A new review of states' learning standards brings fresh insight — and facts — to the heated debate over critical race theory (CRT) and America's K-12 schools.
Critical race theory is an academic approach that looks at how race and racism has shaped U.S. institutions — and the discourse around it has been hard to miss. Some families, mostly white, accuse K-12 schools of teaching children to be ashamed of their race and their country. Many educators and school leaders insist they're simply teaching U.S. history, and that they are victims in a culture war drummed up by conservative activists.
Into this fight arrives a 377-page review of states' U.S. history and civics standards that eschews politics for a deep-dive into what states say kids should actually be learning.
Learning standards act as a kind of lighthouse for schools, guiding curriculum, the creation of textbooks and, ultimately, teaching itself. They might not be a thrilling read, but they do provide vital context for this roiling CRT debate — because they are the clearest view we have of a state's values. Where else but Texas would standards require that first-graders understand the contributions of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and ... Sam Houston, a leader of the Texas Revolution?
Better yet, while many educators and activists have argued that students everywhere should learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Oklahoma requires it in its fifth grade history standards. Yes, the language still uses "riot" to describe the slaughter of as many as 300 Black Tulsans, but a follow-up standard demands that classrooms examine "the role labels play in understanding historic events, for example 'riot' versus 'massacre.' " If the former suggests Oklahoma's continued reluctance to speak honestly of its painful past, the latter shines a hot light on that reluctance and invites students to pick it apart.
For this new survey, reviewers rated the U.S. history and civics standards for all 50 states and Washington, D.C., giving them letter grades — A through F — for things like depth and clarity.
At the top, earning As, were Alabama, California, D.C., Massachusetts and Tennessee. At the bottom, 10 states earned Fs, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Alaska. In the case of Alaska, the reviewers quipped, "The Lower Forty-Eight states sometimes seem to forget that Alaska exists — and judging from its social studies standards, the state seems determined to return the favor."
Ten more states scored no better than Ds.
"Unfortunately, what I found is that [the low-rated standards] tended to be broad and vague, not specific enough," says José Gregory, who has taught high school U.S. history for nearly 20 years and was one of the reviewers for the report, which comes from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Though Fordham is a conservative-leaning think tank, a handful of experts told NPR the survey is nonpartisan and worth taking seriously.
"I'm really worried," says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University. "If you don't teach about race and racism in American history, past and present, I don't know what the hell you're teaching. It's not the truth."
Jeffries says the fight over critical race theory is, essentially, about how schools teach about race and racism. And that is deeply informed by what states do — and do not — include in their U.S. history and civics standards.
In Texas, students learn about the Civil War before they learn about slavery
Since its last survey, in 2011, Fordham says states' handling of race and racism — for example, slavery and Jim Crow — has improved, though many states' standards are still vague or disjointed.
Texas, for example, wants fifth-graders to "explain the central role of the expansion of slavery in causing sectionalism, disagreement over states' rights, and the Civil War." But students aren't expected to learn about slavery itself — including "the development of the plantation system, the transatlantic slave trade, and the spread of slavery" — until three years later, in eighth grade.
"I cannot teach students about the emancipation without talking about slavery itself," says reviewer José Gregory, who currently teaches AP U.S. History in Georgia. "I cannot talk about civil rights and the movement for equality without discussing Jim Crow."
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