We have been inundated of late with alarming stories about the radical transformation of schooling in the wake of George Floyd’s death last summer and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. To mention just a few: We hear of third-graders in Cupertino, California (home of Apple) forced to discuss their racial and sexual identities and rank themselves according to their “power and privilege.” We read about a New York City principal asking parents to determine which of eight “white identities” best describes them—from “white supremacist” to “white abolitionist”—and seeking their commitment to “dismantling whiteness and not allowing whiteness to reassert itself.” And we’ve seen reports of an Arizona state education department’s “equity toolkit” titled “They’re not too young to talk about race!” which recommends that white parents “can and should begin addressing issues of race and racism early, even before their children can speak.”

The daily drumbeat suggests there has been a violent leftward lurch in public education in the past year, but is it really something new? Critical race theory and “anti-racism” came to dominate K–12 education in two ways: gradually, then suddenly.

From the nation’s founding through the mid-19th century, education theorists from Benjamin Rush to Horace Mann hewed to the notion that a republic cannot long remain ignorant and free—hence the need for free and universal public education. From these founding ideals of citizen-making, Americans drifted over time to see education as serving chiefly private purposes, even if it also advances the commonweal. We expect schools to help our children get along with others and prepare academically for college and career, and to otherwise shepherd them toward a fruitful adult life. But as a profession, education has a long history of seeing schools as agencies to promote whatever was on the mind of “progressive” reformers of the era—from abolition, temperance, and turning immigrants into assimilated English-speaking citizens over a century ago, to promoting bilingualism and raising awareness of climate change more recently. As the education-reform veteran Chester E. Finn Jr. observes, “schools have long seemed like a swell place for adult causes to try to enlist kids.”

Education’s present focus is identifying and correcting racial inequity. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the current racialized view of American K–12 education and its outcomes is the exclusive project of classroom radicals and doctrinaire race and gender-studies theorists. A generation of teachers, administrators, and policymakers has been trained, encouraged, and even required by law to view their work through the lens of racial disparity. The “woke” revolution roiling our schools, with its Manichean view of oppressors vs. oppressed, is an overnight development that has been decades in the making. “Wokeness” on college campuses seeped into teacher training decades ago, while university schools of education have long seen themselves as an instrument for remaking society along lines more congenial to social justice activists.

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LET’S START with California. Over the past two decades, its test scores, which once led the nation, have flagged. Its long-standing dominion over textbook content, which came about because of the sheer size of the state’s student population, has faded thanks to technology-driven changes in the publishing market. But now it has once again become a K–12 bellwether owing to the adoption by the state’s board of education in March of a controversial ethnic-studies curriculum. For now, that curriculum is voluntary, but not for long. A law that would have required every student in the state to take and pass a one-semester ethnic-studies course in order to graduate was vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom last year, but it has been reintroduced and is widely expected to pass. Many districts are moving forward anyway. Ethnic studies will be a graduation requirement in Los Angeles schools starting with the 2023–24 school year. Fresno, the state’s third-largest district, will require two semesters of ethnic studies starting this fall.

California’s “model curriculum” was met with intense debate and criticism when the initial draft was released in 2019. The state’s department of education received over 21,000 comments on the document, most criticizing it as one-sided or prejudiced. Jewish groups insisted the curriculum didn’t accurately reflect the American Jewish experience, and contained anti-Semitic lessons and ideas, including references to Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Since then, activists, advocates, and angry Twitter mobs have waged war over subsequent drafts, arguing over which groups and people deserved greater representation, and which offensive or misleading portrayals should be massaged or removed. 

But these battles, however earnestly fought, betray a fundamental misunderstanding about what gets taught, and how difficult it is to keep inaccurate and even pernicious ideas out of American classrooms. Curricula are not handed down to teachers on stone tablets. Indeed, they are seldom, perhaps never, taught as written. What gets in front of students in most American classrooms is largely up to teacher discretion, making it nearly impossible to control—or even monitor—the content of children’s education or the ideals and values being valorized by their teachers. If the many factions battling over California’s model curriculum did so believing the fight would determine the shape that ethnic studies will take in classrooms, they were almost certainly mistaken.

Nearly every teacher in America—99 percent of elementary teachers, 96 percent of secondary-school teachers—draws upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts, according to a RAND Corporation study. Google and Pinterest are the two most common sources of curricular materials cited by teachers. Nearly three out of four social-studies teachers in a separate RAND report agreed with the statement “Textbooks are becoming less and less important in my classroom.” Materials that teachers “found, modified, or created from scratch” make up the majority of what gets taught. Only one in four secondary-school social-studies teachers cited resources “provided by my school or district” as composing the majority of what they use in class on a given day.

Moreover, all this curriculum curation, creation, customization, and tinkering is not regarded as a flaw, but a feature of classroom practice. Teachers are trained to “differentiate instruction,” adapting or supplementing the curriculum to make it more engaging, accessible, or challenging based on the needs of individual students. Academic standards like Common Core mostly dictate the “skills” students are expected to demonstrate; they are largely silent on the specific content kids should learn. These practices and habits weigh heavily on the use of controversial curricula, whether officially “adopted” or not. Outsiders assume far more top-down control over classroom content than actually exists. 

A good example of the “choose your own adventure” nature of curricula and instruction is the New York Times’ hotly debated 1619 Project, a conscious bid to “reframe” the conception of America from a democratic republic founded in 1776 to a “slavocracy” that began with the arrival of the first Africans in 1619. It put forth several widely discredited ideas as fact, including that the American Revolution was fought primarily to preserve slavery, and the claim of provocateur Nikole Hannah-Jones that “for the most part…black Americans fought back alone” against racism. The Wall Street Journal quoted Civil War historian James McPherson, who criticized the project’s “implicit position that there have never been any good white people, thereby ignoring white radicals and even liberals who have supported racial equality.”

Given these charged assertions, intense and acrimonious debate, and the 1619 Project’s dour view of American history, one might expect school boards, districts, and schools to exercise care and caution before formally adopting it for classroom use. And this appears to be so. A vanishingly small number of school districts has expressly authorized it for use in their schools, including Chicago, Buffalo, and Newark, New Jersey. However, the website for the Pulitzer Center, which partnered with the Times to produce a free and downloadable 1619 Project curriculum for K–12 classrooms, says it’s in use in all 50 states. There is no reason to suspect that the Pulitzer Center is exaggerating its claim to have “connected 4,500 classrooms…with the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones and her collaborators.” It’s a telltale glimpse of how controversial materials find their way into American classrooms. Teachers are doing what teachers do: searching, sampling, looking for lessons and readings on a given day to engage students, differentiate instruction, or launch a classroom discussion. It is impossible to know with any confidence the conditions under which selections from the 1619 Project are being introduced or discussed, what other readings are also assigned, or if any opposing points of view are offered. The classroom is a black box. Teachers, either individually or in grade-level or subject-matter “teams,” decide for themselves what gets read, discussed, and put in front of children—with little if any oversight. 

Compare California’s ethic-studies “model curriculum” with a more familiar example: the Advanced Placement, or AP, program. It is commonly assumed that the course content of an AP class is the same, regardless of where it is taught or by whom. However, the College Board (which administers the AP test) issues only curriculum “frameworks.” There are no mandatory sequences of lessons, texts, and assignments. The standardized end-of-course AP exam creates an incentive to follow the framework so that students can earn college credit with a passing score. No such normalizing pressure would exist in California. There is no reason to expect any two ethnic-studies classes offered anywhere in the state—or any state—to be the same or even similar. Without the restraining effect of a single final exam, it will fall entirely to the attitudes, beliefs, and discernment of individual teachers—and in some cases their whims and prejudices—to fulfill ethnic-studies requirements, with no clear and reliable visibility for parents, taxpayers, and other “stakeholders.”

California’s effort is the most far-reaching ethnic-studies initiative, but it’s not unique. When he was Connecticut’s education commissioner, Miguel Cardona—now Joe Biden’s secretary of education—oversaw the creation of America’s first state-mandated ethnic-studies course, which Max Eden of the American Enterprise Institute derided as “an intellectually shoddy exercise in ideological indoctrination.” Cardona’s Department of Education cannot impose an ethnic-studies mandate on the states, but Eden speculates that Cardona “could advocate for it from the bully pulpit of his Cabinet-level position and use other levers at his disposal, most notably the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, to advance critical race ideology in K–12 schools.” In many instances, he would be preaching to the choir: At least eight other states, including Texas, Virginia, Vermont, and Oregon already require schools to offer some form of ethnic studies as an elective, with more on the way.

The immense variability of the quality and content of schooling between and within states, districts, and schools, even across the hall in the same school, is an unintended consequence of how America organizes and runs public education—and one that contributes to the challenge of influencing (or even knowing) what gets taught. Other nations’ school systems tend to be more pluralistic than those in the U.S., with all manner of schools, even private and parochial schools, eligible for government support. But unlike many other countries, the U.S. lacks a national curriculum. The words “school” and “education” do not even appear in the U.S. Constitution. The result is 13,000 American school districts, each under state and local control.

But the crazy-quilt variability of public education is in one significant way still quite surprising. The tradition of “academic freedom” that protects classroom speech and course content in higher education generally doesn’t apply to K–12 public-school teachers. Courts have repeatedly affirmed that local school boards wield nearly complete power to set curricula. In the eyes of the law, public-school teachers are considered “hired speech.” In 2007, for example, the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of a former Indiana teacher who claimed to have lost her job because she criticized the impending Iraq war in ways that upset students and parents. “The First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system,” a three-judge federal appeals panel said unanimously. Such decisions should, at least in theory, inhibit teachers from introducing controversial material without proper vetting or from being overtly opinionated on sensitive subjects.

It is no defense for teachers to claim, as they often do, that they are expressing their personal views in solidarity with students. During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, a California math teacher earned tens of thousands of Twitter “likes” and retweets when he asked with anguish what he was supposed to say to his students if Kavanaugh was confirmed. Some wondered why a math teacher would feel compelled to raise the subject at all. Joshua Dunn, a political-science professor at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, describes such displays as an unacceptable form of “moral grandstanding” by teachers. But the well-established limits on teacher speech and conduct have not inhibited a significant number of educators who are inclined to view moral grandstanding as not a problem in teaching, but rather the point.

Heather Levine, an English teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts, ignited a social-media firestorm last year when she tweeted that she was “Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!” She is part of a movement called #DisruptTexts, which describes itself as “a crowdsourced, grassroots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon” and to “aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices.” When a writer with the Wall Street Journal contacted her about it, Levine huffed that she found her inquiry “invasive.” When the piece criticizing #DisruptTexts appeared, she took to Twitter again to complain that she had been named and her tweet had been quoted “without my knowledge or consent”—suggesting the degree to which she assumed complete control with no public scrutiny, even of words she wrote online for all the world to see. The decision to drop Homer, she explained, was simply a choice made by her school’s ninth grade team. “It was not a blanket school or district-wide decision and any teacher, including myself, would still be more than welcome to teach from the text,” Levine wrote.

It would obviously be impractical for school boards to weigh in on every instructional decision made in the schools they oversee. But given the weight of court decisions and divisive debates over curricula, simple prudence would seem to suggest a minimal level of professional awareness that potentially controversial instructional decisions might require some level of approval or authorization from a school administrator or district supervisor. Levine’s what’s-the-big-deal explanation was intended to reassure. But it raises more questions than it answers. Where do teachers get the idea that they have the right—even the duty—to “disrupt texts,” challenge the canon, or engage in vocal “allyship” with their students?

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WE SHOULD NOT assume that all, or even most, of America’s nearly 4 million classroom teachers are closet activists or social-justice warriors determined to indoctrinate impressionable children in the woke catechism of the radical left. They are merely doing what they have been trained, encouraged, and habituated to do at every stage of their careers, starting in ed school.

University schools of education enjoy a near-monopoly on teacher training and credentialing in the U.S. By the time the American Educational Research Association issued its comprehensive review of teacher education in 2005, it reported that “over the last decade or so conceptualizing teaching and teacher education in terms of social justice has been the central animating idea for education scholars and practitioners who connect their work to larger critical movements. Advocates of a social justice agenda want teachers to be professional educators as well as activists committed to diminishing the inequities of American society.” Remember: That report came out 16 years ago. So if critical race theory is new to you, it means you haven’t set foot in a college of education in the past 30 years. When I received my own master’s degree in elementary education 20 years ago, my portfolio was judged in part on how well my work demonstrated a “commitment to social justice” as a disposition expected of teachers who can become “agents of change.” In the early 20th century, George S. Counts, the intellectual forefather of critical pedagogy and among the most prominent education thinkers of his time, was proposing that teachers and schools “dare to build a new social order.”

This social reordering and change agentry is not the exclusive hobby horse of the progressive left. The activist conception of the teaching profession actually dovetailed with the agenda of the education-reform movement, beloved by many conservatives, which was at the peak of its power, prestige, and moral authority in the first decade of this century. Union-free charter schools staffed by earnest and hard-charging Teach For America corps members who were determined to attack and reverse the “soft bigotry of low expectations” made media darlings of high-performing charter schools like KIPP and Success Academy. Movies such as Waiting for Superman helped build bipartisan support for the reform agenda of charter schools, standardized testing, and teacher accountability. The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act explicitly made “closing the achievement gap…especially the achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students” a matter of national urgency.

Writing in National Review in 2015, the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess described the bipartisan détente that allowed the reform agenda to set the tone for public education for most of this century: “Conservatives embraced education as the foundation of an opportunity society and a path to eventually shrinking the welfare state. Liberals approached schooling as a way to address poverty.” To forge this consensus, “conservative reformers made several key concessions,” Hess wrote. “They accepted a massive increase in federal authority, an expansion of race-conscious accountability systems, and a prohibition on talk of parental responsibility and the virtues of the traditional family.” Liberal reformers gave up less ground. “They mostly toned down their demands for new public programs and took care not to accuse their conservative allies of bigotry,” Hess observed. 

In sum, professional education emphasizing social-justice imperatives and more than two decades of public policy aimed at gap-closing had racialized K–12 education long before “critical race theory” became a buzz phrase and a political football. If you are under age 40 and work in an American school—public, private, or charter—you likely have no professional memory of a time when ending racial inequity was not the primary focus of your field. The anodyne language of “anti-racism” (who isn’t opposed to racism?) merely lands as the latest effort in a decades-long effort to improve education outcomes for students of color, among the least likely to have received a rich and rigorous education, or to have been launched from their K–12 public school on a path to equal opportunity, upward mobility, and fair and equal treatment in civil society. Teachers cannot have failed to learn that among their profession’s most solemn obligations is to close the achievement gap. Until recently, that has meant some combination of higher standards, testing, improved teacher quality, rich and rigorous curricula, or enhanced school choice for low-income families, among other favored programs and policies.

Ibram X. Kendi, the leading figure in the “anti-racism” movement, is not interested in closing the achievement gap. Neither is he concerned with raising achievement among black and brown students—at least by any measure known to social science. “Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies,” insists the author of How to Be an Antiracist. Neither is it merely the tests that are racist; no, it’s the achievement gap itself. “To believe in the existence of any sort of racial hierarchy is actually to believe in a racist idea,” Kendi writes. “The achievement gap between the races–with Whites and Asians at the top and Blacks and Latinos at the bottom–is a racial hierarchy. And this popular racial hierarchy has been constructed by our religious faith in standardized testing.” 

Even by the standards of testing critics, who are legion, this is a remarkable assertion. Forget our long obsession with gap-closing and teaching for social justice. The mere belief in the existence of an achievement gap is transmuted into racism. “Our faith in standardized tests causes us to believe that the racial gap in test scores means something is wrong with the Black test takers–and not the tests,” Kendi writes. But this is poor scholarship at best, and at worst a deliberate falsehood. The vast weight of education policy, practice, and reform efforts has rested on precisely the opposite assumption: that there is nothing wrong with black test takers. The presence of measurable disparities in student achievement has been broadly viewed by generations of education reformers as evidence of systematic failure: of teachers, schools, and districts. These are adult failures all. The children are blameless.

Denying the existence of such gaps or casting even the discussion of them as racist has proved to be too much even for some progressives. Writing in the Washington Post, Matthew Yglesias noted: “The fact remains that if African American children continue to be less likely to learn to read and write and do math than White children, and less likely to graduate from high school, then this will contribute to other unequal outcomes down the road,” including the ability to organize politically and effectively navigate the world beyond school. “Stigmatizing the use of test scores and grades to measure learning undermines policymakers’ ability to make the case for reforms to promote equity,” Yglesias concluded, including “combating racially biased low expectations among teachers.”

Alas, high expectations for black and brown children are now an object of suspicion. In 2019, New York City Department of Education leaders attended a workshop where they were told that values such as hard work, individualism, objectivity, and “worship of the written word” were hallmarks of “white supremacy culture.” Under Cindy Marten, Biden’s pick for deputy education secretary, San Diego’s effort to become “an antiracist school district” prohibits teachers from factoring into students’ grades their classroom behavior and whether or not they turned in assignments. The pernicious effects of this line of thought were unintentionally revealed by a white high-school student who told a local TV station that inequities are so strong that it’s “not fair of us to put forth policies that only cater to the students that are able to meet these requirements.” 

If veteran educators have responded with dismay, even horror, at the tortured logic of “whiteness” as the theory that explains all ills in education, it’s because it threatens to erase, at a stroke, decades of efforts on behalf of minority children. The most improbable triumph of the anti-racist orthodoxy promoted by Kendi and his acolytes has been in schools that until now have been proof points of its emptiness. If any institutions in American education have earned the right in the past 30 years to claim the title as genuinely “anti-racist,” it’s the networks of high-performing urban charter-school networks such as KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and others. KIPP, which runs nearly 250 schools in 20 states, has had unparalleled success in ushering low-income black and brown students to and through college, but last summer, co-founder David Levin issued a public apology for building KIPP on “white supremacy and anti-Blackness.” The network announced it was retiring its trademark “Work Hard. Be Nice” slogan because, Levin said, it “supports the illusion of meritocracy…ignores the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism,” and places a value on “being compliant and submissive.” This was a stunning repudiation of the core values that have made KIPP a magnet for parents of color desperate for an alternative to chaotic and disorderly neighborhood schools where low expectations, for staff and students alike, have been the rule for generations.

The founder of one urban charter network told me recently of his struggle to reconcile the desires of low-income black and brown parents “who are bought into the American Dream, hard work, education, character building, and rigor” with pressure from a vocal group of privileged and progressive teachers who bridle against his schools’ traditional curriculum and high academic expectations. “However, I really don’t know any other way to improve students’ future lives other than a rigorous education,” he said.

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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. 

But this grim orthodoxy has been gaining ground in American K–12 education for two generations, and the challenge of dislodging it from schools should not be underestimated. While some states like California weigh ethnic-studies mandates, others, like Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, and New Hampshire, are debating measures “banning” schools altogether from teaching critical race theory and curricula like the 1619 Project. “There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. “Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.” Although well-intentioned and reflecting the discomfort many parents feel with regard to what their children are being taught, such measures erode freedom of expression and would be exceedingly difficult to enforce. It is simply not possible to ban a perspective from schools, particularly one that has been embraced for so long by so many educators. 

The picture that emerges, finally, is of an education system drifting into conflict with the ambitions of parents for their children and the public purpose of preparing America’s children for productive adulthood and engaged citizenship. However well-intended their motivations might be, individual teachers cannot assume for themselves powers and privileges that are not theirs to assume. In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi writes, “If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist.” Taken seriously, this is a direct encouragement for schools to treat children differently based on their race. Elsewhere he states the remedy to his unusually expansive definition of racism even more directly: “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” 

It is unlikely that ordinary Americans, if they follow this idea where it leads—schools making a virtue of treating children differently based on race alone—will abide sending their children to consciously “anti-racist” schools. The immense disparities in talent and skill of the nation’s massive corps of teachers and the fad-driven nature of education make it inevitable that there will continue to be bizarre applications of its tenets, such as teaching children chants to Aztec gods, teachers calling students not “boys and girls” but “social-justice warriors,” or professional-development sessions aimed at getting teachers to reckon with the effects of their “whiteness.” Adherents may complain that such incidents are a distraction or examples of poor implementation of a subtle and nuanced suite of ideas. But as long as public education runs on tax dollars and public goodwill, the anti-racist “equity” agenda and the broader impulse toward “equality” will continue to be in tension with each other. School-choice adherents see in all this an argument for school choice, but as Bari Weiss has documented, elite private schools have drunk even more deeply of anti-racism pedagogy and curricula than have public and charter schools. 

Ultimately, something has to give. The cost of public education is socialized in America; you pay school taxes regardless of whether or not you have children in public school or have children at all. If our schools encourage a belief that the United States is a fundamentally racist country, and that every institution is designed to maintain white supremacy and cannot be reformed, then it inevitably sets schools on a collision course with the society that supports them. Whether it’s a conscious institutional attempt to be “anti-racist” or merely that an intellectual monoculture has taken root among educators, the effect will be akin to an organism devouring its host. No sane nation will long tolerate an institution whose purpose is to set its children against itself at public expense.

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