Twenty years ago this month, federal law began requiring schools to report the academic achievement of students, not only overall but by student groups.

The data required by the 2001 No Child Left Behind law demonstrated — school by school, district by district, state by state — what had long been known in the aggregate: on average, schools were not teaching Black, Latino, and Native American students to read or do math at the same levels as White and Asian students; similarly, they weren’t teaching students from low-income homes to read or do math as well as students from wealthier homes. The surprise for many was that this wasn’t just true in impoverished urban and rural schools but also in wealthy, highly touted suburban schools.

Far too many educators reacted to this new information with a kind of helplessness. “What do you expect us to do?” was a common plaint.

Other educators got to work. Although you rarely hear anything about it, reading and math scores —particularly math scores — improved on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the nation’s report card. Those who made the most progress were Black and Latino children.

But that progress stopped in 2012, leaving a lot of students still not being taught to read or do math well and big disparities among student groups.

And the last few years has seen the beginnings of a widespread attempt by the field of education to figure out why.

“What we’re trying to do in my system is uncover the root cause of those disparities and then actually tackle those,” said Dr. Tricia McManus, superintendent of the Winston-Salem Forsyth County North Carolina school system. “It’s about looking at where we are now and changing system structures, practices, and policies so that we don’t keep these disparities happening in the future.”

So, educators have been thinking about whether school discipline policies undermine attempts to create safe, welcoming school cultures. They’ve begun a national conversation about whether the way they teach reading aligns with what we know about how children learn to read. They’ve wondered whether sorting children into the categories of “gifted” and “not-gifted” depresses academic achievement by discouraging curiosity and intellectual risk-taking on the part of those deemed “gifted” and just depresses those who are deemed “not.” They have recognized that students of color and their families might feel unwelcome in schools with overwhelmingly White staffs.

Most painfully, they have questioned whether some educators may — even if unwittingly — expect less of their students of color than of their white and Asian students. And, finally, they have started examining the literature they assign and the history they teach to ensure that they are incorporating accurate stories that give students of all backgrounds a way to feel connected to our history and our intellectual life.

All this work was going on in daily conversations, “in-service” trainings, and education conferences and publications — sometimes haltingly, sometimes painfully, and sometimes unproductively. After all, many Americans are uncomfortable talking about race and class, and American educators are no different.

But here’s the thing.

After the American Revolution, White people who wanted to abolish slavery in the South as well as the North were silenced when Southern slaveowners threatened not to form a country if they didn’t stop talking about it; after the Civil War, when some White people worked with African Americans to establish a multi-racial democracy in the South, White supremacists murdered and terrorized them into silence; and after Brown v. Board of Education, many White parents who were willing to send their children to integrated schools were cowed into silence by white segregationists who closed schools and attacked Black children.

Today, the bullies are a few people working for right-wing think tanks who have manufactured a wave of outrage with a little information about an obscure academic discipline and a few scary-sounding anecdotes. The result: “anti-critical race theory” laws, legislation, and regulations in more than half the states, inspired by the lie that schools have been taken over by a totalitarian mob bent on humiliating White children as oppressors.

To most educators — about 80% of whom are White — this particular accusation seemed so ridiculous that it required nothing but denial. “We’re not teaching CRT,” was the puzzled refrain when accusations first emerged this summer.

As the campaign went on, and right-wing propagandists loaded up the term critical race theory to include recent attempts to address student’s social-emotional well-being and ensure that all children get an equal education, some educators said, well, if that’s what critical race theory is, I guess we are teaching it — a concession that sounded like backtracking.

But if we could take a breath, we could recognize that educators are having a long overdue and necessary conversation about whether the way they run schools actually increases disparities rather than reduces them—and what they can do to change.

In other words, NCLB required educators to talk about racism 20 years ago. “Anti-CRT laws” are trying to stop them just as they finally got started.

It should be said that, in general, educators haven’t been very good at communicating the work they are doing with parents and community members — a fault which has also fed the anti-CRT frenzy. But we might also recognize that this sudden anti-CRT attack on educators has come at a time when superintendents, principals, and teachers are responding to a life-threatening worldwide pandemic that has revealed how deep inequities cut. They may not be at the top of their game of being able to educate parents and community members about what they are doing in regards to efforts to address educational disparities.

But we as a nation — White people in particular — should recognize the anti-CRT panic for what it is: an attempt to bully us into once again staying quiet about our nation’s history and practice of ignoring and exacerbating inequities.

We have an opportunity to stand up to the bullies who want to keep our children and grandchildren from learning about their nation’s past and present. White people should seize that opportunity and not back down.