Building Anti-Racist Schools Amidst Backlash: A Conversation with the National Equity Project’s Kathleen Osta
By Molly Watkins, Communications Director, Raikes Foundation
Six months ago, only a few people had heard of Critical Race Theory (CRT), but its use in a cynically orchestrated campaign to prevent the teaching of an honest and complete history of race in America is causing real damage in public schools across the country.
As we already know, state legislatures nationwide are passing laws targeting Critical Race Theory (which is only taught in some law schools), but the impact is a chilling effect on the mere mention of race at all. In some states, banning talk of sexism is even included in these laws.
What’s been missed in the news is that the push for a truly equitable education for our young people has been gaining strength in recent years, and my money is on the many teachers and parents who, while they shouldn’t be asked to do this, are fighting against the backlash, and are unwilling to turn the clock back just when they started to make progress. Why? Because they are listening to young people.
I spoke to Kathleen Osta, managing director of the National Equity Project, an organization leading the charge for equitable education across the country, to understand what she’s seeing and hearing in schools right now. Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
Molly Watkins: What is it like for educators in these states where the fight over teaching an accurate version of our country’s history is happening right now?
Kathleen Osta: It really varies by district and even sometimes by schools within districts. In some communities where there has been significant anti-CRT organizing and protesting, it has had a chilling effect and has increased the sense of risk and vulnerability for educators. And yet, in those very same communities there are teachers working in solidarity with other colleagues and not planning to change what they teach and how they teach it in response to these new laws.
And there are many superintendents and school boards who have come out and said we are teaching truth in history — we are committed to honoring our rich and representative history. But the reaction is really all over the place.
Molly Watkins: It seems like educators are really being asked to take some big risks.
Kathleen Osta: In the case where policies have been passed, where there are fines associated with teaching particular things, yes, it is a real risk. People’s jobs and livelihoods are at risk. Just the psychological and safety risk of not knowing who you can trust and who’s going to come for you either verbally or, God forbid, physically. It has increased the level of distress and stress in an already very stressful time for educators.
Molly Watkins: It’s even more dispiriting to me that this is happening now, given the progress we’ve seen in the education field on understanding that we were falling short when it comes to delivering a truly equitable education. What are some of the bright spots you’ve seen?
Kathleen Osta: I think there’s a real push and pull going on right now. I just left a meeting with a superintendent, teachers, central office leaders, and students. One of the questions that came up was, “What do we think are the greatest challenges that we need to address if we were to become a more equitable school district?”
Several of the students said the curriculum — what we teach and what we don’t teach, and a sense that real, true representative history wasn’t being taught. For example, a Black student asked why all she ever heard about Black people in school was about slavery. A Vietnamese American student said the only thing she ever hears about her parents’ country of origin is about the Vietnam War. Students are saying they don’t hear about the contributions, the struggle, the resistance, and the joy of their communities. Instead they learn about these tiny slices that reinforce a very narrow take on people’s humanity.
The message from the students was that if we don’t change the curriculum, people won’t know better, and they won’t change. They cited how important this was for white students too. White students are not learning about their peers and about the world around them — they just get a white Eurocentric narrative and experience.
Some of the teachers in this meeting agreed with the students, but added it’s not just what we teach, it’s how we teach it. They were pushing back against the traditional hierarchical paradigm of teaching — I’m going to pour some information into your head, and then you move on with your life and use it.
One of the teachers shared that in most classrooms, there’s a lot of lecturing. Students are asked to sit quietly and be passive. We know from brain science, that’s not how learning happens. Or, I should say, it’s only one of many, many ways that learning can happen. For learning to occur, young people need to be engaged meaningfully in work, asked to contribute, and think and talk and discuss. In many classrooms, there are not opportunities to do so, or there are very rigid rules that constrain and limit many students’ ability to participate meaningfully.
The other issue that came up is figuring out how to spend more time getting to know who our students are, what they care about, what they want to learn about, and less time assessing kids to determine their deficits so we can sort them into different ability groupings. Focusing on our students’ interests and unique learning needs increases engagement.
Molly Watkins: What do you think it takes? What are the ingredients that need to be present in a district or in a particular school to kickstart that process of building a more equitable education system and ensure that it doesn’t get dramatically off track at the first sign of difficulty?
Kathleen Osta: One of the things that we spend a fair amount of time doing is building community among multiracial, multigenerational groups of adults by providing an open space to share what it’s like for them. I heard a teacher sharing how listening to young people talk about their experiences was bringing up her own trauma from her experience trying to navigate public schools as a Black student. We are not very practiced in our country, much less in professional settings, to have real honest talk about what has caused us harm and the impacts of systemic oppression on all of us. Part of what we do in the National Equity Project is to normalize talking about some of those things that are hard to name and talk about so that we are more emotionally prepared to listen and respond to the needs of our students.
We may feel defensive. We may feel a sense of despair. We may have anger and rage come up when we think about what we or our children did or didn’t get in school. Opening up space for people to bring their full selves into the work allows for building people’s muscle and capacity to stay in it with each other when it gets hard. That’s how we get to a place where we can work together to create something better for everyone.
As a field, we tend to begin this work by pouring over quantitative data that shows us the same patterns over and over again about racial disparities. Continuing to focus on the disparities often reinforces stereotypes about the kids who are seen as not doing as well by a particular set of metrics and standards.
Instead, we need to ask, “What are our young people telling us about what they are experiencing right now, what’s working, what’s not, and what do they need? And how can we partner with them to design new, more humanizing and holistic ways of doing things?”
Molly Watkins: We often see in polling that parents, including parents of Black and Brown students, think test scores are pretty important. It’s not surprising, given they have been told how important they are for decades. Do you have any insight into how to create that more expansive conversation teachers are having among parents, or if that’s even the right approach? Both for the parents who say “Oh, you’re abandoning excellence!” and other parents who just want to know if their school is doing a good job for their kid?
Kathleen Osta: I’m not suggesting that there’s zero value in test scores, but they’re insufficient. They’re insufficient to inform what to do with the young people who are with us right now. By the time people get test scores, the kids who took those tests are often not even with the adults who administered the test. I think of it like a compass and a map. You can look at those test scores and ask “Okay, where are there some issues we need to pay attention to?” But they are lagging indicators.
Leading indicators are: Do I experience psychological safety? Do I feel cared for? Do I experience belonging? Is the work meaningful? Do I feel my identity is nurtured, affirmed, respected? Do I have voice, choice, and agency about what I learn and how I learn it? When we gather this qualitative data and share it with educators and students, they can actually do something with it right then and there. There’s not a lot you can do with a test score if you don’t even have those kids anymore.
Molly Watkins: It is an incredibly difficult time for educators and students right now, for all the reasons that you cite. Add the pandemic. And now this orchestrated backlash that we’re seeing resulting in essentially banning the teaching of racism, while the country is in the midst of a racial reckoning. It’s quite a stew for schools to be in. Do you feel some sense of optimism about some of the bright spots you’re seeing?
Kathleen Osta: I do, but that’s how I roll. I feel like I have one or two things happen each week where I’m engaged with students, teachers, administrators, when I say to myself, “This is the way change happens.” There are lots of people who are leaning in and want to be a part of communities that are creating some different realities for young people. I’m biased because I get to go into meetings where people have voluntarily come to a meeting hosted by the National Equity Project as part of the Building Equitable Learning Environments Network, but it is quite something when people are invited in to share who they are and what they care about with one another.
We had multiple teachers with tears in their eyes and voices cracking because they heard from their students and felt reenergized in their purpose. These systems — education systems and other large institutions — are dehumanizing for everyone, for adults and for young people. It’s a rare person who came into education to do harm. But people in education, even with the best of intentions, are complicit in a system that is causing harm, and that takes a toll.
We have lots of ways of adapting to that reality. Sometimes by leaving the system, sometimes by putting blinders on and saying, “I’ll do what I can do,” and sometimes going numb, feeling hopeless, and throwing your hands up. An important part of our work is reconnecting people to each other and to all parts of the system to remind ourselves that there are people all around who want to make change. With a bit of support, some nudge, and in community with others across districts, we can activate that within systems and get beneficial change rolling.
I’m optimistic, and if I ever become not optimistic, that’ll be my time to stop doing this work. Every time I get with a group of people, I’m like, okay, “This is it. We can do this.” Even just being whole and truthful and sharing stories — that is the change work. That is the healing work. I believe that’s healing the past and healing the future and changing the way we show up for each other right now.