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March 10, 2022

How Leaders Can Create Clarity on Race and Curriculum

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Strong district messaging is crucial amid pushback on teaching about race in classrooms.
March 2022 Ingram Research thumbnail
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The campaign against so-called “Critical Race Theory”(CRT)—reportedly devised by conservative activists in response to educational initiatives like the 1619 Project that intentionally incorporate discussions of race into school curriculum—has raised a long list of questions for both parents and politicians about what content teachers share with students, and how. New research from the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, a research institute that studies social inequality in education, indicates that teachers, too, face mounting uncertainty about the kinds of instruction they’re permitted to provide—especially in the face of state or district policies that ban lessons mentioning a vast array of topics related to race and gender.  
The institute's report, titled “The Conflict Campaign,” highlights the perspectives of teachers who say this kind of confusion can damages morale and student learning, but researchers also signal a notable antidote: clear and consistent messaging from school and district leadership that confirms a commitment to teaching about race and diversity.  
“Our interviews involved some disturbing stories of intimidation, as well as confusion about what was now acceptable to teach, and many calls for leadership to clearly protect the right to learn on these key issues in our society,” says Mica Pollock, professor of education at the University of California San Diego, and a lead coauthor of the study.  

Curricular Confusion

The research team surveyed more than 300 educators and equity officers and analyzed about 10,000 news articles about CRT between September 2020 and August 2021. As the study indicates, 30 state governments have either considered or passed executive actions restricting teaching about race or diversity in public schools. The report identified 894 unique school districts that likely have been impacted by some form of anti-CRT campaign.  
These policies can have a dramatic impact on educators. As one Tennessee teacher quoted in the study states, “As a social studies department we were told that we cannot say things are racist. We were also told we cannot say it was sexist to keep women from voting. . . . These efforts have made my colleagues and I feel like we cannot teach truth and that we have to deny students’ [identities] and realities.” 
Opposition to curricular content seen as CRT-driven by some parents and politicians has a wide reach; the study notes that more than 17.7 million public school students could be affected by efforts to restrict this kind of instruction. Even in communities where no formal ban on teaching about race and diversity has passed, Pollock notes, organized opposition groups can still impact educators through online intimidation or protesting at school board meetings.  
In this context, when district leaders do not make a clear statement in support of teaching about race and diversity, many teachers feel uncertain about what content they can cover in the classroom. One New Jersey teacher quoted in the report worried that districts that make no clear statement could see a “chilling” effect on teaching and learning content that anti-CRT activists target. Pollock described a process of “self-censorship” in which teachers without clear guidance from leadership feel pressure to eliminate some of their own curricular content.  
“Some of the self-censorship stories were describing anxiously restricting entire realms of inquiry for students,” she says. One teacher from Colorado admitted that they and their colleagues were afraid to teach anything about race, or even the Bill of Rights, out of concern that the content could be seen as “incendiary.”  
Some teachers interviewed for the study reported that their district leaders responded to anti-CRT messaging by restricting how educators could cover race and diversity and began reversing work on general diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies, culturally responsive teaching, and even social-emotional learning. 
As the researchers write: 
Teachers pointed out that anti “CRT” critics actually seemed to attack an entire wing of work in education, which respondents often described simply as “DEI,” “history” itself, teaching about “race or racism,” or anything “challenging.” 

Leadership Commitment

According to the report, strong district leadership—and a clear commitment to teaching about race, gender, and diversity—can help teachers feel more confident continuing to incorporate these topics into their curricula. Researchers heard from multiple educators that having their superintendent or other administrators reach out to them directly and reiterate commitments to equity and accurate, culturally responsive instruction allowed them to stay the course with inclusive teaching, often seen as an essential ingredient for equity work. 
“We have to continue to push back against the opponents of this work by really talking about what it is that we’re doing. . . to make sure that every young person that is involved in the school system has an adequate opportunity, has adequate access, and has everything they need to be successful,” one equity officer from a suburban Southern school district reflected.  
Districts can also take a proactive approach to supporting their teachers through direct communication with concerned parents and school boards about what curricular policies state specifically, and why, explains Pollock. She and her colleagues also suggested targeted outreach to parents who communicate less frequently with the district, to hear from a wider array of community members on the importance of teaching about race. 

To me, it’s an opportunity to learn and teach. We may walk away from it totally disagreeing. And that’s fine. But. . . we’re not going to stop doing the work because you disagreed with us.

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Assessing students’ views on questions of equity and diversity is crucial as well. “In many cases, it has been students asking for more diverse curriculum, more learning about race, more protection from harassment, and uplifting and amplifying student voice,” notes Pollock.  
One of the challenges to fully mapping the effects of the anti-CRT movement is determining the extent to which its goals reflect the desires of most families in a district. This current study doesn’t make a quantitative assessment of how often critics of inclusive or culturally responsive forms of teaching have popular support in their districts, but it does signal that without clear guidelines set forth by district leadership, “vocal minorities” can have outsized influence over administrative policies and instructional practice.  
In districts where leaders do have clear messaging and express strong support for their teachers, however, it is easier for educators to find a sense of unity among themselves and their community. As one equity officer interviewed for the report reflected, when a district makes a real effort to have good faith conversations with its community, it can strengthen educator resolve. 
“To me, it’s an opportunity to learn and teach. We may walk away from it totally disagreeing. And that’s fine. But. . . we’re not going to stop doing the work because you disagreed with us,” they said. “It goes back to having a boss that supports the work and a school board that does also, and without those two things, this work would be very difficult.”

Noble Ingram is the Associate Online Editor of Educational Leadership magazine.

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