While serving for 13 years as superintendent of the Medina City Schools, I faced many challenges. None, however, were potentially more explosive than the discovery of a picture of Jesus in one of our school district’s elementary buildings. What we learned in ultimately defusing the situation was truly an education for me and others close to the situation. I was recently asked by someone who lived in Medina at the time what I would do if I were still a superintendent and the current controversy surrounding critical race theory showed up on my doorstep. Here is my response:
Thank you reaching out to me. I struggle, however, with these kinds of questions because I know all too well how it feels to get advice from those who don’t have to put their advice on the line. Still, there has to be some benefit to learning from those who can say, “been there, done that — well, sort of.”
So, here is my answer to your question . . .
What first comes to mind is that I’d like to find out what’s going on in my community with regard to teaching about race. It wouldn’t be limited to what teachers talk about in the classroom. It would also include what is happening throughout the community. Let’s face it, when it comes to children forming beliefs and attitudes about race, the lessons given by the collective community, including their families, are far more impactful than what the schools could ever hope to do on their own.
It seems to me that those expressing fears about teaching critical race theory (CRT) feel that it changes a commonly accepted narrative about our nation’s founding. The issues I hear being raised seem to be less about facts and more about how people give meaning to those facts. Unfortunately, that makes the matter more complex since disagreements about facts can ultimately be addressed by doing more research — problematic, but doable.
All of this says to me that this whole matter is about values. I see them as basic and fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate our attitudes and purposeful actions. In a way, they become the lens through which we view the world. We’re not likely to change anyone’s beliefs by calling for a town hall meeting to debate the matter. More often than not, those efforts are knee-jerk responses that only magnify the problem by asking people to choose an identity.
I suspect that the only thing that would satisfy those who have attached themselves to the CRT issue would be for the schools to say and somehow demonstrate that “we’re not doing that.” But that would be misleading and probably dishonest because the real issue is teaching about a complex history of race — and I don’t know any public schools that don’t do that. Moreover, I don’t know of any community that doesn’t send strong messages (though often mixed) to children about race. The schoolhouse is the community.
I’m not one who wants to jump into a conversation that has been going for 400 years with the intent to resolve it. At the same time, I don’t want to sweep an issue under the rug in hopes that it will bypass me. The reality is that our nation is struggling with its history, and school leaders are faced with a question: What are our schools for if not to learn from what we are in the midst of?
With that in mind, I’d find a way to say: “Let’s pause and take a look at all of our actions throughout the community and see what they tell us about what we are teaching our children about race. That will tell us what we value. Then we can talk about what we think needs to change.” We would learn first, and deliberate later.
To be sure, those whose motivation is set on a desire to discredit public education will not want to participate in any helpful way in this sort of fact finding. Those people wouldn’t be my concern. I would be far more interested in reaching those who have become conflicted by the messages they’re receiving. But I don’t think we can do that by turning up the heat with shouting matches.
The next step would be the most critical. It would be to enlist individuals into that study. Those who teach must be included, but I would enlist more than public school teachers. I would include those who teach in non-public schools, churches and any other organization that sees itself as being a participant in the community’s responsibility to rear its children. That could include those in recreation, civic organizations, health care, and of course parents.
Beyond that I’d look for thoughtful individuals who could articulate a motivation for becoming involved that extended beyond a desire to advocate for a particular outcome. I would seek out people who wanted to learn more than they wanted to fight.
Here comes the point I would find to be most difficult because it would require that I step away and let others take charge of the effort. It is difficult because I’d have to contend with my superintendent DNA that wants to control outcomes. But giving into that would be a mistake because it would send a message that CRT is about the schools. Whenever school leaders take ownership for matters that are beyond their capacity to resolve alone, they reinforce the belief that schools are hopelessly broken because they cannot fix the sins or the rest of our society.
What happens from that point will depend upon the depth of commitment these individuals have to honestly answering the question: What is our community teaching its children about race? There will be no scarcity of evidence, although they will most likely encounter conflicting points of view. They will also have to avoid the temptation to become judgmental because the objective is simply holding up a mirror in front of the community. The truth, wherever it takes you, has to be the goal.
How the learning that comes from this study is communicated will be up to those conducting it. If this is truly a community matter, then the community ought to decide what happens from that point on. If CRT is still an issue for some, then it is the community they need to be at odds with, not just the public schools. I learned this when, as superintendent in Medina, we were dealing with the picture of Jesus being in one of our elementary buildings.
For me, the bottom line is this: The current movement charging that our nation’s public schools are promoting CRT is quickly gaining momentum. Without community support, our public schools are a sitting duck for those who want to use them for political target practice as our nation heads toward the next round of elections.
In addition to having served for 13 years as superintendent of the Medina City Schools, Charlie Irish is currently a member of the Statewide Leadership Team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network, an education partner of the Kettering Foundation and co-author of Cleaning Up the Mess from Sacred Cows: A Strategy to Take Back Our Public Schools.