Cultural responsiveness isn’t just a checklist. Being culturally responsive means taking Dr. King’s definition of education—“to teach one to think intensively and to think critically…to sift and weigh evidence…to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his/her life”—and embracing outcomes that matter for children and communities. These outcomes should shift the balance of power from school leaders/teachers to students and from schools to the community.
The way schools currently hire school staff often does so at the exclusion of parents, students and community members. But there are some important questions schools and school leaders are asking as they consider the degree to which their hiring practices are culturally responsive.
Why should we include parents and students in school management and leadership?
First, it’s the respectful thing to do. Many educators are visitors in school communities yet we treat parent and student input as if it has no place and no value. (Imagine coming into someone’s home and telling them how loud their television should be or what color to paint their walls or how to raise their children. Absurd, right? Completely.) Yet, in some ways we act our this absurdity in schools every day.
By truly sharing decision-making power, we reverse the message that we don’t value community, student and parent input. When we share decision making authority, it’s a message to parents and students that You are important. Your thoughts are welcomed here. Our opinion is not the only one that matters. In this way, it can be a kind of healing practice for schools and communities alike.
Second, parents and students often have insight into what can help schools be more effective. Given hiring tendencies, a school staff may be quite monochromatic in perspective. How many times does the principal hire someone that is a reflection of herself? How often are principals very much like their supervisors? The most successful businesses know that diversity of thought leads to the best outcomes as it generates more ideas. By actively welcoming parents and students to hold places in decision-making and management, schools enlist wise business acumen and are more likely to have diverse ideas, thus more likely leading to a better hiring choice, one that reflects the perspectives of parents and students.
Finally, let’s face it, when there is trouble, we seek out parent and student feedback. If Amanda is disturbing class, who do we call? The parent. If Terrence isn’t coming to school, who do we call? The parent. If Rachel isn’t turning in homework, who do we call? The parent. What if parents were seen as an integral component of school leadership and management prior to the problem? How might this change our relationship with families, help us to grow as individuals and professionals, and yield a better result in student learning outcomes?
When hiring staff for a school, should parents and students hold decision-making power?
A initial response to this question might be, If students and parents are a part of decision-making processes, will that help us to better reach outcomes? That depends. What kind of outcomes are we thinking about? The prevalent education conversation is one that seems to focus on remediating skills so that test scores improve.
Full stop here: Students doing well on tests is a gateway to opportunities beyond high school. So, yes, tests are a viable way to measure student achievement. Yes, achievements tests help us know not only how students are performing against criteria but also how they are performing compared to their peer group. Very important information.
Academic achievement (in the form of assessments) is just one outcome of a culturally responsive school. When working to help students “achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his/her life,” we need more than achievement data from assessments. Cultural responsive outcomes propel us to consider not just the quantifiable aspects of learning but the quality of education as well.
Below are the five outcomes that align with culturally responsiveness. (These outcomes are my interpretation of several researchers’ work.)
How can a parent and child decide who their teachers and school leaders should be if they have had no formal educational training?
In consideration of cultural competence (What is my history and the history of those around me?), in many communities of color, we may find that parents and students have had experiences where schools have not invited parents in to share in decision-making power. We say to parents, Yes, manage the bake sale and sell popcorn, but please do not try to weigh in on who we hire.
In sum, if parents and children need to be trained to participate in hiring, train them.
What is structural inequality and oppression and how have I contributed to it?
One definition of structural inequality is when one demographic of people are attributed an unequal status in relationship to people in another demographic. These inequalities are rooted in how institutions operate. When we hear of descriptions like the glass ceiling for women in the workplace or lower quality healthcare for those with lower incomes, these are examples of structural inequality. In the specific context of hiring decisions, it is common for people who are middle class, White, and formally educated to make decisions about who will teach lower-income Brown and Black children without the feedback, solicited or otherwise, of parents and children in that same community. In my experience, this is actually the norm.
Why do we invite some parents to co-manage schools and exclude others?
When I was a school leader, we did not invite parents to interview staff with us, nor have I seen this to be a practice in many lower-income schools. It seems to be more of a norm to invite parents into decision making and school management when families are middle- and upper-income because middle- and upperclass-families 1) expect and demand to be part of school management processes, 2) know their rights, 3) secure legal representation if needed.
When we do not include parents, regardless of their income or education, we—the school and its representatives—become oppressors reinforcing structural inequality. We are saying to Brown and Black voices, You are not important. Your thoughts are not welcomed here. Our opinion is the only one that matters. To be clear, being an oppressor is not always intentional. Sometimes, it is merely a result of ignorance. (Sometimes, however, it is intentional.) Engaging in honest reflection is one way to assess which one it is for you.
So, how can we include parent and student voice in hiring practices?
- Make it a goal. We value what we measure. And we measure what we value. Have it explicitly stated on the school goal’s document. An example goal could be, parents and students will be a part of 90 percent of hiring decisions. At the end of each quarter, review the school’s progress to goals and treat this data as if you would any other important goal.
- Create a process by which parents can actively participate. Ask parents what they think is important in an applicant. Include this perspective in hiring rubrics. Coach the parents on the rubrics being used (just as you would a new leadership team member) and ask for their feedback through the process, not just their feedback on the candidate. Ask them, “On a scale of one to 10, 10 being highly valued, how valued did you feel in this process?” Look for evidence to confirm their response. Remember, because schools are typically seen as holding more power, parents may state that they feel valued, and they might. But what if they really don’t?
- Create a process by which students can actively participate. One way to do this is to ask students to give candidates feedback directly after the candidate completes a demonstration activity. For example, if it is a teacher, ask students to share areas of strength and growth with the applicant following a demonstration activity. This practice is powerful because it orients incoming staff to the reality that the school values student voice and prepares the candidate to value student voice as well. It also creates an opportunity for the current school staff to affirm/redirect the student when they give feedback. In other words, use this as an opportunity to coach students on public speaking. Note how the candidate responds to the student’s feedback. Are they generative in their approach? Defensive when hearing areas of growth? Whatever happens in the interview is likely to happen in the role.
- Be clear about how you will use the student and parent feedback to make a decision, particularly when it differs from that of the school staff. Debrief with the hiring committee, including student and parent representatives, about how your own bias may be at play. Get ready to feel vulnerable and uncomfortable for the sake of service. Invite the committee to also share their reflections about themselves. While this reflection may not change the ultimate hiring decision, it offers a space for the kind of work that often goes undone in the business of a school day: is it the conversation that often goes unsaid.
Schools have an opportunity and a responsibility to say, in word and deed, to families and to students, You are important. Your ideas are welcomed here. Your opinion is actually more important than mine. Take a look at your upcoming hiring decisions. How will you ensure that students and parents have an active voice in deciding who will hold the next role in a school or central office position? What biases can you note about your own hiring inclinations, biases that have obscured you seeing the value in students and parents and the brilliance they offer?