Transforming education to more equitably and holistically prepare young people for future success requires establishing a conducive culture and the right conditions to enable change. It is important to do so at all levels of the system, from classrooms and schools, organizationally across the district, as well as in the community.


The year 2020 challenged and changed all of us. Our families and friends suffered from illness and death. Students learned and parents worked from home, uprooting familiar lifestyles. We watched with anger the senseless killing of George Floyd (and a long list of others) at the hands of white police officers. We saw and/or participated in protests demanding racial justice. In California, many of us were affected by unprecedented wildfires and related power outages and unhealthy air quality. All of this required tremendous resilience. It also led to a healthy reset to humanize our interactions — asking about the wellbeing of family and friends, bringing our true selves to conversations, and interrogating our own inherent biases.

The challenges also motivated us to more aggressively take action to address the structural inequities in our education system that for decades we have observed, and perhaps tinkered to adjust, but not fully dismantled. As we recover and rebuild, we have an opportunity to center equity and the voices of the most marginalized students, families, and communities. As we do so, we should examine and prioritize “street data” — i.e., artifacts from the lived experiences of stakeholders — over the less immediate and relevant “map data” (e.g., literacy levels, rubric scores, satisfaction surveys) or “satellite data” (e.g., standardized test scores, attendance patterns, graduation rates). See more about these types of data in the Continuous Improvement section below.

By centering the voices of marginalized students and their families, we can redesign learning and begin to dismantle racist and oppressive structures that for decades have led to inequitable opportunities and outcomes. “Building back better,” requires substantial investment in the capacity of teachers, leaders, other staff, and community members. These capacities, described in the next section, are facilitated when there is an enabling culture.


An elementary school teacher helps a student with a writing activity in a dual-language immersion class.

Culture, whether of a society, nation, region, tribe, community, family, or organization, is determined by a set of adopted norms and expectations, typically valued and prioritized by leaders and members. Changing culture is an intentional act, dependent on shifts in leadership style, modeling, processes, structures, communications, behavior, attitude, and more.

Schools, like society at large, are guided by a white dominant culture. If the goal is to move gradually over time toward a way of being and doing that is culturally and linguistically sustaining for students and families on the margins, then leaders will have to model the behaviors that they expect to see in staff, students, and community members. For example, by using an inquiry and learning stance, giving voice and agency to marginalized students and families, interrogating inherent bias, and taking intentional action, leaders can be genuine and transparent, even vulnerable, as they attempt to navigate complex change processes. It’s never too soon to start. Executive and instructional coaches can help guide the transition.

In efforts to operationalize a Graduate Profile, the following elements can foster healthy shifts in organizational culture:

By giving voice to marginalized students, families, and communities, leaders demonstrate authentic interest in centering equity. By listening empathetically and valuing multiple perspectives, even if those views may not be consistent with their own, leaders demonstrate their willingness to question their inherent biases and interrogate how the white dominant culture has resulted in oppression and institutionalized racism. Ultimately, while taking time to listen, being inclusive and collaborative takes more time, leaders will find that a larger percentage of stakeholders will embrace the direction, plans, and strategies determined. Every effort should be made to be as inclusive as possible, and remind individuals and organizations of the open invitation.
Centering marginalized voices and publicly grappling to combat persistent and harmful inequities promotes transparency. It shows that the growth process is open and that there is nothing to hide. By transparently sharing our intentions, processes, and desired outcomes, we can stay focused, address dissension as it arises, and avoid attempts at sabotage that sometimes result from less transparent processes. It’s helpful to err on the side of too much information rather than not enough, even to the point of showing vulnerability, which helps in building trust.
Education is human-centered. It is based on trusting relationships among and between students, teachers, administrators, other staff, parents, and partners. By making an effort to connect personally with others, being open about fears and hopes, honest about capacity, and vulnerable about missteps, we can build trust, which is the foundation for effective collaboration. “Change moves at the speed of trust.”
From large multinational corporations to small tech start-ups, collaboration has been demonstrated in recent decades as the preferred method for getting results. The same is demonstrated to be true for the non-profit and public sectors of society, including schools. When we establish the right conditions (i.e., structures, processes, relationships) for effective collaboration – among and between students, teachers, administrators, families, and other partners – we open doors that enable us to optimize learning and progress. Like any skill, collaboration must be modelled, taught, and practiced before we can expect regular and effective execution.
When we give ourselves and others time and space to wonder, we foster creativity and exploration of new or different ideas. When we start classes or meetings with essential questions, we inspire deep thinking and vibrant discussions, a rich source of learning. Moving from thought and talk to action, experimentation allows individuals and teams to pursue creative ideas resulting from their curiosity and inquiry.
Change is difficult. If there were a silver bullet or easy-to-follow prescription, we would have applied it long ago. At all levels of the system, change includes trying things on, testing what works, gathering user-centered data on results, and making informed adjustments. Experimentation should not only be tolerated, but encouraged, even celebrated, as long as it is well-intentioned and well-informed with equity in mind. The popularity of design thinking (i.e., ideation, user-centered input, rapid prototyping) has led to valuing experimentation as a critical component for advancement. While experimentation has its benefits, it must be paired with a culture of continuous improvement in order to remain focused on achieving targeted goals.
Simply put, continuous improvement means learning from earlier iterations and making advances. It can be done in simplistic, informal ways or more rigorous, formal ways (i.e., improvement science). Whatever the preference, for any related piece of operationalizing a Graduate Profile, it’s important to gather data, analyze it, and apply the results to inform improvement. Creating processes and structures for routinely reflecting on efforts, examining data, asking critical questions, and applying results to iterate and advance can facilitate routinized practice.


At the outset, it’s critical that leaders publicly acknowledge that every educational reform is built on the shoulders of teachers. Teachers are our greatest asset. In order to spread and sustain change, we must invest in them — their happiness, working conditions, and professional growth. We must create safe and supporting environments so that teachers can be highly effective. To do so, we must protect them and set them free to experiment, collaborate, and learn. In order to model the behaviors we want to see in our teachers, it’s extremely helpful for leaders to “walk the talk.” The graphic below is an instructive representation of the kind of leadership that caters to enabling change and building teacher capacity and agency.

Differences between a Boss versus a Leader graphic


District leaders signal their values and priorities through financial and policy decisions. Elevating the importance of more holistic and equitable outcomes for students (i.e., those articulated in a Graduate Profile) must be intentional and visible. When good intentions are not supported by financial investments and enabling policies, stakeholders begin to question why a leader’s words are not backed by actions.

To examine any potential disconnect, consider the following questions:

  • How are whole child goals reflected in the district’s guiding documents that form the basis of accountability structures — i.e., Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), the WASC schoolwide learner outcomes, Single Plan for School Improvement, district strategic plan, union agreements, among others?

  • What percentage of district resources (financial, personnel, time) are dedicated to fostering and realizing the Graduate Profile outcomes for students and the enabling conditions that support adults?
  • Which school board policies and district procedures enable the culture, conditions, and capacity to advance articulated in this guide? Which district policies hinder progress? Why? How can those roadblocks be removed?

While breathing life into a Graduate Profile and making the outcomes the North Star for every student’s education requires participation by all stakeholders, the work must be driven by a high-ranking leader who has the right skill set to manage the change process. That leader must work with a core team and activate hundreds of others to engage in the work, but major efforts only succeed when responsibility is assigned and resources follow.

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