Truth in Our Classrooms Bridges Divides: A Messaging Guide
Updated August 2021 based on the evolving conversation and needs of school leaders and legislators!
For organizing resources, use and share this toolkit from NYU Metro Center and African American Policy Forum: crehub.org/crt-toolkit
When it comes to race and politics in education spaces, there have been varying levels of pushback over the years. Recently, these efforts have become more concerted, resulting in state level policy moves against Critical Race Theory (CRT) in curriculum, propaganda around “divisive concepts,” attacks on local districts, and scapegoating of individual educators. This new level of aggression is part of a culture war that is playing out at a national and global scale. School leaders and legislators can change the narrative with attention to racial equity, culturally responsive curriculum, and meaningful learning.
- Learning about different histories, races, and cultures gives students mirrors that reflect their own identities and windows into the world.
- Young people are ingenious and capable of learning about challenging topics like race and racism.
- Students are ready for the power balance to change. Trust students to talk about what’s happening in the world around them.
- When educators teach about different races and cultures, students start to see themselves as part of a bigger story.
- The U.S. is stronger because of its incredible diversity, and so are our classrooms. A shared, honest understanding of the past bridges divides.
How do you go about educating the public in helping them understand what CRT is and isn’t, and what source do you use for this?
Over the past few months, a few important things have come to light about Critical Race Theory (CRT). Helping people understand what it is can be helpful, rather than simply saying, “We don’t do that here,” which has not been very effective. Critical Race Theory shows how racial inequity is baked into all of our social structures, and our social and political structures reproduce racism in ways that go far beyond interpersonal dynamics.
It’s also not effective throw out Critical Race Theory like it doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist, just as it’s unrealistic to deny that institutional and systemic racism exist. It’s clear that lot of people who use the term “Critical Race Theory” are using it to mean anything related to topics of race or racism: “…the right has transformed a term that originally referred to an academic school of thought into a catchall for resentments over diversity initiatives and changing history curriculums.” – Michelle Goldberg, NYT. The range of attached meanings includes but is not limited to:
- Making students “affirm, adopt or adhere to” belief systems that claim individuals of any race, sex, ethnicity, religion or national origin are responsible for past actions done by members of the same group (Idaho)
- Belief systems that claim a group of people as defined by sex, race, ethnicity or religion are inferior or superior to others
- Mandatory diversity training, social justice and diversity and inclusion programs in schools, and Culturally Responsive Education
- “Race essentialism, collective guilt, and neo-segregation”
If you don’t already know what CRT is exactly or how to explain, that’s a good indication that it’s not being used to indoctrinate children. It’s ok to say that you don’t know all the in’s and out’s of a theory, but what you do know is that if we can’t talk about race, students won’t be prepared for their life, work, and relationships in the future. The most important thing that people should know is that educators are deserving of our trust and respect. Educators are not trying to blame White kids for racism. And when race and culture part of how curriculum is taught, that is simply meeting the needs of the full range of students in the classroom.
Third, there are lots of resources available about CRT if you’re curious and want to know how to talk about it! Here are just a few:
- #TruthBeTold Messaging Guide from African American Policy Forum
- Critical Race Theory: What It Is. And What It Is Not. A Q&A With Adrienne Dixson from National Education Policy Center
- What is Critical Race Theory, by Sylvia Duckworth, with accompanying notes
- Common Misconceptions about CRT
- Critical Race Theory (1970s-present)
- An Introduction to Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefnacic
- Video: What is critical race theory? With Prudence Carter
- Podcast: Know Your History – Into America with Kimberlé Crenshaw
Ironically, the demand to stop teaching CRT has resulted in students being curious and wanting to talk about it. What do I do?
If we as adults are feeling unprepared for conversations on topics like Critical Race Theory and systemic racism, that shows that we were not equipped for these conversations in our educational experience to this point. Equipping students with information is not the same thing as telling them what to think or how to learn more.
Repairing a society that is divided by racism requires understanding of how the past relates to the present and how the structures that shape our lives affect people differently based on race. When students talk about racism in our systems and institutions, they are learning how to engage with topics and be civically engaged on issues that are important to them and their peers. No matter where a student comes from, they’re going to go through life needing these skills to reach their full potential in life and in their careers.
You can make it clear (and help educators make clear) that you are happy to provide them with information and also help them learn how to do things like research and discuss the questions that interest them. That way, they can dig deeper, have conversations, ask questions, do research, draw their own conclusions, and be ready for their perspectives to change over time when new information comes to light. In other words, educators are responsible for teaching students how to think, not what to think.
How do I deal with the fact that this CRT issue is somehow connected to other forms of pushbacks about masks, vaccinations, support for LGBTQ2SIA+ students, and even more?
Many school leaders and legislators feel beleaguered with these issues, one after the other. It’s easy to feel pessimistic and hopeless in the face of so many attacks that we can see are harmful to students and schools. Courageous leadership is challenging to embody with so much going on, but those who hold power and influence also have responsibility to shift the narrative and inspire change towards a better future. Here are some approaches that other school leaders and legislators have been considering and trying out:
- Consider the way these issues fit together into an intensive moment that captures the attention of people who may have otherwise been disengaged, which holds some unique opportunities for communicating about racial equity.
- Take the opportunity to have challenging conversations and share more than talking points and facts – share your own story or the stories of people you’ve talked to. Share the story about what you’ve been seeing in schools and classrooms. Share a sense of hope, belonging, and confidence that racial equity is the right path forward for schools.
- Both acknowledge the difficulty and upheaval of the moment and introduce solutions and shared vision for how your state/district can — with perseverance — move towards a better and more just future.
Just because this issue may fade at a national level doesn’t mean it will go away in my school district or in policy. How do I deal with the after effects?
Now is a good time to talk to your colleagues and school board members who care about their schools, the community, and education, and help them understand that while this is one topic that is heated right now, the way you approach it can have bigger implications. We want to approach CRT and other issues that come up around race and identity in a way that doesn’t harm our public education system as a whole. These areas can also be impacted by the current debate:
- Teacher retention and recruitment
- Curriculum approval and decision making
- Student SEL
- Student and Teacher Trauma
- Public school diversity
Familiarize yourself with what powerful and partisan national strategies are to push parents towards anger and fear about racial equity. Here’s one example of this type of document: Strategy against Critical Race Theory from Citizens for Renewing America
At a national level, it’s unlikely for these issues to go away entirely even when they fade in the news media. The forces behind the anti-CRT effort is “to get the Supreme Court to rule that school and workplace trainings based on the doctrines of critical race theory violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act.” On recent legislation to block 1619 and or CRT: “The larger purpose, it seems, is to rally the Republican base — to push back against the recent reexaminations of the role that slavery and segregation have played in American history and the attempts to redress those historical offenses. The shorthand for the Republicans’ bogeyman is an idea that has until now mostly lived in academia: critical race theory.” Atlantic article
How to Reframe the Narrative
- Advance a bold, positive vision of educational opportunity that centers race. (Example Recommendation).
- Lead with an aspirational appeal to shared values, not a stark negative evaluation of the status quo.
- Offer solutions to inspire action, such as Culturally Responsive Education.
- Navigate, leverage, and shift frames. Explain how shared values interdependence, shared fate, pragmatism, and ingenuity like are derailed by racial bias and inequity.
- Illuminate structural inequities, and explain “how it happens” before talking about “who it happens to more often.”
- Build power and participation. Center the voices of people who are most impacted by the debate, in this case: educators, students, and people of color.
Why focus on Culturally Responsive Education as a Solution?
Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) is a method of rigorous, student-centered learning that connects curriculum and teaching to students’ experiences, perspectives, histories & cultures. CRE cultivates critical thinking instead of just test-taking skills; relates academic study to contemporary issues and students’ experiences; fosters positive academic, racial and cultural identities; develops students’ ability to connect across cultures; empowers students and inspires them to fall in love with learning.
5 Talking Points About Culturally Responsive Education
- Our [state/district’s] goal is to make sure every student has equal opportunities to succeed in school and has access to accurate, comprehensive, and relevant curriculum.
- There is a long and painful history of race and education in [our state]. Students are ready for systems and institutions to change. Creating a just and equitable learning environment that embraces the history and experiences of its learners is not only good for students, but also for our communities and our shared future.
- We cannot pretend to be race-neutral or “colorblind” if we are ever going to address and account for the inequalities that students of color face.
- Many districts around the country have already incorporated culturally responsive curricula in classrooms. The result is that students of color are affirmed and validated by having their unique histories and experiences elevated.
- Research shows that students who see positive representations of themselves in their curriculum have improved educational outcomes. For students of color as well as White students, culturally responsive education decreases dropout rates and suspensions, increases student participation, confidence, academic achievement and graduation rates. (Also see this factsheet)
Culturally Responsive Education & Other Messaging Resources
Get to know more about Culturally Responsive Education through the stories of people who have shaped and been shaped by it. https://crehub.org/stories
- Critical Race Theory Fightback Toolkit from NYU Metro Center and AAPF
- NYU Metro Center’s CRE Hub
- The Post-Pandemic Pathway to Anti-Racist Education: Building a Coalition Across Progressive, Multicultural, Culturally Responsive, and Ethnic Studies Advocates, The Century Foundation, May 2021 report
- Communicating about Racial Equity in a Charged Environment Toolkit for School Administrators, Oregon Department of Education and Coalition of Oregon School Administrators
- Counter-Narrating the Attacks on Critical Race Theory from RaceForward
- #TruthBeTold Messaging Guide from African American Policy Forum
- Top Talking Points from NYU Metro Center’s EJ-RoC
- Learning for Justice
- Center for Anti-Racist Education (CARE) & Is your U.S. History text racist? From CARE
- Facing History and Ourselves
- Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity in Classics Consortium (MRECC)
- Educators Must Speak up Against Deceptive Attacks on Our Public Schools and Curriculum, Ohio Federation of Teachers, June 2021
- Messaging Guidance from ASO Communications
Additional Sample Messages
Update and edit to fit your audience and support your own communications efforts.
The myth of historical progress
Often when there are opportunities to reflect upon our past and use its lessons to foster healing, solidarity, and community, there is a common refrain among the Right. They argue that our country has come so far that to look back, to talk about the past is divisive. They claim that racial inequality no longer exists. They cite examples like the election of our first Black president, rather than statistics about income and education inequality that often falls along racial lines to support these claims. These arguments are fundamentally attempts to reassert power and control that the right feels that it loses when people develop a deeper, collective understanding of the origins and ongoing challenges of our country. The idea that the United States no longer has racial inequality and to discuss otherwise thwarts unity is the myth of historical progress.
While it is true that landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Brown vs. The Board of Education, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and others held the country accountable to its values of equality and opportunity for all, it is also true that America was built by the labor of enslaved Africans on the stolen land of the indigenous. And because of that history of racial violence and oppression, and the subsequent bias it breeds, racial inequality is woven throughout our social systems and that does not change because we cease talking about it.To remedy that requires continuous reflection and redress. Learning about the past – the good and bad parts of it, who history has advantaged and disadvantaged – is necessary to meaningfully move forward and secure true social progress.
The case for Culturally Responsive Education
As many Black educators and advocates note every February, Black history is American history. And the same goes for Indigenous history, Latina/o/x/e history, and that of Asian Americans. They cannot be separated. But often, beyond acknowledgement of a few notable figures or designated months, students do not often learn these histories. That not only impacts students’ learning but also harms their sense of self and the communities around them.
People of color have made indelible contributions to the United States to which they deserve credit for – from its existence to its economic success. Culturally responsive education enables that by encouraging a more expansive understanding of who we are as a country and how we got here. That is something that everyone benefits from. Research shows that Black and Brown kids do better in school when their teachers reflect them and their experiences, but also when the curriculum does so as well. Data also shows that White children benefit and grow by being exposed to more diverse stories and people. Culturally responsive education pushes us – as community members, students, educators, and parents – to consider the collective and honor the resilience, beauty, and contributions of all.
The Partnership for the Future of Learning is a network of 300 organizations and 20 foundations that protects, strengthens, and advances education equity and meaningful learning—and supports the policies and practices that get us there.