When the Fight for Equity Becomes an Ethical Dilemma

More educators are being asked to defend their school’s choice of curriculum and content.

Topics: Equity and Diversity

Strength, courage, and kindness are attributes moral and ethical leaders exhibit, according to Peter G. Northouse’s book Leadership: Theory & Practice. And people are awestruck when leaders selflessly take a moral or ethical stance in response to a difficult situation and in service to others.

Ethics are values and morals that society finds suitable or appropriate. Ethical leadership is present when leaders de­emphasize their personal self-interest and put others’ interests first in ways that require courage, strength, and kindness. An ethical leader “must be sensitive to the needs of others, treat others in ways that are just, and care for others,” Northouse writes.

Principals sensitive to the needs of historically marginalized students often find themselves called to fight for equity. These principals are ethical leaders, but what does it mean to fight for equity? Moreover, how can principals be sure they are doing the right thing when there are people who argue that it’s wrong to champion equity?

I present these questions because the fight for equity is being challenged down to the term’s definition and its value to American schools. Anti-equity voices have misdefined or twisted the meanings of a number of terms, detracting from the work equity-focused principals need to do.

Defining Educational Equity

What follows is a definition of educational equity we developed to help guide an ethical leader’s moral compass, and it aligns with being sensitive to needs of others and treating each student in ways that are just and demonstrate care:

“Educational equity happens when each student learns and flourishes in a welcoming, caring, and inclusive environment. Equity requires a commitment to [the] fair and just treatment of every student, a willingness to address structural barriers to their success, and the delivery of resources aimed at providing equitable outcomes.”

No definition of equity is perfect, and this one is no exception. But it reminds the principal to center the experiences of each student and reconstruct the educational environment to fit the needs of each student, paying attention to structural barriers.
Doing so raises the need to recognize each student and meet them where they are, especially students from historically marginalized groups. Inequities might not always have been caused by the school, but they are often supported by longstanding unfair practices that go unquestioned.

Inequities and structural barriers have deep histories in America, and they remain today. Yet, the nation is ripe with opportunity. The impact of history calls upon ethical leaders to acknowledge those inequities and disrupt them in support of providing opportunity to everyone.

Principals can use their strength, courage, and kindness to set a moral compass for their schools by boldly modeling the creation of a more inclusive and culturally responsive curriculum for all students—especially marginalized students who are often sparsely represented.

Ethics vs. Backlash

To illustrate how this might look in practice, I submit the following case study: A teacher—let’s call her Ms. Parker—recently decided to present the children in her classes with a relevant lesson using an age-​appropriate New York Times bestselling book, Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, which tells the story of Jerome, a 12-year-old Black boy who is shot and killed by a white police officer when his toy gun is mistaken for a real weapon. The story is told from the point of view of Jerome’s ghost and has parallels with the tragic shooting of Tamir Rice.

In the book, Jerome’s ghost recalls the story of Emmett Till, another Black boy who was abducted, tortured, and lynched in the 1950s. The author, a Black woman, adroitly presents powerful themes of historical racism skillfully and in ways elementary students can understand. That fact is especially important given the lack of diverse authors included in the district’s curriculum.

Ms. Parker, an experienced white teacher, alerted parents about the book’s content, expecting some to consider it too sensitive for their children’s study. She reminded parents that they could opt their children out of the lesson under school policy, but she emphasized the thesis of the book, how well its content covers curricular standards, and how engaging students might find it. Ms. Parker also informed her principal of the lesson plan ahead of time.

Most parents knew Ms. Parker to be a thoughtful, engaging, and caring teacher and trusted her to teach the book, but a few objected completely to the book being taught at all. Rather than opting their children out and requesting an alternate assignment, they charged that the book was inappropriate and was being used to criticize the police unfairly.

As principal, “Dr. Lamp” reviewed the district’s relevant policies so that her ethical decision would not run afoul of the rules. She knew Ms. Parker needed her support and that there was some rapidly growing misinformation circulating about the book, fomented loudly by anti-equity voices in the community.

This is a difficult juncture for ethical leaders, because a personal commitment to equity can appear to be misaligned with members of the community who argue loudly to maintain the status quo and may even cite unjust rules to support their viewpoints. In such situations, ethical leaders can benefit by emphasizing points where their values match the district’s curriculum standards but appear to be in tension with unjust rules or understood beliefs. History teaches us that there are times when unjust rules must be challenged by ethical leaders.

In this district, the standards called for the inclusion of diverse authors and viewpoints, and Dr. Lamp was aware of that fact. After reviewing the policy, she spoke with each parent who demanded that the book be banned. As principal, Dr. Lamp felt it was important to let those parents voice their concerns while correcting misinformation, and she took advantage of every opportunity to do so.

Dr. Lamp found that even the most disagreeable parents were less so when she spoke with them on the phone or met them in person, as opposed to using email or social media to communicate. She made sure to greet each parent with kindness but stood firmly and courageously on her reputation, district policy, and the curriculum standards. Dr. Lamp felt that her rationale was morally sound and argued for a solution that focused on the betterment of others, and especially her teacher, Ms. Parker. Ethical leaders put the interests of others first.

Disgruntled parents listened and learned more about the book and the relevance of its content; not one continued to argue to ban the book from being taught. Importantly, they saw Dr. Lamp fight for equity in a way that amplified her expertise as an ethical leader whose approach could raise awareness about the historical and ongoing inequities found in the curriculum.

Questioning the Status Quo

Because challenges like this one are impossible to address without working through people’s values, beliefs, and assumptions, says Sharon I. Radd, co-author of Five Practices for Equity-Focused School Leadership, they require special care. The ethical principal must address individual (self) and collective (systemic) paradigms.

In addition to addressing policy issues, values, and beliefs, the principal must also be ready to set the moral compass for the school. They have to be willing to question the status quo and the work that’s being done, as well as whether it supports children in being their best selves.

Setting a moral compass is difficult these days, because a large—or at least vocal—group of noneducators is weighing in to tell principals and teachers that they should not fight for equity. Their actions and threats put pressure on principals to comply with their wish to deemphasize equity, stop teaching “CRT,” or put an end to being “woke,” whatever they think those terms mean.

Beyond character is conduct, however, which comes into play when principals consider the consequences of their behaviors. According to Northouse, there are three approaches that can drive action: ethical egoism, in which the leader believes it is morally right to emphasize the pursuit of personal interests as the greater good; utilitarianism, when the leader believes it is morally right to search beyond personal self-​interest in seeking to create the greatest good for the greatest number; and altruism, which suggests that actions are moral if the primary purpose is to help others, even when such actions run counter to the leader’s self-interests.

Our hope is that principals lean toward the altruistic approach to leadership. Doing so will ensure that the organization is more ethical—and that more ethical leaders will continue the fight for equity.

Mark Anthony Gooden is Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Professor in Education Leadership, director of the Endeavor Antiracist & Restorative Leadership Initiative, and chair of the Department of Organization & Leadership at the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City.