How do you take on bias in your school? Practice.

Veteran principal Rodney Moore had an important decision to make. After hearing that English language learners were feeling marginalized and unwelcome, he wondered if he should dedicate a staff meeting to discussing their experiences; provide cultural proficiency training to the entire staff; or reach out to parents for help. At a meeting of principals from across the district, they discussed the options. “We wanted to do all these things,” he recalled, but they knew they had to prioritize.

Across the room, another group of school leaders examining the same problem arrived at different conclusions. When the groups shared the reasons for their decisions, Moore said, his colleagues raised points he had never considered. “I can understand why this person would think like this now, and why maybe a decision I made impacted someone in a way that I didn’t think it would because I hadn’t looked at it from that perspective.”

Fortunately for these administrators, some of whom were grappling with a situation like this for the first time, the scenario was not happening in real time. Rather, it was part of a simulation, called Equity Sims, designed to help school leaders hone their ability to respond to entrenched inequities. They therefore had time to deliberate and reflect on the intended and unintended consequences of their decisions without repercussions.

Any educator knows that identifying and addressing inequities in schools is hard. Among other challenges, this work inevitably requires uncomfortable conversations with parents, teachers, and students. The simulation in which these principals from Rochester, NY, were participating gave them a chance to think about how they would respond if a group of students were experiencing school culture as exclusionary.

The power of simulations lies in providing participants with low-stakes environments in which they can practice making high-stakes decisions. For educational leaders, few decisions are as high-stakes as those they make to address racial and cultural inequities. In our work with school and district leaders, we have found real value in using simulations to help them try out strategies and work on communication skills necessary to deal with structural or institutional biases. 

Simulations have long been used to give professionals a chance to practice responding to various tasks and challenges. They allow medical students to sharpen surgical skills and military pilots to practice flying in combat. They have also proven valuable in education. Researchers suggest that as school leaders proceed through simulated life-like scenarios that require them to engage directly with difficult dilemmas and make decisions while managing emotions, they are strengthening their communication and conflict resolution skills. A good simulation provides opportunities for careful analysis and reflection on successes and missteps as well as the assumptions underlying decisions.

For 15 years, the NYC Leadership Academy has used simulations that place school and district leaders in imaginary schools to help them develop the knowledge and skills needed to improve student learning. For years, our facilitators relied on three-ring binders to deliver information about school data and teacher biographies. Participants navigated from decision to decision by reviewing data, watching videos of teachers teaching, and role-playing meetings with teachers and parents. They practice skills like analyzing and synthesizing information; operating within specific power dynamics and political constraints; identifying assumptions; and applying principles in practice.

Many of these skills are hard to teach: Great principals need excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to lead staff in identifying inequities and the root cause beneath them, then developing and implementing strategies to correct them.

To expand access to research-based simulations like those we developed and revised over the years, we created four online, video-based sims, like the one in which Principal Moore took part, and moved the three-ring binder online in the form of a simulated school website for use with aspiring principals.

Using these simulations is not what you might imagine an online experience to be – an educator sitting alone in front of a computer screen answering some questions. Because we know from experience and research that adults can expand their learning when they collaborate in their learning experiences, we encourage leaders to use our online simulations with colleagues. That way they can analyze and debate their options as they go, allowing users to construct much more nuanced understandings of the scenarios, their options, and their own reactions than any one of them could do alone.

As we saw with the principals in Rochester, an in-depth group debrief can help participants dissect the intended and unintended consequences of their decisions, discuss what they might have done differently, and reflect on how they have acted in similar real-life situations. To facilitate this kind of thinking, we intentionally design simulations so that they do not contain obvious right or wrong answers. Participants should be challenged to consider the tradeoffs of their actions, and to contemplate their personal beliefs, assumptions, biases, values, beliefs, default behaviors—everything that influences leadership behaviors, actions and decisions.

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About the Author — Rachel Scott

Rachel Scott is Senior Director of Learning Systems at the NYC Leadership Academy. She has spent much of her career developing and refining programs that support adult learning both online and in person.

Any educator knows that identifying and addressing inequities in schools is hard. Among other challenges, this work inevitably requires uncomfortable conversations with parents, teachers, and students.

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