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Salvo 08.04.2021 10 minutes

The People vs. Critical Race Theory

US-EDUCATION-RACISM-POLITICS

There won’t be a second chance to take back hijacked American schools.

With a speed that has astonished ordinary Americans, a vocal minority of “critical race theorists” has blitzed K-12 education with sweeping changes of law and policy. The New York Times’ 1619 Project has been the tip of the spear of their movement to put anti-American narratives of race and power at the heart of American curricula.

Even at the very highest levels of prestige, the examples now are legion. At the Dalton School in New York City, faculty signed a letter with a long list of recommendations, including: yearly anti-racist training for employees, an expanded diversity bureaucracy with at least 12 positions, and employee anti-racism statements. Prestigious exam schools predicated upon admitting excellent students and outstanding staff have been pushed to abandon entrance tests in the name of equity (not to be confused with equality).

Not to be outdone, the Illinois Board of Education recently amended a rule to establish “culturally responsive” teaching standards. The regulations require educators to recognize that there is no one “‘correct’ way of doing or understanding something”; to acknowledge that “systems of oppression…in our society…create and reinforce inequities”; and to “work actively against” those systems in order to “understand how the system of inequity has impacted them as an educator.” The amendment mandates that teachers adopt a narrow political ideology that includes a view of American history, society, and law that most citizens reject. The prioritization of this agenda comes at a time when many students are not even in the classroom.    

Majority Report

The spirit that moved the Illinois Department of Education saturates social media and is omnipresent on elite college campuses. But there is also good news. Despite what the media and the academy would have you believe, the American people think that free speech, equal opportunity under the law, and the principles of the founding should still govern the day-to-day lives of citizens. A recent survey of 800 Illinois residents sponsored by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) strongly suggests that efforts to politicize public education do not align with the values of the majority of citizens. Rather than imposing a partisan agenda through rules and regulations from an agency, citizens should have an informed debate about public school curricula and teaching standards.   

To judge from Illinoisans’ assessment of their K-12 schools, the conversation is overdue. Forty-eight percent of respondents think that schools are doing a “worse than good” job (6 percent answered “excellent”). To improve that number, schools would be well served by focusing on preparing students for lifelong success rather than imposing policies and advocating a socio-political position that is at best controversial. 

They should also recommit to teaching civic literacy. ACTA’s survey found that the push to implement new curricula aligned with the NYT’s 1619 Project is disfavored by many in the state, however popular it may be with elites and activists. Presented with two views, nearly half (48 percent) of respondents chose “K-12 schools should focus on teaching students about American founding principles and the documents that established the first free and democratic country in the world” as closest to their own, compared to 38 percent who would prefer that K-12 schools “teach children to understand that America is founded on slavery and remains systemically racist today.” Large majorities of Republicans (78 percent) and Independents (69 percent) favor “teaching students about American founding principles,” along with one-quarter of Democrats. What this indicates is that a sizable number of people in a very blue state do not think schools should prioritize the main thesis of the 1619 Project. Instead, they want students to understand the fundamentals of American history and the principles of American government.

Critical race theory and action civics are also unpopular with the people of Illinois. A majority of respondents indicated that students should receive a fair and balanced education when it comes to United States history. Question 21 on the survey presented respondents with three statements: a) “K-12 teachers should work to expose students to a variety of perspectives about the country’s founding and history, and to equip them to think critically about its successes and failures”; b) “K-12 teachers should embrace progressive viewpoints and perspectives when teaching U.S. history, to encourage students to advocate for social justice causes”; or c) “Unsure.” Out of these three options, 62 percent chose a), 23 percent picked b), and 15 percent were unsure. Illinoisans want teachers to focus on the facts and principles of American history so that children know the nation’s story, understand the propositions of our government, and can evaluate the struggle to live up to these ideals.

Nor do respondents desire to see the K-12 system prioritize social justice ahead of the basic knowledge and skills that students need for professional success. When presented with two options—“Teacher preparation programs in Illinois should focus on making teachers better equipped to help students develop core skills and competencies” and “Teacher preparation programs in Illinois should prioritize teaching progressive viewpoints and social justice advocacy”—57 percent chose the first option. As it turns out, people care about preparing students with the knowledge they need to succeed in a competitive workforce and within their communities.

The viewpoints of activists are also at odds with those of most Illinoisans on issues of free speech, equality, and meritocracy:

  • Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents opposed “Efforts to prevent speakers from expressing opinions that some members of the [college] campus find offensive.” Only 20 percent supported suppressing free speech.
  • Half of respondents (50 percent), when given two options, chose “Fighting racism means making sure that everyone regardless of race has the same opportunities and equal protection under the law—but it’s not the government’s role to mandate equal outcomes for everyone.” Forty percent chose equality of outcomes instead of equality of opportunity.
  • More than eight in 10 (84 percent) agreed that men and women should be treated equally based on merit.

What the People Want

Americans want to attain success based on their achievements, receive equal justice under equal laws, and to be judged on their own merit. What they do not want is to see civics and history education distorted into a partisan exercise, meritocracy eliminated, or free speech obstructed. Practical steps parents and legislators can work toward include:

  • Legislation mandating the study of specific primary historical documents as well as curricular transparency—so that parents know what their children are learning in public schools. 
  • Well-designed professional development programs focused on improving content knowledge among civics and history teachers, to ensure rigorous instruction in the classroom.
  • Reforms to teacher certification standards that make it possible for schools to hire teachers with a strong background or content knowledge of the subject instead of a standard teaching diploma.
  • New processes to ensure the adoption of balanced and academically rigorous curricula at the local, district, and state levels.
  • The development of rigorous assessment instruments that measure content mastery and civic literacy among students and/or that require teachers to have mastery of their instruction specialty.

Problems and Solutions 

Activists used the rule-making process in Illinois to enact radical changes in K-12 education because they knew that Illinoisans would not otherwise consent to it. This imposition of radical policies and curricular changes by administrative fiat instead of the consent and deliberation of citizens is occurring in every state. It should be stopped. If the Department of Education refuses to withdraw the rule, the people of Illinois might consider electing new lawmakers to represent them, in the spirit of 1776.

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