Kentucky’s SBDM Councils and critical race theory
Kentucky's social studies standards get a "C"

Equity and diversity are good; CRT is not

Evidently the crowd at last night's meeting of the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education got rowdy, with many attendees showing up to voice their concerns about how critical race theory (CRT) is being presented in the district's schools.

The board was meeting in a work session to discuss development of the district's strategic plan, slated for approval this December. CRT wasn't specifically on the agenda, but the strategic plan does include "racial equity" as a key component. This led some members of the media, who have persistently misrepresented parent concerns about CRT, to insist yet again that opposition to critical race theory is really just opposition to diversity and equity efforts in schools. JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio seemed to share or reinforce this view when he told the media, "We are looking at racial equity, which essentially means what does a kid need to be successful and providing that to them. It's not about holding anyone else back."

I wasn't at the meeting and I haven't talked to any of the parents in attendance, but as an educator who has been writing about this issue for nearly a year, I can say emphatically that concerns about how CRT is being presented are perfectly legitimate. A focus on equity is good and appropriate - as long as it doesn't take the assumptions of critical race theory as fact.

What is equity?

In one of my first essays on this topic, I wrote about how I approach the issue of equity in my own teaching. (As always, when I write or speak on current events or public policy issues, I am speaking strictly for myself and not WKU or anyone affiliated with the university). Equity is one of the major themes of WKU's school principal certification program. The way I frame it to my students (all of them adult teachers who are training to become administrators) is this: "For every decision we make or policy we implement, how is this decision or policy impacting our most vulnerable students?

This is an extremely important lens because of our long-standing pattern of achievement gaps between white and minority students, students with and without disabilities, students from low-income households and those who are not, and so on. We educators have a moral imperative to confront these historical differences in student achievement and ask ourselves how we got here. To some extent, implicit biases about how students learn and what they are capable of may be at work, and in that regard we need to confront whether our expectations differ and how we are delivering resources and instructional quality to students. Equity means setting a high bar for every student and then providing the instruction and support each student needs to meet those expectations. 

In my experience I have never met a single educator who resisted or rejected that goal. They might wonder how we can effectively achieve it. They might struggle over the appropriate strategies to pursue. They might quibble over whether proficiency is ever possible for every student - largely because of factors that are out of the control of educators (and often the students themselves), like disabilities and the immense learning barriers posed by poverty. They may be unaware of their own low expectations toward students. But they readily agree that we need to do better by all of our students and are eager to work together to figure out how.

I sometimes have my students read authors who operate from a critical theory lens to help them consider these issues from a different perspective. But that's the key - CRT in my classes is a perspective on the issue of equity. Not the only perspective and certainly not one that I treat as a given fact. 

How CRT actually undermines equity efforts

And this is exactly why so many people are concerned about how CRT is working its way into our schools. It's not so much that CRT is being taught. It's that some of the key assumptions of CRT are being regarded by educators as facts and that the lens of CRT is shaping the way they select instructional materials and how they are being presented in classrooms. 

These problematic assumptions include CRT's tendency to view every group outcome difference as the result of racism (with no other options permitted to be considered), to reduce individuals to their membership in racial or social groups and assign oppressor or victim status accordingly, and to view every institution of American society - in fact to view the entire American experiment - as irredeemingly racist. 

This is not a caricature of critical race theory. These are core assumptions of the theory itself and explicitly shape the way it is presented in various equity and diversity training sessions to educators and in how it is presented to children in classrooms.

Last summer I wrote (here and here) about the Kentucky Department of Education's new training materials, designed to help teachers implement the state's social studies standards using an "inquiry" design. Many of the examples of "guiding questions" provided in these materials reveal a deeply biased political and ideological perspective. These guiding questions are presented to students in ways that implicitly limit the range of views students can consider about complex social problems and guide them toward specific conclusions - ones that often align with a critical theory perspective.

JCPS leaders can say "we aren't teaching critical race theory in our schools" but that doesn't mean these kinds of biases aren't seeping into classrooms in various ways, and parents have every right to be upset about it.

Critical theory, presented this way, doesn't just leave students with an overly-simplified, biased, and sometimes outright false understanding of American history and its social, political, and economic problems. CRT also makes it harder for adults in schools to have a meaningful conversation about equity issues. By reducing the entire issue to racism, by dividing teachers and students according to their skin color and assigning oppressor and victim status, the kinds of collaborative work meant to help improve learning for all students is actually undermined.

It's also legitimate to ask JCPS why the focus on equity is strictly about "racial" equity? Obviously the district serves a large percentage of students of color and closing racial achievement gaps should be a top priority. But if equity is really about giving every student what they need to be successful...then shouldn't that apply to students of every skin color? It's these ambiguous ways that equity is presented that give parents and ordinary citizens pause about what the district's agenda really is.

How districts can better address equity and the CRT question

If the leaders of JCPS (or any district) want to reassure parents that critical race theory isn't being "taught" in the district's schools, there are some straightforward things they can say (and mean):

  • "JCPS is committed to addressing equity issues for every student who needs more help and support, regardless of their skin color."
  • "JCPS rejects any perspective that divides educators or students based on skin color or that assigns victim or oppressor status to educators or students based simply on their skin color."
  • "JCPS is committed to providing a full and rich, developmentally appropriate presentation of America's history and our current social problems to our students in an unbiased way that addresses multiple perspectives and nurtures in students both a love and appreciation for America and her achievements and a commitment to continue to help Americans live more fully according to the nation's founding ideals."
  • "JCPS is committed to transparency about curriculum and instruction and a full engagement with parents and the community about what is taught in our schools and how."
  • "JCPS teachers are expected to exhibit the highest degree of professionalism; students should be largely unaware of a teacher's political or ideological biases."

Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, recently summed up the core concerns with critical race theory and its proper place within K-12 schools in a comprehensive overview of this topic for Commentary magazine:

Public education succeeds or fails at one principal task: A school either imparts the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to smooth the transition to a responsible and satisfying adult life, or it does not. In concert with other institutions (families, churches, the military, et al.), an American school can consciously inspire children to play a part in building a more perfect union. Or it can say, in effect, don’t bother. Hardened into orthodoxy, critical race theory insists on the latter. When it demands a place of privilege in our schools, it undermines the very purpose of public education. It is the opposite of welcoming children into the civic sphere; it preaches resistance to it and even its destruction.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with ethnic studies, “culturally responsive pedagogy,” or even critical race theory in public schools. No reasonable objection should be made or accepted to the earnest desire for black and brown students—American children—to see their histories and cultures woven firmly into their education. Nor should any excuse be made to elide our country’s painful history of racism and injustices, or to confront places where there remains room for progress. What schools cannot do while maintaining public support and legitimacy is to abide any kind of racial essentialism or insist that children are required to combat “whiteness.” Schools should not seek to impose an ideology that distills all of history and every human endeavor to a struggle between oppressors and the oppressed. 

It should be relatively easy for districts to reject the pernicious assumptions of critical race theory and still maintain their commitment to equity - and enjoy broad public support in doing so - unless district leaders really do endorse and want to advance those assumptions.

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