Racial Equity in School Curriculum Takes Work Beyond February

This piece was originally published on Education Post as “It’s Going to Take More Than a Black History Month Report to See Racial Equity in Our Schools.” Co-author Kathleen Hayes has been around the k-12 education block, first as a Chicago high school English teacher and later in Chicago Public Schools central office and several education nonprofits and research organizations, working on policies related to teachers and teaching. The piece’s other co-author, Lisa Vahey, is a former classroom teacher and instructional coach who now works with schools, districts and nonprofits on improving instruction, leadership and collaboration.


Black History Month provides a calendar-driven chance for students and teachers to talk about Black History. But it can easily become a way of tokenizing Black Americans if teachers, principals and district leaders—White and Black, preschool through high school—aren’t committed to equity and representation in curriculum and assignments all-year round.

As White parents, we think it will take more than  a month of student reports on people like “Hidden Figures” inspiration Katherine Johnson and writer Maya Angelou to move us toward racial equity in our schools.

We are both White women, former Chicago public school teachers and public school parents. As teachers, we worked to expand our curricula, including bringing authors of color into the literature our students read each day, and sought ways to improve our skills as culturally responsive teachers.

Lisa remembers reading “The Dreamkeepers” and finding dozens of ways to improve thanks to author Gloria Ladson-Billings’ stories of successful teachers of African-American students. Kathleen developed an English language arts curriculum unit on identity, based on novels like April Sinclair’s “Coffee Will Make You Black,” that focused on adolescent identity struggles through the lens of young people of color.

Now, as parents, we both keep challenging our own internalized biases, join with other like-minded parents, and, in turn, help our White children recognize their social privileges as part of the work to upend white supremacy.

Yet as parents, we’ve repeatedly witnessed curriculum rooted in Whiteness used in our children’s public schools.We’ve seen an American literature syllabus that includes no Black male authors and a passage for primary-grade students on Lewis and Clark that offers only a negative perspective on the Native Americans and their gods, with no additional readings or perspectives offered.

We dutifully write emails to teachers and administrators in response, suggest additional resources, and reach out to each other to commiserate. But that doesn’t seem enough—because it isn’t enough.

While America’s schools focus on notable Black Americans during February, we want to know: Where are the authors and role models of color in curriculum every day?

What conversations about race and equity need to be catalyzed, school by school, district by district? When will leaders, teachers and families make culturally responsive teaching practices the norm?

Fellow White Parents, We Must Push Our Schools to Change Curriculum And More

As White parents, it’s on us to push our schools to do better. Here is some of the work we’ve done and some resources we’ve used to get started.

Before we can guide our children to recognize their own positional power and privilege, adults must recognize power and privilege in ourselves. Meet with a teacher, your child’s principal or district leaders and ask how school staff engage in professional learning on implicit bias, culturally responsive teaching and equity. If the answer is “nothing” or “we did that in August for a day,” keep the conversation moving forward: share a copy of “We Got This” or another engaging professional read. Offer to collaborate with other families to create meaningful experiences for parents, such as a facilitated race and racial justice study group, a book club or a discussion group. Check out Embrace Race or Teaching Tolerance to get started. And if you know of other districts or schools doing this work, suggest to teachers and administrators that they connect with these folks to learn more.

Be a parent willing to talk about race, equity and representation with other parents, but also learn to listen and hold silence when parents of color share their experiences. It’s worth saying again: listen and learn. Racial Equity Tools can give you important insights.

Build your knowledge about the organizations and individuals who are doing race and justice work in your community. Read, attend meetings, make connections and recognize that others are likely already in this space. Find ideas at Facing History and Ourselves, the Anti-Defamation League and the YWCA. All have national and local presence.

Consider the ways you can best share your observations and experiences. Asking “Did you know that only one author of color appears on our kids’ English syllabus? Why is that?” at a PTO meeting may bring different results than asking a teacher or a department chair. Build awareness, find openings, and acknowledge that there could be moments of discomfort, but recognize that you can help deepen other parents’ thinking and advocacy, demanding better from school and district leaders.

Most importantly, as you build your possible action list, continue to talk about race and racism in your own home with your own white children. Sure, get started in February, but let’s build momentum for pushing our home and school conversations and actions throughout the year—celebrating what’s working and staying vigilant about real talk, recognizing how we can and must do better.

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