Over the past two years, dozens of districts across the country have had to face backlash from parents about their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
These concerns are sometimes presented as objections to teaching “critical race theory.”
While critical race theory is an academic concept which elaborates on the systemic nature of racism, some districts accused of teaching it have distanced themselves from it, or denied teaching the theory itself (which is typically in a college-level course.)
Still, there are elements of critical race theory that can help students “unpack and rethink the social construct of race that divides so much of U.S. society,” and may well pop up in K-12 lessons, a new Kappan report says. That’s why, instead of distancing themselves from the term when districts receive complaints, leaders should be clear in their messaging about what their equity initiatives are trying to do, according to the report, written by four education scholars.
Using elements of political messaging, the authors broke down what constitutes an effective response to parents and community members’ concerns about critical race theory.
“The goal of effective messaging is essentially to step away from the fueling of fear because people can very easily go down a rabbit hole of engaging in debates that become echo chambers,” said Francesca López, one of the authors of the report and the Waterbury Chair in Equity Pedagogy at The Pennsylvania State University.
“Effective messaging moves beyond just engaging in a debate,” she said. “It keeps people focused with a clear message on what, for example, equity-focused approaches in education are really meant to do.”
Emphasize shared values
The report makes the case for school or district leaders to respond to community concerns by focusing on shared values and not repeating language that their critics are using. For example, instead of saying “we don’t teach CRT,” leaders should try to elaborate on how they’re making opportunities available for every student.
“Laser focus on what is actually going on, and why,” López said. “What is actually going on in many schools is an attempt to ensure that every student has an experience that elevates their opportunity, that validates their identity, that ensures engagement and curiosity.”
Conservative media outlets and organizations have inflamed the emotions of parents, often those who are conservative, white parents in suburban, diversifying districts, and the inflammatory rhetoric increases closer to elections, said Emily Hodge, the lead author of the report and an associate professor of educational leadership at Montclair State University.
So when district leaders respond to criticism, especially if it’s been driven by an outside political agenda, a logical argument may not be effective in convincing angry or fearful parents.
“Instead, if you also appeal to emotion and create a shared sense of unity as a community, that is a more effective route,” Hodge said, “because it makes people feel like ‘we have common values and a common vision, we can work together.’”
Leaders should not be race-neutral
When school leaders respond to community concerns, it may seem counterintuitive to mention specific groups of students that the equity initiatives are intended to help, but research suggests that it’s better than using blanket statements like “all students,” the Kappan article says.
Although the research does not explain why identifying student groups in messaging might be better, Hodge said, it might be because the practice helps historically marginalized students and families feel seen.
“Whoever’s reading it sees themselves named,” Hodge said. “So it more directly says to the audience of the message: ‘this benefits you.’”
Be proactive about communicating the district’s equity initiatives
School and district leaders should not wait to communicate until parents and community members begin complaining about diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, Hodge said.
With proactive communication about initiatives, district and school leaders can avoid letting critics take control of the narrative instead of reactively defending the district’s policies and practices, according to the report.
Proactive communication can also involve getting input from stakeholders, such as parents, about planned equity initiatives, Hodge said. Otherwise, districts might have no option to respond once the backlash against these initiatives builds up.
Stay the course
When districts are put under pressure or scrutiny, either because of parent complaints or state legislation, it’s important to not walk back equity initiatives, Hodge said.
For example, after the murder of George Floyd, a lot of districts put initiatives in place such as equity audits or DEI committees. But after parents and community members complained, some districts diluted or walked back those efforts.
Over the past year, many of the attacks on district policies, library books, or curriculum have been coordinated by outside groups. Teachers have quit or have been fired, books have been removed off the shelves and policies have been passed that discriminate against marginalized students as a result of this pressure.
“The people who are orchestrating these kinds of media campaigns are concerned about power and politics and not actually about individual children or what’s happening at school,” Hodge said.
But over the past year, the debate has also evolved from conservative organizations coordinating attacks on critical race theory and equity to LGBTQ issues and books. It’s an indication that just because race-based equity initiatives are being criticized now, it does not mean they will always draw criticism.
“It’s possible that in another six months, that conversation will have evolved even further,” Hodge said. “If there’s political pressure to pull back on some of these initiatives that [district leaders] had planned, that doesn’t mean that they still will not be able to do them in the future.”
Emphasize that your district sticks to state standards
District leaders who want to make sure teachers can keep teaching about race and racism without fear of criticism can assure parents that all teachers are firmly grounded in their state standards, and can choose materials that align with standards while not censoring lessons about race.
That’s what Cecilia Robinson-Woods, the superintendent of Millwood Public Schools in Oklahoma, advises her teachers to do. Millwood, a predominantly Black district in Oklahoma City, has continued to talk honestly and openly about race and racism, and even has a Black American history class in a state with one of the harshest divisive concepts laws, and one that has penalized other districts for teaching similar lessons.
“The most solid way to speak about this is to just say, we use books that represent our communities that align with our state standards,” Robinson-Woods said. “And that’s what we do and that’s why my teachers are able to speak about it clearly.”