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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Critical Race Theory
What should educators know and what should they do?
By Deborah L. Collins and Thuong Ha Horne | March | April 2022
Critical Race Theory is an academic tool used in research to interrogate the role of race and racism in society. CRT is used as a theoretical framework; meaning, it is used to provide focus and organization to the research and connects the research to an existing body of studies. This theory has become a common concept to many families in America due to media attention and protests in school communities. Therefore, it is important for educators to first understand what CRT is and what it is not.
CRT has recently been the source of alarm among parents, community members and legislators. There are calls throughout the country to ban CRT from K-12 curriculum. The questions are whether CRT is actually included in K-12 school curricula and exactly what is being targeted to “ban.” What is it that critics of CRT want to ban from schools? News media are reporting that many parents and community members believe that schools would be teaching children to hate America if they included discussions about race and/or taught history from a multicultural perspective in schools. During an interview with CNN, a teacher from Philadelphia clarified this point of view by stating that she doesn’t teach students to hate America; she teaches them to question America. The call for the CRT ban may really be a demand to ban historical discussions of race and/or multicultural history.
There is no evidence that CRT can be found in K-12 curriculum in the United States. CRT is often misstated and misunderstood. Educators have been placed in a position through the controversial actions of community members and legislators to respond, or at least to understand the arguments concerning CRT. For this reason, clarity concerning the theory itself, as well as the implications concerning the existence of an ideology that marginalizes students will be discussed to assist educators to be more equity minded. Failure to address historical discussions of race and/or multicultural history in schools, for example, may perpetuate the invisibility of marginalized students and school staff.
Critical Race Theory
CRT has become a catch-all phrase among legislators attempting to ban a wide array of teaching practices concerning race. Twenty-five states have introduced legislation banning what they believe to be CRT from schools. However, what is being banned in education, and what many media outlets and legislators are calling CRT is far from it.
What it is
CRT had its roots in legal scholarship through the work of Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman and Richard Delgado. CRT was first introduced to education by Ladson-Billings and Tate in 1995 in a landmark paper that described its relevance and application to education. Today, critical race theorists use CRT ideas to understand all issues in education, ranging from school discipline to student assessment and curriculum, to name a few.
According to CRT, racism is the norm in American society, not the aberration. Racism is not a historical phenomenon, rather the legacy of slavery, segregation and discrimination that continues to affect the lives of everyone in America, including people who identify as Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American and White. CRT defines racism not as how one person treats another, but how racism is embedded in the structures, systems and policies that enforce racial disparities in life outcomes. Race is a social construct based on the outward appearance of groups of people and not a biological fact. While race is not a biological fact, the effects of racism are real, present, and have far-reaching life and societal consequences.
What it is not
CRT is often misstated in the news media and the incorrect information is perpetuated among confused educators and community members. For example, the Oklahoma law to “ban CRT” distorts the meaning of CRT on many levels, suggesting, for example, that if teaching history of racism causes an individual to feel discomfort, guilt or anguish, then it should be eliminated from the curriculum.
Oklahoma’s new legislation, HB #1775, which passed on May 5, 2021, and is aimed at eliminating the perceived torment of CRT, instead addresses specifically “how” we talk about the historical perspective of race. HB #1775 instructs educators to emphasize that no one should bear responsibility for actions in the past, even though perpetrators of emotional or physical harm to other certain racial groups may still exist today. Instead, the legislators would prefer to ask teachers to represent to students that these actions are no longer pertinent to the world we live in and, in fact, should be banned even from an open discussion. CRT is a lens to study and explain the history of racial issues and how it affects the daily interactions and civility displayed in the present day. The current objection to CRT is a refusal to discuss the potentially embarrassing past of racial segregation and discrimination.
CRT is not an ideology that perpetuates the notion that White people are inherently biased, though HB #1775 infers that notion. Inherent bias is pervasive and destructive to the targeted group against which actions are being taken to support their “inferior” status. No statement is made in CRT about inherent superiority of an individual. Instead, CRT addresses the concept that everyone has implicit bias, which is an unconscious association of one idea with another, such as race and personal qualities, frequently evincing a negative attitude. This is not racism; unless these biases are acted upon, whether consciously or unconsciously.
CRT, as discussed above, is rather, the study of the relationship between race, racism and power. It is a call to hold discussions and address these concepts openly and in a scholarly manner. Well-informed and skilled leaders can assist with addressing systemic inequity caused by issues of race, racism and power.
Every child has the right to equal opportunity for a quality education, yet disparities in data for racially, culturally and linguistically diverse students consistently show that many children are denied this right. Children from historically marginalized communities:
  • are disproportionately overidentified for special education and underidentified for gifted education;
  • do not have the same high school graduation rate or college entrance rate as their White peers; and,
  • suffer disproportionately severe school disciplinary actions.
These are just a few disparities; however, they illuminate a stark reminder of the educational inequity inflicted upon children. While CRT studies educational inequity and how it relates to race and racism academically, it is the role educational leaders to put into practice equitable systems and practices to ensure that all students receive the best education possible and truly equal opportunities to succeed. Changing this reality requires moral courage on the part of educational leaders to speak up.
What can leaders do?
District Office/Boards of Education: Lasting educational change for equity seems elusive to most educators due to the deeply entrenched social, cultural, and economic nature of inequity and injustice. Effecting lasting change needs to include regularly scheduled opportunities for deep, intentional and pervasive conversations with school personnel. The discussions also must be facilitated with great care and skill by leaders who understand long-standing biases, inequities in American education and the individual complexities of the participants.
Leaders at local levels, board members, superintendents and district office assistant superintendents/directors need to practice explicit moral courage to take a stand to address any and all inequities in the system. Some known leaders have noted that courage is contagious, and leaders need to assist others in developing courage. It is critical to expect brave work, tough conversations and a new compassion that is beyond the expected minimal care and attention to injustices. The most important work of district leadership is to model moral courage to address systemic issues and to hold a protected space to allow principals, teachers and all school personnel to do the same.
Principals: School principals are critical figures tasked with supporting the success of all students. In order to enact school-wide changes to address academic needs of diverse students, principals can conceptualize racial, ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic, and linguistic disparities as systemic issues and address such issues at a school-wide level.
Just as district leadership can hold conversations about race and the consequences of racism in education, principals can also hold consistent conversations about race. While principals routinely discuss school data with their staff, studies have shown that these conversations often avoid discussing what the data show: academic disparities are entwined with racial, ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic, linguistic and ability groups. Having consistent conversations about race means to ultimately ask “hard questions” such as whether opportunities to learn are truly made available to all students. Using an established discussion protocol such as Glenn E. Singleton’s Courageous Conversations About Race (2014) can support principals to hold productive conversations rather than having conversations devolve into the “blame game” or increasing teachers’ and staff’s anxieties around talking about race.
Teachers: Teachers arguably have the most power to affect the academic success of students in their classroom. They may also feel the most threatened by recent negative press about Critical Race Theory. Educators can support equity by examining their own policies and systems that they have set in their classroom and making the changes necessary to ensure educational equity for their students. They can begin with simple measures such as changing traditional grading practices, long shown to be affected by implicit biases based on race, culture, language and socioeconomic class. Teachers can also examine and diversify the texts they use in the classroom. While some textbooks are mandated by state or local school boards, educators have the power to choose supplemental texts that collectively represent the wide range of diverse people of the school, the community, the state and the country.
However, the most powerful action teachers can take is to speak up when they encounter inequity within their schools. It takes moral courage to ask peers and principals, “How does race play into this?”
Educators have been placed in a position through the controversial actions of community members and legislators to respond, or at least understand the arguments concerning CRT.
How can leaders act?
When the team is ready to stand up, rise up and speak up, change can be implemented and have a lasting impact on all of the adults and students in the system. One way to begin or continue this work is to identify and seek remedies for potential roadblocks to becoming an inclusive environment by paying attention to the practices that are perpetuated by the dominant culture. All school personnel have the responsibility to be aware of inequities and address them as they occur. The following represent potential roadblocks to creating an inclusive environment and remedies that all leaders may use daily:
This section can be made into a 2x5 table with column headers for “Roadblocks” and “Remedies”, if desired. For clarity and ease of flow, I’ve reformatted this section. I believe the source information pertains to just this section.
Roadblock 1: Seeing incidents of inequity as isolated events. Remedy: Seek to understand context and being aware of patterns.
Roadblock 2: Little or no consultation or transparency in decision making. Remedy: Clear decision-making models exist with affected parties included in decisions.
Roadblock 3: Politeness is valued over honesty. Those who bring up discomfort for others are scapegoated. Smaller problems left unattended become bigger ones down the road. Remedy: Peers discuss issues as they arise and continously learn from each other. Managers are skilled at providing timely, supportive feedback in culturally and individually responsive ways.
Roadblock 4: Vision, values and goals that no one can remember, not easily refer to in a meeting. Remedy: Develop with staff simple, memorizable and repeatable shared visions, values and goals.
Roadblock 5: Seeing differences as bad. Perception that talking about biases is an attack on the dominant culture and that they can’t handle the conversation. Remedy: Create an environment that celebrates the courage to explore racial bias in all forms. Acknowledge that we all carry unconscious bias that is not helpful and each has a role in addressing it.
Building a respectful community is a common practice among trained administrators. The effort to reach out to others needs to dig deeper into developing a critical navigation not only to recognize the differences existing among marginalized staff and families, but also to empower them to feel safe about joining the entire school district community. These conversations may be uncomfortable for some as they become aware of potentially implicit bias that has existed, which may or may not have been acted upon in the school setting. Educators should embrace their moral courage and remember every day there are subtle events that occur which may impede progress toward equity. Instead, embrace and practice these specific ideas listed below in the “Call to Action.”
Call to Action for an Equitable Community
  1. Keep talking, with sensitivity and understanding; no matter how uncomfortable it becomes.
  2. Require all teachers and administrators to participate in anti-racist training with trainers who represent diversity.
  3. Recruit teachers and administrators of color, affirmatively seeking adults who represent the student population.
  4. Monitor and work to eliminate racial disparities in student disciplinary actions, including suspension and expulsion.
  5. Promote racial and ethnic integration of students, faculty and staff in all schools and address segregation within school.
  6. Enable student engagement and activism in support of educational equity, anti-racism and integration.
  7. Offer open forums for parents to hear more about what is taught in the classroom and understand the various approaches.
The ideas expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Concordia University.
Delgado, R. & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical race theory. New York University Press.
Okun, T. & Jones, K. (2016) Adapted for Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) from adaptation by Partners for Collaborative Change based on “White supremacy culture.”
Singleton, G.E. (2014). Courageous conversations about race. Corwin.
Deborah L. Collins is an adjunct professor at Concordia University and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and is a retired superintendent from Monrovia Unified School District. Thuong Ha Horne is an MTSS teacher in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District.
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