CRT at the Dinner Table

I remember it all so well. I can remember all the words and acronyms (we use a lot of them in public education.) It wasn’t unusual to have parents speak at board meetings; Richardson ISD has always had a welcome and consistent lineup, but at this particular meeting, someone used one particular acronym for the first time: CRT. 

“CRT should not be taught in our schools,” she said. I shifted in my chair at this point because I was surprised to hear this parent reference CRT, and I was also wondering why she was objecting to something that our district had been very openly promoting – not teaching – for years. I remained confused, until I was advised the following day that the parent was using the three letters to abbreviate something very different than the words I knew.

I honestly thought throughout the entire meeting she was referring to concepts we had been attempting to advance for years in Richardson ISD: Culturally Relevant Teaching. Because … Culturally Relevant Teaching (aka, “the other CRT”), is a thing – a really, really important thing – and something I had been heavily researching and referencing all throughout my last four years as a superintendent, albeit I regret that it wasn’t longer.

Yes, I said it. I was promoting CRT. Stop the presses! But let’s be clear,… when an educator uses the acronym CRT, they are talking about Culturally Relevant Teaching. Or, at least, that used to be the case.

So, on the day following the consequential board meeting, I sat down and began researching this new variant of CRT known as “Critical Race Theory.” Chances are good that you, too, had to look up this legal term in the past few years. Most educators did, especially the ones who were openly and aggressively trying to combat our country’s ever-present achievement and opportunity gaps.

Culturally Relevant Teaching

Culturally Relevant Teaching is systemic work to build a closer connection between every student’s home culture and their school. The term is often interchanged with Culturally Responsive Teaching (also CRT), which I first read about in Zaretta Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (in 2018, pre-George Floyd.)

[Note: Why is it important to denote work done as “pre-George Floyd,” you may be wondering? The answer is that there is a lot of confusion (if not accusation) associated with people who are promoting culturally responsive teaching and educational equity. Their efforts are labeled as “woke,” or as being part of the “Great Awokening,” when in reality, the work has long existed in one form or another. I believe these labels, while nuanced, have surfaced in an effort to shame and thwart the recent momentum in these areas.]

Our team dug in deep when we brought in Dr. Sharrocky Hollie in 2019 (again pre-George Floyd.) Dr. Hollie is the author of Strategies for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning, and he first trained our administrators and then did systemic work with our teachers at several of our most diverse campuses. I saw firsthand how his strategies could leverage students’ assets — their cultures, languages, and life experiences — to create more rigorous, student-centered instruction.

Beyond making individual connections, there is great communal value in helping students understand the cultures of other students with whom they interact. Developing their understanding of other cultures lets students have more meaningful interactions with those around them.

I will never regret for a second the inviolable commitment I made to our EDI (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) staff to support them and the “Connecting Cultures” curriculum they developed. Our district was learning how to be “culturally responsive” and how to instill “culturally relevant” information into their conversations and teaching – all in the name of building stronger connections for our students. This was the only CRT I cared about, and it’s also the one I still believe can tremendously impact our schools.

But when external people started calling the good work being done in RISD by the moniker “Critical Race Theory,” confusion erupted and the narrative changed. My days as a superintendent were monopolized by conversations such as this one:

Parent: I don’t want you teaching CRT to my child.

Supt: By CRT, I assume you mean Critical Race Theory. We aren’t teaching that. We are focusing on Culturally Relevant (and Responsive) Teaching.

Parent: Why is this necessary?

Supt: Did you know that we are the fourth most diverse district in the state?

Parent: I knew we were very diverse.

Supt: Shouldn’t we both celebrate and acknowledge the traditions and history of the many cultures our students represent? It’s important to teach students respect and empathy for other people, while celebrating differences, as well as our similarities.

Parent: Well, that is where I have a problem. It is not the school’s responsibility to teach my child about things that deconstruct my family’s traditions in the process.

Supt: What do you mean by that?

Parent: My family’s favorite holiday is Thanksgiving – even more important than Christmas. I don’t want my child to be sitting around our Thanksgiving table and say it’s wrong to celebrate Thanksgiving just because other families may believe it is a time of mourning. I do not want the pureness of my family’s favorite holiday to be tarnished by the school teaching another version of Thanksgiving. I will not allow the school to ruin my family’s dinner table.

It seems as though Critical Race Theory was the perfect weapon of disruption to stall forward momentum in equity work which aims to close achievement gaps. Maybe it was even part of the strategy to conflate Critical Race Theory (CRT) with Culturally Relevant Teaching (CRT) to focus the opposition’s attack, and also to muddy the waters of public debate even further. There are many things happening that seem inherently wrong to me, such as the attempt to disinherit and redact much of the uncomfortable parts of our history textbooks. But that is a different argument and essay altogether. I am more concerned right now with any loss in gains toward achieving racial equity and closing achievement gaps in our state and country. The challenges that educators face on this front are unlike anything the profession has ever experienced.

The RISD team was persistent and steadfast, always willing to spend as much time as was needed to explain the strides being made. We were unified by a strong conviction that we were doing good work in support of ALL students. Part of our challenge was unbraiding one CRT from the other CRT.

But I began to see trends as I met for months with those who believed we were teaching Critical Race Theory. So much of the concerns were steeped in fear and loss of control.

Parent:  I don’t want you teaching CRT to my child. 

Supt: By CRT, I assume you mean Critical Race Theory. We aren’t teaching that. We are focusing on Culturally Relevant (and Responsive) Teaching. 

Parent: There should be no talk of race in school. 

Supt: Do you believe that racism currently exists in our world? And do you believe it is wrong, even evil?

Parent Yes, racism exists – and it is wrong. (Note: Without exception, in all the conversations I documented, I never had one parent tell me that racism does not exist or that it isn’t wrong.)

Supt:   Then why would you object to us addressing something with our students that is wrong?

Parent: Because that is my job as a parent, not the school’s job. 

Supt: Has your child ever been bullied or has your family known of a child being bullied in school?

Parent: Yes, both. (Without exception, all parents knew of incidents of bullying.)

Supt:  Should we teach students about bullying or should we just leave that up to parents?

Three decades of working with students taught me that you cannot treat issues like bullying and bigotry as if they are individual choices or issues. Students are immersed into a culture for seven hours a day, and I strongly believe that they must be exposed to lessons that promote and teach values. While parents fully expect to see anti-bullying education, (in fact, there are laws that require it in our schools) some are not “okay with” other values-driven education. Topics of racism or cultural competency are “too risky” to be discussed at school because of how the lessons might contradict with what parents promote at their dinner tables.

The Fear

Zig Zigler once said that the only taste of success some people ever have is when they take a bite out of you, and unfortunately, a small group of loud people are currently using Critical Race Theory as their weapon to eat educators for lunch. But they are really very small (in both purpose and membership,) and we all know the pendulum will swing back eventually. It always does.

One of the many things I can say about the Richardson ISD community is that the vast majority of parents strive for equity (Definition: the ideal state where every child has everything needed to achieve success.) Most parents trust the school system and certainly do not fear it. I recently spoke at a Texas Tribune Education Forum alongside the Dallas ISD and Fort Worth ISD superintendents where I openly talked about this. I stressed how important it is for parents and school leaders to work in partnership. So many parents in Richardson are now leading the way for other districts in our state, by joining together to take a stand for equity in an effort to ensure that ALL MEANS ALL.

But I know some will read this and fear there is too much to lose by trying to combat the Critical Race Theorists. The fear is just too great, … especially in light of what we’ve seen happen to some who choose to speak openly about racism or to promote changes in the name of diversity and inclusion. But we cannot stop striving for equity. So, I get it. We’re talking about serious fear here.

But I also know that there is a lot of fear on the part of parents whose children deal with racism (something we all agree exists,) discrimination, achievement gaps, and opportunity gaps. These issues have far-reaching implications for their children, and their dinner tables matter, too. We have to see the children sitting at each and every seat at these tables and continue to do the hard work to ensure that every single one is fed with what they need to succeed in school and in life.

-April 17, 2022