Revising America’s Racist PastHistorians in the News
tags: curriculum, culture war, teaching history, critical race theory
Spiked drafts. Allegations of political interference. Confusing terminology. And thousands of angry comments: The volatile debate over how to teach about America’s racist past is wreaking havoc on states’ processes for deciding what students will learn about history and social studies.
In state after state, commentators and politicians contended that proposed expectations for social studies embedded “critical race theory”—even as the educators sitting on the panels writing the new standards defended them for providing an honest, if sometimes challenging, view of America.
Education Week reviewed hundreds of standards and thousands of pages of public comment relating to the standards-writing processes in South Dakota, Louisiana, and New Mexico, all of which took up revisions in 2021, and interviewed writers, educators, and state officials. Across the three states, we found:
- None of the three states’ drafts mentioned the term critical race theory, but in written comments, people attacked dozens of standards in Louisiana’s and New Mexico’s drafts for purportedly embedding it.
- In South Dakota, state officials removed about 20 references to Native Americans from the draft submitted by the standards-writing panel—then scotched the draft altogether.
- The critiques about CRT in Louisiana led the writers to recast some standards and to delete others. And public comment protocols in Louisiana were changed out of fear for the writers’ physical safety.
- The teaching method of having students take civic action to address classroom and local problems—an approach some conservatives contend is indoctrination—was mysteriously cut from both Louisiana’s and South Dakota’s drafts.
- About 1 in 10 of some 2,900 pages of comments on the New Mexico standards referenced CRT, often citing language in the draft about “social justice,” “group identity,” and “critical consciousness.” Those terms also attracted confusion from district leaders wondering how those tenets should be taught.
The findings illustrate how the fallout from the confusing and often misleading debate about CRT stands to alter history education in U.S. schools through subtle—but material—changes to day-to-day teaching expectations.
Editors note: This piece includes extensive discussion of specific state education standards and the public comments on those standards during their approval process. It is highly recommended for readers to click through to read the whole essay, which demonstrates how a culture war issue has real and material effects on the teaching of history.
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