Social Justice in Education: The Role Educational Leaders Play

A group of people in a manifestation for education

Education is known as the great equalizer, but this promise of equality cannot be achieved when fundamental injustice exists within school systems. Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation nearly seventy years ago, and yet, many districts — particularly those in urban areas — are effectively segregated.

Some of the greatest acts of social justice, therefore, are needed in our classrooms. With an increasingly diverse student population, successful educational leaders are stepping away from universal approaches to education and are actively engaging in political issues involving race, class, gender identity, sexuality, and ability. An educator’s job does not end at teaching students what’s right and wrong. Teachers must also take action and overcome deep-seated barriers to ensure each and every child has a chance to be safe, encouraged, and inspired at school.

Defining social justice

We commonly hear “social justice” used to broadly describe the need for society at large to treat individuals equitably. To educators who have dedicated their lives to implementing change and reform in schools, social justice means redefining what it means to have educational equality.

Social justice in education demands equity for all students, but it also yearns for growth that is provoked by student diversity. The variety of personal experiences, values, and worldviews that arise from race, ethnicity, gender/gender identity, religious and spiritual beliefs, class, age, color, sexual orientation, disability, immigrant status, and national origin enhance creativity and learning potential. Making educators hew to a strict set of guidelines sets the expectation that each class fits a prefab curriculum. Education works when teachers are empowered to incorporate students’ backgrounds and experiences as strengths rather view them as hurdles to overcome.

Simply put, social justice in education refers to a commitment to challenging social, cultural, and economic inequalities imposed on individuals arising from any differential distribution of power, resources, and privilege.

Need for social justice in education

Now, more than ever, there is a critical need for leaders to affect social policy changes in K-12 education.

In California — where more than six million children are enrolled in K-12 public education — funding allocations that are dedicated to disadvantaged students still have not recovered from budget cuts resulting from the recession. Schools with the highest need for English Learners curriculum don’t have an adequate number of qualified teachers or school leaders. Latino, Black, and Native American students are more likely to be concentrated in schools with primarily economically disadvantaged student populations.

Overall, California’s funding levels — while they have improved over the past decade — are significantly lower on a per student basis than the national average.

The bottom line is that there are gaps in the educational system that are not tracked and measured in traditional achievement scorecards. These inherent gaps are satisfied for students with wealthy families who have an excess of out-of-school resources, but remain for students with poor families.

Teaching social justice

Teaching social justice does not mean informing future educators, administrators, and policy leaders about social justice; it means training you in a reflective model of leadership that encourages openness, collaboration, and information sharing.

Educators are responsible for creating meaningful change. Social justice is a mindset. You learn to implement it, not recite it for a test. A Master’s in Educational Leadership will help you think about the complexities of the educational landscape. Reflective leadership trains educational leaders to teach and learn. By learning in a social justice oriented setting, educational leaders go on to impart this pedagogy to the school systems they serve.

A classroom practicing social justice will encourage:

  • Active contributions from the students in the class and connections between students and teachers.
  • Implementing an actionable and measurable curricula so that you can track improvement.
  • Constant discourse and comfort with dissent.

Recently, California became the first state to require LGBTQIA textbooks. This is a marked step in creating equitable learning spaces. Rather than silence or eliminate diverse opinions, educational leaders trained in social justice embrace diversity, and, in doing so, engage marginalized students and dismantle the outmoded strictures of education that serve to perpetuate, not redress, inequality.

Talking about social justice

Dr. Crystal Belle — director of teacher education at Rutgers University-Newark, and teacher, activist, and professor for the past 13 years — says, “A social justice classroom is one that is critical in nature, thus, we should be constantly encouraging students to question the world around them as well as the schools they attend.”

Perhaps the easiest way to bring about social justice is to engage in open, respectful dialogue. And yet, this is easier said than done. Traditional curriculums may not focus on the flow of information between parties. Whether between student and teacher, teacher and administrator, or administrator and politician, social justice is a conversation. Educational leaders encourage teachers to make students feel supported and safe, while at the same time managing the interests of the community and stakeholders within the community.

Teachers guide students in articulating their opinions. As educational leaders, we set the tone for social justice in schools. To encourage our students to question the world around them, we must constantly question ourselves and our assumptions. Social justice conversations are not easy. Addressing injustice is predicated on accepting that injustice exists. Urban teachers are tasked with turning conversations about fundamental unfairness into productive, not discouraging, discussions.

This creates a double bind: empower students while acknowledging they have been systematically disempowered. Understanding education as a dynamic, ongoing political conversation shifts the paradigm. Schools are not static entities. Education, like the people it serves, must evolve and change over time. We live in a society that acknowledges gay marriage, so why should our textbooks act as if history only happened to cisgender heterosexuals? Educational leaders have important conversations with a variety of stakeholders — not all of whom will agree with you. You learn to change minds by learning how to change your own. The status quo is always in flux, and in understanding this, you’ll learn to question it.

The following leadership competences help educational leaders establish social justice frameworks both in and outside the classroom:

  • Programmatic Leadership: Programmatic leaders drive change through their strong philosophical orientation and moral/ethical grounding. You will implement curricular improvements through creating learning environments where teachers and students thrive. Programmatic leadership trains educators to take a humanizing and welcoming approach to learning. Administrators take a human interest in teachers and teachers learn about who their students are as people. An effective curriculum embraces students and acknowledges their backgrounds and experiences
  • Planning and Assessment: Planning assessment takes insights from the curriculum to identify issues and then evaluate and design cost-effective program improvements. Educational leaders must be prepared to measure the effectiveness of the inclusive learning environments they create.
  • Management and Supervision: Through management and supervision, leaders ensure that their new programs are effectively guiding change within their educational community.
  • Socio-Political Relations: A deep knowledge of socio-political relations underscores everything an effective educational leader does. As a leader, you will work with a large and diverse constituency. It’s important to have empathy for multiple groups with multiple perspectives. Leaders manage program development in the context of competing interests.

Talking about social justice is critical. This combination of intellectual curiosity, the desire for improvement, and a deep understanding of how policies are measured and implemented brings change to schools lacking social justice.

Online MA in Educational Leadership at Mills College

Mills College has always been a leader in social justice, offering resources in LGBTQ+ and leadership, equity, and excellence. The Committee on Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice (EISJ) promotes equity, inclusion and social justice within every aspect of academic, co-curricular, residential, and administrative life.

Furthermore, Mills College is excited to now offer an online MA in Educational Leadership for professionals looking to become leaders in education.

Since its founding as the first women’s college west of the Rockies, Mills College has empowered students to pursue educational and career opportunities. Now, the online MA makes it possible for you — regardless of location — to join us in our commitment to equity, inclusion, and social justice.

Upon completing the program you’ll be prepared to make a change in the world and fill an essential need for educational leadership, whether in schools as an educator or administrator or outside the classroom in the government or nonprofit sectors.