Most public school educators had never heard of “critical race theory” until political strategists seized on the term in 2020 to discredit public education. Now, many people bundle everything from diversity, equity, and inclusion to anti-racism into the newly divisive critical race theory debate. It has become so extreme that many states are banning books, rescinding policies, and dismantling curriculum. School systems are faced with political strategies to dismantle equitable practices and policies and take our public educational systems back to before the civil rights era if we do not pay attention and react methodically, strategically, and unapologetically.
To that end, our school systems would benefit from banding together to begin a movement for anti-racism in schools by implementing six scalable steps to escape the reactionary trap that continues to perpetuate systemic racism in our public schools. It is imperative for educators to embrace these steps to building an anti-racist school or school system:
1. Know our history. We must know and teach our history to young people to provide context and insight to today’s problems and shed light on solutions for tomorrow. We must ensure schools teach the most accurate history of America as well as the most accurate history of our students’ communities. We have taught myth over history for too long, leading to confusion and distrust. For example, I remember learning in elementary school about how Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, never mind that Indigenous people were already there. I was taught stories about the pilgrims wanting to bring peace through a Thanksgiving feast but not the real history of killing and enslaving Indigenous people to build wealth.
Such omissions and false teachings in schools have prevented many people from knowing the actual foundation and pillars of our country and how it was developed by racist practices to marginalize and oppress Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC). If we want to teach accurate American history—the good, the bad and the ugly—we must oppose the argument that this history is intrinsically “divisive” for students to learn.
2. Commit to racial equity. School systems must actively commit to racial equity if we want to dismantle systemic racism in education. Many people misinterpret equality and equity. Equality, providing equal access, is only the starting point for ensuring students’ needs are met in schools. Equity in education is meeting students where they are, not necessarily where we want them to be, while providing the social, emotional, and academic learning supports to achieve their goals.
Furthermore, racial equity will ensure that race does not define what a student will achieve in school, career, or life. A commitment to racial equity seeks to create a learning environment that removes barriers for student achievement. School systems must create safe and brave spaces for students and adults to embrace differences and racial equity.
3. Dismantle intraschool segregation. Public schools developed widespread tracking and barriers to rigorous courses within schools after integration in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These practices have hindered BIPOC students over several decades and continued to create segregation in education today. Public schools have created intentional and unintentional mechanisms to keep BIPOC students from accessing rigorous curricula, including talented and gifted programs, specialized instructional practices, and stringent guidelines to enroll in certain advanced-level courses.
4. Abolish policing practices in schools. Policing is a controversial national discussion, and schools are not immune to this controversy. Discipline for BIPOC students has mirrored some policing practices that have contributed to the prison pipeline for decades. From zero-tolerance policies to arrests in schools for disciplinary infractions, U.S. public schools have harmed BIPOC students by implementing disciplinary policies derived from policing. A focus on the social and emotional needs of students, including restorative practices, instead of suspension and expulsion practices, is key to abolishing policing in schools.
In the school division I lead, while we work closely with our local law enforcement to help keep our schools, students, and staff safe, we also have incorporated 30 minutes a day of social-emotional-learning time for all schools in our school division. In our current strategic plan, restorative-practices training for all teaching staff is now a core focus area.
5. Prioritize strategic thinking and planning. Instead of engaging in the politics that exacerbate some educational challenges, school systems need to focus on strategic thinking and strategic planning. Many people, unfortunately, use damaging and sensational tactics, such as organizing to berate school board members and petitioning to exclude words such as “equity” in schools to distract school systems from dismantling systemic racism in public education. Strategic thinking allows for methodical and rational approaches to serving all students regardless of their race, ZIP code, or life circumstances.
6. Demonstrate courage and boldness. In order to respond to the accusation that anti-racist advocacy sows divisiveness in public schools, you must demonstrate courage and boldness. It takes courage to speak against this renewed era of scare tactics and false narratives. Many school boards and superintendents are experiencing threats and personal attacks for striving to provide an equitable education for all students. It also requires vision, integrity, and passion to sustain the advocacy needed to overcome adversity.
As educators unapologetically advocate on behalf of all children, including our BIPOC students, we must understand the urgency and importance of challenging the divisive narrative targeting public education. I have learned that I cannot do this work alone. This is a call to action for you to join us in this work and help build anti-racist school systems across America. Not only are our young people counting on us today, but many generations to come will benefit from our efforts to dismantle systemic racism in education.