Systems Approach Toward Transformation

Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing ‘patterns of change’ rather than static ‘snapshots.’  – Peter Senge

Changing a system is slow, strategic, and urgent all at the same time. Though it requires more effort and higher levels of thoughtfulness to bring about systems-level change, focusing on the whole is the only way to sustain meaningful transformations in practices and policies. At the Center on Culture, Race & Equity (CCRE) at Bank Street College of Education, we use a community-based participatory research-to-practice model that gives us the foundation for deepening our understanding of culture, race and equity in order to build the capacity of individuals to create, shift, and sustain equitable systems.

Personal, Professional, and Institutional: Interconnected Elements of a System
Too often issues of inequity and injustice are addressed through reactive, single-element solutions. For instance, diversity committees, anti-bias curriculum, and culturally responsive professional development trainings are all critical elements of a larger system-level solution. These elements are deeply interconnected and cannot serve as stand-alone solutions to a system-level problem.

At CCRE, we recognize the importance of a solution like culturally responsive materials and content. At the same time, we also recognize that the benefits of such an approach can be limited without teachers who are prepared to teach differently, including taking a clear-eyed look at their own position and context related to race, gender, and identity. Research (Bigler 1999) and our experiences in the field have shown that simply infusing surface-level diversity into the curriculum makes little impact on student attitudes and outcomes.  Because adults play a critical role in shaping students’ experiences and beliefs, we work with adults to shift their mindset and behavior. To create impactful and sustainable culturally responsive learning environments in schools, CCRE works on three levels: personal, professional and institutional.

Expand Knowledge and Awareness
Exploring one’s personal relationship to racism and discrimination in our society is a critical step in transforming students’ learning environments. Several studies have shown that teachers from a range of social, racial, and gender backgrounds exhibit biases against children of color—Black boys, in particular—that result in lowered academic expectations, differential treatment, and higher levels of suspension (Gilliam, Maupin, Reyes, Accavitti & Shic, 2016, Yates & Marcelo 2012). Knowing that we all have biases that impact and inform our work inside and outside of schools, we guide educators through an honest exploration of self that ultimately leads to a paradigm shift. When exposed to strength-based thinking and practice, educators begin to make new associations, break from deficit-based thinking, and challenge long-held stereotypes.

Culturally relevant curriculum is most impactful when it is paired with pedagogical strategies, such as critical thinking skills and analytical writing, and taught by educators who are equipped to build authentic relationships with their students (Boykin & Noguera, 2011). For that reason, we not only guide educators in exploring their own biases and attitudes toward diverse groups of students, but also equip educators with tangible skills and practices that will advance their professional practice in classrooms and schools. These skills and practices include culturally responsive pedagogy, dramatic play, and authentic family engagement, among others.


These individual-level skills and practices are strengthened when they are supported by institutional systems and policies that advance equity within schools and communities. A study of nationally available data on chronic absenteeism found that students may stay away from school for long periods of time to avoid harassment, bullying, embarrassment and unsafe situations (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012) and highlights the importance of systems and structures in promoting student attendance among marginalized students. School policies and systems, like mentoring models, culturally responsive mental health services, and restorative justice practices, are critically important in protecting students from threats that may impede student learning and growth. For that reason, CCRE works with schools and organizations to create policies and systems that are reflective of their values and vision for equity.

Our research-based model for transformation has been successful in a variety of contexts, in California, Louisiana, New York, Washington, DC, South Africa and Liberia. Our work in Washington, DC highlights the transformative power of the CCRE model. Next week, we will take a closer look at the CCRE model in action, as we explore a case study of a Washington, DC public school transformation.

Stay tuned and thank you for reading!


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