Moving Beyond Changing Hearts and Minds in Education: How Theories of Change can Drive Action

The authors conduct a comparative case study of two schools’ equity teams in the Pacific Northwest and find that both teams’ prioritization of changing mindsets stifled institutional change.

Reviewed by Sabrina Wong


Recognition of educational inequities based on race, class, and gender by educators is growing in the United States. However, there is a lack of leadership capacity to meet these large reform goals. The authors of this article argue that efforts to improve educational equity in schools require an understanding of leadership as an ‘organizational practice’ that extends beyond any individual leader and includes collective action across different roles. In this comparative case study, the authors analyze why two school equity teams in the Pacific Northwest achieved limited organizational change. They discuss how these equity teams’ theories of changes assumed schools needed to first change the ‘minds and hearts’ of faculty and parents before implementing systemic change and how this approach limited their ability to achieve more equitable outcomes.

Ann M. Ishimaru is an associate professor of Educational Policy, Organizations and Leadership at the University of Washington College of Education. Dr. Ishimaru’s work focuses on P-12 educational organizations and leadership. Mollie K. Galloway is an associate professor and chair of Educational Leadership in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College. Her work focuses on K-12 equity and organizational leadership.

Methods and Findings

Over the course of an academic year, the authors interviewed members of two equity teams in the Pacific Northwest and analyzed their video-taped monthly team and planning meetings to understand how each team defined educational equity and developed solutions. Both schools, Kerry Middle School and Baker K-8 School, were selected based on already having a commitment to racial equity. In the first phase of analysis, each school equity team was analyzed separately before being compared to the other. The authors found that although Kerry Middle School’s equity team was larger, newer to school-wide equity work, and served a more racially diverse student body than Baker’s, both teams believed that changing peoples’ attitudes towards equity needed to take place before any school-wide structural reforms could be executed.

In the second phase of analysis, the authors explore why these two equity teams converged on similar theories of change despite these differences in team composition and contexts. Pulling from other organizational leadership studies on teacher teams, the authors categorized key moments from team meetings as problem-finding, problem-defining, or solution-proposing and mapped out the analytic arc of team discussions over time. They found that discussions from both teams about structural change were impeded by a ‘dominant institutional logic’ about how equity change occurs in schools and how organizations change more broadly.

Limitations of a ‘hearts and minds’ approach

Limitations of a theory of change that focuses on changing ‘hearts and minds’ before any school-wide action include:

  • Perceiving discussions focused on race and equity as a comprehensive solution, which undermines other forms of reform and institutional change in the school. 
  • Prioritizing the beliefs of white parents and teachers rather than the inequities faced by students and parents of color, which leads to slower change as change occurs at the rate aligned with the white parents’ and educators’ comfortability.
  • Suggesting that educational equity reforms as a whole are ineffective because equity teams can focus disproportionately on changing minds versus taking action.

However, the authors emphasize that the findings do not completely diminish the importance of explicit talk about race and changing beliefs. They argue that equity work requires having difficult conversations but challenge the assumption that hearts and minds must be changed before structural change can be executed.

Possibilities for equity-focused educational change

The authors discuss three possible explanations for the two teams’ focus on changing mindsets before taking any action. Addressing and understanding these drivers can help support greater equity-focused educational change. Future research should focus on validating these explanations.

  • Equity reform can be guided by a fear of backlash from white parents, which encourages a focus more on changing their mindsets over action.
  • The equity teams may have limited exposure to alternative theories of change. In this absence, equity teams may default to ‘hearts and minds first’ theories. To address this challenge, the authors suggest that equity teams should have explicit conversations on theories of equity change and leverage existing research on equity-focused change within schools.
  • Theories of change from equity teams can be built on assumptions that undermine the types of change that are possible from teachers.


Overall, the authors of this article discuss how focusing on changing mindsets before taking any action stifled the educational change efforts of two equity teams in Pacific Northwest schools. They underscore how fear of backlash from white parents, limited access to alternative theories of change, and assumptions about the abilities of teachers to drive change increase the likelihood of adopting  the “hearts and mind” theory of change. The authors suggest future research focus on examining change in schools over a longer time span and explore whether the findings in this article apply to schools in other contexts. These considerations are critical for educators and school leaders working to execute effective change for educational equity.


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