Responsibility, Partnership, and Transformation: An Interview with Whitney Hegseth

In this month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview Whitney Hegseth reflects on the responsibilities of educational change scholars, the need for mutually beneficial partnerships with educators, and the possibilities for systems that support mutual respect as well as academic excellence. Hegseth is a Visiting Fellow in Educational Leadership & Higher Education at Boston College. Her anthropological and comparative research sits at the intersection of scholarship on policy implementation and the (re)building of educational systems. The LtC series is produced by Alex Lamb and colleagues from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website,

Lead the Change (LtC): The 2023 AERA theme is “Interrogating Consequential Education Research in Pursuit of Truth” and charges researchers and practitioners with creating and using education research to disrupt institutionalized forms of discrimination. The call urges scholars to challenge traditional methods of inquiry in order to create increasingly useful, responsive, and equity-oriented research that can be used by schools to develop informed policies and practices to better support students. What specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Whitney Hegseth (WH): One responsibility we have as educational change scholars revolves around partnership. We need to think creatively and ambitiously about how to partner with folks in and around K-12 schools in ways that are mutually beneficial and deeply authentic. Presently, I am engaged in a research-practice partnership aimed at improving youth wellbeing in a small, urban community serving a low-income, largely immigrant population (PIs Lowenhaupt, Oliveira, & Lai). This partnership challenges traditional methods of inquiry in two ways. First, it is cross-sector. The project centers a Children’s Cabinet, which is comprised of a group of community leaders ranging from city officials to school district administrators to directors of community-based organizations. Second, we endeavor to continually involve youth in this partnership. For example, our team is designing a week-long summer institute for high school youth in which youth leaders will work with us to develop their ongoing role and responsibilities within the Children’s Cabinet. During this institute, youth leaders will first learn to conduct research in order to better understand youth wellbeing within their community. They will then formulate a plan to advocate for betters supports around youth wellbeing. Partnering with youth and across sectors adds layers of complexity to the research cycle. Such complexity is crucial when working toward increasingly useful, responsive, and equity-oriented research.

Educational change scholars might also consider how to partner in creative and ambitious ways within our higher ed classrooms. Many of us are privileged to teach aspiring or current teachers and school leaders. How might we partner with these teachers and leaders within the higher ed classroom in ways that then inspire partnership work they go on to do in and around K-12 classrooms? I am currently brainstorming with some of my master’s students about how to write about our shared teaching and learning experience. These students are at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, but most were airlifted out of Kabul in 2021. My mentors are helping me to consider ways to preserve and amplify these students’ distinct voices, not just within our classroom, but also in any research and writing we engage in as we grapple with the following questions: What does it mean to respect those you teach? and; How does one engage in teaching and learning across profoundly different contexts?

“Ceding power to our partners is one step toward promoting more useful, just, and ethical research.”

My research and praxis are focused on disrupting power asymmetries. In all of my research, teaching, and writing, I endeavor to relinquish some of my own power, and share it more broadly. Ceding power to our partners — around the questions we ask, the methods we use, and the voices we involve when telling our stories — is one step toward promoting more useful, just, and ethical research.

LtC: In your work, you examine how mutual respect can be enacted in various educational systems and settings. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?

WH: Currently, my scholarship is focused on comparing how different educational systems (re)build toward expanded aims; for example, how systems promote mutual respect, in addition to academic excellence. Informed by previous literature and my own empirical data, I define mutual respect as the work of intervening on power asymmetries typically found in classrooms — both between teachers and students, and among diverse groups of students — by way of according children increased equality, autonomy, and equity. It is first important to appreciate the ways in which mutual respect differs from respect. “Respect” is an omnipresent term in schools; it is displayed on coffee mugs and classroom posters, and is ubiquitous in school mission statements and mottos. However, respect can often entail deference to someone with more experience, more authority, or a more privileged identity. As Lawrence-Lightfoot (2000) reminds us, mutual respect is the work of creating symmetry, especially in unlikely places like classrooms.

I developed an analytic framework for mutual respect, which I discuss in a manuscript under revision, as well as in a chapter I am preparing for an edited volume, Reimagining School Leadership: Sustaining Improvement Through and Beyond Uncertainty (Editors Kruse & DeMatthews). In this framework, I conceptualize mutual respect as multi-dimensional; in my research, the dimensions that surfaced were respecting children by way of according them increased equality, autonomy, and equity. This framework also emphasizes how mutual respect can be operationalized instructionally, organizationally, and socially. Finally, with the help of this analytic frame, one understands that the different dimensions of mutual respect can reinforce and conflict with one another in unexpected ways, particularly when one attends to these dimensions across classroom instruction, organization, and social relations. For example, one might argue that respecting students organizationally — with different class periods that ensure students have equal access to different teachers, subject matters, and resources throughout the day — might constrain teachers’ ability to respect students instructionally, by giving them ample time during a lesson to autonomously pursue their own questions, or equitably move at their own pace, before rushing on to the next teacher or lesson.

One way the mutual respect framework serves as a useful analytical tool is by enabling sharper conceptualizations of any of its comprising dimensions (i.e., equality, autonomy, equity). In a piece that will be available this September in The Elementary School Journal (Hegseth, in press), I discuss the following finding: Montessori and International Baccalaureate teachers differed in how they attempted equity in practice, and, relatedly, they differed in how they understood equity to interact with other dimensions of mutual respect (i.e., equality, autonomy). These differences between the systems held constant across two national contexts. By attending to differences in how equity is positioned alongside other priorities for teaching and learning, this research provides a glimpse into some of the varied ways equity can unfold in classroom practice.

LtC: In a recent article you investigate how the educational infrastructure of the Montessori system might support antiracist practice. How might your findings help scholars and practitioners think about leveraging strengths to build more inclusive schooling?

WH: In an article published in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Educational Administration (Hegseth, 2023a), I discuss how the Montessori system’s highly elaborate educational infrastructure supports a transformation in perception and pedagogy for Montessori teachers. Such infrastructure thus has potential to systemically support teachers in moving toward more antiracist practice. In this piece, I describe a disciplinary incident in a Montessori elementary classroom in Washington, DC, which helps illustrate how the system’s educational infrastructure supports teachers in (re)framing problems and solutions in their classrooms. For example, through lengthy, intensive, and highly specified training, Montessori teachers come to understand that, when something goes awry with Montessori classroom management, the object of change—and the object of blame—is the environment, not the child. I have observed this (re)framing on multiple occasions in Montessori schools in Michigan, DC, and Toronto. In the article, I discuss how, upon observing a young Black girl who had become disengaged and unruly in class, the teacher framed the problem as a mismatch between the classroom environment and the child’s developmental stage. Rather than punishing this girl, the teacher — again informed by her training — accorded the child increased responsibility. She and some of her peers began mentoring younger children in other classrooms several times each week. Other components of the Montessori system’s infrastructure also supported how this Montessori teacher (re)framed the problem and solution in her classroom. The Montessori system has standards around multi-age grouping, and having long, uninterrupted blocks of time each day for children to direct their own learning.

“The Montessori system’s highly elaborate educational infrastructure supports a transformation in perception and pedagogy for Montessori teachers.”

With multi-age grouping, children have more latitude to develop at their own pace. The student highlighted in this article was in 5th grade, but her teacher could flexibly include her with the 6th graders who had also become disengaged. Together with the 6th graders, the student in question was accorded the responsibility of working with younger children. Further, with long blocks of time to direct their own learning, these students could leave their classrooms to mentor, thus learning how to manage that responsibility alongside their other academic pursuits. In these ways, different components of the Montessori system’s infrastructure coordinate to help teachers transform their perceptions and pedagogy.

These findings hopefully encourage scholars and practitioners to consider how system supports might be coordinated to transform not just practice, but also fundamental assumptions around children: what they are capable of, and how they deserve to be treated and taught. There is still much work the Montessori system can engage in to support teachers’ antiracist practice, but the system has a track record — ever since Dr. Montessori worked with special needs and working-class children in Rome over a century ago — of empowering young, marginalized people (e.g., Debs & Brown, 2017; Lillard et al., 2017; Whitescarver & Cossentino, 2008). There is much we can learn from this. Look out for a complement to this article, which will be published in the coming months, and which draws on data from the International Baccalaureate system (Hegseth, forthcoming)!

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?

WH: In the name of deep and difficult transformation, I focus my scholarship on examining interactions between institutional and policy environments, the educational infrastructure of systems, and classroom practice. I am presently writing or revising a few manuscripts in which I compare these interactions across different types of educational systems. I am also co-PI on a research project that compares such interactions across public, charter, and Catholic educational systems, all of which are situated in a single geographic region (PIs Hegseth & Miller). Across this research and writing, I aim to support school and system leaders. By comparing how different educational systems manage their surrounding environment, we can better understand the implementation work and challenges that leaders face, and how this may vary by system. Such understandings are a step toward better equipping leaders to support deep and lasting change in classrooms. I draw on two systems I have already discussed to illustrate the importance of considering — and comparing — a system’s relationship with its broader environment. In a manuscript I am currently revising, I discuss how the Montessori system spearheads deep change in classroom practice by aiming for tight coupling between system-level policies and classroom practice, and loose coupling or decoupling with normative educational resources and practices in the broader environment. As such, the implementation work expected of Montessori system leaders is to design, preserve, and impart extensive and coordinated educational infrastructure, which obviates teachers’ need to rely on resources in their environment, thereby supporting their implementation of the counter-cultural Montessori method.

“System supports might be coordinated to transform not just practice, but also fundamental assumptions around children.”

Relative to the Montessori system, the International Baccalaureate (IB) system aims to effect change via more flexible coupling between macro (i.e., environment), meso (i.e., system), and micro (i.e., classroom) levels. In a recent policy report I wrote for the Brookings Institution (Hegseth, 2023b), I argue that the IB system has designed a robust educational infrastructure, which is more skeletal in nature. For example, the system provides IB teachers and schools with instructional frameworks and a philosophy that can guide teaching and learning in myriad contexts. However, IB teachers are to then fill in the details of this framework using resources and curricula from their local context. Given this more open stance toward the environment, the implementation work expected of IB system leaders, then, is to continually build bridges between IB and ever-shifting reforms and policies in the environment. Further, system leaders must build capacity so that IB school leaders and teachers can similarly learn to reconcile resources in their environment with IB’s approach to teaching and learning.

“There are educational systems — in the United States and beyond — that endeavor to challenge the status quo of schooling, and to do so at scale.”

We are in a moment of system (re)building, and of organizational divergence (e.g., Datnow, Park et al., 2022; Marsh et al., 2021; Peurach et al., 2020). As such, it is important to compare — within and across systems —how educational systems interact with their broader environments. In doing so, we can think more strategically about policy implementation, about leadership preparation, and about how to support deep and difficult transformation in classrooms. 

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

WH: I am going on the job market this fall, and three things excite me about the field of Educational Change in which I am just starting out. First, as I mentioned, we are in a moment of system (re)building. Increasingly, school systems are moving beyond simply governing and providing access to schools and are transforming themselves into educational systems, which work to organize and improve instruction, scaling excellence and equity across classrooms and schools (e.g., Peurach et

al., 2019). Second, as many of these systems reset from multiple, interlocking pandemics, they are working toward expanded goals for students. These systems are moving beyond an exclusive focus on academics and increasingly aiming for social justice or holistic student development, as well (e.g., Datnow, Yoshisato, et al., 2022). Third, this is not a time for isomorphism, but rather variety (e.g., Peurach et al., 2020). Systems are (re)building in different ways; they vary in their priorities, in how they manage their environments, in their design of educational infrastructure, and in myriad other ways.

My background is in Sociocultural Anthropology (UC Berkeley, B.A.) and International and Comparative Educational Policy (Stanford University, M.A.). As such, a longstanding research interest of mine centers on interactions between micro-level assumptions and practices in classrooms and macro-level policy and cultural forces. I employ methods like video-cued multivocal ethnography (Tobin et al., 2009) to surface and critically examine what Geertz (1975) terms “common sense” – or tacit, culturally situated assumptions – around how to treat and teach children throughout their school day. In my doctoral work at the University of Michigan, my dissertation chairs Donald Peurach and the late David Cohen helped me to recognize the promise of the meso level within the United States. It was at that point that I began to examine the potential of educational systems to intervene on the relationship between macro-level forces (i.e., political, social, cultural) and the micro-level assumptions, biases, and practices found in classrooms.

Put simply, there are educational systems — in the United States and beyond — that endeavor to challenge the status quo of schooling, and to do so at scale. Some systems focus on changing practice. Other systems go even further by seeking to transform fundamental assumptions around how to teach and learn from children. I am excited to continue oscillating between macro, meso, and micro levels, comparing interactions between these levels across different systems and national contexts. This is how I feel best suited to support educational change with my research, writing, teaching, and consulting. I have already written pieces that explore how educational systems — some in alignment with their broader environments, others at odds — support holistic student development, antiracist practice, mutual respect, and increased wellbeing for students. There is much more to study, and so many ways to partner with/in these systems in order to support their desired transformations. I am grateful to be in the beginning stages of such an urgent, practical, and varied line of work within the field of Educational Change. 


Datnow, A., Park, V., Peurach, D. J., & Spillane, J. P. (2022). Transforming education for holistic student development: Learning from education system (re)building around the world. Washington, D.C.: Brookings.

Datnow, A., Yoshisato, M., Macdonald, B., Trejos, J., & Kennedy, B. C. (2022). Bridging educational change and social justice: A call to the field. Educational Researcher, XX(X), 1-10. DOI: 10.3102/0013189X221138837

Debs, M. C., & Brown, K. E. (2017).Students of color and public Montessori schools: A review of the literature. Journal of Montessori Research, 3(1), 1–15.

Geertz, C. (1975). Common sense as a cultural system. Antioch Review, 33, 5-26. Hegseth, W. M. (in press). Attempting Equity in Classroom Practice: A Debate Across Educational Systems. Elementary School Journal.

Hegseth, Whitney M. (forthcoming). “Systemic supports for antiracist practice in International Baccalaureate classrooms.” In George Noblit (Ed.), Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.1837

Hegseth, W. M. (2023a). “Systemic supports for antiracist practice in Montessori classrooms.” In George Noblit (Ed.), Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.1818

Hegseth, W. (2023b). Transcending borders: The International Baccalaureate’s systemic approach to educating the whole person. In Datnow, A., Park, V., Peurach, D. J., & Spillane, J. P. (Eds), Transforming education for holistic student development: Learning from education system (re)building around the world. Washington, D.C.: Brookings.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2000). Respect: An exploration. New York: Perseus.

Lillard, A. S., Heise, M. J., Richey, E. M., Tong, X., Hart, A., & Bray, P. M. (2017). Montessori preschool elevates and equalizes child outcomes: A longitudinal study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(1783), 1–19.

Marsh, J. A., Allbright, T. N., Brown, D. R., Bulkley, K. E., Strunk, K. O., & Harris, D. N. (2021). The process and politics of educational governance change in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Denver. American Educational Research Journal, 58(1), 107-159. doi: 10.3102/0002831220921475

Peurach, D. J., Cohen, D. K., Yurkofsky, M., & Spillane, J. P. (2019). From mass schooling to educational systems: Changing patterns in the organization and management of instruction. Review of Research in Education, 43, 32-67. DOI: 10.3102/0091732X18821131

Peurach, D. J., Yurkofsky, M. M., Blaushild, N., Sutherland, D. H., & Spillane, J. P. (2020). Analyzing instructionally focused education systems: Exploring the coordinated use of complementary frameworks. Peabody Journal of Education, 95(4), 336-355.

Tobin, J., Hsueh, Y., & Karasawa, M. (2009). Preschool in three cultures revisited: China, Japan, and the United States. University of Chicago Press.

Whitescarver, K., & Cossentino, J. M. (2008). Montessori and the mainstream: A century of reform on the margins. Teachers College Record, 110(12), 2571–2600.

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