Social Justice Leadership strand – BELMAS 2013 symposium proposal

Social Justice School Leadership – making international connections

The International School Leadership Development Network  (ISLDN) is a collaborative research project initiated by BELMAS and UCEA that seeks to promote an understanding of school leadership by encouraging comparative work across international contexts.  Within the ISLDN two sub-strands have formed and this symposium presents some of the work undertaken by the Social Justice Leadership (SJL) strand.  The SJL strand has 24 members, undertaking work in 14 different countries.

The SJL strand addresses four research questions:

1)    How do social justice leaders make sense of ‘social justice’?

2)    What do social justice leaders do?

3)    What factors help and hinder the work of social justice leaders?

4)    How did social justice leaders learn to become social justice leaders?

These questions recognise that despite the wealth of research-based literature about social justice and schools there remains a disconnect between theoretical approaches to social justice, and how school leaders actually try to ‘make social justice real’ in their daily practice, and in their schools.  The approach of the SJL strand is to eschew our own preconceived notions of what social justice might mean, and to seek to understand what it means to school leaders who prioritise a commitment to social justice in their work.  The project therefore articulates social justice broadly, as a commitment to reducing inequalities, howsoever defined.

To date project members have identified school leaders who self-identify as ‘social justice leaders’.  These are school leaders who have a commitment to reducing inequalities in some form, and for whom this is a defining principle of their work.  Each of these school leaders has been interviewed adopting an interview protocol that addresses the four research questions posed above, and is common across the project.

This symposium session will present work undertaken in China, Finland, Costa Rica, England, India, Sweden and the USA.  The session will include four paired presentations in which project members present initial findings from interviews undertaken, but within each pair specific comparisons will be made between the two different national contexts within each pair.  The intention is to go beyond a reporting of findings from different countries and to begin to explore in more detail the points of contact and departure that are shaped by advocating for social justice leadership in different national contexts.

Case 1: People’s Republic of China and Finland
(Mika Risku and Meng Tian, Institute of educational Leadership, University of Jyväskylä, Finland)


As a result of urbanization, thousands of farmers in the rural areas of China have moved to coastal cities seeking for a better life becoming migrant workers (China Labour Bulletin, 2008). There were around 250 million migrant workers in 2012 (State Council, 2006). The household registration system has worked so that migrant workers’ children have risked losing their education right if moving away from their place of registration to follow their parents (Young, 2002). Since 2003 national education policy has been aiming at guaranteeing equal opportunities to education to migrant workers’ children who move with their parents to urban cities (The State Council, 2003, 2006b). The case study on China concentrates on how a basic education principal in an outskirt town of Shanghai perceives social justice school leadership in this context.


Creating a Nordic welfare state has been the persistent will of the Finnish State during its whole independence starting in 1917. Especially there has been significant inequity between towns and countryside. (Risku, 2011) It can be claimed that Finland was able to achieve the welfare state status and accomplish equity in education in the 1980s (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg, 2006). After the goal was reached both the values and the operational environment of the Finnish society began to change dramatically both challenging and changing the Finnish welfare state (Risku, 2013). The case study on Finland concentrates on how a basic education principal in a suburb of a major Finnish city perceives creating social justice school leadership in this context.
Comparing Social Justice School Leadership in China and Finland

One can fairly claim that China and Finland are very different from each other. There is a significant difference between them also concerning the topic of the present study on social justice school leadership. China is intensively attempting to create social justice in education. Finland can be argued to have achieved it but having major challenges to maintain and develop it. The purpose of the comparative case study on China and Finland is to answer the four research questions in search for similarities and differences. The findings will show that meaningful similarities and differences can also be found in the comparison. The findings, of course, raise the question what to do with the results. For the present researchers the comparison has a concrete significance as they are involved in educational leadership training for both Finnish and Shanghainese principals.

Case 2: Sweden and United States of America
(Helene Arlestig/Katarina Norberg, UMEA University and Pam Angelle, University of Tennessee at Knoxville).

The Swedish school system is based on the democratic values expressed in the Education Act and the national curricula[1]. These democratic values emphasize all students’ equal right to education and include equality between women and men, and actively working against all kind of discrimination at school. The principal has the utmost responsibility for the school’s inner work in accordance with the democratic assignment. Our data is based on interviews with two principals working in socioeconomic challenging areas. Both viewed social justice as a challenge to meet the needs of every student, to maintain high expectations, and to give each the opportunity to become what s/he wants to be. Yet, neither principal saw any barriers to work as a social justice leader since the principal can set the goals and prioritize the most important issues.

United States of America
While US schools were historically a local matter, in recent years, the federal government has taken a greater role in the operation of schools through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001), which emphasized the mandate of accountability for student achievement, requiring transparency for reporting school progress to the public.  The US cases include two secondary school principals.  Principal 1 is a first year Caucasian principal in a small rural school located in a southeastern US state.  Principal 2 is an experienced African-American principal in a large urban school located in a Gulf Coast US state.  Interview findings indicate both principals agreed that the main goal of a social justice leader is to provide academic, social, and career opportunities that lead to success for all children.  Both men saw their role as being the voice for those children who either cannot or will not speak for themselves.  While both agreed that government mandates must be implemented, they both stated that these mandates, at times, were barriers to social justice leadership.

Comparing Social Justice School Leadership in Sweden and the United States
While schools in Sweden have decidedly more freedom to operate as the principal deems appropriate for meeting the needs of children, US schools must operate in a narrower environment, constricted by government accountability mandates.  Nonetheless, principals in both countries expressed their focus on working for children’s best interests, providing opportunities for success, both academically in the present and for their futures.

[1] The concept curriculum should Swedish context be understood as the written document which contains educational goals for all types of schooling and education.

Case 3: Costa Rica and England
(Charlie Slater California State University, Long Beach, USA, Nancy Torres Victoria (National University, Costa Rica), Virginia Cerdas Montano (National University, Costa Rica), Ian Potter Bayhouse School, England)

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a country known for its rich environment from mountains to oceans, and its high level of literacy and stability, but it is also a society of serious social and economic problems that make it difficult for people to find jobs. There is extreme poverty in some areas and families are dislocated because of fires, floods, and inability to pay rent. There are large differences among students with some who carry a cellular phone and others have little to eat. The interviewee was the director of a secondary bilingual school with 640 students in a large metropolitan area near the capital of the country.


In England, there is empirical evidence of a gap between the academic achievements of students who are entitled to free school meals (FSM) and those who are not. The government states that there should be no excuses for why children from poorer backgrounds do not achieve as well as their richer peers. Therefore, it is now policy for schools that underperform not to be maintained by local government and join a group of independent, publically funded schools, known as ‘Academies’. These Academy schools are sponsored by a high performing academy which is often linked to a further sponsor in the business or corporate world. The Principal of the English case study works in such a school. She says that what makes her a Social Justice Leader is that her school teaches students other schools do not want to teach.

 Comparing Social Justice School Leadership in Costa Rica and England

The school directors worked in very different situations, but each expressed a similar philosophy about social justice. The English director spoke of social justice as a way to break entrenched differences in society and saw herself as a Mum who would run the school like a family, and give students permission to be the who they wanted to be. She said, ““I think a lot of social justice leaders do it from a faith point of view.”

The Costa Rica Director referred to social justice as the obligation of the state and citizens to build an economic system to overcome social disadvantages. He wanted to maintain communication and active listening so that students would be free to discuss problems and develop a sense of importance. He had a background in theology related to spiritual principles that helped to build his position on social justice.
Case 4: India and the United States of America
(Jayson Richardson University of Kentucky, Nick Sauers University of Kentucky, Heather Duncan, University of Wyoming)

India is a highly segregated, class-oriented country where there is a huge disparity between social classes. India has expanded primary education to nearly two thirds of the population. Despite this achievement, the caste system still dominate who has access to to a quality education and who does not.

This work reflects interviews with 5 principals in New Delhi. Schools 1 and 2 are American Embassy Schools. These schools work with an extremely diverse population from around world, but the students are all higher SES. These schools try to make a connection to the local schools (e.g., service learning). School 3 and 4 were in more affluent areas. We would classify these as public schools. School 5 is a private school in which the principal started in the late 80’s for children with polio. The school serves students with disabilities and the poorest of society. Principals of schools 1 and 2 are enacting social justice by reaching out proactively via service learning and embracing the rich diversity in the school. Principals of schools 3 and 4 showed no evidence of really enacting social justice – this was a ‘non-issue’ to them. The principal of school 5 is actively working to meet the needs of the forgotten students. They do a lot of life skills and career guidance at this school.

United States of America
Equity is one principle that undergirds the US educational system. However, with an increasingly diverse (racially, socially, and economically) population, achieving equity remains a challenge. Increased federal involvement in education stemmed from a 1983 report ,“A Nation at Risk,” which warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in schools.  The “No Child Left Behind Act” followed in 2001, tying federal funding directly to school performance and introducing educational reform as data-driven and accountability focused. The US interviewee (male) had been principal of a small, secondary charter school for five years. To him, social justice leaders grow and develop the students, teachers, and parents with whom they work. “They try to give everyone a fair shake”. He questioned, “Why can’t we customize education for our children rather than customize our children to a rigid educational system?”

Comparing Social Justice School Leadership in India and in the United States
While both the United States and India are democracies, large in area, ethnically diverse, and have a high GDP, the similarities end there. The population density of India is over ten times that of the US. While 15% of Americans live below the poverty level, what the poverty level means in the two countries is very different. Over 40% of Indians survive on less than $1 per day. The education system is similarly inequitable with a large percentage of students receiving less than a grade 8 education.

Whereas social justice education in the US may be impacted by federal legislation, in India, the quality of education is much more dependent on SES, with those in the higher income brackets showing little interest in social justice. The caste system, economic status, and gender have much influence on issues relating to access and equity in education.

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