Critical race theory bans in schools are making teaching harder

This year, American history might look different in Iowa classrooms.

In early June, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed a bill that restricts what teachers can teach in K-12 schools and at public universities, particularly when it comes to sexism and racism. It bans 10 concepts that Republican legislators define as “divisive,” including the idea that “one race or sex is superior to another,” that members of a particular race are inherently inclined to oppress others, and that “the U.S. and Iowa are fundamentally racist or sexist.”

The law, which is already in effect, has sparked confusion and distress among educators, some of whom say it is so broad and the language so ambiguous, they fear they might face consequences for even broaching nuanced conversations about racism and sexism in the context of US history.

“Teachers need to know what the legislation means for us, and they have been asking, ‘Is the district going to support us and have our back?’” Monique Cottman, who’s taught elementary school and middle school for 15 years in the state, told Vox.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during the FAMiLY Leader summit in Des Moines on July 16. Reynolds recently signed a bill restricting what teachers can teach in K-12 schools and public universities.
Rachel Mummey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cottman is a teacher leader with the Iowa City Community School District, a role that requires her to regularly coach about 50 teachers on classroom instruction strategies, curriculums, and lesson plans. This year, it involves the added work of creating a comprehensive list of FAQs for teachers about the new Iowa law — because there are a lot of questions.

Since at least 2014, when students went to the school board to demand an ethnic studies course, Cottman and other teachers in the district have worked to make anti-racism part of the curriculum, but with the new law, a lot of the momentum they have built has been undercut. “Teachers who would have thought about me last year aren’t listening to teachers like me at all because of fear,” she said.

Cottman isn’t alone in her predicament. Educators across the country are figuring out how to navigate laws like Iowa’s that have turned anti-racist education — often lumped together under the catchall term “critical race theory,” an academic framework scholars use to analyze how racism is endemic to US institutions — into a boogeyman. While critical race theory opponents fear that the framework places blame for inequality on all white people, proponents argue that their goal is to use the lens to identify systemic oppression and eradicate it. Educators who want to teach with an eye toward anti-racism say that their lessons simply reflect an honest history of the country’s founding and development — including the contributions of and the discrimination against marginalized people — which has traditionally been glossed over in textbooks and curriculums.

But in the past six months, seven other states — Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, New Hampshire, Arizona, and South Carolina — have already passed legislation similar to Iowa’s, and 20 others have introduced or plan to introduce similar legislation, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution. Meanwhile, in states such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, state boards of education and local school boards have denounced, if not totally banned, teaching critical race theory and/or the 1619 Project, a collection of essays that examines the foundational contributions of enslaved Black people to the US.

Teachers are already facing consequences, too. While debates over critical race theory were going on in the Tennessee state legislature, a high school teacher was fired after teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “The First White President” and playing the video of the spoken-word poem “White Privilege.” A Black principal in Texas was recently suspended without explanation after a former school board candidate complained that he was implementing critical race theory, promoting “extreme views on race” and “the conspiracy theory of systemic racism.”

In higher education, entire courses that grapple with inequity were dropped from course rosters or made optional. And even in states where anti-critical race theory legislation hasn’t been passed, education leaders are facing pressure.

The first Black superintendent in a Connecticut district resigned after parents and community members complained to the school board that he was trying to indoctrinate students with critical race theory. (According to reports, he had been championing diversity and inclusion training and spoke out against conspiracy theories surrounding the US Capitol insurrection.)

The country is only just beginning to see this culture war play out, educators and curriculum specialists told Vox. “On one hand, there will be many teachers, particularly in states where the bills haven’t passed, who will continue to do justice work in their classrooms,” said Justin Coles, a professor of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “But others are going to resort to glossing over key issues in our history that are deeply intertwined with race and racism, overlooking nuance.”

While teachers like Cottman will continue to teach with an anti-racist lens despite these laws, more teachers are expected to be silenced. “Because of the current social climate,” Coles said, “it will be more acceptable to manipulate the truth and denounce folks who make deep conversations about oppression part of their classrooms.”

Ultimately, the laws, and the discussions around them, have created chaos for teachers who don’t know what they should and shouldn’t be teaching. A lot of the anti-racist discussions that educators had brought into the classroom following the uprisings of 2020, and even prior, could be in danger of being removed. And the people who will feel the greatest impact are students.

With these bans, “learning will be incomplete since [children are] only being taught half-truths,” Coles said. “The classroom will become unsafe spaces for marginalized students since they can’t discuss their lived experiences. These bans make it harder for our country to change.”

How critical race theory bans made their way to schools — and how they’re playing out

The pushback to anti-racist teachings began shortly after last summer’s social justice protests that swept the country, when many Americans started to grapple with the racism embedded in institutions like policing. In August 2020, conservative activist Christopher Rufo declared a “one-man war” against critical race theory, appearing on Fox News and claiming that federal diversity trainings (which he wrongly identified as critical race theory) were dividing workers and indoctrinating government employees.

It didn’t take long for then-President Donald Trump to seize on Rufo’s narrative, going as far as issuing an executive order that banned racial sensitivity training in the federal government. When Trump lost the presidential election a few months later, Republicans in state legislatures picked up the cause, drafting and introducing bills that placed limits on government agencies, public higher education institutions, and K-12 schools teaching “harmful sex- and race-based ideologies.”

At the core of these state bills is the desire to prevent discourse about America’s racist past and present. Last year, amid a deadly pandemic and social justice protests, students had questions about the police shootings of Black and brown civilians and why the coronavirus was disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities, and teachers couldn’t ignore talk about a president who threatened “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” As Texas high school teacher Jania Hoover wrote for Vox this July, “The reality is that kids are talking about race, systems of oppression, and our country’s ugly past anyway — from media coverage to last summer’s protests to even this very controversy itself, my students are absorbing these conversations and want to know more.”

The past year, and the social justice movements leading up to it, left a lot of teachers rethinking how they taught history, challenging the colonialist narratives long embedded in elementary and high school curriculums. For example, a third-grade textbook Cottman was required to use only tells a partial story of Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in Louisiana. Bridges was 6 years old when federal marshals escorted her and her mother into the school building as mobs of white people surrounded them, rioted, and yelled threats and racial slurs.

The textbook states that the marshals “protected her from angry people who lined the streets and stood outside the school.” It makes no mention of why those people were “angry” or who they were, leaving out the key context that white people fought for decades to keep Black children from schools because of the belief that Black people were inferior, a detail that Cottman needed to bring forward during classroom discussions.

The story of Ruby Bridges, in a textbook for third-grade students in Iowa, makes no mention of white people and their role in opposing integration in schools.
Courtesy of Monique Cottman

Another story in a similar textbook tells about a girl who was kidnapped from Greece and sold into slavery in ancient Rome; according to the text, she chose to remain enslaved because her owners treated her well and they all felt like “family.” “Students kept taking away that as long as slave owners are nice to their slaves, there’s nothing wrong with slavery,” Cottman said.

“If teachers continue to do what they’ve been doing, no one wins,” Cottman added. “They need to be interrogating why some of their lessons are problematic.”

“Roman Diary: The Story of Iliona” in a sixth-grade McGraw-Hill Wonders textbook.
Courtesy of Monique Cottman

As bills opposing critical race theory made their way to state legislatures this spring, confusion over what the theory was and what the bills meant overshadowed Americans’ desire to have nuanced classroom discussions about race. A July Reuters/Ipsos poll found that fewer than half of Americans (43 percent) said they knew about critical race theory and the surrounding debates, with three in 10 saying they hadn’t heard of it at all. Respondents were even less familiar with the New York Times’s 1619 Project (24 percent). Yet a majority of Americans said they support teaching students about the impact of slavery (78 percent) and racism (73 percent) in the US. State laws banning critical race theory in public schools received less support (35 percent). On all fronts, there was a partisan divide, with Republicans more interested in banning talk about slavery, racism, and the teaching of critical race theory and the 1619 Project.

In Iowa, Cottman, also a co-founder of Black Lives Matter at School Iowa, says a handful of parents in support of the ban have already reached out to teachers about the 2021-22 curriculum, but they are not the majority. Parents in support of anti-racist education have also voiced their support at school board and community meetings.

But the vocal minority, coupled with the new law, weighs on teachers and administrators. Though Iowa City is known as the bluest part of the red state, Cottman says she has talked to a number of teachers who are fine with the curriculum as is; she has also spoken to those who are concerned about losing their jobs if they talk about race.

One group of high school teachers decided to stop teaching a short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker (the story is about a young Black girl who comes across a dead body, presumably a Black man who had been lynched, while picking flowers in the woods) after parents were up in arms about it on social media, for fear of further controversy.

Last fall, Cottman says her school ordered 1,000 copies of Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You in an effort to improve their American history coursework. But once some parents got wind of the effort, “the book became optional, most teachers chose to not use it,” Cottman said.

Teachers in other states are also dialing it back. Joseph Frilot, a middle school humanities teacher, learned from his curriculum manager that all of the content he developed about Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement won’t be part of his lessons this year in light of the Texas law that limits discourse on racism and sexism. “A huge chunk of the curriculum that I created was about oppression and resistance, so all of that will be excluded from our curriculum,” Frilot told EdWeek. “Am I allowed to be the transparent and honest educator that I’ve been over the years?”

In Tennessee, where one of the first anti-critical race theory bills was passed, teachers have requested guidance on how they should reframe their lessons and leading class discussions. The guidance from the education department, released in August, clarifies that teachers can introduce topics like racism and sexism as part of discussion if they are described in textbooks or instructional material, but teachers remain concerned that the law limits them from teaching the true history of the state and country. The state’s guidance also lays out major consequences for schools and educators found in violation: Schools could stand to lose millions in annual state funds, and teachers could have their licenses denied, suspended, or revoked.

Some teachers, though, plan to keep anti-racist lessons alive despite these new laws. Cottman tells teachers that even under the new law they aren’t required to say anything to parents, nor are they obligated to solicit parents’ feedback before lessons, but she reminds them that it is “vital” to make sure that parents feel welcome and that “two-way communication is established early in the school year.” When teachers have expressed worry about their classroom libraries, Cottman said she tells them “they do not need to remove any books from their classrooms. If there’s an anti-racism book on the shelf, a student has the choice to read it.”

Lakeisha Patterson, a teacher in Houston, said she plans to continue to talk about how “African Americans were considered less than human,” and the social justice caucus of the San Antonio teachers union is encouraging lessons that foster inclusion and nonwhite perspectives on history.

“For many Black teachers, we aren’t even expressing financial concerns,” Cottman said about the possibility of getting fired for incorporating race discussions in classrooms. “We’re just pissed off that we’re constantly being silenced.”

What anti-racism education looks like in states without bans

States and districts without anti-critical race theory legislation have greater latitude to experiment with anti-racist teaching. For Jesse Hagopian, a high school history and ethnic studies teacher in Seattle, the moment is ripe and long overdue. Beginning in September, Hagopian will be co-teaching the school’s two-year-old Black studies course, the result of organizing in the wake of the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in 2016.

“If anyone is asking, the answer is yes, we are teaching critical race theory,” Hagopian said. “Most educators didn’t know what critical race theory was until Republicans made it their main reelection vehicle. But many of them are now looking it up and realizing how it is aligned with their principles, which I think is wonderful.”

On Hagopian’s syllabus is a wide array of texts to help students center the contributions that Black people have made throughout history, including Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, A Different Mirror, excerpts from A People’s History of the United States, Jazz and Justice, and the YA version of The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks. Each text will help bring nuance to the Black experience. “We’re going to learn about Black intersectional identity — all Black people don’t have the same experiences so it’s important to understand sexism, ableism, and all forms of oppression,” Hagopian said.

He has also made clear what his class is not about. “I’m not teaching white kids to hate themselves. I’m teaching them to understand how racism is systemic and that they can be part of a multiracial struggle to bring about change,” Hagopian said. “That’s empowering to white students, not shaming them.”

Young children at a rally hold signs that read “I am not an oppressor.”

A demonstration against critical race theory being taught in schools in Leesburg, Virginia, on June 12. The pushback to anti-racist teachings began shortly after last summer’s social justice protests that swept the country.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Hagopian is not alone in his efforts. While some states are trying to repress anti-racist education, others are mandating that teachers expand on it: The California Board of Education approved a statewide ethnic studies curriculum for high school students this March, and “Indian Education for All” standards will go into effect in Wyoming schools next school year. Meanwhile, in July, Illinois became the first state to mandate Asian American history for elementary and high school students, and Connecticut required all high schools to offer African American studies and Latino studies by 2022, with Native American studies being required in all schools beginning in the 2023-24 school year.

While anti-racism education advocates see these initiatives as promising steps forward — anti-critical race theory laws are also facing legal challenges — teachers in less progressive districts still face an uphill battle if they want to include nuanced discussions of race in their classrooms. For many of these teachers caught in the culture war, what they want most is to give children an education that reflects America’s true, complicated history.

“As a Black woman in Iowa public schools, this is my calling as a teacher and as an advocate,” Cottman said. “I believe fundamentally that students, and teachers, need to know the truth.”

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