Culturally Responsive Leadership, Faith, and School Reform: A Conversation with Miriam D. Ezzani

This month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview features Miriam D. Ezzani, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership in the College of Education at Texas Christian University. Dr. Ezzani studies culturally responsive leadership within the contexts of district and school reform and Islamic school leadership. The Lead the Change series highlights promising research and practice and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change to spark conversation and collaboration. The LtC series is a product of the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research AssociationJennie Weiner, Chair; Olga O. Fellus, Program Chair; Corinne Brion, Secretary/Treasurer; Alexandra Lamb, Series Editor; Cynthia Wise, Social Media Coordinator. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website.

Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme was 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?

Miriam D. Ezzani; Given what we know, and have known, for some time, about the need to dismantle oppressive systems within the field of education, educational change scholars have a moral responsibility to develop educational leaders who are change agents for social justice. Like many of my colleagues, we entered the field of education to make a difference in the lives of the people whom we serve, and the society in which we live. The culmination of our everyday work is ultimately our legacy, individually and collectively. One of the steps I take to heed the call is to ask myself, “What legacy do I aspire to achieve? How will I get there?” Data are leverage points for change in our lives and our everyday work. From qualitative and quantitative research, we know how systemic racism manifests in our society and specifically in schooling systems (e.g., inequitable funding, disproportionate discipline, persistent opportunity gaps, tracking, low expectations, under and over-representation of students of color in advanced academics and special education, respectively (Datnow & Park, 2018; Fabelo et al., 2011; Khalifa, 2020; Liou et al., 2016)). To date, we have yet to make good on the promise of public education, which should be defined as success for all children, no matter their race/ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation, faith, ableness, and/or socioeconomic status. Those in power who inherited and benefit from these systems are lashing out to maintain the status quo.

Case in point-there is strong resistance to educational change scholars and educational leaders trying to dismantle existing systems and structures of racism, such as policies that maintain tracking, unfair discipline, and policing practices in schools, which contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Some state legislators are adopting laws to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory in K-12 public schools and colleges and universities. Lawmakers in Texas (HB 3979) and states such as Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota filed bills that would cut funding to schools with curricula that include the Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times 1619 project by Nikole Hannah-Jones. In a powerful effort to speak truth to power, the 1619 project places slavery and racism as central to the founding and history of America. It links it to the systemic racism that plagues our country today. Yet, the existing power structure is fiercely working to stomp out academic freedom.

“The existing power structure is fiercely working to stomp out academic freedom.”

Meanwhile, on the higher education front, there are 78 institutions that have joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium (USS). I’m proud to say my institution, Texas Christian University (TCU), is a member. The consortium is a collaboration between universities to share best practices and guiding principles to engage in “truth-telling projects” that address their institutional histories. These institutions have committed to invest resources to research and acknowledge and atone for their ties to the slave trade and racism in their institution’s history, policies, and practices. Because educational change scholars reside in higher education, yet influence K-12 public education, we have a dual responsibility. We must leverage our scholarship by forging relationships within and outside of our universities to dialogue and take action toward dismantling systemic structures that hamper the advancement of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and question leaders when they are unaware or turn a blind eye to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the curriculum or student recruitment, or faculty hiring and retention practices.

I serve on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee at the college and university levels. In collaboration with my colleagues in the College of Education at TCU, we form partnerships with K-12 school districts to research and develop plans to enact educational change that provides access and equity for students from historically minoritized communities. With every relationship, we increase our bandwidth and opportunities to influence the field of education. Most educators do not realize inequity exists due to biases in their education. Therefore, the most powerful action we can take collectively is to design our educational leadership programs and what we teach in our classrooms to develop leaders for social justice.

LtC: Given some of your work focused on how principals can create systems and structures to support reflective and anti-oppressive practices, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?  

MDE: Formative experiences as a student at the University of Southern California, as a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as a school leader inspired my focus on underserved students vis-à-vis education reform aimed at equity and social justice. I define underserved as students who do not receive equitable resources due to racism, ethnicism, sexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, lingualism, or faithism. My concern for these students is rooted in my personal experience. As the daughter of Yemeni Muslim immigrants, I am aware of the role, or lack thereof, that education plays in one’s life. My research foci align with a unifying goal to examine how educational leaders plan, implement, and sustain reform efforts to support equitable and socially just schooling experiences for historically minoritized students, specifically on issues of race and faith.

My recently published piece in the Journal of School Leadership highlights the work of a school principal, Ms. DiFalco (pseudonym), who instituted systems and structures that challenge systemic racism (Ezzani, 2021). We could learn from how she implemented reflective and anti-oppressive practices at Lyon Elementary School. The findings of this two-year study reinforce that social justice advocacy and action can be leveraged by data-informed leadership. Black students made up 15 percent of the school’s population but accounted for more than 80% of written discipline plans. The principal coupled quantitative data with qualitative data. She spent more than half of her time in the hallways and classrooms, monitoring teachers’ behaviors and interactions with students. She met privately with teachers to reflect their mannerisms back to them. The intention behind these coaching conversations was to help teachers understand what it looked like and felt like to be a student in their classroom and guide them through critical self-reflection. The learning of self-reflective skills was anchored in the very core values that the teachers themselves created. Her role as the school leader was to help teachers through the reasoning process to make meaning of their experiences with their Black students and also to see that their actions were incongruent with their espoused core values.

“Social justice advocacy and action can be leveraged by data-informed leadership.”

The use of reflective practice in social justice leadership offers a way to respond to oppressive practices. At the end of the day, educational change scholars and their colleagues need to develop educational leaders who practice what some scholars describe as critical activism or courageous leadership (Brooks, 2012; Singleton, 2012). Ms. DiFalco engaged in systemic professional learning focused on race, despite district leaders’ avoidance of the topic. Her act of deviance for the benefit of her Black students was viewed as renegade leadership, where the leader shifts allegiance from the district to the students. Lastly, professional learning should extend beyond the school walls to involve parents and community members. The results suggest that humanizing practices toward Black students should be pursued through professional learning within our districts/schools, in preparation programs, and through university–district partnerships – recognizing that power and “politics is an inescapable reality of educational practice” (Connery & Weiner, 2017, p. 21).

LtC: In some of your recent work, you describe how principals provide processes and supports through the educational system to challenge oppressive social structures. Given your findings on the persistence of various forms of discrimination in schools today, what do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice to address these issues in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike?  

MDE: Further to my research on education reform, I’ve engaged in extensive data collection at schools with culturally responsive leaders. I focused on the structures, processes, practices, and strategies implemented by these leaders to make the schooling environment safe and supportive of minoritized populations. Some of these studies were interdisciplinary; thereby, providing a more nuanced focus on culturally responsive leadership. As a result, I published a historiography on an American Muslim school leader in collaboration with Kelley King, an educational historian. With another colleague, Melanie Brooks, who studies Islamic and international education, we explored (a) the complexities of faithism in a study on Islamic education in the U.S. and (b) the development of American Muslim identity focusing on organizational leadership. With a third colleague, Rachel Mun, who studies gifted education, we examined how district and school leaders attend to systemic policies and practices to change the education trajectory for students of color excluded from gifted and advanced academic programs. These studies revealed how and in what ways culturally responsive leaders advance practices and policies that support the development of critical consciousness in teachers and students.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my lines of inquiry is on reform efforts to support equitable and socially just schooling experiences for historically minoritized students, specifically on issues of race and faith. With a focus on faith, Melanie Brooks and I examined how leaders in an Islamic school in the United States engage in culturally relevant leadership to develop the critical social consciousness of their students (Ezzani & Brooks, 2019). This is important given the current intensification of supremacist, anti-immigrant, and nationalist discourse. With such ideologies taught and learned (Apple, 2019), we see these ideologies as educational problems that have critical implications for Muslim students, teachers, and school leaders. Consequently, school leaders must consider their moral responsibility to their Muslim students and arguably society regarding how we teach critical thinking, develop media literacy skills, and guide experiences that cultivate understanding and compassion rather than mistrust and hate (Banks, 2007).

Our findings confirmed the critical role of authentic dialogue, which is learner-centered, to help students recognize and seek to upend oppressive social structures (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Theoharis & Brooks, 2012). These dialogues were inside and external to their faith tradition. For example, Muslim students engaged in interfaith dialogue with Jewish students. In this way, leaders sought to raise the critical consciousness of their students by facilitating dialogue with a faith tradition often perceived to be in conflict with Islam. This is important given that American Muslim students must navigate a world often hostile to Islam and Muslims. Reflexive leadership created an environment for cultural syncretism, wherein space is made for students to both identify as American Muslims and identify with the global ummah, a supranatural community where global Muslims are viewed as equal in light of geographic, cultural, and linguistic differences. In summary, the study speaks to the daily practices and interactions of educators and students. It sheds light on the importance of raising educator and student consciousness while imparting skills on how to be actively and civically engaged. With a dearth of books on American Muslims, and even fewer on leadership and progressive Islamic schooling, Melanie and I are in the throes of writing a book based on recent data collection. The book will provide novel perspectives on formal and informal leadership practices in how a progressive Islamic school develops its youth amid the backdrop of a divisive landscape, vis-à-vis Islam and Muslims.

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?    

MDE: Educational change scholars and those whom we prepare, school and district leaders, are inextricably tied in the effort of transforming K-12 public education as we know it. One strand of my research agenda is the preparation of educational leaders. In a study that examined students’ perceptions of an educational leadership doctoral program, we looked at the redesign of the program (Ezzani & Paufler, 2018; Paufler et al., 2020). The program sought to prepare students to lead learning organizations, engage ethically with the community, advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and develop theory-to-practice solutions that are comprehensive and systemic. The findings provided a better understanding of changes in the program redesign, which supports broader national efforts to reconstitute the doctorate in educational leadership in ways that better prepare scholarly practitioners committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in K-12 public school systems.

“Educational change scholars and those whom we prepare, school and district leaders, are inextricably tied in the effort of transforming K-12 public education as we know it.”

As educational change scholars continue to learn more about the process of program redesign to transform the field, essential features seemed to support students when preparing them to become exceptional scholarly practitioners. For instance, front-loading a research-to-practice approach helped students appreciate complex and systemic problems of practice. We also learned that the cohort model provides a support system for educational leadership students who come to the program from various districts. The study we conducted provided a point of departure, confirming and disconfirming notions in the continuous improvement needed to prepare future leaders that can innovate and generate new ways of developing rigorous, relevant educational opportunities for students. The student’s voice is powerful evidence of program effectiveness. However, evaluating program impact would require the collective engagement of faculty to agree on how to challenge students’ assumptions, involve them in action, and find a way to assess their practices continually. Lastly, we ended by posing the following question: How are students in educational leadership applying their knowledge and skills to affect meaningful change in practice? To this end, Jimerson et al. (2021) articulated that we need to establish data-sharing agreements with school districts to holistically assess the performance of the leaders developed, and whether faculty are achieving the desired programmatic outcomes. 

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

MDE: I’m an optimist at heart. I hope that scholars in the field of educational change across the country play their part in transforming the current educational system – one cohort of educational leadership students at a time. It’s also critical that we work alongside our colleagues in teacher preparation programs so that we’re developing teachers and leaders who can abandon their fears and courageously work toward an anti-racist education system (Diem & Welton, 2020). As educational change scholars, we must rethink what and how we teach. It’s simply not enough to create one diversity course in a program or one cultural foundations class. Several exceptional programs have found ways of integrating content relevant to ethics, equity, social justice, and policy (see Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate).

“I hope that scholars in the field of educational change across the country play their part in transforming the current educational system – one cohort of educational leadership students at a time.”

We need to redesign programs to include mandatory courses that discuss the various intersections of oppression in our society rather than leave them as electives. As long as courses related to diversity, equity, and inclusion largely remain as a one-off to existing curricula (to meet accreditation requirements), we are abrogating our responsibility and contributing to ongoing inequities in our educational system. We need to address more strategically how academic programs are designed and what courses are required to meet the pressing need of developing educational leaders for social justice. However, higher education institutions also need transformation, where teaching is honored and valued equally with scholarship. Faculty will then be motivated to collaboratively revise programs in ways that meet the challenge of Accepting Educational Responsibility to defy social and educational inequities.

References

Apple, M. W. (2019). Ideology and curriculum, 4th edition. Routledge.

Banks, J. A. (2007). Educating citizens in a multicultural society. Teachers College Press.

Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (2021). Retrieved from https://www.cpedinitiative.org/

Connery, C., & Weiner, J. M. (2017). Direct Democracy’s Threat to Democratic Schools: Ron Unz and the Case of Bilingual Education. in a Democracy, 6.

Datnow, A., & Park, V. (2018). Opening or closing doors for students? Equity and data use in schools. Journal of Educational Change19(2), 131-152.

Diem, S., & Welton, A. D. (2020). Anti-racist Educational Leadership and Policy: Addressing Racism in Public Education. Routledge.

Ezzani, M. (2021). A principal’s approach to leadership for social justice: Advancing reflective and anti-oppressive practices. Journal of School Leadership, 31(3), 227–247. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052684620908347

Ezzani, M. D., & Brooks, M. C. (2019). Culturally relevant leadership: Advancing critical consciousness in American Muslim students. Educational Administration Quarterly, 55(5), 781-811. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161X18821358

Ezzani, M. D., & King, K. M. (2018). Whose Jihad? Oral history of an American Muslim educational leader and U.S. public schools. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 50(2), 113-129. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220620.2018.1448369

Ezzani, M.,& Paufler, N. (2018). Doctoral program in educational leadership redesign: Utilizing a multi-criteria framework. Impacting Education: Journal on Transforming Professional Practice, 3(2). http://impactinged.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/ImpactingEd/article/view/70

Fabelo, T., Thompson, M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. P., & Booth, E. A. (2011). Breaking schools’ rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvement. Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Jimerson, J. B., Atwood, E. D., Cook, K. S., Corder, P. F., & McGhee, M. W. (2021). A Retrospective Look at a Partnership-Based Educational Leadership Program Redesign. Partnerships for Leadership Preparation and Development: Facilitators, Barriers and Models for Change, 13.

Khalifa, M. (2020). Culturally responsive school leadership. Harvard Education Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. J. (1995a). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory Into Practice, 34, 159-165.

Liou, D. D., Marsh, T. E., & Antrop-Gonzalez, R. (2016). The Spatiality of Schooling: A quest for equitable classrooms and high expectations for low-income students of color. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies12(2).

Paufler, N. A., Ezzani, M. D.,Murakami, E. T., Viamontes Quintero, J., Pazey, B. L. (2020). Educational leadership doctoral program evaluation: Student voice as the litmus test. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, https://doi.org/10.1177/1942775120976705

Theoharis, G., & Brooks, J. S. (2012). What every principal needs to know to create equitable and excellent schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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