When the U.S. Department of Education recently proposed new criteria for awarding grants in the area of American history and civics, right-wing commentators cried that President Biden was “set to push critical race theory on U.S. schools.” Senate Republicans condemned the proposed DOE “rule” as “divisive nonsense.” The mainstream and left-of-center media dismissed the clamor as a lot of fuss over nothing. But neither side has focused on the real reasons history and civics education fail so many students.
A few facts: The initiative involves just $5.3 million, a tiny slice of the overall education budget, and the grant applications are obviously voluntary. The rule itself doesn’t mention critical race theory (CRT). The introduction, however, alludes to “systemic racism” and approvingly cites three other cultural touchstones closely related to the common understanding of CRT: the 1619 Project, culturally responsive teaching, and Ibram X. Kendi’s bestseller How to Be an Antiracist.
That’s been enough to spark conservative outrage over not only the rule but also a previously bipartisan congressional effort to fund civics education that has nothing to do with the rule. Right-wing commentators maintain that the civics bill’s references to concepts like “evidence-based practices,” when viewed in conjunction with the proposed DOE rule, amount to an attempt to “impose Critical Race Theory on the nation.”
But inflammatory exaggeration from the right shouldn’t prevent others from evaluating direct and indirect risks the rule might pose—including to the underserved students it aims in part to support. Let’s examine the three cultural touchstones it mentions and what they might mean for education.
The 1619 Project: That’s an initiative of the New York Times Magazine, as well as a curriculum based on it, that offers a counter-narrative to mainstream American history, placing slavery and its effects at the center. Historians have challenged the Project’s accuracy on certain points, but it could nevertheless serve as a thought-provoking supplement to the standard version of events. Students might debate whether 1619 should be considered the date of the country’s founding, as the Project argues, rather than 1776. It’s also undoubtedly true that schools have long overlooked important and troubling aspects of history involving non-white populations.
But most students aren’t absorbing much history, period. On national tests, only 15% of eighth-graders—and only 5% of Black students—score proficient or above in U.S. history. Some bemoan the fact that few high school seniors understand that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. What’s more alarming is that some college students don’t know which century the Civil War took place in, who won it, or even what it was.
That lack of knowledge, combined with the simplification that inevitably occurs when New York Times Magazine articles are put in front of kids whose education hasn’t equipped them to understand them, can lead to serious confusion. One Black high school student in Chicago who had been exposed to the 1619 Project told a reporter, “In middle school they talked about slavery, but it was ‘Christopher Columbus, he found us.’ Now I read this and I know he didn’t. We were the founding fathers.” The student appears to have mixed up slavery, European exploration, the American Revolution—and perhaps the different meanings of the word “found.” That kind of confusion can occur whenever a curriculum assumes kids know things they actually don’t—and perhaps especially when it’s intended to supplement a mainstream account they haven’t had the opportunity to absorb.
Though the proposed rule advocates a diversity of perspectives, teachers who embrace critical race theory are likely to present curricula like the 1619 Project as the only legitimate perspective. Adopting a stance that is not uncommon, two professors writing in the magazine of the National Council for the Social Studies—the largest professional organization in the country devoted to social studies education—urged teachers to “eschew neutrality” in centering “an analysis of oppression” and spurring students to action. That’s a far cry from the traditional view that teachers should teach students how rather than what to think.
Culturally responsive teaching: That concept is rooted in the longstanding belief that good teaching requires responding to each student’s interests and knowledge. The new twist is that it’s essential to put the cultural identity of Black and brown students in the foreground. That kind of good teaching, it’s said, is “less often seen for students of color, and so achievement gaps persist.”
All children should feel their teachers value them and respect their cultures. But good ideas in education have a history of getting transmuted into practices quite different from what their originators intended. An emphasis on skin color and America’s history of racism can even lead some students to view their race as an insurmountable barrier to success. In one politically progressive school district, a Black child who had aspired to be a lawyer told his mother he’d learned “there are these systems … that prevent Black people from accomplishing anything.”
And unless Black and brown cultures are seen as monolithic, it’s unrealistic to expect teachers to respond to each student’s cultural identity. In one classroom I followed through a school year, some kids were children of Ethiopian immigrants, others of Central American immigrants, and others of native-born African-Americans. Even if teachers could tailor instruction to that array of cultures—or to what they assume to be “Black” or “brown” culture—they’re likely to be more effective if they focus on the learning characteristics all students share.
Ibram X. Kendi and “antiracism”: The word antiracism may sound innocuous, but for Kendi and others it means more than just being against racism. His ideas don’t have much direct application to education, but he’s argued that antiracism requires viewing any reference to academic achievement gaps as racist because the concept perpetuates the idea of “Black intellectual inferiority.”
That pronouncement gets at the anger and frustration that underlies all three of these touchstones, as well as much of the general push to center the experiences of marginalized communities in the curriculum. It’s undoubtedly true that racial disparities in education don’t reflect Black students’ intellectual potential—and we should be angry about that. But we shouldn’t assume that if students of color see their own history and culture validated—as white kids have for generations—they’ll automatically blossom, just like white kids. Not only is that assumption contradicted by evidence, it obscures the real reasons so many students struggle, and it prevents us from finding solutions that can work.
The fact is, lots of poor white kids also don’t do well on standardized tests. Children whose parents are highly educated can effortlessly absorb the kind of knowledge and vocabulary that tests—and high school textbooks—assume they know. Others rely on school for that. And elementary schools don’t provide it because of mistaken beliefs that it’s not important or that young children can’t handle it—especially if it has to do with history.
Instead, schools waste precious hours on illusory reading comprehension “skills” like “finding the main idea,” sending students to upper grades without the background knowledge to understand and retain the material they’re suddenly expected to learn. Children of color may feel more engaged when they learn about people who look like them, but engagement doesn’t guarantee learning. Unless schools also give children access to academic knowledge in the early grades—as an increasing number are doing—their true intellectual potential will never be unlocked.
Beyond the direct impact of this small grant program, the DOE’s endorsement of CRT-related ideas could encourage more schools to adopt them. But you could also argue they don’t need a boost from the federal government: teacher-preparation programs and education thought leaders have already embraced these concepts, and they’re spreading rapidly. At the same time, they’ve sparked enormous—and misguided—backlash from conservatives, with state legislatures calling for banning critical race theory and the 1619 Project from classrooms. Many teachers and administrators aren’t on board either: one survey that asked educators what qualities they wanted in instructional materials found that fewer than 25% chose antiracist and culturally responsive. Even parents who consider themselves progressive have been troubled by curricula and instruction that seem to amount to indoctrination.
By unnecessarily taking a stand on these issues, the DOE risks pushing centrists to the right: one recent poll found that increasing numbers of Republicans and independents say Biden is too liberal. In February of 2020, only 21% of independents held that view, as compared to 45% last month. If Democrats want to retain and expand their base—and help students—there are far more promising initiatives they could pursue.
Here’s an idea: prioritize applications for grants that would build children’s knowledge of U.S. history—and the civics that depends on that knowledge—beginning in kindergarten, by having teachers read aloud from engaging texts and lead thoughtful discussions of their content. Our systemic failure to do that is what is largely responsible for stubborn gaps in test scores and other measures of academic success—and widespread ignorance of history.