Teachers come under pressure as politicians, parents battle over ‘critical race theory’
Des Moines students gather at the Iowa state Capitol on April 26, 2021, to protest new education laws, including one that bans “divisive” concepts from school curriculum. (Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
WASHINGTON — Teachers from Tennessee to Iowa are swept up in a wave of outrage led by GOP politicians nationwide over how schools teach kids about race in U.S. history.
Conservatives have pilloried much instruction about systemic racism as “critical race theory,” even when that academic term has never been mentioned. A half dozen states have already passed laws this year banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” about systemic racism and sexism in U.S. history and society. Similar debates have erupted in Congress and in heated school board meetings where angry parents square off.
The changes have come so quickly, and with such ferocity, that many teachers were caught off guard. But now educators are under pressure and grappling with how to respond, whether with protests, potential lawsuits, a departure or early retirement from the profession, or just attempts to accommodate the new policies.
Anton Schulzki, a public high school teacher in Colorado Springs and the president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, says teachers’ options vary greatly depending on where they are and how secure they are in their jobs.
Many school districts have labor agreements that specifically protect the academic freedom of teachers, so educators there may take a bolder approach to teaching controversial topics. On the other hand, teachers in small towns or early in their careers might feel more heat in the current climate.
“Teachers are part of the community. They have bills and mortgages to pay. They’ve got their own families to raise. So they may play it a little safe,” says Schulzki. “That’s too bad for students. But … teachers seem to be easy targets to go after, particularly history and government teachers, because everything has become so hyper politicized.”
In one sign of a growing pushback, a teacher-led protest to “pledge to teach the truth” was scheduled for Saturday in 22 states.
In Memphis, educators planned a march showing just how integral racism has been to the history of their state and nation. They would begin at the site of a slave market run during the Civil War by Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who later became an influential leader in the Ku Klux Klan.
From there, the educators would pass by a plaque commemorating the 1866 Memphis race massacre in which 46 Black residents, many of them Union soldiers, were killed. The procession would end at the National Museum of Civil Rights, which stands on the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
Many Tennessee teachers felt ignored last month when Republican lawmakers passed a law that will restrict how they can teach students about racism.
The new rules were first introduced in the legislature two days before they passed both chambers, in the final days of its spring session. Teachers didn’t get a chance to testify about the proposal before it became law, says Diarese George, the executive director of the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance.
State lawmakers, though, discussed an unconfirmed story about a 7-year-old girl who told her parents she was ashamed to be White and ended up in therapy. Local reporters have not been able to track down any evidence that the story is true.
When George heard that the legislation passed, he drafted a letter to Gov. Bill Lee urging the Republican governor to veto it. More than 300 people signed the letter, many of them teachers. But Lee signed the law anyway.
“We’re tired of legislators, policymakers and stakeholders using their power and position to make decisions, and not including educators’ voices,” says George.
The Tennessee law allows the state’s education commissioner to withhold state funding for violations of the policy, but it offers almost no guidance about how to do so.
George says, at the least, Tennessee teachers need training in how to comply with the law. Even long-standing aspects of high school curriculums, like reading classics such as “Huckleberry Finn” or “To Kill a Mockingbird” could run afoul of the law, he says.
But schools also need guidance on how to make sure students are not punished under the new law, if they ask teachers about “divisive concepts” that are regularly in the news.
George says it’s unrealistic to expect students not to question systemic racism in the classroom, especially if they see the role that race plays in schools already.
“If you’re young enough to experience racism, you’re old enough to learn about it,” he says.
George, who previously worked as a teacher, also says courses at Tennessee universities need to better prepare teachers for how to navigate racially charged environments, especially now that the stakes are so high. He worries that teachers of color will be under the microscope when the law takes effect.
Emerson Sykes, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney who specializes in free speech issues, says the movements to prohibit teachers from teaching about “divisive concepts” on racism, sexism and other topics could lead to legal challenges.
“As a strictly legal question, we think (those laws) are also on weak ground in a number of respects that implicates both the First Amendment and the right to academic freedom,” he says.
The ACLU is looking at individual state laws and policies to determine how and whether to challenge them. But Sykes says he expects summer will be a “key time” in that decision-making process, because the group does not want those types of laws to have a “chilling effect” on teachers who are developing their lesson plans for the upcoming school year.
In many cases, he says, “it would be impossible to figure out what kind of material is and is not prohibited.”
States such as Iowa and Oklahoma, for instance, have prohibited schools from including lessons that include the concept that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”
“No teacher,” Sykes says, “intentionally wants to inflict emotional distress on their students. But, at the same time, the journey of learning includes some necessary discomfort. The idea that you can’t teach in a way that causes discomfort, I think, is horribly vague and impossible to meet for an educator.”
As any good student of history knows, controversies over classroom instruction are nothing new.
One of the most important cases about the freedoms of schools and teachers to decide how to teach their students came just four years ago, when a federal court ruled that Arizona officials acted with racial animus when they tried to shut down a Mexican American studies program in Tucson’s public schools.
The Tucson school district discontinued the program when it was faced with losing as much as 10 percent of its state funding if it continued.
Perhaps the most famous case was the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, when the state of Tennessee prosecuted a science teacher for teaching evolution.
Randy Moore, a University of Minnesota professor of biology teaching and learning, said today’s debate over how racism is addressed in classrooms is “remarkably similar” to the debate over evolution a century ago.
“In the Scopes trial, they were trying to keep evolution out of the schools. And here some parents are trying to keep critical race theory out of the schools. Their arguments are the same: These are our schools, we’re paying the bills, and I don’t want my children exposed to this,” Moore says.
Scopes lost the trial, and for decades textbook publishers avoided mentioning Charles Darwin or evolution in their history books, Moore says.
Half a century later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas law that prohibited schools from teaching about evolution. Then in 1987, the high court also overturned a Louisiana law that prohibited instruction about evolution unless teachers also talked about “creation science.”
The main issue in those cases, though, was whether the states were establishing an official religion, in violation of the First Amendment.
Still, the court cases offer only so much protection, Moore says.
“When a high school teacher closes the door in their classroom, they are in charge,” he says. “Evolution is not taught in countless classrooms, because, the teacher, for whatever reason — political, social, religious — doesn’t want to teach it. And no one is going to complain.”
A ‘manufactured crisis’?
Alex Cuenca, an education professor at Indiana University, says social studies instruction is always under scrutiny, because it deals with topics such as racism, sexism and religion.
But he says the current wave of changes is “political theatrics.”
“It is a manufactured crisis,” he says. “There is no radical wave of critical race theory that teachers have been unpacking, understanding and being trained on. It’s not something that has a ‘1-2-3, this is how you do critical race theory and how you make children ashamed of America.’ That’s not it at all.”
But he says the political interventions have largely come as a backlash to ways in which the social sciences—and popular culture—have come to understand racism. These days, there is more focus on systemic problems, like redlining or Jim Crow laws, rather than just individual acts of hatred or violence.
Cuenca, a board member of the National Council for the Social Studies, says the council is encouraging members to continue to talk about race in their classrooms.
“Discussing race isn’t critical race theory,” he says. “Discussing race is history.”
Diana Hess, the dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in civics education, says that, even though bills about “divisive concepts” have captured the public’s attention, other states are pushing to include more instruction about racial and ethnic groups.
Illinois lawmakers, for example, just approved a measure to require teachers to discuss the history of Asian Americans in their courses.
Living in a democracy
Meanwhile, researchers and teachers just recently launched two major initiatives to improve civics education in the country.
One of the common themes from those efforts, Hess says, is that teachers have to introduce students to actual political controversies.
“It’s not so much about teaching students that there’s a right answer to a particular question,” Hess says. “It’s more about putting before students the questions for which we know there are multiple and competing answers, and that, what it means to live in a democracy is you’ve got to be able to wade through those and make decisions about those.”
In their book, “The Political Classroom,” Hess and Paula McAvoy, a professor at North Carolina State University, also looked at how much influence teachers had on the political leanings of older high school students.
They found that students generally wanted to know what their teachers thought, but it did not have much effect on their political decisions. The opinion of students’ other classmates had a bigger impact.
That means that one of the challenges for civics teachers, she says, is to make sure that students who hold minority views in their classrooms don’t feel intimidated or harassed. That doesn’t come easily, though, because so little of the political discourse outside the classroom emphasizes respect for other people’s opinions.
“Teachers are trying to create a better democracy than the one that exists in the world outside of school, where we don’t have kids screaming at one another because they have difference of opinions,” Hess says.
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