School & District Management Q&A

How K-12 Leaders Can Better Manage Divisive Curriculum and Culture War Debates

Conflict resolution for K-12 leaders isn’t “rocket science,” but it takes practice, according to a veteran education leader.
By Caitlynn Peetz — May 13, 2024 7 min read
Katy Anthes, Commissioner of Education in Colorado from 2016- 2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 3, 2024.
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District leaders are no stranger to conflict, but it seems more of them have been confronted with polarizing debates that have subsumed their time and school board meetings in recent years.

From conflicts over pandemic-era masking policies to heated discussions about curriculum and library books, many of those disagreements have played out in especially public fashion. Superintendents have been faced with questions about how and how much they should communicate in these strained times—and when it might make most sense to simply disengage.

That’s where Katy Anthes is trying to help. She served seven years as commissioner of education in Colorado before stepping down in June last year. Now, she leads the Forward Initiative, an effort by the Public Education and Business Coalition—a national, education-focused nonprofit—to equip district leaders with skills in conflict resolution.

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Genesis Olivio and her daughter Arlette, 2, read a book together in a room within the community hub at John H. Amesse Elementary School on March 13, 2024 in Denver. Denver Public Schools has six community hubs across the district that have serviced 3,000 new students since October 2023. Each community hub has different resources for families and students catering to what the community needs.
Genesis Olivio and her daughter Arlette, 2, read a book together on March 13, 2024, in a room that's part of the community hub at John H. Amesse Elementary School in Denver. The Denver district has six community hubs at schools across the city that offer different services and resources for parents.
Rebecca Slezak For Education Week

District leaders often step into their roles without formal training or coaching on effective conflict resolution and polarization management, which can exacerbate already difficult situations, according to Anthes.

The good news is that the skills district leaders need to successfully manage politically charged debates aren’t “rocket science,” Anthes said. They include building relationships with people who have different perspectives and listening to their points of view. But putting those skills into action is difficult and takes practice.

In an interview with Education Week, Anthes offered advice for district leaders on better preparing and responding to politically polarizing issues—and how to know when it’s time to disengage.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve dedicated your career to helping education leaders navigate polarized issues. Why?

Colorado has a sort of unique governance structure, in which it’s a a politically elected [state] board of education. So, very often, you have some very conservative members and some very liberal members, and one core tenet of my job as commissioner was to work with both sides of an issue and try to find some common ground.

I found over the years in that role that the issues have gotten more and more and more polarized.

I worked in that space for seven-and-a-half years and as I stepped down, thinking about what comes next and what the biggest needs are in education, this issue really rose to the top because leaders were struggling with polarized issues that were pulling them away from their core job of educating kids.

Instead, they were spending all their time managing high-conflict things.

What’s led to that increase in polarized debates?

Election cycles don’t help. They definitely tend to fan some of the flames because tensions are just higher in general and education is a hot-button issue.

But I do think we have just seen the polarization of issues on the rise for the past 10 to 20 years, and I think people are just much more apt to dive into a side and not listen anymore, or not think about compromise, or not think about where we can come together and have some mutual agreement. There are probably a hundred things that contribute to that, but it’s been happening slowly and steadily over time for a couple decades.

What are some of the skills district leaders need to hone to address these issues?

Lean into meeting with people you disagree with and meeting with people that don’t see eye to eye with you.

One of the core reasons polarization is increasing is because people don’t feel heard and they don’t feel like their opinion matters, and they lack a sense of belonging in their community or school.

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The four finalists for National Superintendent of the Year speak during a panel on Jan. 12, 2023, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The four finalists for National Superintendent of the Year speak during a panel on Jan. 12 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of AASA, The School Superintendents Association

The biggest way to combat this is to lean into building relationships with folks who maybe are feeling on the outside of the system, or who don’t see eye to eye with other system leaders and what’s going on. The key is to do this before you are in a high-conflict situation.

Get to know people on a personal level, a human level. That builds some humanity and some connection, so when you do face an issue that is highly contentious, you actually have something to fall back on, even if that’s just, ‘Hey, I know you’re coming at this from the perspective of a caring mother.’ You have a relationship from which you can start the conversation.

It seems a little trite, but, honestly, it really is about listening and helping people feel heard and giving people a space to talk and feel connected and engage.

The challenge, obviously, is that you don’t always want to do it. You don’t always want to purposely reach out to the folks that might disagree with you, or the ones that might be a little more challenging in the community, so it tends to be the thing that gets put off. But if you leave it off your priority list, then it could come back to bite you in a much more time-consuming and difficult way.

You don't always want to purposely reach out to the folks that might disagree with you ... but if you leave it off your priority list, then it could come back to bite you in a much more time-consuming and difficult way.

How do you know whom to reach out to and build those relationships with?

Take some time, especially if you’re a new superintendent, to do some relationship and political mapping of your community. Actually think about who the key leaders and influencers are on all sides, and reach out to them. Ask them what their needs and desires are for the school system, and make sure they know they’re a part of your constituency.

Even if you disagree with them later, they know that you have reached out to them, you have listened, and you’ve shown a genuine care about all of the different elements of the community.

How can education leadership programs better prepare upcoming leaders?

None of this is rocket science, so, really, the thing is just to include it as part of the curriculum. It doesn’t take that much learning to do it. But it’s like when you’re training for a marathon, you have to keep going out and practicing and training. You have to keep running—you have to practice, practice, practice.

You have to keep flexing your muscles to get those muscles to be good. And you have to do it before the big race. It’s the same concept here, because you’re going to run into conflict, and conflict isn’t inherently a bad thing.

Katy Anthes, Commissioner of Education in Colorado from 2016- 2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 2, 2024.

Conflict is an important thing that helps us get better, and it brings new ideas to the table. It’s an important foundation for our school system, in our democracy, and everything else. It’s when that gets destructive—that’s what we’re trying to avoid.

I’d call on preparation programs to think about and give leaders strategies around how to authentically listen to constituents who disagree with you, how to connect with people who disagree with you, and how to frame issues so they’re not set up to be divisive. They’re not always a “yes” or “no.” Sometimes you need to show the nuance and the complexity of issues.

We have to lean into this now more than ever.

How important is it for district leaders to have a strong professional network?

When you get into high-conflict situations where people might be yelling at you or calling you terrible things, it can feel really personal. That’s when you need to reach out to your friends and colleagues.

It’s nice to have a kind, listening ear, but also to get another perspective and help you see the bigger picture when you’re mired in the minutiae.

I strongly, strongly recommend folks have a tight network of friends and colleagues and people who are in this work that you can commiserate with, but also get another perspective from. Those people will often be the ones to help you take the higher ground.

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Group of diverse people (aerial view) in a circle holding hands. Cooperation and teamwork. Community of friends, students, or volunteers committed to social issues for peace and the environment.
iStock/Getty Images Plus

What should leaders do when people continue to fight, regardless of their efforts?

There are strategies around de-escalating situations if they’re at a yelling level, both interpersonally with breathing exercises and by taking the tone of a meeting down by acknowledging the situation and passion and asking to address the issue at a later time.

My philosophy on this is to try to engage with everyone. But there might come a point when you might try one or two times and you just realize this person or this group is just solely in it for the fight. They’re not interested in finding a solution or getting their needs met. They just want to fight.

Once you’ve tried a couple times and you’re not seeing any movement toward engagement, then I think it’s fine to disengage with them. It can be hard because they can be loud, but the less attention you give to them, the less loud they will become eventually.

When it becomes really hateful or possibly violent, you just don’t need to engage with that type of behavior. There are moments and times and people where you just have to step away.

You just have to make it clear that what your role is—to serve all families in this community, and then you continue on doing that work.

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