (Unspoken) Pact: A Composite Counternarrative of Latino Males’ Compańerismo in a Doctoral Program at a Predominately White Institution in the Midwest” in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (2020).
  • Michael W. Quigley
    Robert Morris University
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL W. QUIGLEY, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Organizational Leadership in the School of Informatics, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Robert Morris University. He conducts research on educational leadership, critical leadership, and youth leadership. He is the co-author, with Anthony B. Mitchell, of “‘What Works’: Applying Critical Race Praxis to the Design of Educational and Mentoring Interventions for African American Males,” in the Journal of African American Males in Education (2018).
 
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