“Racial Discomfort” in an Era of Erasing Curriculum

My neighboring state of North Carolina has filed copy-cat legislation being proposed across the U.S. by Republicans as part of the manufactured Critical Race Theory (CRT) crisis.

As Justin Parmenter explains, “Among other things, the bill would make it illegal for teachers to promote feelings of racial discomfort and would require schools to prominently post information about diversity training on their websites for public review.”

Republicans and conservatives have launched a campaign grounded primarily in several false claims, including a drastic misrepresentation of what CRT is (a graduate-level theoretical lens primarily found in law schools) and that CRT exists in any significant way in K-12 public education (it doesn’t).

Since the public and political rhetoric is both misleading and false, and since the legislation is written in coded ways, those of us who recognize that this movement is an insidious lie (political leaders claiming to be protecting academic freedom by banning CRT from academic spaces) must now call Republicans on their bluff, specifically addressing the concept of “racial discomfort.”

As an educator for almost 40 years, I find no real evidence that white third graders across the U.S. are being told in schools that they are personally culpable for racism and slavery simply because they are white.

And as a scholar who understands and embraces CRT, I also know if CRT were being practiced with children across the U.S. in public school, that theoretical lens focuses on systemic racism, not individual racism. In other words, white students in U.S. public education would be well served by CRT that emphasizes the role of systemic racism regardless of individual beliefs.

CRT is one way to raise everyone’s awareness of racism and inequity so that we can all behave in ways that lead the country toward equity and meritocracy.

The only blame anyone should suffer (in the context of CRT) is a refusal to recognize systemic racism and then a refusal to behave in ways that are equitable.

Republican legislation is prescribing, then, that students remain ignorant, and ironically, passively complicit in systemic racism.

But the primary unwritten/unspoken given in the claimed concern about “racial discomfort” is that the term addresses only white racial discomfort—as if being white is somehow a greater burden, for example, than being Black and actually experiencing racism.

Is hearing or reading “n—–” not a form of racial discomfort?

Is being told you are “articulate” while Black not a form of racial discomfort?

Is being asked “Can I touch your hair?” while Black not a form of racial discomfort?

Is being paid less even though you the same educational attainment while Black not a form or racial discomfort?

Since this movement is ambiguous on the surface, we must call their bluff by acknowledging “racial discomfort” among all races.

Black students, for examples, must not be asked to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, or The Great Gatsby.

Imagine being a Black teenager in a room filled with white peers and a white teacher, reading from Gatsby [1]:

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard? … Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved … This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or those other races will have control of things … The idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and … And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization – oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Or the repeated use of “n—–” in Huck Finn, Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men.

And let’s not stop there.

Shakespeare is filled with sexism, bigotry, and racism It must go. No more Shakespeare because children and teens might feel discomfort.

And honestly, who didn’t feel discomfort when confronted with the Pythagorean Theorem.

It must go also.

In the context of the legislation being proposed and passed, we must demand that all texts and topics causing anyone (regardless of race) “racial discomfort” be removed from the curriculum.

The logical extension of this nonsense is the total erasure of curriculum; there simply is nothing left to teach if we mobilize and demand that legislation be applied evenly for everyone.

It shouldn’t be on the shoulders of minoritized peoples to call this bluff, but a widespread effort to take this legislation to its logical conclusions would cause the movement to collapse under its own dishonesty.

Republicans and conservatives do not care about everyone’s discomfort, let’s note. How trans students feel has been repeatedly disregarded, for example.

Legislation aimed at CRT is a Great White Lie, but if we call them on their bluff, that lie will be exposed when we find ourselves with a total erasure of the curriculum.

[1] See When W. E. B. Du Bois Made a Laughingstock of a White Supremacist

NCTQ: “The data was effectively useless”

You can count on two things when the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) releases one of their “reports.”

First, media will fall all over themselves to report NCTQ’s “findings” and “conclusions” without any critical review of whether the “findings” or “conclusions” are credible (or peer-reviewed, which they aren’t).

Second, NCTQ’s “methods,” “findings,” and “conclusions” are incomplete, pre-determined (NCTQ has a predictable “conclusion” that teacher education/certification is “bad”), and increasingly cloaked in an insincere context of diversity and equity (now teacher education/certification are not just “bad” but especially “bad” for minority candidates).

So the newest NCTQ report has been immediately and uncritically amplified by Education Week (who loves to take stands for “scientific” evidence while also reporting on “findings” and “reports” that cannot pass the lowest levels of expectations for scientific research).

There is great irony in this report and EdWeek’s coverage that includes two gems:

“The data was effectively useless,” said Kate Walsh, the president of NCTQ….

Said Walsh: “We do think that states ought to be asking some hard questions of institutions that have really low first-time pass rates. … We shouldn’t be afraid of this data. This data can help programs get better.”

First-Time Pass Rates on Teacher Licensure Exams Were Secret Until Now. See the Data

Walsh, in the first comment, is referring to data on passing rates on standardized testing, used for teacher licensure, but the irony is that she would be more accurate if she were referring to the NCTQ “report” itself.

The “report” admits that a number of states refused to cooperate (NCTQ has a long history of lies and manipulation to acquire “data” and many institutions and organizations have wisely stopped complying since the outcomes of NCTQ’s are predictable); therefore, this NCTQ “report” is similar to all their other “reports” in terms of incomplete data and slipshod methodology (a review of another NCTQ “report” by a colleague and me, for example, noted that NCTQ’s methodology wouldn’t be accepted in an undergraduate course, much less as credible scholarship to drive policy).

NCTQ and EdWeek, however, are typically not challenged since their claims and coverage fit a misleading narrative that the public and political leaders believe (again ironically in the absence of the data that Walsh claims “[w]e shouldn’t be afraid of”)—everything about U.S. public education, from teacher education to teacher quality, is total garbage.

NCTQ is a hack, agenda-driven think-tank, and EdWeek has eroded its journalistic credibility by embracing NCTQ’s “reports” when it serves their need for online traffic (see EdWeek’s obsession with the misleading “science of reading” movement where EdWeek shouts “science!” and cites NCTQ reports that fail the minimum requirements of scientific methodology).

This “report” on standardized testing in the teacher licensure process shouldn’t be viewed as in any way valuable for drawing conclusions about teacher education (teacher ed is a real problem that I have criticized extensively, but NCTQ hasn’t a clue what those problems are, and frankly, they don’t care) or for making policy.

However, what is interesting to notice is that NCTQ has chosen to use a shoddy analysis of previously hidden data on standardized testing to (once again) damn teacher education and traditional certification (both of which actually do deserve criticism and re-evaluation) even though there is another position one could take when analyzing (more rigorously and using a more robust methodology and the peer-review process) this data.

What if the problem with passing rates is not the quality of teacher education, but the inherent inequity built into standardized testing throughout the entire system of formal education?

Across the educational landscape—from NAEP to state-based accountability testing to the SAT and ACT to teacher licensure exams—standardized testing remains deeply inequitable, mostly correlated with socio-economic status, race, and gender in ways that perpetuate inequity.

In the very recent past, NCTQ was fully on board with the value-added method (VAM) for determining teacher quality, recall, and that movement eventually fell apart under its own weight since narrow forms of measurement, standardized testing, are actually a lousy way to understand teaching and learning.

If we take Walsh seriously about data (and we shouldn’t), here is a simple principle of gathering and understanding data—one data point (a standardized test score) will never be as powerful of valuable (valid/reliable) as multiple data points:

“Multiple data sources give us the best understanding of something,” said Petchauer, who was not involved in NCTQ’s report. “I get worried when a single high-stakes standardized test can trump other indicators of what a teacher knows and is able to do.”

First-Time Pass Rates on Teacher Licensure Exams Were Secret Until Now. See the Data

For one example, the Holy Grail of data credibility for the SAT has always been to be as predictive as GPA (GPA is the result of dozens of data points over years, and thus, a far more robust data set that one test score). GPA is more predictive.

Teacher education, like all education, remains inadequate, especially for marginalized populations, but one of the key elements in that claim is the overused of standardized testing.

If NCTQ and EdWeek were interested in challenging the use of high-stakes testing, then there may be some value in NCTQ’s most recent “report” (although the data is incomplete and the analysis is shoddy).

NCTQ’s “report” makes a big deal out of the licensure pass rates being hidden until their “report,” but once again, NCTQ’s agenda and total lack of scientific credibility as research makes this unveiling even worse than the data being hidden.

Ultimately, NCTQ’s misinformation campaign could be averted if and when media choose to practice what they preach. EdWeek is obsessed with teachers using the “science of reading” but their journalists routinely publish articles citing “reports” that never reach the level of “scientific.”

Whether you are a journalist or a researcher/scholar, you really are no better than the data, evidence, or sources you choose to stand with.

When your data are not credible, neither are you.

The Politics of Childhood in an Era of Authoritarian Education

While on vacation, a friend and I were discussing the paradox of parenting.

A parent often feels a tension between fostering and supporting a child to be the person they want to be as that contrasts with dictating what is best for the child (knowing as adults do that children, teens, and young adults often make decisions necessarily without the context of experience that would certainly change many decisions).

That paradox, that tension has existed for me as a teacher/professor, parent, grandparent, and coach.

I am constantly checking myself in roles of authority to determine if I am imposing my authority onto children and young people (authoritarian) or if I am mentoring and fostering those humans in the cone of my authority in ways that support their own autonomy and development along lines they actively choose for themselves (authoritative).

This is a dichotomy examined by Paulo Freire, and a central concern for any critical educator.

The current misguided attacks on anything “critical” is particularly frustrating for critical educators since these attacks are designed to fulfill the demands of authoritarian systems, partisan politics and formal education.

It has occurred to me recently that I have been in roles of authority for a very long time, beginning with working as a lifeguard in my mid- to late teens. My role of authority literally began, then, with the expectations that I would guard human life—any human life that came into the sphere of the pool where I was charged with monitoring swimming and the safety of not only individual swimmers but all of the people in the pool.

I was a very good and capable swimmer, and for a teen, I was reasonably responsible (although I cringe thinking about being a head lifeguard when only 17 or so). But having the level of authority and responsibility that being a lifeguard entails was quite likely asking far more of me that I deserved.

Those days of lifeguarding set me on course for being the responsible person for the next 40-plus years, exacting a significant toll on me psychologically and emotionally.

Maintaining a critical authoritative pose when in positions of authority is extremely hard, much harder than being authoritarian.

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was practicing in many ways the sort of critical teaching that is coming under attack in 2021, even resulting in a teacher in Tennessee being fired:

At issue was Hawn assigning the essay “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates to students in his Contemporary Issues class in February, and later in March, playing a video of “White Privilege,” a spoken word poem by Kyla Jenée Lacey to the same students.

A Tennessee teacher taught a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a poem about white privilege. He was fired for it

Many conservatives see the work of Coates, for example, as radical, while those of us on the left would argue Coates’s work is quite mainstream and accessible—but far from radical. This is the same dynamic around Barack Obama, for example; Obama is a moderate and an incrementalist, but certainly not a radical leftist or Marxist (as conservatives like to suggest).

While I taught high school English in the very conservative rural South, I was mostly allowed to teach texts with only occasional complaints from parents. What looks quite odd now is that I included Howard Zinn in my classes for many years without a peep from anyone (Zinn is a key target of the ant-CRT movement now).

But I also included Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology in my classes in order to help students navigate metaphorical approaches to narratives (a key skill needed in the Advanced Placement course I taught and as preparation for college).

Including Campbell did cause problems since his work complicated the literalism many of students experienced in their religious lives. Fundamentalist Christianity was the background of nearly all my students, and Campbell’s casual claims that all religions and mythologies told similar archetypal stories stepped on the toes of arguments that accepting Jesus was the only way into heaven.

I aroused similar complaints by including Gandhi in my Emerson/Thoreau/MLK unit.

The parental challenges to Campbell and Gandhi were grounded in a type of insecurity that had never been examined critically by those parents, all of which was the result of having been raised in authoritarian environments.

I did have my students interrogate that Sunday school and preaching were not places where they were encouraged to ask questions or challenge any of the “lessons” they received.

So in 2021, I cannot stress too much that the Republican attack on critical race theory and how history is taught is simply a battle for the integrity of the mind of children, teens, and young adults.

Learning and knowledge—especially if we genuinely believe in human autonomy and democracy—are not simply about accumulating facts determined to be true or important by some authority, but are about learning how to know what we believe is true and why.

Human freedom is most threatened by unexamined beliefs, not by the act of questioning itself.

Authority doesn’t just resist questioning, but entirely rejects it as an act.

Republicans and the conservatives drawn to authoritarianism do not trust human agency, do not believe in the free exchange of ideas, and do not believe in the essential power of questioning, especially when the questions are aimed at their authority.

Nothing is as simple as “both sides,” and certainly we should never fall into traps of “only know this.”

There can never be free people, however, without free minds cultivated in the guarantee of academic freedom.

And the free exchange of ideas will never be spaces without discomfort, which now seems to be a smokescreen used by Republicans in their pursuit of securing authority.

Suddenly, Republicans are concerned about uncomfortable white students, but seem oblivious to the discomfort, for example, of thousands and thousands of Black students experience reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Teachers must now tip-toe around the uncomfortable texts and conversations about race and racism because of the possibility of white discomfort (note that Black discomfort about Huck Finn has been repeatedly swept aside under the guise of “classic literature”)—a stance once again disregarding the daily discomfort of Black children experiencing racism.

Intellectual discomfort (what texts and discussions prompt in formal schooling) is often necessary for learning, but existential discomfort (what targets of racism and sexism experience) are not necessary and are essentially harmful.

Authoritarian education is willing to sacrifice the existential comfort of marginalized children in order to shield some children from intellectual discomfort.

Even more disturbing, however, is that what is really being protected is the frailty of those students’ parents and those people in authority who are not willing to risk being challenged or questioned in any way.

Republicans Adopt China’s Approach to Indoctrinating Students

Eesha Pendharkar reports in Education Week Four Things Schools Won’t Be Able to Do Under ‘Critical Race Theory’ Laws, including the following:

  • Discussions of racism will be limited
  • Anti-bias training and other anti-racism efforts could be curtailed or canceled
  • Administrators will have to change their curriculum
  • Teachers and administrators will have to restrict conversations about sexism and gender identity

Many states, such as my home state of South Carolina, are also prescribing that schools adopt patriotic approaches to teaching history, citing the debunked 1776 Project directly.

These attacks on teaching race, racism, and history—directly mentioning CRT—however, are ultimately unmasked as political theater since CRT is not a part of K-12 teaching:

Greenville County Schools, the largest district in the state, has over 76,000 students enrolled. All of them are taught state-approved curriculum, said Tim Waller, spokesperson for the school district.

“Critical race theory is not something that actually happens in schools,” he said. “With the pandemic last year, most of our conversations have been around operating schools safely.”

SC will not give money to teach critical race theory. But we never taught it, say schools

And when critics are pushed for evidence of CRT, this is what happens:

Burns said an example of critical race theory in South Carolina includes a student in the Upstate who told him coursework including writing an essay on why “whiteness is bad.” Burns would not name the school, the student or the assignment.

SC will not give money to teach critical race theory. But we never taught it, say schools

And this from Texas:

Texas’ new law in fact has two major problems. First, and most alarmingly for educators, it bans public school teachers from requiring students to read specific educational materials or even learn about particular ideas — specifically the idea that “the advent of slavery … constituted the true founding of the United States.” The law also forbids teachers from even teaching the 1619 Project.

But there’s a second and even more fundamental problem with bills like this one: they are inherently self-contradictory. They require teachers to present specific people and ideas in American history. Then they also aim to prevent teachers from discussing anything in those stories that might hint at inherent racism or slavery. Lawmakers may wish to maintain this contradiction, but when teachers teach these stories and documents, the contradiction cannot stand.

Texas Republicans take aim at history this Juneteenth. It could backfire.

The Republican attack on critical race theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project is shockingly similar to China’s mandates controlling how children are taught; from Vivian Wang and Alexandra Stevenson in the New York Times:

The Hong Kong government has issued hundreds of pages of new curriculum guidelines designed to instill “affection for the Chinese people.” Geography classes must affirm China’s control over disputed areas of the South China Sea. Students as young as 6 will learn the offenses under the security law.

Lo Kit Ling, who teaches a high school civics course, is now careful to say only positive things about China in class. While she had always tried to offer multiple perspectives on any topic, she said, she worries that a critical view could be quoted out of context by a student or parent.

Ms. Lo’s subject is especially fraught; the city’s leaders have accused it of poisoning Hong Kong’s youth. The course had encouraged students to analyze China critically, teaching the country’s economic successes alongside topics such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Officials have ordered the subject replaced with a truncated version that emphasizes the positive.

“It’s not teaching,” Ms. Lo said. “It’s just like a kind of brainwashing.” She will teach an elective on hospitality studies instead.

‘A Form of Brainwashing’: China Remakes Hong Kong

While many conservatives and Republicans have tried to frame China as some sort of threat to the American way of life—notably related to the spread of Covid—the truth is that the Republican Party is practicing China’s indoctrination strategies across the country.