On Leadership, Strategy, and Equity: The Lead the Change Interview with Isobel Stevenson

This week, IEN features the Lead the Change (LTC) interview with Isobel Stevenson. Stevenson works for the Connecticut Center for School Change, a nonprofit organization that supports school districts in their organizational improvement efforts. She is co-author, with Jennie Weiner, of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes and writes The Coaching Letter, a newsletter supporting the work of coaches and leaders in education.  A pdf of the fully formatted interview will be available on the LtC website.

Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities.

Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

 Isobel Stevenson: My day job, so to speak, is in an organization that has equity in education as its mission, so this is an issue that I spend a lot of time working on and thinking about. My contact with school and district leaders (including coaches, department heads, and so on) tells me that they have already got the message that the system generates and perpetuates inequities. They are looking for ways to do something about it. But a lot of what is available to them is still at the problem-identification level. And for sure, having good data, completing an equity audit (Skrla, Scheurich, & Garcia, 2004), identifying the inequities that exist and seeing them for what they are–all those are essential. But even when you know the problem, the “now what?” can remain elusive.

Much of the attention being paid to equity at the moment is in the form of books that discuss why race is hard to talk about, how our personal biases show up in our work, etc. See, for example, White Fragility (DiAngelo, 2018), Unconscious Bias in Schools (Benson & Fiarman, 2020), How to be an Anti-Racist (Kendi, 2019). These are all great books, and you have to start somewhere, but many educational leaders seem to have gotten the impression that engaging in this kind of work is what it means to “do equity work”. I think there are other aspects of “doing equity” that, if not red herrings, are overstated in their importance. By which I mean, it’s not that they are not important, it is that they are not, by themselves, long enough levers to bring about meaningful change. I would include in this category: “relationships”, “SEL” (currently the single most overused and under-specified construct in education), and “trauma-informed Text Box: “How can we re-introduce the idea that in addition cultural relevance, intellectual challenge and academic press are also crucial?”instruction.”

If I have one big complaint, it is that programs in educational change are not paying enough attention to instruction–or they do so in a lopsided way. We use terms like culturally-responsive or culturally-relevant, but these are only one part of the picture. A culturally relevant curriculum that does not expose students to grade-level tasks is missing the mark, but “rigor” has become a tainted concept, and we don’t seem to talk about teacher expectations any more. How can we re-introduce the idea that in addition cultural relevance, intellectual challenge and academic press are also crucial?

“How can we re-introduce the idea that in addition to cultural relevance, intellectual challenge and academic press are also crucial?”

The irony here is that we have research going back a long way that shows that teachers cannot think their way out of their biases–not because they are bad people, but because they are human, and the whole point of implicit bias is that it is implicit. The question then becomes how can we construct policies and practices, for instruction and other aspects of education, that are not dependent on educators overcoming their biases in order to improve opportunities, experiences and outcomes for all students? Specifically, in my experience, organizing for equity means consciousness-raising for educators (by reading books like Unconscious Bias in Schools (Benson & Fiarman, 2020), for example) SO THAT they understand, and agree with, the need for them to alter their teaching practices to increase BOTH the challenge AND the support that traditionally marginalized students receive. Paul Gorski, Zaretta Hammond, and Matthew Kay all provide guidance on how to do that.

LtC: Given your focus on strategic planning to enhance school performance and equity opportunities and outcomes, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?  

IS: A lack of strategic thinking can lead educators to make choices based on un-tested thinking, including but not limited to:

  1. Believing that because another district appears to have had success with a program, it should be adopted in our district.
  2. Proposing solutions without thinking through what the problem is (this tendency is compounded by the temptation to talk about solutions as if they were problems, as in “the problem is we don’t have enough counselors.”)
  3. Adopting a program/approach/ initiative without a tough conversation about the capacity needed to implement it.
  4. Thinking that the answer is professional learning for teachers; the answer is never just professional learning for teachers.
  5. Believing that writing something in a plan means that it will happen.
  6. Believing that having a vision or adopting ambitious goals has power other than inspiration; it is, at best, the starting point for coherence.
  7. Thinking that filling out a template for a school improvement plan or a district strategic plan is the same thing as being strategic.
  8. Making assumptions that everyone in the organization is clear about what the organization’s strategy is (in fact, most teachers in most districts don’t know what the district is focused on).
  9. Making assumptions that everyone in the organization is clear on their role (coaches, for example, are often decidedly unclear on what they are supposed to be coaching towards).

Leaders need a strong conceptual framework for strategic planning, so that they don’t fall into these traps. They also need tools for strategic planning, but, above all, they should deploy these tools thoughtfully, not replace one set of compliance activities for another. Obviously, I think the antidote is, at least in part, that educational leaders should read my new book with Dr. Jennie Weiner, The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices;but Being Strategic : Plan for Success; Out-Think Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change by Erika Anderson is also really great.

“Leaders should deploy these tools thoughtfully, not replace one set of compliance activities for another.”

Both books emphasize process over product. They provide a big-picture methodology involving building a bridge from what is to what is desired. Obviously, that sounds simple and straightforward, but implementing the process well is actually quite challenging, and so they contain a lot of guidance for how to go about it.

LtC: In your recent work, you make the case that strategic planning can be an important tool for continuous improvement but requires a principled framework of equity, logic, capacity, and coherence to facilitate such change. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in response to this argument? 

IS: There are many areas where I see policy under-utilized, and many where it is wielded clumsily. For example, many districts have created policies around the creation of strategic plans that are more about compliance to external mandates and/or the format of the plan than about the substance of the plan relative to the needs of the district.  I understand the desire for accountability around the practice of planning, but putting so much emphasis on a product–and, more than that, a product in a specified format–makes the creation of the product a rather onerous task. For example, we have seen templates that require the inclusion of a root cause analysis, or pages of data. I don’t see that as helpful, and simply reinforces a couple of things: the message that planning is a compliance activity; district and schools’ priorities are only loosely coupled; schools get to choose how and when to pursue equity.

At the same time, districts choose not to wield their power when it comes to policy that perpetuates inequity. I don’t understand why districts don’t have stronger equity-related policies around, for example, placement in advanced courses, discipline, grading, and high-quality instruction.

Capacity building is neglected at a policy level. Sometimes it seems to me that a realistic conversation about capacity becomes impossible, because it can be construed as a lack of faith in the mission. Educators who ask difficult questions about capacity fear that they will be labeled as “negative”, “resistant”, or “nay-sayers.” There is a lot of work to be done on psychological safety in education.

To change these patterns, you have to think of policy as part of strategy, rather than separate from it, which is how it’s often treated. School boards are often involved in the creation of the strategic plan, but they seem to see themselves as separate from it, as though it is a mechanism for them to delegate the work rather than direct the work.

Text Box: “Collaboration and support in transformation requires psychological safety.”LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?

IS: In addition to my training and experience in educational leadership and change management, I also have training and experience in coaching, and that has been completely invaluable. So, I’m going to answer this question by highlighting how my coaching background shines a light on the question of supporting educators facing difficult challenges, in the hope that I can inspire others to investigate how interpersonal, as well as organizational, theory and practice can be helpful:

  1. Collaboration and support in transformation requires psychological safety. Without it, leaders will simply not be granted access to information they need in order to improve their strategy, and subordinates will carry the impression that their leaders are more interested in hearing good news than in providing support. Psychological safety means seeing failure as data and not lack of commitment; it means not judging the quality of decisions by their results; it means not reacting to good news as much as not reacting to bad. Amy Edmondson’s (2018) The Fearless Organization is essential reading, as is Meghan Tschannen-Moran’s (2014) Trust Matters.
  2. I often work with educational leaders who know what they ought to do, but don’t do it. When pressed, they tend to use explanations that indicate that they don’t think that the required action (let’s say, a challenging conversation) will actually make a difference; but I suspect that even though they are expressing their doubts as what Bandura (1977) would call an outcome expectation, they actually don’t have confidence in their ability to perform the action. Leaders of educational change need skills, and developing them requires guidance, coaching, and practice.
  3. A universal complaint of educators is that they don’t get enough feedback; this is particularly true of leaders in challenging situations. There are two parts to this. First, educational leaders need conceptual frameworks to formulate feedback (see, for example, Hattie & Timperley, 2007), and practice in developing the skill of engaging in feedback conversations. Let’s say that’s the formal version of feedback. But second, they need to understand how to harvest feedback from the environment, because it is actually all around them, and how to solicit feedback that is useful to them. Let’s call that the informal type of feedback. And educators need practice in receiving feedback, which they almost never get.

“Collaboration and support in transformation requires psychological safety.”

There’s a line in Execution (Bossidy, Charan & Burck, 2011) about how the conversation is the smallest unit of change, and I think there is an essential truth in that. Educational leaders tend to think of coaching as a soft skill separate from the hard skills of developing strategy and decision making, but I think that’s a mistake. A lot of the methodology of strategic planning is exactly parallel to the scaffolding of strategic thinking that is the essence of coaching.  I think that educational leaders would benefit enormously from formal training in coaching; it would improve their support for individuals and groups, help them benefit from coaching and supervision, as well as giving them the skills to have strategic conversations.

It’s not just about coaching, of course. In our book, The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders, we talk about principals and superintendents being clear on their role in putting equity first while supporting teachers, and about building capacity, which is also a form of support. We also talk about coherence–which is all about clarity and shared understanding–which is a much-underestimated form of support; there are so many educators who would feel much less stressed and much more supported if they only felt that they were on the same page as senior leaders regarding what the focus was and who was supposed to be doing what. That’s a big part of our book.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

IS: This is a watershed moment. The pandemic has been a disaster for millions of children, but it has also shone a light on inequity in a way that nothing else has come close to doing since Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1991) was published. My unscientific reading of social media tells me that there is a deep divide between educators who want nothing so badly as going back to what they had before the schools shut down in March, and those who want to reinvent schools based on what the pandemic has made apparent: that schools are not meeting the needs of all students. My greatest hope is that this conversation does not become a head-to-head competition, but rather a strategic conversation: a process for agreeing on a shared vision based on equity for all students and generating a strategic plan to reach that vision that isn’t a performative exercise, but makes sense, is realistic, and devotes adequate resources to the mission. I am optimistic.


Andersen, E. (2009). Being Strategic: Plan for Success; Out-think Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change. St. Martin’s Press.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191.

Benson, T. A., & Fiarman, S. E. (2020). Unconscious bias in schools: A developmental approach to exploring race and racism. Harvard Education Press.

Bossidy, L., Charan, R., & Burck, C. (2011). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. Random House.

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press

.Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons.

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. One world.

Kozol, J. (1991) Savage inequalities. Crown.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2014). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools. John Wiley & Sons.

Skrla, L., Scheurich, K.J., Garcia, J., & Nolly, G. (2004). Equity audits: A practical leadership tool for developing equitable and excellent schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40 (1), 133-161.

Stevenson, I., & Weiner, J. M. (2020). The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes. Routledge.

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

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