Who’s Indoctrinating Whom?

The best way I can express it, I think, is that I have always wanted to be smart.

“Always” in the sense of whenever I first had something like independent awareness, which I assume occurred gradually as my autonomous self slowly and painfully separated myself from the powerful urge to remain at the center of my mother’s universe.

I idealized being “smart,” and thus “knowing stuff,” as essential for that autonomy.

I have never wanted to be smart to lord it over others (although I am still accused of being arrogant, a misreading of passion, I think), but I have always sought out and consumed knowledge as my lifelong quest to be my own person.

This urge has put me in a sort of Emerson/Thoreau camp that cherishes the individual mind and rejects organizations and group-think—a sort of libertarian intellectualism that now sits uncomfortably where that intellectual individuality has led me.

Over my first couple years of college—spent at a junior college where more of my energy was dedicated to playing pick-up basketball and drinking beer than my studies—I was eagerly reading and studying on my own existential philosophy and literature.

On the day Ronald Reagan was shot, I sat in the college library reading Sartre.

My mind and soul teetered on a dangerous edge during my teen years and into early adulthood; I was a perfect candidate for the sort of adolescent Ayn Rand know-it-all-ism many young white men fall into—and never escape.

Something, maybe just dumb luck, never allowed me to stop learning and thinking; something never allowed me to think I was “finished” learning or to assume that my current state of knowing was finished.

This is where my story includes Karl Marx. This is where the story of my mind looks absolutely nothing like what conservative Americans think Marxism and “critical” look like.

I found a copy of Marx’s non-economic writing that included a section on education. Having grown up in the rural South in the 1960s and 1970s, I picked up Marx with all the misconceptions you can imagine about communism, socialism, and such.

That paperback still sits on my shelf in my office and is heavily underlined with (mostly embarrassing) comments scribbled in the margins.

Just as I self-taught about existentialism, I was becoming a Marxist educator on my own time while I went through my final 2.5 years of college, majoring in secondary English education.

My certification program was extremely moderate even though my education professors were uniformly white progressives who tip-toed around being confrontational or in any way revolutionary.

These experiences were steeped in idealism and painful naivety.

I entered the K-12 classroom as a high school English teacher in 1984, none the less, with the belief that I could help change the lives of my students and even change the world. This ambition was based on my own experiences since my life was profoundly changed by formal education, teachers and professors, and my own relentless self-education.

That belief was grounded in wanting not to shape what my students thought but in helping them develop the tools needed for how to think independently, including how to step back from beliefs and assumptions about the world in order to make their knowledge their own.

As an English teacher, I knew those tools were mostly literacy—reading and writing as essential for human autonomy and dignity.

Over about a decade, I did this work often badly but with a great deal of earnestness. College had humbled me so I was determined to help my students avoid skipping off to college with the sort of redneck provincialism that had shot out of my mouth in several college classes.

Again, contrary to what conservatives often claim, the only places I was indoctrinated had been in my home, my community, and my church. The students in my hometown had also experienced mostly authoritarian homes, authoritarian schools and classes, and authoritarian churches.

They had lived unexamined lives because that had been demanded of them.

At times, then, I was a very unpopular redneck among rednecks.

Things changed dramatically for me as a person, an educator, and a scholar when I entered my doctoral program in 1995.

Dots were connected from those naive days reading the non-economic writings of Marx and discovering that a complex and vibrant world of Marxist education scholars existed.

Reading Paulo Freire was switching on a light in my brain and my soul. Freire had thought through all the lazy and careless ideas that had led me to the classroom. But Freire also confirmed that my intentions were valid even as they needed a great deal of development and rethinking.

Another decade passed before one of my scholarly mentors, Joe Kincheloe, wrote exactly what it means to be a critical educator, an explanation that expresses almost perfectly the critical educator I had become:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

Critical pedagogy was, then, a body of thought that aggressively rejected indoctrination and recognized that traditional approaches to education were in fact mostly indoctrination, as Kincheloe adds:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

In the most succinct expression of what it means to be a critical educator, Kincheloe concludes, ““Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

As a critical educator whose teaching and scholarship are informed by Marxist ideology (although not exclusively), I enter my 40th year watching conservatives and Republicans present a cartoon version of what I actually practice in order to institutionalize further the indoctrination they seek.

Who’s indoctrinating whom?

If Republicans and conservatives have it their way, it will be conservatives indoctrinating everyone.

So here are the commitments of my work as a critical educator and scholar, commitments that refute the many and ugly lies coming from Republicans and conservative talking heads:

  • The most sacred thing is the autonomy of the human mind and life, especially when a person with power has authority over children and young adults.
  • The work of being “critical” must interrogate the role of power in all human action—who has power over whom and why.
  • Any idea or system that has become “normal” or dominant must be challenged regularly in order to protect the sacred nature of human autonomy.
  • All human interaction is political and no human action is “objective.”
  • The needs and interests of all and the needs and interests of one are not mutually exclusive, but interrelated realities that must be openly and freely negotiated by humans with protected autonomy (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).
  • Love and kindness are the very best qualities of humans.

And the ultimately irony, I think, is that we critical educators are the ones most dedicated to the pursuit of democracy, as Freire expains:

To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (p. 41)

Teachers As Cultural Workers, Paulo Freire

Today in the U.S. we have a choice to make between “the myths that deform us” and the possibility of a democracy yet realized.

But without critical education, there will only be those myths.

Dear Parents, Your Children’s K-12 Education Is Already Very Conservative

I entered public education in the fall of 1984, a naive and idealistic first-year English teacher vividly aware of the literary significance of that year.

Of course, I was not yet aware that I was completely wrong about the essential purposes of public education because I had been gifted parents who trusted not only my intellect but the foundational good of knowledge and academic freedom.

My parents were wrong about quite a lot, it turns out, but they were magnificent in the freedom they allowed my mind and the support they gave to my often wonderful teachers.

The first few years of my teaching career included a series of visits to the principal’s office to discuss complaints from parents. It was something akin to the hazing period people experience when joining fraternities.

One of the earliest clashes I had with parents—and I should note that my students were often deeply appreciative of my classes, supportive of the work I was doing—centered on complaints about my assigning John Gardner’s Grendel to my advanced tenth graders (students on track to take Advanced Placement their senior year).

Grendel is a retelling of the Beowulf epic poem in novel form, and it does include a few graphic scenes and some so-called adult language. But these were 15 and 16 year olds planning to go to college, and unbeknownst to their parents, many of these students were sexually active and used language that was far more profane that the few “offensive” words in the novel. (Treating young adults as intellectual children when they are asserting adult behavior in their lives outside of school is inexcusable, I think.)

Yet, a few (maybe only two) parents launched a campaign to teach this new teacher a lesson about what parents expected from their children’s teachers.

Of course, the short version of this is that the novel was removed from my required list (although I left copies on my shelf and many students continued to choose the novel along with many other commonly banned works).

This pattern continued for several years: I was challenging my students intellectually, often seeking ways to prepare them for college, and parents here and there asserted disproportionate influence on whether or not I was allowed to do my work as an educator.

A key moment in those first years was me sitting once again in the principal’s office listening to Mr. Simpkins (also the man who was principal when I attended this school and father of two of my childhood friends) chastise me about crossing lines parents created; these sessions were also punctuated with not-so-subtle threat that my teaching career could be ended at any moment (South Carolina is a right-to-work state, by the way).

One time, exasperated, I responded with, “Mr. Simpkins, I am simply trying to teach these students to think.”

With a half-smile and without hesitation, Mr. Simpkins replied, “Paul, some parents don’t want their children to think.”

It is important to emphasize here that his comment carried the implication “and thus, we have no right to make those students think.”

Fast forward almost 40 years, over which I have been in education in SC the entire time, and consider that those experiences I encountered in the mid-1980s are now how the entire nation is dealing with K-12 education in the U.S.

Republicans are creating a false narrative about public schools indoctrinating students in leftwing ideologies (often mislabeled as Critical Race Theory or Marxism) and whipping up parental anger at their local schools.

And the paradox, of course, is that Republicans are passing and signing legislation that is designed to indoctrinate:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced new state programs for students Tuesday that will require civics and patriotism education as well as CPR training.

“Once students graduate high school, some will go to college, some of them will do other things…whatever you do, this civics is gonna be relevant because you are going to be a citizen,” DeSantis said at an afternoon news briefing in Fort Myers.

It will also require high school students to learn about “the evils of communism and totalitarian ideologies.”

Florida will require schools to teach civics and ‘evils of communism’

Currently, about 25 states are doing something similar to Florida—mandating what and how schools teach about race, racism, and history.

Two points need to be made about these efforts.

First, K-12 public education in the U.S. has always been and remains very conservative.

Let me emphasize that my experience noted above is common for new teachers, who quickly learn to self-censor and avoid parental complaints and administrative reprimands.

As I have written about before, I taught with a wonderful young teacher, himself a well-known and well-loved active Christian in the church just across the street from the high school, who taught geography. He found himself “in trouble” because he taught Middle East geography, including how the countries were aligned with different religions.

One parent was outraged, and asked that his son be moved to another teacher because the parent didn’t want his son to know there were religions other than Christianity.

What did the principal do? Moved the student to a geography class taught by a coach (a very conservative man who taught in ways that would likely thrill Republicans).

This leads to a second point: Conservatives are deeply confused about indoctrination and education.

And a great example of that misconception comes from an unlikely place, a brilliant response from chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, about charges by Republicans that the military is “woke” (another misuse of a term designed by conservatives to be a criticism):

“I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding — having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?” Milley said.

He continued brusquely: “And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned, noncommissioned officers of being, quote, ‘woke’ or something else, because we’re studying some theories that are out there.”…

“I want to understand white rage, and I’m white, and I want to understand it,” he said. “So what is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out.”

Top General Defends Studying Critical Race Theory In The Military

Gen. Milley understands—like my parents—that knowledge, reading, and awareness are powerful, but that simply being exposed to an idea doesn’t mean anyone is immediately indoctrinated by those ideas.

Most of us have studied the Holocaust, and we know the ideology of Hitler and the Nazis. Yet, most people decide to reject those ideas and beliefs.

I also want to emphasize that Gen. Milley is defending academic freedom, the essential nature of an academic institution and the sacredness of the human mind.

These are concepts entirely lost on Republicans who seek ways to use schools to decide for students what they learn and what they believe.

I want to end by returning to the central point everyone should understand, especially parents: U.S. K-12 public education is extremely conservative.

A vivid example of that is the enduring ways that children are taught about Hellen Keller, through the play The Miracle Worker.

Keller has been and remains a tool of educational indoctrination aimed at inculcating into children a belief in rugged individualism; if a person such as Keller can overcome her many sensory challenges, the message goes, then anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

But just like the mis-teaching of Martin Luther King Jr. in public schools (the overemphasis on his “I Have a Dream” speech and the de-contextualizing of his “content of their character” assertion), Keller of The Miracle Worker is not the full and complicated (or even accurate) story of this woman.

Keller was a socialist and political activist—something I am certain most students never hear in a K-12 classroom.

The Miracle Worker is the sort of “safe” text that most teachers default to, like King’s “I Have a Dream,” in order to avoid the relentless interference of parents and administrators.

K-12 public education is mostly conservative because teachers learn to self-censor, to tip-toe around anything that the most extreme parents may complain about.

Critical Race Theory and liberal indoctrination simply do not exist in K-12 public schools in the U.S.

But there is a problem parents should be concerned about; your children are often being cheated out of knowledge and awareness because academic freedom died a long time ago when the first administrator defaulted to parental complaints at the expense of any student’s right to read and think widely and openly.

How I Teach about Race and Racism

My career as an educator has spanned five decades and included 18 years as a high school English teacher in rural upstate South Carolina and another 19 years (and counting) as a professor at a selective liberal arts college in the same area.

As a lifelong Southerner and a critical educator, I have always included lessons addressing social class and race in my classes when teaching high school and now as a university professor.

My goals as a high school English teacher concerning race and racism were primarily to introduce my students to the broad and complex range of Black writers and thinkers, including a historical overview of 20th century Black history that most of my students had never examined.

Students read Martin Luther King Jr. with Malcolm X, and we discussed the tensions among Black intellectuals such as Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington. They also read the literature of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambara, Countee Cullen, and Ralph Ellison.

This was my work toward diversifying the curriculum as an English/ELA teacher, and we definitely had some hard conversations about race and racism. Notably, I introduced my students to the power of racial majorities and minorities by examining the percentages of races among states in the U.S. compared to the U.S. as a nation (our home state of SC disproportionately included a much higher percentage of Black people that the U.S., about 30+% compared to 12%) and acknowledging that while white people were a significant majority in the U.S., white people are a small minority of races in the world.

Of course, these lessons are all based in facts and data along with highly regarded texts by the most accomplished writers and leaders among Black Americans in the history of the U.S. Nothing about these lessons was an effort to demonize white people or propagandize students; but my mission was certainly political in the sense that students had different worlds, ideas, and perspectives offered to them than in most high school English courses throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

As a critical educator, I see education as opportunity to question our assumptions and broaden our perspectives beyond our own race, social class, and geographical setting. I also respect that what ideas and belief students draw from the experiences is theirs to navigate.

But in terms of racism and all types of oppression and inequity, I never avoided confronting clear ethical and moral distinctions. There is not “both sides” to U.S. slavery just as there is no “both sides” to the Holocaust. This was SC and our conversations around the Civil War and the Confederate battle flag were very hard for many students who had been raised with profoundly distorted views of race and racism (states’ rights and Lost Cause perspectives).

Again, I did not badger or indoctrinate my students, but I did introduce them to the history of when and how the Confederate Battle flag was placed on the SC statehouse—as an act of rebellion against integration occurring in the 1960s (and not some historical remnant of the 1800s).

For these high school students, these lessons were primarily about awareness and rethinking assumptions and previously unexamined biases (and stereotypes).

My university courses almost always start with data, such as the following (see here):

Typically, I start these lessons by asking students if they had seen the typical charts showing that people tend to earn more money as their level of educational attainment increases; almost always, they nod that they have. I then ask what the first chart above suggests about “education being the great equalizer.”

Eventually, we agree that education does matter, but more education tends to give a person economic advantages within their race but not among races (in other words, education is not an equalizer in terms of racial inequity).

The second chart is even more powerful since we discuss the message students receive about the horrors of dropping out of high school (I teach at a selective college where students uncritically value education). That white people with no high school diploma have about the same opportunities for employment as Black people with some college is deeply disorienting for students.

The third chart, then, adds even more complexity to the messages students have received about education, race, and gender (note that the inequity of gender and race are intensified when combined).

These lessons are similar to how I addressed race and racism for high school students since I am not propagandizing students but offering a more complex and nuanced approach to race and history than they had experienced before.

Critical educators are apt to provide information often omitted in traditional classrooms.

These charts lead to discussion about race being a social construct (and not biological), systemic racism, white privilege, and unconscious bias.

And those discussions are not about blaming white people, or demonizing white people; they are ways to ask questions that recognize racial inequity and racism are not simply the result of individuals who are racists. We do address blame, but that focuses on behavior (not racial status) in terms of those who actively promote racism, those who passively promote racism, and those who actively acknowledge and resist racism.

We are ultimately interrogating the ways in which racial inequity is built into systems. I introduce students to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and have them consider inequities such as this:

rich black poor white prison

Again, we are examining data and asking questions—one of which is trying to understand why police are likely to do drug sweeps through poor Black neighborhoods and not affluent college campuses; in other words, criminality is not necessarily about individual behavior but about who and why people are targeted by police.

Finally, here is an important point that speaks to the current attacks by Republicans on critical race theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project: My teaching is very consistent over almost 40 years, but my lessons about race and racism in the 1980s and 1990s came before my doctoral program and before I was aware in any way of critical pedagogy and CRT.

The great and ugly irony here is that Republicans are not opposing CRT or the 1619 Project, but are trying to deny students historical facts and data that make them and their power uncomfortable. Republicans are unabashedly trying to politicize the classroom in order to protect their own power.

There is no grand conspiracy in K-12 or undergraduate education to blame all white people for racism; in fact, most students in K-16 education still receive content that under-represents Black people and racism and are taught by a disproportionately white faculty.

Most traditional education in the U.S. still centers whiteness and emphasizes equal opportunity and rugged individualism.

The current attack on CRT is an ugly political lie, but it is also an assault on education—one of the founding principles of the U.S. that Republicans seem far too eager to cancel.

The “Science of Reading”: A Reader for Educators

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care, P.L. Thomas

Fact Checking the “Science of Reading”: A Quick Guide for Teachers

Historical Context

What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium ( November 1942, The Elementary English Review, National Council of Teachers of English)

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41383425

Lou LaBrant on reading

Doing What Matters Most: Investing in Quality Teaching, Linda Darling Hammond (1997)

Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92: An Urban Legend from California, Stephen Krashen

Silver Bullets, Babies, and Bath Water: Literature Response Groups in a Balanced Literacy Program, Dixie Lee Spiegel (The Reading Teacher, 1998)

Literacy Crises: False Claims and Real Solutions, Jeff McQuillan

National Reading Panel (NRP)

The Federal Government Wants Me to Teach What?: A Teacher’s Guide to the National Reading Panel Report, Diane Stephens (NCTE, 2008)

Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Phonics, Elaine M. Garan (2001) https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/003172170108200705

Babes in the Woods: The Wanderings of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin, The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 83, No. 5 (Jan., 2002), pp. 364-369 https://www.jstor.org/stable/20440142

I Told You So! The Misinterpretation and Misuse of The National Reading Panel Report, Joanne Yatvin (Education Week)

My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel

“Science of Reading”

Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading” (NEPC)

The Critical Story of the “Science of Reading” and Why Its Narrow Plotline Is Putting Our Children and Schools at Risk

Perspective | Is there really a ‘science of reading’ that tells us exactly how to teach kids to read?

The Trouble With Binaries: A Perspective on the Science of Reading, David B. Yaden Jr., David Reinking, and Peter Smagorinsky

Where Is the Evidence? Looking Back to Jeanne Chall and Enduring Debates About the Science of Reading, Peggy Semingson and William Kerns

The Sciences of Reading Instruction, Rachael Gabriel (Educational Leadership)

The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading, Nell Duke and Kelly B. Cartwright

Science of Reading Advocates Have a Messaging Problem, Claude Goldenberg (Education Week)

MacPhee, D., Handsfield, L.J., & Paugh, P. (2021). Conflict or conversation? Media portrayals of the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, TBD. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.384

Bowers, J. S., & Bowers, P. N. (2021, January 22). The science of reading provides little or no support for the widespread claim that systematic phonics should be part of initial reading instruction: A response to Buckingham. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/f5qyu

Reading Policy

Making Early Literacy Policy Work: Three Considerations for Policymakers Based on Kentucky’s “Read to Succeed” Act (NEPC)

Red Flags, Red Herrings, and Common Ground: An Expert Study in Response to State Reading Policy


Phoney Phonics: How Decoding Came to Rule and Reading Lost Meaning (TCR)

The Phonics Debate: 2004, Stephen Krashen

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Stephen Krashen

Does Phonics Deserve the Credit for Improvement in PIRLS?, Stephen Krashen

Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction, Jeffrey S. Bowers (2020)

To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics, Andrew Davis

Cryonics Phonics: Inequality’s Little Helper, Gerald Coles

Grade Retention

UPDATED: Grade Retention Research https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/09/04/grade-retention-research/

Grade Retention:

Black students disproportionately retained (grades 3 and 4)

(USDOE/Office of Civil Rights) – Data 2017-2018


An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction, with Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon

Research Advisory: Dyslexia (ILA) (2016)

Emerging Bilinguals

Caught in the Crosshairs: Emerging Bilinguals and the Reading Wars (NEPC)


NEPC reviews of NCTQ reports

NCTQ on States’ Teacher Evaluation Systems’ Failures, Again

Measuring Up: The National Council on Teacher Quality’s Ratings of Teacher Preparation Programs and Measures of Teacher Performance


UPDATED: Mississippi Miracle or Mirage?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers

Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back

Understanding Critical Race Theory: A Reader for Educators

[Note: Access a PP of this material and more HERE]

Update 22 February 2022: What is critical race theory?

UPDATE: Understanding the Attacks on Critical Race Theory (NEPC)

While Republicans continue to claim the U.S. “is not a racist country” and passing legislation directly and indirectly banning critical race theory (CRT) and the 1619 project, the recent comments by former VP Mike Pence capture the real message behind these events:

For Republicans and conservatives who reject systemic racism as a “left-wing myth,” there remains a significant challenge: How can we explain the tremendous racial gaps (see below) that exist in the U.S. between Black and white Americans?

These attacks are directly effecting K-12 and higher education; therefore, educators must be well informed about these issues. Here are valuable resources for understanding CRT, the 1619 Project, and systemic racism:

Critical Race Theory

Why Critical Race Theory (CRT) is Controversial

A Lesson on Critical Race Theory

Perspective | Trump calls critical race theory ‘un-American.’ Let’s review.

Critical Race Theory

74 Interview: Researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings on Culturally Relevant Teaching, the Role of Teachers in Trump’s America & Lessons From Her Two Decades in Education Research

But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Gloria Ladson-Billings

Academic Who Brought Critical Race Theory To Education Says Bills Are Misguided

Code of Conduct: A Guide to Responsive Discipline

OPINION: Using critical race theory to understand the backlash against it

The Conspicuous Absence of Derrick Bell—Rethinking the CRT Debate, Part 1

What’s Really Behind the 1619 Backlash? An Interview With Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates

Watch “Critical Race Theory & Culturally Responsive Teaching: An Open Conversation About What the Right Gets Wrong” on #Vimeo

What Critical Race Theory Is, and What It Means for Teachers

Critical Race Theory: A Brief History

Critical Race Theory: What It Is. And What It Is Not. A Q&A with Adrienne Dixson (NEPC)

Busting Anti-Racist Education Myths, Rick Wormeli

The 1619 Project

1619 Project

What History Professors Really Think About ‘The 1619 Project’

Systemic Racism

7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real

Rate of fatal police shootings in the United States from 2015 to May 2021, by ethnicity

Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex

The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children

The social category “children” defines a group of individuals who are perceived to be distinct, with essential characteristics including innocence and the need for protection (Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst, 2000). The present research examined whether Black boys are given the protections of childhood equally to their peers. We tested 3 hypotheses: (a) that Black boys are seen as less “childlike” than their White peers, (b) that the characteristics associated with childhood will be applied less when thinking specifically about Black boys relative to White boys, and (c) that these trends would be exacerbated in contexts where Black males are dehumanized by associating them (implicitly) with apes (Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008). We expected, derivative of these 3 principal hypotheses, that individuals would perceive Black boys as being more responsible for their actions and as being more appropriate targets for police violence. We find support for these hypotheses across 4 studies using laboratory, field, and translational (mixed laboratory/field) methods. We find converging evidence that Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers. Further, our findings demonstrate that the Black/ape association predicted actual racial disparities in police violence toward children. These data represent the first attitude/behavior matching of its kind in a policing context. Taken together, this research suggests that dehumanization is a uniquely dangerous intergroup attitude, that intergroup perception of children is underexplored, and that both topics should be research priorities.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 526 –545

Characteristics of Public School Teachers

Figure 2. Percentage distribution of teachers in public elementary and secondary schools, by race/ethnicity: School years 1999–2000 and 2017–18

The Civil Rights Project: School Discipline

Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline

When the Best isn’t Good Enough: The Racial Representation Gap in Education

Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs

Students of color are underrepresented in gifted programs relative to White students, but the reasons for this underrepresentation are poorly understood. We investigate the predictors of gifted assignment using nationally representative, longitudinal data on elementary students. We document that even among students with high standardized test scores, Black students are less likely to be assigned to gifted services in both math and reading, a pattern that persists when controlling for other background factors, such as health and socioeconomic status, and characteristics of classrooms and schools. We then investigate the role of teacher discretion, leveraging research from political science suggesting that clients of government services from traditionally underrepresented groups benefit from diversity in the providers of those services, including teachers. Even after conditioning on test scores and other factors, Black students indeed are referred to gifted programs, particularly in reading, at significantly lower rates when taught by non-Black teachers, a concerning result given the relatively low incidence of assignment to own-race teachers among Black students.


What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap

Grade Retention and Expulsions/Suspensions: Black students disproportionately retained (grades 3 and 4) and expelled (USDOE/Office of Civil Rights) – Data 2017-2018

Schools, black children, and corporal punishment

Racial disparities in school-based disciplinary actions are associated with county-level rates of racial bias

There are substantial gaps in educational outcomes between black and white students in the United States. Recently, increased attention has focused on differences in the rates at which black and white students are disciplined, finding that black students are more likely to be seen as problematic and more likely to be punished than white students are for the same offense. Although these disparities suggest that racial biases are a contributor, no previous research has shown associations with psychological measurements of bias and disciplinary outcomes. We show that county-level estimates of racial bias, as measured using data from approximately 1.6 million visitors to the Project Implicit website, are associated with racial disciplinary disparities across approximately 96,000 schools in the United States, covering around 32 million white and black students. These associations do not extend to sexuality biases, showing the specificity of the effect. These findings suggest that acknowledging that racial biases and racial disparities in education go hand-in-hand may be an important step in resolving both of these social ills.


Re-Imagining School Discipline: A Plea To Education Leaders

How Non-Zero Tolerance Policies Better Support Our Students: Part II

Should South Carolina Ban Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project?

[UPDATE: See published version here: MY TURN: Should South Carolina cancel Critical Race Theory?]

“In total, lawmakers in at least 15 states have introduced bills that seek to restrict how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and other social issues,” reports Sarah Schwartz for Education Week.

South Carolina (H630) has joined Republicans across the U.S. challenging Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project.

The key problem with this copycat legislation is CRT isn’t implemented in K-12 education and the 1619 Project is not adopted curriculum.

CRT is rare in higher education, reserved for some graduate programs (specifically among legal scholars), but CRT provides a way to examine systemic racism, not simply the actions of individual racists.

For example, CRT is an academic process for trying to understand why police kill Black people disproportionately to white people. According to CRT, the killing of Tamir Rice is rooted in systemic racism (viewing Black boys as older than their biological age) that does not require the officer being consciously a racist individual.

Ultimately, legislation aimed at CRT or the 1619 Project is misleading, a threat to academic freedom and the education of students in SC. As Eesha Pendharker reports in Education Week: “[E]xperts say the laws ultimately will unravel years of administrators’ fitful efforts to improve educational opportunities and academic outcomes for America’s children of color, who today make up the majority of the nation’s student body.”

What, then, is occurring in SC K-12 education in terms of race and racism?

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training that covers implicit bias, systemic racism and racial privilege, and microaggressions. This training is now common for educators and students, but worth monitoring because DEI training is often not effective and can serve as superficial distractions allowing schools to avoid harder diversity work.
  • Diversifying faculty and the curriculum. Public school teachers are about 80% white, less diverse than society and the population of students in public schooling (increasingly Black and brown). Also, for many years, a greater representation of Black and brown voices and history have been included in what students are taught (typically in English/ELA and history/social studies). Diversifying the curriculum has prompted controversial legislation by Republicans, however.
  • Implementing culturally relevant teaching. The work of Gloria Ladson-Billings has gained momentum in K-12 education. Culturally relevant teaching, as she defines it, is “a threefold approach to ensuring that all children are successful. That approach requires a focus on students’ learning, an attempt to develop their cultural competence, and to increase their sociopolitical or critical consciousness.” This focus seeks to honor all children while acknowledging that differences remain among students by race, gender, culture, etc.
  • Adopting responsive discipline. Decades of research have revealed racially inequitable discipline in schools, popularly known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Many schools have begun to reconsider inequitable practices such as zero-tolerance policies and expulsion/suspension, for example.
  • Expanding educational access and improving educational quality for children of color. Black and brown students are under-represented in advanced programs (such as Advanced Placement and gifted programs), and often are taught by teachers with the least experience, who are under-/un-certified, and sit in classrooms with the highest student/teacher ratios. Public schools are not the “great equalizers” politicians claim, and often reflect and perpetuate inequity.

State legislation and the Superintendent of Education targeting CRT and the 1619 Project is political theater, a solution in search of a problem. Race and racism remain a significant part of life as well as education in SC. Republicans are poised to ruin the very good and needed, but incomplete, work identified above.

It is critical that teachers and students are free to examine the truth of our past and our present so that we can create the future we believe is possible.

Understanding the Conservative Backlash against Critical Race Theory (and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives)

I was recently asked on Twitter if there can be any valid criticisms of Critical Race Theory (CRT), and that question was couched in a belief that everyone challenging CRT was being broadly (and unfairly) painted as racists.

In my own posts about CRT, I have in fact noted that a foundational part of anything “critical” is the essential and perpetual challenging of assumptions; the paradox of CRT and critical pedagogy is that to be critical one must continually step back to challenge the very thing being used to interrogate the world.

Simply put, CRT scholars are as apt to reconsider CRT as anything and everything else. Those of us working under the mantle “critical” are vigilant about identifying and avoiding indoctrination—or else we are not being critical.

However, since I have repeatedly noted the CRT is essentially non-existent in K-12 public education and extremely rare in higher education (mostly at the fringes of some graduate programs such as law, education, and sociology), I pushed against the question by asking for specific examples of CRT being misused, and thus deserving criticism.

What followed confirmed part of what I expected but also something I could not have predicted: CRT is under attack in expensive private schools, specifically in New York.

The example shared with me focuses on one parent whose charges about the misuse of CRT has gone viral.

First, let me stress that I still have had no one prove that CRT is common or even present in how K-12 public school students are taught (more about this below), but this example is fraught with problems since all I can find is conservative sensationalistic media covering what parents are claiming their children have told them.

Next, these examples of backlash in very expensive private schools does prove one of my point offered in another post: people take personal and individual offense when systems are challenged.

From the New York Post, for example, consider this:

“First and foremost, neither I, nor my child, have ‘white privilege,’ nor do we need to apologize for it,” Goldman wrote last September. “Suggesting I do is insulting. Suggesting to my 9-year-old child she does is child abuse, not education.”

Inside the growing underground network of parents fighting ‘anti-racism’ in NYC schools

Using this private-school based backlash as a basis, then, let’s unpack what is going on in order to understand the conservative perspective of CRT.

The most important aspect of trying to understand this controversy is recognizing that the challenges to CRT are not about CRT specifically (since CRT is a theoretical lens and not a program—and since CRT simply doesn’t exist in K-12 schooling). Conservatives are misusing the term “CRT” as a marker for any and all diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives or any and all lessons addressing race and racism in schools.

However, a central tenet of CRT proposes that racism in the U.S. is systemic, built into many (if not most) laws, policies, and unconscious behaviors of everyone in the country.

Here is the great irony of the attack on CRT: Since racism is systemic (built into the system), anti-racism practices are designed to reform those systems (not to attack individual people), and as I noted in a previous post, for example about Tamir Rice, “A police officer shooting and killing a Black boy, then, does not have to be a consciously racist individual to have acted in a way that is driven by systemic racism.”

Two components of anti-racism efforts trigger conservatives—asserting the fact of systemic racism and acknowledging the reality of white privilege (see the parent’s comment above).

Again, conservatives see these assertions as blaming and condemning them personally and all white people broadly.

Setting aside that DEI programs and teaching about race/racism often are not directly driven by CRT, in order to understand the conservative backlash against CRT, we must unpack the concept of “blame” in terms of racism and white privilege.

In 2021, systemic inequity based on race (and gender) are incredibly hard to refute. White people earn more than Black people even when they have the same level of education, do the same work; this holds true for the pay gap between men and women.

Using the lens of CRT, we can conclude from those race gaps that systemic racism impacts human behaviors even when individuals are not actively or consciously racist; again, this actually alleviates automatic individual blame for a racist society.

At the core of this backlash is that conservatives view simply acknowledging systemic racism and white privilege as a direct attack on the fact of “whiteness”; to conservatives DEI initiatives and teaching about race and racism feel like a personal assault on their identity and not their behavior.

Conservatives in the U.S. are strongly individualistic so much of this tension is grounded in the conservative belief in individualism and rejecting of collectivism (systemic forces).

This explains the parent above adamantly proclaiming that he and his child do not have white privilege and his adding, “we [don’t] need to apologize for [being white].”

Further, this also explains why Republicans are successful when they proclaim the U.S. is not a racist country, despite the overwhelming evidence of racial inequity.

Finally, then, we must confront the problem of blame and culpability, which I think falls into these broad categories:

  • Individual racists. Some people in the U.S. are genuinely and openly racist, and of course, they actively perpetuate systemic racism and deserve blame, and condemnation.
  • Racism/white privilege deniers. As demonstrated in the NYP article above, some people strongly reject that systemic racism and white privilege exist; they are likely to believe that the U.S. is a meritocracy and that success/failure are rooted in individual effort and capacity. In other words, they believe rich people deserve to be rich and poor people deserve to be poor. Many of these people genuinely believe they are not racist and freely espouse that no one race is superior to the other; however, since the data overwhelming show racial inequities in terms of success and failure in the U.S., this position implies patterns of stereotypes (racism and sexism) that are hard to ignore (i.e., Black people and poor people are lazy). Racism and white privilege denial perpetuates racism, and thus, that denial (not simply being white) deserves blame.
  • People who are “color blind” MLK “race neutralists.” NRP has reported that “[n]early half of the speakers at the Republican news conference in May invoked Martin Luther King Jr., expressing their desire to be judged ‘by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.'” It is common to hear among people who reject CRT/DEI that they “do not see race.” While this is a compelling argument, especially when paired with the MLK quote oversimplified and taken out of context, race neutrality is another form of racism denial that perpetuates racism. The problem is not seeing race, but having negative (and racist) responses to acknowledging race. The irony here is that King was clearly speaking to conservative American values (“content of their character” is the language of rugged individualism and meritocracy), but its rhetorical value can be oversimplified and, as the current climate proves, manipulated for the exact opposite effect King intended. Race neutrality (not simply being white) also deserves blame.
  • People who act on their awareness of systemic racism/white privilege. The goal of teaching about race and racism as well as DEI programs is to create the very meritocracy conservatives already believe the U.S. has attained. These lessons and programs are designed to raise awareness about how to behave differently, how to contribute to bringing an end to inequity (racism and white privilege). What is required, I suspect, is empathy, a willingness to listen to other people’s experiences and value them as much as your own. Conservatives often express a contradictory rugged individualism that inhibits that empathy, especially when confronted with concepts such as micro-aggressions. “X doesn’t bother me so I don’t see why X would bother anyone else,” they exclaim. For those who are willing to listen and then willing to act (even when they are white), they have found the road to not being blamed. And another irony because this isn’t about the color of your skin, but about the content of your character and your individual behavior.

CRT is not the problem, but it has become a powerful code for conservatives who are nearly permanently inward looking, unable to hear and see the very systemic problems that CRT helps us identify in order to change.

CRT and DEI programs can, of course, be misused, and then, would deserve criticism. But that isn’t what is in front of us or the parents at elite private schools.

The problem is us even though it isn’t every single one of us.

Unpacking Nonsense: Knowledge as Commodity

Make your money with a suit and tie
Make your money with shrewd denial
Make your money expert advice…
You can lie
As long as you mean it

“King of Comedy,” R.E.M.

The school choice debate, reaching back into the twentieth century, tends to be framed around either/or concepts such as the free market (the Invisible Hand) versus public institutions (the Commons). But school choice that pits universal public education against private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling (as well as unschooling) is at its core a debate about the autonomy and humanity of children and teens along with a rarely interrogated idealism about parents and parental choice.

The U.S. has a long history of struggling badly with childhood and exactly when a human is an autonomous adult—from child labor to the garbled array of ages at which teens and young adults are allowed to behave as full adults (15-16 for driving, 18 for voting and joining the military, 21 for alcohol, and dozens of conflicting ages and laws across the country governing sexual autonomy, etc.).

If anyone clings to the foundational commitment to universal public education (often associated with the arguments posed by Thomas Jefferson) as necessary for creating and preserving a democracy, a so-called free people, then we must admit that a public education grounded in knowledge that is critically interrogated must be preserved against the forces of indoctrination.

Education is about asking, What do we know? How do we know it? And who does this knowledge benefit (or leave out)?

This final point is one of the tensions with religious education or church-grounded schools. I have taught in a graduate program that included teachers from a nearby Christian school where every lesson taught had to be linked directly to passages from the Bible.

Regardless of your faith or lack thereof, this is a necessarily distorted education—one that is being presented to children and teens as facts or t/Truth.

I have taught many students at my university, also, who came from religious schooling and noted that they had never been taught evolution (for example) or, when we covered evolution in my foundations course, they explained that their education had presented the scientific concept significantly differently than what we examined.

Whether we call what students learn in school “knowledge” or “content” or “curriculum,” we always must be aware that what students are taught is always chosen by someone for some reason; in other words, there is no politically, ethically, or intellectually neutral “knowledge.”

In fact, every classroom is by its nature of humans interacting with different levels of power a political space.

All of this lies beneath the current attack from conservatives and Republicans on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project (what we teach in U.S. history).

The reasons these attacks on public schooling are relevant to the school choice debate are, as I recently noted, that all alternatives to universal public schooling (private schools, charter schools, homeschooling, and unschooling) benefit from a discredited (and demonized) public education system.

Now one of the natural consequences of the rightwing attack on schooling is waving the “For Sale” sign:

Let me note here that this isn’t parody, but a very real addition to the school choice/homeschooling movement.

Elements of this “anti-woke” version of U.S. history are stunning, although predictable.

First, Anzaldua frames herself as an early career high school history teacher, who “was not just a leftist, but a full-blown socialist, intersectional feminist, and ‘antiracist’.” She adds (seemingly unaware of the irony) that her own anti-woke wokeness can be attributed to one of the most discredited academics of our time, Jordan Peterson.

But more importantly, the course that is being advertised as “fact based history” has several supporting links that perpetuate misinformation—scary uses of red and imagery linking CRT to “communism!” and CRT resources that are simply a list of links to misinformation and more scare tactics.

From “communism” and “socialism” to “CRT” and any use of the term “critical,” conservatives are uniformly misinformed [1], and thus, all of their arguments are invalid since they start with a false premise—the most significant of which is that essentially no one in public education is teaching history/social studies from a CRT lens.

Even in higher education, CRT is rare.

Setting aside that the exact people accusing public education of being politicized by the Left are themselves politicizing the teaching of history, what is wrong with this entry into the market place of ideas for education children and young adults in the U.S.?

How about considering the textbook choice—published in 1888!

Here is a fundamental problem with the long history of debates about the teaching of history in the U.S., a complete misunderstanding about what history is, how history is always biased and evolving.

Conservatives are often some of the loudest about combating the “rewriting of history” (consider the debates about statues and memorials to Confederate generals and the Civil War)—as if there is anything other than the perpetual rewriting of history.

In other words, history is the writing and rewriting of history.

Offering seventh graders a textbook 133 years old is educational malpractice; it is making a conscious decision to deny children (who have no political power and very little intellectual autonomy) the wealth of historical thinking that has occurred in the century-plus.

Consider that in 1888, women could not vote and the U.S. existed under Jim Crow laws of segregation.

So a U.S. history course grounded in a textbook from 1888 can be yours (or your children’s) for a mere $900.

While many (too many) culture war debates in the U.S. are overly simplistic—Us v. Them—a reasonable person can recognize that some aspects of human existence are well suited for the free market while others are not (the military or legal system working for the highest bidder).

This brings us back to the Commons. Tax-funded roads and highway systems are some of the most powerful and important contributions to the free market thriving, for example, and thus, evidence that the free market and the Commons are not in competition, but symbiotic.

But just as essential are public schools, and I would argue, universal healthcare.

As this homeschooling course proves, knowledge can be a commodity—truth determined by the consumer (and even for the consumer).

But knowledge must not be a mere commodity if we value learning and a well-informed citizenry, populated continually by children growing through adolescence into whatever moment we deem them adults.

Counter to the cartoon version of critical educators (as Leftist, Marxist indoctrinators), all aspects of critical education are in fact committed above all else to this: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

Critical educators are invested in helping foster critical students; these are acts of interrogating knowledge, not indoctrinating anyone.

While the attacks from conservatives and Republicans are both an affront to the discipline of history and the founding principles of teaching and learning, this is another example of idealizing parental choice over the autonomy of children, adolescence, and young adults.

I have explained often that I was raised in a home and community that taught me directly and indirectly incredibly harmful “knowledge” as t/Truth (much of it racism, and a great deal of it sexist). I am biased about the value of universal public education because my school and teacher experiences were opportunities for me to discover knowledge and embrace my own intellectual autonomy that was corrupted and even stunted by the choices made by my parents and community.

As a career-long educator, a critical educator, I must tell you when it comes to “anti-woke, pro-American, and fact based history education,” don’t buy it.

[1] Consider that Anzaldua identifies as a “freethinker,” a term that has a meaning I suspect she is completely unaware exists: “freethinking is most closely linked with secularism, atheism, agnosticism, humanism, anti-clericalism, and religious critique.”