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February 1, 2022

Strengthening Equity Work in the Face of Opposition

Authentic equity initiatives can address student needs and help bring school communities together, despite distractions like attacks on critical race theory.
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Equity
Policy
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Credit: FIZKES / SHUTTERSTOCK
Jayne Schultz, a white high school principal, is walking along one Saturday morning in her community (a predominantly white suburban school district near Philadelphia). She encounters Pedro, a parent with two kids in her school. When he asks her to stop and talk, she agrees. There's been discussion lately among local parents around the issue of how to talk or teach in schools about racial issues, and Pedro—an Afro-Latino community member—has been vocal in his strong opposition to teaching about race in schools. Pedro's wife is white, and they have three biracial children in the district. Pedro asserts that teaching about race and equity in schools is equivalent to critical race theory (CRT).
On this day, Pedro starts with questions, but moves quickly to accusing Jayne of teaching CRT in schools. "This theory is divisive—it makes white kids in our schools feel guilty about slavery and racism. That's unfair!" he exclaims. "It's not what our district should be teaching." Jayne is taken aback by the fact that a parent who's a person of color is so opposed to talking about race in schools. She's already worn down by this ongoing CRT debate and as she begins answering Pedro, she's surprised by how intense her responses are.
As they're talking, three high school students, Aponi, DeMarcus, and Alex, walk by and overhear the discussion. These students, aware of recent local conflicts over schools teaching about race, join in the conversation and give their perspectives.
Aponi says, "I don't know if our school teaches CRT. I don't understand the theory other than I hear people say it forces people to really look at the racist past of this country." She adds, "I do know Ms. Schultz has acknowledged that the curriculum our high school uses, like, the way we've been taught for years, gives almost zero mention of indigenous people and their contributions. I'm from an indigenous background, so I appreciate that. Maybe we'll start to get some of the stories from my people included in what we read."
"I know a bit about CRT," DeMarcus, a young Black man, adds. "I don't understand why it's taken to be so bad. … They're trying to ban any talk about CRT! I've experienced racism here—since elementary school—and I've heard that if you're old enough to experience racism, you should be old enough to learn about it. That's true, you know. Shouldn't it be true for kids in my school who make racist jokes?" He turns to his principal. "Ms. Schultz, I know you're trying to get us more teachers of color. You're looking at what's in the curriculum and asking, is that best for Black students? I like that." Before the kids move on, Alex, who is Asian American and transgender, adds that he appreciates the school's educators speaking up, opposing recent violence against Asian Americans in the country and the district.
Thinking about this encounter later, Jayne recognizes the importance of Pedro's concerns but finds herself thinking more about the students' words. She knows bigger issues than CRT debates threaten the learning and belongingness of her students. Jayne realizes she hasn't checked in with how students at her school—including those who might disagree with Alex, Aponi, and DeMarcus—feel about the debates over CRT. One thing Jayne does know: As a principal, attending to data and focusing on students' perspectives, safety, and learning is her priority.

Turning Away from Orchestrated Distraction

Critical race theory is an analytical tool that helps examine structural racism. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founding scholar of CRT, has said that using CRT reveals "the so-called American dilemma [that racism] was not simply a matter of prejudice but a matter of structured disadvantages that stretched across American society" (Karimi, 2021). The theory is used primarily in academic circles, at the postsecondary and graduate level, to identify and understand racism as a historical, structural, and institutional phenomenon.
So why so much talk lately about CRT in K–12 schools? We know that journalist and conservative activist Christopher Rufo has tried to redefine CRT to claim that it's a device for launching personal attacks on white people (Wallace-Wells, 2021). His use of the term "critical race theory" recklessly sweeps in any expression about equity, social justice, bias, privilege, discrimination, oppression, etc.—including terms related to gender identity—to undermine schools' efforts to be more inclusive. In the view of some, Rufo and others promoting a similar message have used CRT to stoke fear among middle-class suburban white Americans, many of whom have already been feeling fearful and uncertain, especially following the racial reckoning of 2020 (Wallace-Wells, 2021).

Equity work in schools centers around ensuring all students are fully included and respected while recieving a quality education; it does not involve teaching CRT in the classroom.

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In other words, critics believe the term "CRT" is being weaponized, used as a charged but imprecise description of any equity work or race- and equity-related discussions happening in schools. This fearmongering has found an audience among some parents and has become a way to mute crucial conversations about inequities. It has stimulated legislation forbidding race conversations in classrooms.
As scholars who've studied equity in education, we believe this approach politicizes teaching and restricts teachers' freedom to make lessons relevant and engaging (Wallace-Wells, 2021). Indeed, policies that restrict race- and equity-focused discussions stifle any fruitful dialogue of how racism and sexism have shaped the United States's past and continue to influence its current social, political, and economic systems, ultimately thwarting all forms of equity-consciousness and inclusion.

What's Behind the Attacks?

While CRT could offer K–12 educators and leaders tools for identifying and disrupting race-based discrimination, there's no evidence that many K–12 educators are studying the theory and drawing from it to inform their curriculum. Instead, in our view, the attacks on CRT are being used to maintain a status quo in which schools fail to teach about racial equity, impeding students' learning and limiting their interactions due to adults' discomfort. Consequently, these efforts seek to preserve systems of inequity that are historical, structural, institutional, interpersonal, and individual. They use the familiar tactic of activating fear and resistance in some Americans who fear that changes made in the pursuit of equity will remove their ability to control the terms of education and thus undermine their way of life.
So how should school leaders respond to such attacks? In the end, principals and superintendents who fight to undo the misrepresentation of CRT will end up entrenched in political arguments that can sap energy and distract from the work of educating students for an increasingly diverse world. The resistance to CRT is actually not about CRT because K–12 schools don't "teach CRT." Instead, we believe it is an organized distraction intended to discredit and stop the justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) work desperately needed in U.S. schools. JEDI work in schools centers around ensuring all students are fully included and respected while receiving a quality education; it does not involve teaching CRT in the classroom.
Persistently going on the offensive against CRT critics could sideline educators from doing actual equity work if we aren't careful. Leaders need instead to be aware of what's behind the outcries against CRT they hear from community members—and to dialogue with those who have sincere concerns about CRT and talking about race in schools (see sidebar below, "Responding Respectfully Without Derailing the Work"). They also must be prepared with a strategy for advancing equity in a way that brings the school community together around an inclusive purpose rather than feeding divisions. This can help neutralize the resistance.

Turning Toward Practices for Equity

In our work, we've identified five practices leaders can use to support what should be their main focus: equity work. These practices help educators plan and organize efforts to begin—or maintain—equity-forward momentum. After each spending nearly two decades working in K–12 and higher education organizations, we collectively spent several years pulling together our best thinking and resources to develop these practices.

1. Prioritize Equity Leadership

Prioritizing leading-for-equity means remembering that inequity is systemic, operating at historical, structural, institutional, and individual/interpersonal levels that sometimes mask one another. For example, ability tracking may seem race neutral until one recognizes that historical injustices, such as long-term socioeconomic advantages for one group, mean that tracking actually perpetuates predictable outcomes along racial or socioeconomic lines. Because of such complexity, equity-focused leadership is hard work. It requires prioritizing deeper issues of equality in every decision and action. Leaders can maintain their focus on disrupting an unfair system by keeping top of mind that equity isn't just about interpersonal interactions. Savvy leaders refuse to be distracted by analyses that paint one situation or outcome as race neutral without taking the entire system into account.
For instance, to keep equity-focused amid the complaints about CRT, a leader like Jayne might need to remind herself to prioritize equity leadership over and over. Developing a vision for equity with her staff and gathering input by making space for all voices will keep equity centered in daily routines. Such practices are essential if we're to avoid becoming worn down and taking the path of least resistance in the face of opposition to JEDI work.

Rethinking Ability Tracking

Ability tracking may seem race neutral until one recognizes that, because of historical injustices, it actually perpetuates predictable outcomes along racial or socioeconomic lines.

2. Prepare Ourselves

School leaders must engage in ongoing learning, even when it's emotionally challenging. Recent attacks on CRT are rooted in what we'd argue are problematic individual and collective paradigms or beliefs about the United States, beliefs like meritocracy, race neutrality, and individualism. Challenging these beliefs creates discomfort and often conflict. Our task is to remember that existing beliefs and conditions are social constructions and as such, they can be changed.
Most leaders come to education to help children and do good work. But the reality is that, even as well-intentioned, good people, we frequently contribute to systemic inequity and inequality. If we've never deeply reflected on our identity and its impact on our work, we are missing opportunities to improve. The way we see the world, the way we see ourselves, our "people," and our students impacts the way we lead and the systems we leave intact—or restructure or rebuild. Remember, we've all been socialized into these systems of inequity and may hold perspectives or beliefs that support inequity, so we need to commit to continued learning. For example, principals like Jayne might take initiative to examine their school's curriculum and identify areas where marginalized groups and their positive accomplishments aren't covered. The next step would be to set about correcting this harmful situation.

3. Develop (and Support) Equity Leadership Teams

It's imperative to engage in difficult conversations about race, equity, and related existing beliefs with equity leadership teams and work groups a leader has established in the building. Team members may have connections to community members who raise concerns about CRT or discussions about race, like Pedro. Some teachers on equity teams may even themselves hold beliefs that align with attacks on CRT. Team members might need skills—and support from leadership—as they navigate this difficult territory of having challenging conversations with parents or others.
Help team members handle any drama over CRT without getting distracted by focusing on the first role of equity leadership teams—to educate. Everyone on an equity team is a teacher, a learner, a leader. Guide teams in using four routines to engage in learning about race and racism in general—and about CRT, if it's being talked about a lot and causing divisions on the team: (1) intentionally build learning relationships with one another; (2) use inclusive processes and facilitation to transform the power dynamics on the team so all can speak their truth and actively contribute; (3) reflect on how one's personal experiences intersect with what data show about the school; and (4) critically examine available equity-related data—and the claims associated with that data—to assess its credibility and consider how best to use it.

4. Build an Equity-Focused System

Preparing themselves and their equity teams should take a leader to this step: building equity-focused systems. We encourage school leaders to engage in an expansive needs assessment (an equity audit), complete with quantitative data, interviews, surveys, environmental scans, and service delivery maps. An audit identifies what's really happening in a building or district when it comes to equity and can help leaders plan accordingly. Sharing that data and engaging a wide range of school and community members in the process of system change helps build credibility for the effort. Be careful not to just apply Band-Aids or succumb to "solutionitis." Leaders must build equity-focused systems that address specific issues identified in their needs assessment. For instance, an audit in a school like Jayne's might identify and systemically address one weak area she was already considering addressing—including more student voice and input.

5. Sustain Your Effort!

If we're to sustain momentum and achieve more equity, we must remind ourselves to prepare for the long haul. We won't be "done with" equity at the end of the year, even if we place special emphasis on it. We'll need to do equity work next year, and the year after … over and over again.

Not for the Faint of Heart

Much of the current public outcry about CRT is part of an organized effort to eradicate equity efforts in schools. History has shown that when this wave of organized resistance passes, another will follow. We need to be steadfast in our focus on equity and continue to make progress as each wave of organized resistance comes and goes. As a leader, develop the foundation to sustain yourself and your team by sticking with the five practices over time and building coalitions with other like-minded individuals with whom you can exchange support. Expand connections with others who have a zeal for equity. Maintain relationships with educators who nourish your spirit.
Equity-focused leadership isn't for the faint of heart. But our students—and the students coming to us next year or next decade—need our equity-focused leadership today, tomorrow, and for the long haul.

Responding Respectfully Without Derailing the Work

How can leaders respond to concerns about talking or teaching about race without letting the issue become a distraction? First, remember that current attacks on CRT are just the latest in a long line of both random and organized efforts to undermine equity. Now get strategic. Engage those who are raising concerns in low-stakes conversation. Assess whether an organized dialogue where both parties learn from one another is possible. If so, model what it looks like to have a learning conversation. Use protocols that unearth participants' underlying values and bring facts to the conversation in a neutral, nonconfrontational way.

Further, be cautious about labeling someone "the resistance." Sometimes people oppose efforts toward more access because they don't have all the relevant information. Others may be committed to equity, but believe a different path would be preferable. Conversations where both parties ask questions and learn from one another, rather than becoming oppositional, are valuable. Leaders who recognize that equity work is heart work set the tone with care and facilitate difficult conversations effectively, ensuring that everyone feels heard and respected.

Reflect and Discuss

➛ Do you agree that equity efforts, if centered on an inclusive purpose, could bring school communities together? Why or why not?

➛ What viable steps could your school district take to improve "equity leadership" even in a polarized environment?

➛ In your view, what are constructive ways to respond to community members who express concerns about equity initiatives or teaching about race in schools?

Equity-Focused School Leadership

Read more from the authors' book on equity-focused leadership.

Equity-Focused School Leadership
References

Karimi, F. (2021, May 10). What critical race theory is—and isn't. CNN.

Radd, S., Generett, G. G., Gooden, M. A., & Theoharis, G. (2021). Five practices for equity-focused school leadership. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wallace-Wells, B. (2021, June 18). How a conservative activist invented the conflict over critical race theory. The New Yorker.

End Notes

1 This is a hypothetical anecdote, based on a composite of stories and situations school leaders now face.




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