Systemic change and equity

by Mary Scheetz and Peter Senge

Shifting deeply established habits of thought and behaviour to promote equity for all students.

To achieve the goal of equity of educational opportunities and student outcomes, schools need to understand the connections between them and the larger context in which they work, and they need to examine questions of power, privilege and unconscious bias. 

In their article, Mary Scheetz and Peter Senge share what they have learned from leaders who have successfully “pushed the needle” on equity in their schools. This page looks at some of the themes they discuss in their article. 

Systems thinking

"The most intransigent aspects of the ‘out there’ are inseparable from our habits of thought and action ‘in here’."

The authors promote systems thinking as a skill for achieving equity for all. Systems thinking means looking for the often hidden structures that shape biases and create disparate outcomes. It involves:

  • understanding the power of mental models
  • looking for habitual patterns
  • reflecting on the larger systems effecting the behaviour of individuals or groups.

Mental models

Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behaviour.

Mental models shape how we take in information and how we react to it. They can be a barrier to change and innovation by blocking and distorting information. Without active self-reflection, they may limit our openness or ability to change ourselves, others, or our organisation. We may also fail to recognise when our mental models are in the process of becoming outdated.

Navigating webs of interdependence – Peter Senge

Institutional bias

"We cannot expect students to engage in learning in a system that mirrors the racial and ethnic bias that they experience on a daily basis."

Research has shown that institutions and systems in society frequently result in different levels of access to society’s goods, services and opportunity on the basis of ethnicity. School systems tend to reproduce this social advantage and disadvantage; PISA results show this. (Schleicher, 2018) 

This is layered on top of the personal racism individuals may experience and internalise. The long-term impact of institutionalised racism is similar to the impact of bullying. Messages of being “less than” and a lack of examples of hope and possibility wear down students and their families. They effect student behaviour, motivation and willingness to take risks.

Dominant cultures or groups rarely examine the privileges they take for granted that are not available to others. This can lead them to over attribute outcomes to individual actions rather than looking at the role of systemic structures and forces in shaping behaviour. 

Making change

The authors have found that short professional development workshops will not shift deeply established habits of thought and action. They may even reinforce a belief that change is possible without examining difficult-to-see limiting beliefs and habitual behaviours.

Educational leaders need to build trusting and reflective cultures to support people to look closely at how they perceive their world and how they operate in it. This needs to include nuanced understandings of privilege and its part in institutionalised bias.

The authors have found the following staged activities are needed to modify habitual beliefs and behaviours:

  • Deliver initial training
  • Establish effective coaching for all – leaders and teachers alike.
  • Build strong peer networks, which eventually replace formal coaches.
  • Create clear, effective accountability structures that track the impact of capacity building on the well-being of students.

Reflective questions

  • When did you last examine how your school’s structures – systems, policies, processes – could be linked to the behaviour, motivation and outcomes of any of your students? What metal models frame your structures? Are they models based on equality or equity? What would it take to make them more equitable?
  • How does your school help students to combat the internalised and personalised racism that many encounter in their lives? What examples of hope and possibility do you provide for them and their families? How could you do more?

Further reading

What is equity in education? – Teacher Magazine article, 2018

White-Gaze Centred Judgments – Ann Milne, blog post, 2019

Leadership Practices and Challenges in Managing Diversity to Achieve Ethnic Inclusion in Two New Zealand Secondary Schools

Cardno, C., Handjani, M. & Howse, J. NZ J Educ Stud (2018) 53: 101.


Scheetz, M. Senge, P. (2016). Systemic change and equity. The Equity-Centered Capacity Building Network (ECCBN).

Powell, J. A. Cagampang Heller, C. Bundalli, F. (2011). Systems Thinking and Race:Workshop Summary. The California Endowment.

Schleicher, A. (2018). World Class: How to Build a 21st-Century School System, Chapter 4: Why equity in education is so elusive. OECD. 

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