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April 2021

Critical race theory prevents real progress on closing achievement gaps

Update, 4/29. I made a five-minute video as a companion piece to the essay described to below. In it I describe what critical theory is, how it can be useful, but why it has to be rejected as the single lens through which we address issues of racial achievement gaps:

In my latest essay for The Chalkboard Review, I argue that racial bias may be a real phenomena among educators, and it may partially explain the persistence of achievement gaps based on race. But indoctrinating teachers in critical race theory or imposing CRT in the curriculum isn't the answer. In fact, CRT actually prevents a meaningful exploration of how implicit bias shows up in schools and how we might do better by students.

Research from education advocacy group TNTP, billed as “The Opportunity Myth,” shows that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds regularly receive classroom assignments that are below grade-level expectations. In fact, the Opportunity Myth study found that in 4 out of 10 classrooms with a majority of students of color, students never received a single grade-level assignment (compared to only 12% of majority white classrooms that never received a grade-level assignment). 

Does racism play a role in this abysmal display of low expectations? Perhaps. The biased belief that students of color are incapable of completing rigorous assignments almost certainly does. But a fair number of minority teachers and administrators would also have to be guilty of this assumption.

Is white privilege at work in this pattern? Perhaps – to the extent that teachers assume white students are capable of high achievement and therefore challenge them with rigorous work. So racial prejudice may indeed make a difference in student outcomes. But what do we do about that? And does that explain everything about these differences?

CRT advocates would say we have to expose these implicit biases in educators—presumably the minority teachers with low expectations for students of color also hold those views because of some mysterious pattern of white supremacy—and insist that students receive more “culturally responsive” instruction like the CRT-approved but historically inaccurate pablum of the 1619 project or ethno-mathematics where concepts like finding the right answer in a math class is an alleged reflection of “whiteness.” 

Instead of imposing ineffective, CRT-inspired equity trainings or ideologically-driven curriculum on students, what if we just showed educators the research on low expectations and then trained them in understanding what high-quality, rigorous instructional resources look like and how to use them? For all students. From my own personal experience when I’ve confronted teachers and administrators with the Opportunity Myth research, they recognize the pattern and tendency to use the past performance of struggling students to justify giving them low-quality assignments, and they immediately want to help their schools do better.

Read the whole thing here.

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Kentucky Board of Education regains its independence

With little fanfare, today Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear signed HB 178, which prohibits governors from doing what Beshear himself did in December 2019 when he fired me and the ten other members of the Kentucky Board of Education for purely partisan reasons, quickly initiating the resignation of then-Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis. HB 178 is an historical development that restores some of the political independence of KBE originally intended by the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990.

HB 178, sponsored by Republican Representative Steve Sheldon and passed by the House and Senate, stipulates that while governors will retain their authority to appoint members of the Kentucky Board of Education, going forward governors may not "reorganize" KBE under KRS 12.028, the statute Beshear used to justify his removal of every sitting KBE member on his first day in office, fulfilling a campaign promise. The law also says that going forward, KBE's membership must reflect the political, gender, and ethnic make up of the state's registered voters.

Beshear's current appointees to KBE may retain their seats until the ends of their terms, and may be reappointed only to the extent that they meet the demographic requirements of the new law (presently there is not a single Republican on the board, so at least half will be ineligible to serve another consecutive term).

Beshear, who owed his gubernatorial victory in 2019 to the rabid support of the state's education establishment and the failed leadership of his predecessor Gov. Matt Bevin, had turned KBE into a meaningless political football. Bevin's appointees to KBE were openly supportive of school choice and education accountability. In April 2018, on the day after Bevin statutorily obtained a majority of appointees to KBE, new board members controversially forced the resignation of popular education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt and replaced him with Wayne Lewis, a conservative professor of education and policy advisor to the Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development. Lewis shared KBE's concern for accelerating student achievement and was critical when teachers initiated an illegal work stoppage when protesting potential pension and school choice reform measures.

These positions caused the education establishment to put a major target on the backs of Lewis and members of KBE (whose most important duty is to hire the commissioner of education). On the campaign trail, Beshear promised his education cronies that on his first day in office he would remove KBE members who could then arrange the removal of Wayne Lewis. And that is precisely what he did.

Members of KBE believed then, and believe now, that Beshear's actions were illegal under both state and federal law (see the links below for more details on the legal arguments at stake). The architects of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, which established the KBE as it was structured for the next 29 years, intended the education system to be largely shielded from the ever-shifting winds of partisan politics. While the Governor could appoint like-minded members to KBE, they would serve staggered terms and would hire the commissioner of education, operating independently from the governor and other political officials.

Beshear's unprecedented removal of board members prior to the ends of their terms and for blatantly partisan reasons destroyed KBE's independence. Unless courts or the legislature took action, from then on the commissioner and members of KBE could be assured that if they took positions unsatisfactory to the governor, their jobs would be in jeopardy. HB 178 finally assures that what Beshear did in December 2019 may not be done again.

Beshear had previously hinted that he would support such a measure as long as he could keep his sitting KBE appointees. The bill also codifies the creation of a non-voting teacher and student member of KBE, which Beshear had previously done by executive order. 

Speaking for myself, I thank Governor Beshear for finally doing the right thing and re-establishing KBE's autonomy. And I am especially grateful to Rep. Sheldon and members of the General Assembly for passing this law and sending it to his desk. Ultimately, this is what the ousted members of KBE were fighting for in our efforts, supported by the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, to legally resist Beshear's executive order removing us from office.

All of us knew we would not be reappointed under a Beshear administration at the ends of our terms; that was the way the law worked and we respected that. But for the sake of the state's K-12 education system, we wanted KBE's independence, regardless of who the governor or board members were, to be respected. Today, it finally was.

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