“Are you teaching our children critical race theory?” “Are you indoctrinating our children?”

School and school system leaders are increasingly getting these questions from parents and politicians as schools take on the necessary reimagining of their curriculum to include more voices and perspectives. Leaders are getting these questions as they listen more closely to their students about what is and is not supporting their learning and make student-need a more central part of their schools, and as they create space in classrooms for students to analyze history and current events and think critically about the world around them.

As schools work to become more culturally responsive, the term “critical race theory” is becoming a battle cry against change, a reaction to any use of the words “race” or “equity” in school policies and practices. We see it in petitions parents have sent to their school boards. We see it in state legislation – at least eight states are considering bills that would ban teaching “critical race theory.” They at times defy logic: A bill in Texas calling for limiting classroom discussion of current events has been found to contradict state learning standards.

At the heart of these cries about critical race theory and indoctrination, we see fear and misunderstandingCritical race theory, at its core, is about acknowledging the existence and impact of race and racism in our communities and society. It is about valuing multiple points of view and life experiences, which are essential for helping students learn to think critically about and participate in our global and diverse world. It is central to culturally responsive leadership, which research and our experience supporting thousands of leaders across the country has shown is critical for disrupting inequities in our schools. Equity and culturally responsive policies and teaching practices are about making sure students of every race, ethnicity, language, and other characteristics of their identity, feel valued and respected and have what they need to achieve academic, social, and emotional success. It is simply about humanity. That is what legislation like this in Virginia and this in Arizona, this initiative in New York State, and these priorities proposed by the U.S. Department of Education are trying to achieve.

Here we offer some strategies we have found to be effective for school and system leaders to respond to this kind of pushback to their efforts to create more equitable, inclusive, culturally responsive schools.

Take time to listen
A way into these conversations can be to ask the parent or community member what they mean by terms such as “critical race theory.” Ask what their exact concerns are about what is happening in schools and classrooms. What are their children’s concerns and experiences?

Consider what critical race theory means to legislators in Idaho, where the governor recently signed a bill that states:

No public institution of higher education, school district, or public school, including a public charter school, shall direct or otherwise compel students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to any of the following tenets: 

  1. That any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior; 
  2. That individuals should be adversely treated on the basis of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin; or 
  3. That individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin. 

Effective culturally responsive education does none of these things. In fact, culturally responsive education was developed so that the adults can provide spaces and places for students to be seen, appreciated, celebrated and affirmed for who they are. Breaking down what is meant and feared might create an opening for finding some common ground and sharing what is actually happening in schools. Listening to and understanding perspectives that are different from your own are essential for better communicating with all community members.

Reframe the conversation
The journey to becoming a culturally responsive school and district cannot be a separate initiative or the responsibility of one person like the chief equity officer. Cultural responsiveness needs to be foundational in every strategic plan and every initiative. To ensure every single student leaves the day, year and your system emotionally, socially and academically successful, cultural responsiveness should be a part of every day and every lesson.

Know your why
It is critical for you and your team to deeply understand why you are embarking on your journey to cultural responsiveness. Advancing this approach is not just about head and hands. It is about heart. Shifting practice requires leaders to look within and examine why you as a leader are called to educational equity.

You can begin by examining multiple pieces of data – what do they tell you about the journey that you, your school and your district need to take? Are you seeing inequities in which students have access to challenging and engaging learning experiences? Have you issued surveys and convened focus groups to all stakeholders, and what have those conversations revealed about the experiences young people, families, and staff are having in your schools? Has the feedback you have received from students, families or teachers pointed to long-held practices or policies from another time that need to be revised to meet the needs of students currently sitting in your classrooms and their families?

For us, as a national organization, part of our why connects back to the founding of public education in the U.S. Our nation’s schools were created a few hundred years ago to serve a particular segment of communities — white boys. Certain structures and policies from those times remain, but our school communities have changed dramatically. That’s why we partner with school systems across the county to identify where policies and practices are no longer serving all students and to develop the leadership skills to intentionally design systems to meet the needs of every child.

Create every opportunity to communicate your why
Your ability to advance and sustain your journey to cultural responsiveness depends heavily on how well you communicate why this approach is needed. As you map out your community’s journey, develop a communications plan that clearly articulates how this is work grounded in the needs and desires of students, families, and staff. Share these stories often, use them in conversation and to frame your communications through email, newsletters, and on your website. Show that this journey is wanted by many in your community, that this is not the agenda of one but the desire of many.

Share the data you have collected that has informed your why. Are there inequities in which students have access to challenging and engaging learning experiences? Share that data. Have stakeholder surveys and focus group conversations revealed that some students and families feel less than valued and respected in their schools? Share that data. Has feedback from students, families or teachers pointed to long-held practices or policies from another time that need to be revised to meet the needs of students currently sitting in your classrooms and their families? Share that data.

Embrace your coalition
For policies and practices to be equitable and sustainable and have impact across a school or school system, you need to build strong partnerships. There will always be naysayers and they may be loud, but you will also find those who are already on the culturally responsive journey in classrooms and in the community. . Engage families, students, teachers, staff in shaping the policies and plans so that those policies truly reflect the desires and needs of the community. In this process, you will also gain allies in communicating the importance of this journey If they feel they were heard and see their ideas in the plans and policies, they will feel a vested interest in speaking about its importance.

Take care of yourself and each other
Everyone is on their never-ending personal journey to racial consciousness. There is no expert status to be reached. The racial healing process is an intentional one that takes dedicated time on your own as well as in community with others. It is critical to support each other in your learning and your efforts. No one can sustain cultural responsiveness alone.

A culturally responsive education leader 

  • recognizes the impact of institutionalized racism on their own lives, and  
  • recognizes the impact of institutionalized racism the lives of the students and families they work with, and  
  • embraces their role in mitigating, disrupting, and dismantling systemic oppression. 

In the face of fear and misunderstanding, remain steadfast and committed to your own why and that of your community. Today’s young people, and those of future generations, will thank you.

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Jill Grossman

Senior Director, Strategic Communications & Policy

Jill Grossman is the Senior Director of Strategic Communications and Policy. In this role, she has overseen the publication of numerous op-eds and articles in national publications and the production of videos on school and district leadership. Jill also co-authored “Still in the Game,” a research paper and policy brief on the impact on ongoing leadership coaching. Previously, Jill worked at New Leaders, where she helped write Breakthrough Principals: A Step-By-Step Guide to Building Stronger Schools, a book outlining New Leaders’ framework for effective principal and school practices. Jill also co-authored “Ambitious Leadership,” a research paper and series of case studies on the practices principals have used to effectively implement new college- and career-readiness standards. She has conducted research for other nonprofit organizations and school districts on principal training programs, school autonomy and teacher teams. Before working in education research, Jill spent 15 years as an editor and writer for several New York City news outlets, examining the challenges and achievements that urban communities experience, particularly around housing, schools, and politics. Jill has taught graduate and undergraduate journalism courses at New York University and Columbia University, as well as GED classes at community-based organizations and community colleges. Jill is an elected member of the Pleasantville (NY) Board of Education. She holds an MA in education policy from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a BA in sociology from Vassar College.