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Equity Audits in Higher Education, Part Two: Equity Audits and Course-Embedded Leadership Development

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Equity Audits in Higher Education, Part Two: Equity Audits and Course-Embedded Leadership Development

It is well established that socioeconomic disparities exist in today’s P–12 schools. One high school has an Astroturf football field and an indoor swimming pool; the high school next door runs out of copy paper in March, so teachers make-due through the end of the school year. A first-grade teacher in one classroom holds a master’s degree in literacy; the first-grade teacher across the hall is certified in middle school mathematics. English learners at a third school perform poorly on the eighth-grade achievement test although eighth graders overall achieve a score of 90 percent or higher.

In higher education, socioeconomic disparities are more subtle. A first-year student arrives unprepared for college algebra and grows frustrated spending extra time and money taking remedial math courses. A commuter student misses the mid-term exam due to car trouble and drops the class when the instructor will not allow rescheduling. The student government holds meetings at 7:00 p.m., which keeps students who work evening jobs from participating. To accomplish educational equity, the new generation of educational leaders—from primary to graduate school— must be prepared to identify and address such disparities.

Harris and Hopson (2008) envisioned that course-embedded equity audits could prepare students “to be change agents for social justice leadership” (p. 349). A decade later, Malcom-Piqueux and Bensimon (2017) reiterated this vision: “By developing the capacity of faculty, staff, and administrators to conduct inquiry, gather data, and make appropriate improvements based on that data, institutions invest in ‘best practitioners’” (p. 8). Part one of this series provided an overview of equity audits and illustrated how colleges and universities can use them to identify and address inequities. This article describes how equity audits can be used as a means for course-embedded leadership development to remediate educational inequities one person, classroom, and school at a time.

Equity-mindedness and leadership for social justice

In recent years, scholars have called for greater accountability and transparency in higher education policy and practices to ensure equitable access and opportunity for students, faculty, and staff. Such equity-mindedness requires thinking about inequities in terms of institutional practices, policies, structures, and culture rather than as something wrong with students. Scholars and practitioners alike refer to social justice as taking intentional action to remediate inequities. Furman (2012) explained that “social justice focuses on the experiences of marginalized groups and inequities in educational opportunities and outcomes” (p. 194), such as making sure that all students who want to go to college are appropriately prepared to do so. Leadership for social justice, then, “involves identifying and undoing . . . oppressive and unjust practices and replacing them with more equitable, culturally appropriate ones” (Furman, 2012, p. 194). Harris and Hopson (2008) referred to such practices as “democratically accountable leadership” (p. 342). Because education takes place within political and organizational contexts that are influenced by individuals’ identities and beliefs, it makes sense that equity-mindedness and leadership for social justice are qualities that develop with time and experience. Course-embedded equity audits are one way to encourage such development.

Course-embedded leadership development

Furman asserted that the primary purpose of graduate-level leadership preparation programs should be to develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions related to reflection and action around inequities in today’s schools. In leadership preparation programs, equity audits can be used to “develop leaders who have the knowledge and skills needed to create equitable and excellent schools” (Skrla et al., 2004, p. 138). To guide this ongoing professional learning effort, Poekert and colleagues (2020) identified five leadership principles focused on educational equity:

  1. Frame issues of teaching and learning toward social justice.
  2. Engage with others in dialogue and inquiry.
  3. Apply new insights with critical reflection, identity development, and relationship-building.
  4. Devote significant time and resources to context-driven issues of educational equity.
  5. Encourage shared leadership, collaboration, and inclusion.

Furman (2012) proposed a framework for social justice leadership that requires critical and honest self-reflection, progresses to building trusting relationships across cultural groups, and finally “builds community across cultural groups through inclusive, democratic practices” (p. 209). Andrew (2020) recommended a “strengths-based approach,” which embeds work-related skills and internship preparation into the curriculum and challenging “unhelpful higher education and industry perspectives” (p. 4). Equity audits take each of these perspectives into account.

Equity audits and action research

Course-embedded equity audits often employ action research, a practitioner-based means of investigating actual problems or questions within one’s own work environment. Felix and colleagues (2015) described a process for developing equity-minded change on college campuses using collaborative, guided inquiry across four educational outcomes: completion, retention, excellence, and access. Phases of the process include laying the groundwork, defining the problem, assessing interventions, implementing solutions, and evaluating results.

In one graduate-level action research course for beginning English teachers, Groenke (2010) developed an equity audit process that takes place across two semesters. During the first semester, teachers gathered data related to student discipline, student achievement, social class, race and ethnicity, English learners, disabilities, and gender. During the second semester, teachers selected one area of inequity to research deeply and report formally as their culminating master’s thesis. As a result of the experience, teachers reported raised consciousness of disparities among students and schools and newfound empowerment to examine and critique these disparities.

Equity audits and action plans

Ideally, course-embedded equity audits lead to taking action to remediate educational disparities. As the culminating activity for a doctoral-level educational leadership course, Harris and Hopson (2008) led students through the process of investigating an area of concern in the schools where they worked and reporting their findings in a formal research paper. Afterward, the doctoral students reported that conducting an equity audit provided them with a specific advocacy tool, increased their and others’ awareness of inequities, and modeled how they could act as change agents in their schools and school districts.

At another university, aspiring principals in a graduate-level principal preparation program conducted an equity audit, wrote a one-page analysis, and developed a five-year action plan (Hernandez & Marshall, 2017). Reflecting on the assignment, aspiring principals reported greater awareness of student achievement gaps in their schools, recognition “that equity is a problem that needs to be addressed” (p. 221), and desire to continue working toward increased equity for all student groups in their schools. The researchers concluded, “Future leaders’ thinking was transformed from the introspective to the extrospective. This is the kind of knowledge and practice that social justice leaders need” (p. 222).

Postgraduation considerations

In each of these examples, practicing professionals working in P–12 schools learned how to conduct equity audits as part of their graduate-level coursework, preparing them to lead others in their schools and school districts by initiating equity audits, sharing and discussing the findings with others, and ultimately, taking action to remediate inequities. But the transition from graduate program to professional practice is not always seamless. One year after conducting equity audits and creating action plans in their curriculum and instruction master’s program, some teachers reported that it was difficult to fully implement their equity audit action plans without assistance and cooperation from others in their P–12 schools (Dodman et al., 2018).

As Brown and colleagues (2011) observed,

Faculty trust is an essential ingredient to create the culture necessary to initiate, implement, and institutionalize long-lasting change to promote excellence and equity throughout a school, for it is within trusting relationships that collaboration and problem solving can yield creative solutions. (pp. 64–65)

School-university partnerships offer one way to support developing leaders postgraduation. Bleyaert (2011) described how one school district formed an equity audit design team consisting of teachers, department chairs, university professors, and experts from educational support organizations to pilot a district-wide equity audit. Dodman and colleagues (2018) recommended that colleges and universities offer “bridges of support” (p. 15) to recent graduates to help sustain implementation of equity audit action plans developed prior to graduation. In addition to supporting P–12 educational leaders, school-university partnerships could help acclimate college and university faculty to the equity audit process.


Hernandez and Marshall (2017) asserted, “Efforts of educational leadership programs to prepare leaders to close the achievement gap . . . are bound to get future administrators’ attention, regardless of their personal views or experiences with diversity” (p. 222). By using course-embedded equity audits as a means of leadership development, colleges and universities can begin to remediate educational inequities one person, classroom, and school at a time. The third and final part of this series will explore how college and university faculty, staff, and administrators can use equity audits to investigate for equities and inequities in higher education.


Andrew, L. (2020). Ensuring equitable work-integrated learning opportunities for international students. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 17(4), 1–8.

Bleyaert, B. (2011). Is compliance ‘trumping’ mission? Findings from an equity audit pilot. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 6(4), 1–11.

Brown, K. M., Benkovitz, J., Muttillo, A. J., & Urban, T. (2011). Leading schools of excellence and equity: Documenting effective strategies in closing achievement gaps. Teachers College Record, 113(1), 57–96.

Dodman, S. L., DeMulder, E. K., View, J. L., Swalwell, K., Stibling, S., Ra, S., & Dallman, L. (2018). Equity audits as a tool of critical data-driven decision making: Preparing teachers to see beyond achievement gaps and bubbles. Action in Teacher Education, 41(1), 4–22. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.bradley.edu/10.1080/01626620.2018.1536900

Felix, E. R., Bensimon, E. M., Hanson, D., Gray, J., & Klingsmith, L. (2015). Developing agency for equity-minded change. New Directions for Community Colleges, 172, 25–42. https://doi.org/10.1002/cc.20161

Furman, G. (2012). Social justice leadership as praxis: Developing capacities through preparation programs, Educational Administration Quarterly, 48(2), 191–229. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161X11427394

Groenke, S. L. (2010). Seeing, inquiring, witnessing: Using the equity audit in practitioner inquiry to rethink inequity in public schools. English Education, 43(1), 83–96.

Harris, S., & Hopson, M. (2008). Using an equity audit investigation to prepare doctoral students for social justice leadership. Teacher Development, 12(4), 341–352. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13664530802579926

Hernandez, F., & Marshall, J. (2016). Auditing inequity: Teaching aspiring administrators to be social justice leaders. Education and Urban Society, 49(2), 203–228. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013124516630598

Malcom-Piqueux, L., & Bensimon, E. M. (2017). Taking equity-minded action to close equity gaps. Peer Review, 19(2), 5–8.

Poekert, P. E., Swaffield, S., Demir, E. K., & Wright, S. A. (2020). Leadership for professional learning towards educational equity: A systematic literature review. Professional Development in Education, 46(4), 541–562. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2020.1787209

Skrla, L., Scheurich, J. J., Garcia, J, & Nolly, G. (2004). Equity audits: a practical leadership tool for developing equitable and excellent schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(1), 133–161. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161X03259148

Jana Hunzicker, EdD, is a professor in the Department of Education, Counseling, and Leadership and associate dean for the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.


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