Leading for Equity:  Our Mission Continues Despite CRT Turmoil

By Joe Schroeder, Ph.D. Associate Executive Director, AWSA

In a state where educational outcome gaps between Black and White students have been persistently among the worst in the country (and where educational outcomes for Brown students, students experiencing poverty, students receiving special education services, multilingual students, etc. can be equally concerning), many Wisconsin districts have been focusing on eliminating existing inequities recently and been met with strident community uproar.  Given the importance of such work to our collective educational mission and the growing trend of heated political division from national to local arenas on such issues, the AWSA Board of Directors chose Leading for Equity as its learning focus for the current school year.  This article will highlight some of the early learning of this effort.

Last week, our AWSA Board convened a panel of national and state K-12 leaders to feed our discussion and resource review into these three questions, which will serve as the organizational framework for this article:

  1. What factors seem to be at the root of recent instances of turmoil and backlash to equity leadership efforts? 
  2. Based on your experiences and research-based best practices, what insights and recommendations would you have for educators who are committing to address inequities, especially in a highly politicized atmosphere?
  3. How do you sustain hope and mitigate despair for yourself and for others as you work through such challenges?

1) What factors seem to be at the root of recent instances of turmoil and backlash to equity leadership efforts? 

A repeated theme of rebuke from opponents of district equity leadership is critical race theory (CRT). According to those who are advancing the CRT rebuke narrative, American schools are promoting the idea that all white people are inherently racist.

This pushback can be seen in the numerous quotes from elected officials over the past couple years.  “Folks, we’re in a cultural warfare today,” Rep. Ralph Norman, (R-South Carolina), said at a May news conference alongside six other members of the all-Republican House Freedom Caucus.  “Critical race theory asserts that people with white skin are inherently racist, not because of their actions, words, or what they actually believe in their heart--but by virtue of the color of their skin.”  Added Rep. Lauren Boebert, (R-Colorado):  “Democrats want to teach our children to hate each other” (Brunt, 2021).  

The rise of critical race theory in the national consciousness this past year may make CRT seem like a new construct but academics, particularly legal scholars, have studied CRT for decades.  CRT is not a curriculum, nor is it employed -- as claimed by those who are using the topic to push back on equity efforts -- as a tool to culturally indoctrinate students in the idea that white people are inherently racist.

A key origin for CRT’s entry into the partisan fights arrived last year when former President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning federal contractors from conducting certain sensitivity trainings such as CRT.  It was challenged in court, and President Joe Biden rescinded the executive order the day he took office.  Since then, “the issue has taken hold as a rallying cry among some Republican lawmakers who argue the approach unfairly forces students to consider race and racism.” (Sprunt, 2021).  

According to others such as former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and current gubernatorial candidate, critical race theory controversies are “made up” by the GOP to “divide people.” (Evans, 2021).  Adds UW-Madison professor Kevin Lawrence Henry, “Critical race theory becomes a catch-all for anything that’s about equity and addressing diversity and racial disparities and inequality.  It becomes a kind of boogeyman or straw man about how we are indoctrinating children in schools, but in fact, critical race theory is not taught in the K-12 arena.”  Moreover, Henry recounts that, the outcry around critical race theory fits with historical pushback against earlier efforts to extend opportunities to people who have previously been left out or discriminated against, such as after Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, movements for LGBTQ and disability rights, and the election of President Barack Obama (Fox, 2021).  Anyone interested in learning more about how national political decisions are fueling activism at the local level may be interested in this NBC News article from the summer entitled:  “Critical Race Theory Battle Invades School Boards -- with Help from Conservative Groups.”

Additional factors identified during our Board panel discussion that are contributing to this current maelstrom include opposition to racial/social justice efforts stemming from the killing of George Floyd, ongoing political divisions stemming from COVID mitigation approaches, and political playbooks that delineate tactics for defaming, disrupting, and distracting core work of local education leaders who pursue the learning and wellness of all students in ways that are in opposition to the views of some.  Essentially, these calculated political tactics at the grass roots level the past year create conditions in many systems where schools and school boards pursuing equity efforts are suddenly on the defense for virtually everything they say or do.

2) Based on your experiences and research-based best practices, what insights and recommendations would you have for educators who are committing to address inequities, especially in a highly politicized atmosphere? 

Pay Attention to Your Language.  

  • How we define equity matters.  For instance, when we provide more equitable schools, “all kids learn more.”  It’s not a zero sum game.  The research makes this clear (Frattura & Capper, 2021).  

  • How we define equitable also matters.  For example, having “the doors open for all” is not enough, given the historically consistent data we have that shows significantly different results for certain populations.  Therefore, schools and districts need to have a proactive way to systematically help all students gain access to “high quality teaching and learning” -- for example, access to places and spaces (such as AP courses) for student populations who historically haven’t had such proportionate access.

  • Equity, critical race theory, and the acronym CRT itself are “trigger words” right now for many folks in certain contexts.  So, if needed, do the work we are hired to do in service to all students without using such provocative terms.  This may help you avoid the “CRT tennis match” (where the superintendent says, “CRT is not in our curriculum.”  Some parents say, “Yes, it is” -- and round and round they go.) 

Frame Your Work Wisely

If put on the defensive, it is easy to start with “we don’t teach CRT.”  Instead, some districts choose to talk about “what we do.”  For example, highlighting the many efforts a district is pursuing to strengthen the connection between students and school (e.g., specific coursework, clubs, instructional practices, and materials aimed at engaging and growing all students).  Specific language used might sound something like this, “Having a strong FFA doesn’t disadvantage students uninterested in farming.  Similarly, having Black Student Unions doesn’t disadvantage students here who aren’t Black.  We want all of our students to have a strong connection to school.”

Seek to Understand / Seek to Grow Mindsets Where You Can

  • Push back by many in these matters is often rooted in the notion that they are losing power and privilege.  But equity efforts are really about the sharing of power and privilege.  And even though some parents and community members are opposed to “equity efforts,” these same folks can typically agree that the promise of a great public education is that we serve all students and when we say all, we truly mean “all.”

  • The research and results of many systems who have pursued this work shows that all students benefit in a proactive system. (Frattura & Capper, 2021).  The attention given right now to equity efforts presents a moment, through sharing of such research findings alongside concerning local data, to help grow more community members from a fixed/scarcity mindset to one of a growth/abundance mindset -- a perspective in line with our educational mission and professional responsibility. 

Avoid Cheap Seat Feedback

As Brene Brown asserts, “There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their lives but who will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgement at those who [do].”  So while we listen and engage where we can, at some point, leaders may need to stop responding to some people, especially those who may be intentionally pursuing an agenda of defamation, disruption, or distraction.  A previous article summarizing Brown’s good counsel, In the Arena, Daring to Lead with a Whole Heart, may prove helpful to those working through such challenges.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

As one of our panelists summarized, our ultimate aim is to grow a school of both Equity and Excellence.  So we keep doing what we are hired to do that will get us there:  ensuring high quality teaching and learning for all. (Reeves, 2020) 

3) How do you sustain hope and mitigate despair for yourself and for others as you work through such challenges?

Kathleen Osta, managing director of the National Equity Project, said fear and emotionally-charged objections to equity efforts at the local and district level are pretty typical:  "It’s an uphill slog to help people see this not as a conversation about who’s right and who’s wrong, but really to extend the conversation to, 'Who do we want to be now?'  If who we say we want to be is a place where all our young people have opportunities to thrive, that’s really what the heart of this is about."  Osta said that’s typically where her organization’s conversations at the school level start, as well.  "It’s not about mistreating White kids so we can treat Black and Brown kids well.  This is about creating communities and systems where every young person has access to what they need to grow, to learn, to thrive.  We know that when young people see themselves in the curriculum, they’re more engaged, and they feel a better sense of belonging, and they’re more able to learn" (Fox, 2021).

From our panelists, came additional suggestions.  For example, never let your staff feel like they have to solve this work themselves or that they are alone.  As Todd Whittaker claims, the most valuable gift that school leaders can give their teachers is confidence.  So let us encourage each other -- and our communities -- to pragmatically, systematically, resiliently move forward amid the noise (which fits a historic pattern) to acknowledge that this is our time to decide if we allow perpetuation of historically-institutionalized marginalization to continue and thereby be complicit in it OR if we collectively build systems that will do better for all students under our care.  As Gloria Ladson-Billings succinctly asserts:  “Our issue in this country is not about critical race theory; our issue is our inability to confront race and racism as a system that works against us all.”  Ultimately, despite the upheaval, I believe we have more that unites us than divides us.  And I’m counting on that and the resilient endeavors of thoughtful, committed leaders like you across our communities to ultimately move this critical work forward.  Our youth and our future depend on it.


Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. New York: Penguin 
              Random House.

Evans, Z. (2021, Oct. 10). McAuliffe: critical race theories ‘made up’ by GOP to ‘divide people.’ National 
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Kendi, I. (2019). How to be an antiracist.  New York: One World.

Kingkade, T., Zadrozny, B. & Collins, B. (2021, June 15). Critical race theory battle invades school boards -- 
             with help from conservative groups. NBC News.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2021, August 21). Critical race theory.  Retrieved from 

Reeves, D. (May, 2020). The e-squared solution: Equity and excellence for every school. Principal Leadership.

Sprunt, B. (2021, June 29). The brewing political batter over critical race theory. Wisconsin Public Radio
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