On April 16, 2023, USC Race and Equity Center Chief Academic Officer John Pascarella and Associate Director Erica Silva presented a theory of change for race-conscious professional development programs designed to prepare school leaders to more effectively advance and sustain racial equity in U.S. schools. Their paper, “Truth in Design: A Three-Dimensional Theory of Change for Race-Conscious Leadership Development,” was presented to a well-attended conference audience of researchers and practitioners at the American Education Research Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois.
During their extensive experience facilitating racial equity academies for principals, superintendents, and other administrators in hundreds of schools, Pascarella and Silva studied key design principles for professional learning experiences that more effectively increased the cultural competency and racial literacy of school leaders committed to achieving racial equity in their schools.
In their review of existing research, the authors concluded professional development programs are widely accepted as the best option for developing the knowledge and skills of school leaders despite how little is known about how those programs are designed. Moreover, school leaders were more likely to report a lack of relevance or practical application of one-time workshops that did not account for the everyday realities of teachers, staff, students, and families in their schools. For school leaders seeking to advance racial equity, Pascarella and Silva determined much more research is needed on how learning experiences are conceptualized and designed to effectively prepare them to achieve these aims.
Researchers who have studied professional development programs for school leaders and teachers have traditionally focused their attention on the length, instructional strategies, or other features of programs, but few studies have given adequate attention to the theory of change that underlies the design decisions and delivery of these programs. Given this gap in the research, Pascarella and Silva asked: If the point of learning about racism is to prepare school leaders to take action to abolish it, then how should their learning experiences be designed to more effectively prepare them to take meaningful action?
Informed by Milner’s (2007) framework for guiding researchers through a process of self-inquiry, they proposed a nonlinear theory of change for race-conscious leadership development that was conceptualized through three dimensions: examining positionality through researching the self, researching the self in relations to others, and researching the self in relation to systems, institutions, and policies.
To develop a race-conscious understanding of self, Pascarella and Silva recommended professional learning experiences for K-12 leaders be designed to promote critical reflection on positionality. In their paper, they wrote: “Questions that galvanize critical reflection must compel leaders to reflect on their racial socialization, the history of racism and anti-racist activism, and the actions they are willing to take to disrupt racism.” They further explained: “Leading critical reflection during PDP learning experiences that cue school leaders to consider how they think about their own racial socialization, historical knowledge of racism, and willingness to act is essential to developing a race-conscious understanding of self.”
To develop a race-conscious understanding of self in relation to other people, Pascarella and Silva suggested professional learning experiences should prompt school leaders to critically reflect on how they see themselves in relation to other people in their school communities. In their paper, they posited: “To critically examine and challenge deficit views, the second dimension includes questions that compel leaders to reflect on their knowledge about other people’s racialized experiences in their schools and society.” They further elaborated: “At stake is whether school leaders are willing to examine the truths embedded in how they experience other people in the world around them.”
To develop a race-conscious understanding of self in relation to systems, institutions, and policies, Pascarella and Silva spoke favorably of learning experiences that consistently and deliberately motivate K-12 leaders to pivot away from highly personalized disagreements to structural issues embedded in school rules, policies, and official procedures that disproportionately harm students and families of color. They further proposed: “Race-conscious questions aimed at generating school leaders’ deeper understanding of self in relation to systems, institutions, and policies include questions that prompt critical reflection on their schooling and professional preparation experiences, knowledge of racially biased curriculum, and ability to lead race-conscious initiatives.”
Referring to the USC Center for Urban Education’s resource, “Laying the Groundwork: Concepts and Activities for Racial Equity Work,” the authors maintained that questions posed during professional learning experiences aimed at preparing race-conscious school leaders must effectively “reframe racial inequity as a dysfunction of school policies and practices, increase awareness of the institutional history of racially exclusionary practices and racism in schools, and better prepare race-conscious school leaders to target and eliminate or rebuild school policies harming students of color, rather than faulting them for violating policies that do not serve their educational interests or well-being.”
Essential to all three dimensions in their theory of change, Pascarella and Silva argued that professional learning experiences must deliberately center critical self-reflection with the use of race-conscious questions. According to their theory, facilitators must “concretize racial equity concepts embedded in those questions, such as structural, interpersonal, and internalized racism, implicit bias, microaggressions, deficit vs. equity mindset, racial consciousness, and racial literacy.”
When leaders are better equipped with concrete definitions of racial concepts, Pascarella and Silva concluded “they are more like to develop a deeper race-conscious understanding of themselves, more likely to challenge previously unexamined race-based assumptions, mindsets, and misrepresentations, and more likely to raise race-based questions with faculty and staff with greater self-efficacy.”
In the coming year, Pascarella and Silva plan to apply this three-dimensional framework to design, facilitate, and evaluate professional learning experiences and academies they lead for K-12 leaders and educators at the USC Race and Equity Center.