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Effective School Leadership and Social Justice

An interview with Gary D. Soto reveals keys to equity and school reform.
By: Jenny Rankin, Ph.D.

I had the honor of interviewing Gary D. Soto, long-time educator and recipient of the National Educator Award for helping to reshape American education. He co-authored the book Crimes Against Learning: Solving the Serial Failure of School Reformand continues to support educators nationwide through consultation, speaking engagements, and other roles. We spoke about the intersection of social justice and school leadership.

Jenny Rankin (JR): What are the main ways in which school leaders ultimately impact social justice?

Gary Soto (GS): First and foremost, leaders need to understand what social justice means within the context of education. This foundation targets the equality of treatment of all people so justice requires that each and every person must have a fair and equal opportunity/chance. The analysis of school data can easily pinpoint the areas in which students, especially those that are considered marginalized, are not meeting the academic targets set forth by high rigorous standards.

JR: What is missing in the schools that proclaim to have a “Social Justice” foundation?

GS: What is typically seen in schools that state they are implementing the tenants of Social Justice is “surface level” programs that involve school discipline procedures and possibly a workshop or two on culture and the strategies that might support students. They continue implementing whatever curriculum they have (good or bad) with little understanding of what mastery of content standards might look like. The instructional pedagogy used for delivery of the curriculum rarely targets standards mastery and the professional development ends up being “drive-by” staff development, with little or no comprehensive coaching to support teachers.

JR: What would you say to a school leader, such as a school principal, to encourage him or her to make equity a priority?

GS: We must examine our beliefs and affirm that all students can and deserve to succeed and master rigorous standards. Many conditions of school success are, in fact, under our control. When we affirm that virtually all students can succeed and master challenging expectations, we are compelled to seek and provide what it takes to make it happen. We all need to aim to create schools that literally serve each and every student. It is time that we commit our practice to positioning educators as a driving force toward social justice for not only marginalized students but for all students.

JR: What are some examples of key beliefs or actions that foster inclusion, access, and opportunities for all?

GS: Areas that are key to foster inclusion, access, and opportunity are (1) to increase the academic rigor and access to opportunities; (2) increase not only student-learning time, but teacher professional development and support time; and (3) increase the accountability of holding not only educators but students as well to at least meet annual growth targets

JR: What is a key factor that schools tend to “gloss over” when establishing a strong foundation of learning?

GS: We as educators tend to “water-down” the intent of what the research has identified. Like PLC’s (Professional Learning Communities), we began to implement them with a “check-list” mentality. So again, the key is instruction, but I will say that an area that is glossed over is the feeling tone of the culture of the school. School leaders need to create a “culture of recognition” where all staff members and community not only feel welcomed but believe that their contribution is making a positive difference.

JR: What final thoughts would you like to share with readers?

GS: The work is hard and messy, but so worth the energy and tenacity put forth for all students to succeed. Many leaders stop the reform efforts as soon as they hear a few loud voices grumble about change. But those that forge on reap the benefits of what all students deserve.

A great quote to ponder in the reform of schools:

  • “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; we already know more than we need to do that, and whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”
    – Ronald Edmonds, Author, Effective Schools for the Urban Poor

I will continue to support educators throughout the country, whether they’re from urban, suburban, or rural areas, to create schools in which virtually all students are learning at high academic levels. It is the foundation of our democracy.

JR: Thank you for your time, and for all you do for educators and students.

Stay on The Leading Edge

GDS Consulting


Change creates opportunity.  It is my belief our education system has the potential to be forever changed. These unrivaled times have impacted the foundation of the status quo, the way it has been. There is an opening to accelerate the positive winds toward a lasting positive change.

And it starts with equipping our school administrators with the leadership coaching to help our educators maximize student potential. It needs to start today.

I stand ready and able to help.