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Research Title: Repaying the Education Debt Through Professional Development: An Equity Audit Education and Organizational Learning and Leadership Thematic Dissertation (Awarded 2020)

Authors: Jenai Choi, Britney D. Holmes, and Todd Martinez-Simmons, Seattle University
Chair: Trenia Walker

The National Center for Education Statistics explains the achievement gap, more accurately described as the educational debt, highlights the vastly different educational experience Black, Brown, and Indigenous students receive in comparison to their White peers (Dixon, Griffin, & Teoh, 2019; Ladson-Billings, 2006). One popular technical solution to combating the achievement gap has been the use of professional development (PD) (Meissel, Parr, & Timperley, 2016). Repaying the educational debt, however, requires adaptive changes that push on an individual’s core values, beliefs, and approaches and often require change across boundaries as opposed to the quick fix technical solutions offer (Heifetz & Linsky, 2017). To enact meaningful change, the PD implemented by schools needs to create an experience for educators where their core values, beliefs, and the efficacy of their pedagogical methods are challenged and changed to equitably service their students.

One school district in Western Washington has been a pioneer in its work to serve each and every student (personal communication, Director of Equity and Strategic Engagement, July 19, 2019). In nearly two decades time, the District has made essential changes to support its mission and vision: provide all students with an exemplary college preparatory education, so they are able to succeed in college, career, and life (District Publication, 2019). Within the District most of the necessary learning to bring the mission to fruition lives within PD, therefore the research team explored:

1. To what extent do the recommendations for an equitable education outlined in District documents align to what is described as an equitable education in Courageous Conversations About Race?

2. In what ways can research supported best practices for the development and presentation of professional development be used to support the fruition of an equitable education in this district?

The rationale for conducting this study includes a district need as well as a national need for effective PD models that target the root cause of the education debt and work to eliminate it. Despite on-going efforts to repay the education debt, students of color, specifically many Black and Brown students are not achieving at the same levels as their White and Asian peers, as measured by assessment scores, attendance and graduation rates (U.S. Department of Education, 2019).

Theoretical Framework

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is the foundational framework for this case study because CRT offers a lens with which to analyze the District's documents and Courageous Conversations about Race. This research study focused on (a) permanence of racism; (b) interest convergence; (c) whiteness as property; (d) counter-storytelling (Delgado et al., 2012) as these are the only tenets that relate specifically to this study. Woven into each of these tenets are the foundational pillars of this study (a) equity audits; (b) document analysis; (c) professional development; (d) education debt. CRT allows an understanding of inequitable systems and will ensure that the District is working toward repaying the education debt that is owed to historically marginalized populations of students (Ladson-Billings, 2006).


The research team conducted a document analysis on three equity-focused documents from the District and Courageous Conversations about Race, which the District uses to move toward an equitable educational environment. Document analysis can be used in isolation when conducting qualitative research to “uncover meaning, develop understanding, and discover insights relevant to the research problem” (Merriam, 1988, p. 118 as cited by Bowen, 2009, p.29). In this case study, document analysis yielded specific data the research team used to compare and evaluate the extent of alignment between the District’s documents and Courageous Conversations about Race. The document analysis provided the foundation for the research team to suggest next steps for future equity-focused PD.


In response to the first research question, the research team found that the District documents aligned to the focus of keeping students as the focal point. Moreover, the document analysis of the text Courageous Conversations about Race calls for the use of explicit language around race, racism and identifying Whiteness. The most significant finding was the discrepancy of the use of language. Although parts of the District’s documents attempt to utilize CRT and Courageous Conversations about Race as an accountability system, it fails to explicitly name Whiteness. This is further exemplified as both the District documents and Courageous Conversations about Race seek organizational change; the avoidance of language that may seem racially charged in the District documents creates some ambiguity in addressing systemic change for equity.

The document analysis of the District documents led to inconclusive results as to how the district is using or not using the professional development (PD) as described by Courageous Conversations about Race. Furthermore, the research team did find that in order to improve the equity focused PD, it is important for the District to focus, involve teachers, foster collaboration, provide coaching and mentorship, develop feedback and reflection cycles and develop leadership capacity. The research team utilized the research-based findings to develop recommendations for the District.


Based on the findings, the research team developed three recommendations for the District. The first recommendation is for the District to explicitly name race, racism and Whiteness in policy documents and future PD. This means that the District uses clear language and definitions for these terms that can support the District in identifying and addressing issues of systemic racism. The second recommendation is to conduct an evaluation of the current PD. In order to measure efficacy, it will be important to evaluate how the current equity focused PD is being applied in classrooms. The final recommendation is for the District to include student voice. Research supports there are clear benefits for including student voice in making decisions. Research continues to show the inclusion of students will amplify the chance of creating and sustaining educational change, thus repaying the educational debt.


This research study was highly impacted by Covid-19. Although the research team wanted to work directly with students and staff of the District, the careful analysis of the District documents and Courageous Conversations about Race created a strong foundational understanding of what is currently happening and what needs to be addressed moving forward. Therefore, it is imperative future research focus on the collection of data from teachers and students about the efficacy of the current equity focused PD. As public-school educators, the research team offers this critical case study with the sincere hope that it will contribute to payment toward alleviating the education debt. The research team conducted this study to work toward dismantling the racist practices currently infecting in schools across America.