Category Archives: racism

Rank: Having a foul or offensive smell

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from communications associate at WalletHub.com, identified in the email as “(one of the leading outlets covering the personal finance industry).” The associate wanted me to respond to a series of questions and provide a picture for an article in their “consumer education section” and (maybe?) national media.

Of course, WalletHub is the source of one of the worst and most popular practices around U.S. education—ranking states by educational quality, 2022’s States with the Best & Worst School Systems. I noticed when searching my email, I had been contacted before by WalletHub, but likely deleted without replying. This time I sent a pointed response that since I focus on equity in my work, I would not want to be associated with their harmful and misleading ranking.

The exchange was irritating and frustrating—and just business as usual in terms of how the media, politicians, and the public label education. And then I read this in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

Once again, our schools are ranked 46th out of the 51 public school systems, according to the website WalletHub.

Scores from 2020-21 showed only 31% of our public school fourth graders read competently, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

That means 69% of our children cannot read well enough to complete work at their grade level. It would be worse without the many homes where parents teach their children to read.

Part of the responsibility rests with the South Carolina Department of Education.

Where is the accountability for student learning?

Year after year we see the same results on fourth grade reading and math.

W. Edwards Deming, an eminent scholar and teacher in American academia, says that “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

And South Carolina has a bad system for teaching reading.

The South Carolina Department of Education has at least at least 30 people in the Office of Early Learning and Literacy.

If South Carolina’s children have been failing for the past 40 years, what have they been doing? Why do we have them? Where is their accountability?

Do they not see failing as a bad thing?

The system focuses on the curriculum rather than focusing on reading.

To get everything in, reading is integrated into other subjects rather than given its own primary focus.

In trying to teach so much, school leaders accomplish so much less.

I don’t understand why parents are not outraged over this. I certainly am.

JAMES DANIELS

Lake City

Why does South Carolina seem to care so little for its children?

There is so much wrong here—the data, the claims about teaching and reading, the influence of ranking on how the public views education, etc.—I cannot address it all, but let’s just focus on the ranking and suggesting there are valid ways to label states as “best” or “worst” in education.

The problems with ranking educational quality among states are many, and I recommend simply Googling “Gerald Bracey” and “educational rankings” if you want to explore the granular issues with statistics, etc.

The short version is that the urge to rank is itself a problem since to rank, you must create metrics that will produce a spread among whatever is being ranked. It is a sort of self-fulfilling process that necessitates that some things are labeled “best” and some “worst.”

But at the deeper level, the metrics and data used to rank are always something other than what is being ranked to begin with. In education, rankings often claim to be labeling educational quality while using metrics and data that are mostly about issues of equity—poverty, race, native language, school funding, student/teacher ratios, teacher experience and certification, etc.

Therefore, there is a great deal of overlap in WalletHub’s nonsensical “best” and “worst” rankings and the following:

At the most basic level—and the issues are far more complex than this—note the tremendous overlap of “worst” and poverty:

Here is the ugly truth: State rankings by educational quality are mostly rankings by poverty, race/racism, racial diversity/equity, etc.

Here is an even uglier truth: Schools and education systems tend to reflect, not change or overcome, the inequities of states and communities.

There are many aspects of schooling we should (must?) address, such as teaching and learning conditions and access to high-quality teachers, curriculum (such as content being banned by Republicans), and materials (such as the books being banned by Republicans).

But separate from that, we must reject rankings as, well, rank, having a foul and offensive smell.

Recommended

Brief: The Adequacy of School District Spending in the U.S.

Announcing: Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule

During my first 18 years as an educators, I was a high school English teacher in rural South Carolina, my hometown in fact. I never imagined doing anything else, but I did attain my doctorate in 1998, still planning to be Dr. Thomas, high school teacher, for my entire career.

It is 2022, and I just completed 20 years in higher education, where I am a full professor in education and (fortunately) also teach first-year and upper-level writing. This fall I am taking my first ever sabbatical.

However, if anything, my scholarly schedule is more packed than at any time in my career. If you are interested in my work, I invite you to join me at the following presentations/keynotes and/or look for my upcoming publications.

Fall 2022 through Winter 2023 Schedule

Publications

How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students (2nd Ed)(2nd Edition) – IAP – [first edition]


Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading


A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (white paper)

P.L. Thomas, Education, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Prepared for the Ohio Education Association in response to Ohio’s “Third Grade Reading Guarantee”

September 15, 2022

[Download as PDF and supporting PP]


Presentations/Keynotes

Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice

September 28, 2022

Webinar

Science of Reading Policy Brief (NEPC)

Pioneer Valley Books

October 20, 2022 – 4:00 – 5:00 pm

Webinar

Unpacking Reading Science to Inform a Different Path to Literacy 

The “Science of Reading” movement that began in 2018 has gained momentum and has had outsized influence on state reading policy and classroom practice. However, the SoR movement presents two negative impacts on long-term literacy education—a commitment to the “simple view” of reading (SVR) and mandates for phonics-first instruction for all beginning readers. In this webinar, Paul Thomas, Ed.D. (Professor of Education, Furman University, and author of How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students) places the SoR movement in the context of the robust but complex current state of reading science. Come join us on October 20, 2022, at 4 p.m. as we explore what’s next in literacy education.

Ohio Education Association

Education Matters podcast; grade retention

TBD

University of Arkansas

October 24 at 6:30

The Jones Center for Families

Serving the Literacy Needs of All Students: While Resisting Another Reading War

30th annual Reading Recovery Council of Michigan Institute, Thursday, November 17, 2022, Somerset Inn, Troy, Michigan

Keynote

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means. I detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream media during 2018. “Science of reading” as discourse, as marketing, and as a research base.

Break-out Session

How to Navigate Social Media (and RL) Debates about the “Science of Reading”

Let me start with a caveat: Don’t debate “science of reading” advocates on social media. However, if you enter into a social media or real-life debate, you must keep your focus on informing others who may read or hear that debate, and be prepared with credible and compelling evidence.


NCTE 2022, November 17 – 20, 2022, Anaheim, CA 

Friday November 18, 2022

Event Title: Banned in the USA: Lighting a Fire for Reading and Not to Books

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 12:30 PM PST – 1:45 PM PST

Location: 264-BC

Role: Roundtable Leader

Event Title: The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Type: Roundtable Sessions

Time: 2:00 PM PST – 3:15 PM PST

Location: 204-B

Role: Roundtable Leader


2023 Comprehensive Literacy and Reading Recovery Conference, Chicago, IL, January 18-20, 2023 

Keynote

Teaching Literacy in a Time of Science of Reading and Censorship

The key elements of the science of reading (SOR) movement as well as the current move the ban books and censor curriculum are outlined against historical and research-based contexts. The unique challenges facing literacy educators iden/fied with considera/on of how literacy teachers can maintain professional autonomy in the classroom and prac/ce ac/vism in pursuit of a more nuanced understanding of “science” and research as well as in support of academic freedom.

90-minute breakout sessions

Academic Freedom Isn’t Free: Teachers as Activists

The US is experiencing one of the most significant waves of book bans and educational gag orders impacting academic freedom, access to diverse voices and history, and the safety of teachers and students. Teachers are historically required to be apolitical and avoid advocacy in and out of the classroom. This session examines the politics of calling for no politics among educators, and explore with participants both the need to advocate for their professional autonomy and academic freedom as well as for academic freedom.

Unpacking the “Science” in the Science of Reading for a Different Approach to Policy and Practice

The science of reading (SOR) movement and the use of the “science of reading” in marketing literacy programs have had a significant impact on reading policy and practice across the US since 2018. Policy and practice related to dyslexia, adopting reading programs, teaching reading (and the role of phonics instruction), however, have too often been guided by a misleading and overly simplistic version of SOR portrayed in the media and advocated by parents and politicians. This session examines the contradictions between claims made by SOR advocates and the current research base.


LitCon 2023, January 28 – 31, Columbus, OH

Rethinking Reading Policy in the Science of Reading Era

Since 2018, states have been revising or adopting new reading legislation prompted by the science of reading movement. Placed in the context of several reading crises over the last 100 years, however, this movement is deja vu all over again, destined to fail and be replaced by another reading crisis in the near future. This session explains why and offers a new approach to reading policy at the state, district, and school levels.


WSRA 2023 Conference, Milwaukee, WI, February 9-11, 2023 

The “Science of Reading” Multiverse

Since early 2018, the phrase “science of reading” has entered and often dominated media, public/parental, and political discourse around the teaching and learning of reading in the U.S. Before anyone can, or should, answer “Do you support/reject the ‘science of reading’?” we must first clarify exactly what the term means; therefore, in this session, then, I want to detail the three ways the phrase currently exists since it entered mainstream use in the media during 2018. The session will cover the research base around the SoR movement for context. Participants will be invited to discuss their experiences with these three versions as well.

Banning Books Is Un-American

The U.S. is experiencing a wave of book censorship and educational gag orders. This session examines the historical context of censorship as it impacts the teaching of literacy and literature by focusing on writer Kurt Vonnegut’s response to censors. The session will include powerful policy and position statements supporting the rights of teachers to teach and students to learn, including The Students’ Right to Read (NCTE), Freedom to Teach: Statement against Banning Books (NCTE), and Educators’ Right and Responsibilities to Engage in Antiracist Teaching (NCTE). Participants will have an opportunity to discuss and explore how and why educators must and can seek ways to defend academic freedom and thew right to teach and learn.


PSLA Conference 2023, February 23-25, 2023

Marriott Hilton Head Resort and Spa, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Friday, February 24, 2023, 8:00 – 9:00

Invited Speaker: Rethinking Reading Science: Beyond the Simple View of Reading, Paul Thomas

Focusing on reading science published since 2018 addressing reading, dyslexia, and phonics, this session details a complex but robust state of reading science. Media and think-tank messaging parents, political leaders, and the public are receiving about the “science of reading” are oversimplified, cherry-picked, and contradictory to that current state of reading science. Classroom teachers deserve the autonomy to interrogate reading science, understand the individual needs of all their students, and then the teaching and learning conditions to serve those students with evidence-based practice.

Saturday, February 25, 2023, 10:15 -11:15 

Panel: Carving a Path Forward: Equity, Neuroscience, Policy Mandates and Literacy Education 

The Politics of Teaching Reading, Paul Thomas

My Open Letters: 5 May 2022

Dear 20-Somethings:

First, speaking as a person in his 60s, I am sorry for this country being dismantled in front of you, the country you are entering as the newest wave of adults.

I spent my 20s in the 1980s, the Reagan era, the lingering era of AIDS. That was not the country or world that I wanted. My youth was, in fact, a time that inspired in part Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

My youth, too, was spent with an awareness of the tyranny of the Right, the authoritarian conservative threat that was poised to slip into fascism.

But I also know, adults tend not to listen to the young—children, teens, 20-somethings. Having been a teacher across five decades, I have spent a great deal of my life with young people because I genuinely love young people.

Young people are hope.

Young people represent promises that the rest of us have failed to honor.

Over the last 20 years teaching college, I have watched as young people in their late teens and early 20s have shifted. I am not a “kids today” person; I don’t believe young people are somehow worse now than in some manufactured good old days.

I am routinely stunned at how much smarter young people are now than when I was young.

But I am also aware young people don’t vote; like me, young people are often cynical that the system will work for them.

I have never been a member of a political party.

Republicans are morally bankrupt, and Democrats are spineless. Like W.E.B. Du Bois and George Carlin, I was a non-voter for many years myself.

But the rise of Trump changed that for me. I have conceded that all we have is an imperfect system. The great paradox is that we must use the imperfect system to create a better one.

We—and by “we” I mean not just Americans but humanity—need young people to be the change we failed to be.

My students have often groaned when I turn to literature, but I cannot think of anything better than this to explain the situation before us: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

Can you be the best with passionate intensity in the name of a kinder world, a world where we guarantee freedom and the pursuit of happiness to all, instead of leveraging our power to deny, to demonize, and to hate?


Dear RNC:

You are the party of censorship.

You are the party of hate.

You are, ultimately, the party of lies.

There is no saving that party, but Republicans must not be allowed to spread that hatred in the name of righteousness.

You are spitting in the faces of the idealized Founding Fathers you idolize. You spend your time in office denying freedom to people not like you (white men).

There is no question for you. You are power-hungry authoritarians.

This is who you are.


Dear Anti-Abortion Advocates:

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

I recognize the anti-abortion movement as a forced-birth movement that is anti-women.

But I am willing to be wrong, to admit I am wrong, and to join with those of you who genuinely want to reduce unwanted births, and thus, abortions.

Criminalizing abortion and women does not reduce abortion. Criminalizing abortion and women only increases unsafe abortions and increases violence and death for women.

There are, however, kind and even Christ-like ways to reduce dramatically unwanted pregnancies and abortion:

  • Call for universal healthcare.
  • Call for fully publicly funded contraception.
  • Call for comprehensive sex education.
  • Demand that all the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are extended regardless of gender.

If you choose punishment, you are anti-woman, not anti-abortion.

If you choose punishment, you are abdicating any moral authority you believe you have.

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

So far, you have proven me right. Can you prove me wrong?


Dear White Women:

A majority of white women voted for Trump. Twice.

White women voted for a man on record laughing about sexual assault, a man credibly accused of sexual assault across his entire life, including a former wife.

But even worse than that, by remaining loyal to the Republican Party, white women are complicit in anti-women legislation, and an anti-woman Supreme Court.

Margaret Atwood, a white woman who has been recently criticized for her own faults, held up to the world the horror of women being complicit in the patriarchy.

It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, which Atwood dramatizes often in her novel in powerful and disturbing ways. It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, as Adrienne Rich captures in a poem:

And it is a shallow thing to demand that the oppressed rise up to change an oppressive world.

Although men are the problem, white men, white women have entrenched themselves so deeply in the power of white men that being complicit demands that white women join with the rest of us to say “No, this is not the country we want.”

Can you set aside your selfishness, your security, and do the right thing?


Dear DNC:

The world is on fire, and you want my money?

The world is on fire, and you have refused to even drive the firetruck out of the station, much less use the firehose in some sort of effort to end this nightmare.

You see the world being on fire as a political opportunity for you.

How is that different than the RNC setting the world on fire as a political opportunity for them?

I am not a “both sides” thinker. I cannot act as if the DNC and RNC are equally failing our country, failing humanity.

But the DNC is failing everything that matters.

Cancel student loan debt.

Codify Roe v. Wade.

Pass progressive legislation.

Can you act in a way that ends this raging fire, or are you content to simply shout, “The world is burning (so send us your donations)”?

I know that Republicans will aggressively continue being horrible humans, but I do not trust that Democrats are willing to do the right thing because the world being on fire creates political opportunities for both parties.

Just as Republicans are Republicans first, power mongers, Democrats seem trapped in that same conservative mindset.

Can you be Americans first, or better yet, humans first?

IndoctriNation: Can We Avoid Our Dystopian Republican Future?

“I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes,” Commander Buck Murdock (William Shatner) muses in Airplane 2: The Sequel.

I immediately thought of this iconic Shatner scene from the Jerry Zucker-Jim Abrahams-David Zucker film when I saw a brilliant and urgently serious post on Facebook from a former student of mine currently advocating for all that is Good and Right in her crumbling state of Virginia:

While Stephanie hits succinctly right at the heart of the irony surrounding the current push by Republicans to mandate educational gag orders, parental trigger bills, and a wide range of censorship for not only school and colleges but also throughout society, I want to highlight how the irony is a veneer for the Republican long game.

Many people have now exposed that the Republican use of “Critical Race Theory” is an orchestrated lie for larger political goals since their definitions of CRT are distortions and misinformation.

But what exactly is that end game?

First, let’s unpack the monumental irony in the “Education Not Indoctrination” claims of Republicans.

A related element of the anti-CRT movement is linking CRT to “Marxism” (itself a distortion bordering on a lie), but the more telling aspect of that connection is that Marxist and critical educators forefront a genuine and resolute rejection of indoctrination. As Joe Kincheloe details, seeking out and exposing those who indoctrinate is a “central tenet” of being critical:

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….

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. This is a central tenet of critical pedagogy.

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. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (pp. 2, 11)

JOE KINCHELOE, CRITICAL PEDAGOGY PRIMER

Therefore, if an educator is leftist, Marxist, or critical, they are dedicated to not only seeking out and contesting anyone who indoctrinates, but also working continuously to avoid allowing their own teaching to devolve into indoctrination.

To indoctrinate is to be authoritarian (see Paulo Freire’s distinction between “authoritarian” and “authoritative” in the context of critical pedagogy).

Along with the foundational strategy of using lies and mischaracterized terms to advance a political agenda, Republicans also are guilty of projection: Almost everything Republicans attribute to the “Left” is what they actually do (Republicans decry a false specter of “cancel culture” while actually passing legislation that censors, cancels, and bans materials and ideas) or what they would do given the opportunity and the power.

And that leads to the end game.

To understand the Republican end game, you must address that “Education Not Indoctrination” is yet another Orwellian misdirection. Republicans are not anti-indoctrination; in fact, Republicans are actually seeking a world in which they completely control the indoctrinating.

In short, Kincheloe’s “who’s indoctrinating whom” can be addressed simply by acknowledging that given the opportunity and power (see legislation in Republican-led states) the “who” will always be Republicans and the “whom” will be the rest of us.

Republicans are organizing and enacting a broad campaign to create their dystopia, IndoctriNation.

They are counting on a common flaw in the U.S.: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

Bully Politics and Political Theater in an Era of Racial Shift

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) recently bullied students about wearing masks as he prepared to give a press conference. DeSantis called wearing masks “Covid theater,” but it seems more likely his petulant behavior is his own political theater since DeSantis immediately turned the embarrassing behavior into a fundraising gimmick.

That a sitting governor publicly and brazenly chastised students—behavior that no student would be allowed toward other students or adults while in school—is a snapshot of the broader attack on K-16 education in the U.S., also driven entirely by Republicans.

Curriculum gag orders, anti-CRT legislation, and book bans all seek to censor any mentioning of race or racism as well as topics related to gender or sexuality (the latter repeatedly identified by Republicans as “pornography”).

Copy-cat legislation across Republican-led states is far less about teaching and learning than about the tremendous racial shift occurring in the U.S.—and the immediate tension in K-12 public education because of that shift.

The 2020 Census has revealed, as reported in USA Today: “The white, non-Hispanic population, without another race, decreased by 8.6% since 2010, according to the new data from the 2020 census. The U.S. is now 57.8% white, 18.7% Hispanic, 12.4% Black and 6% Asian.”

In short, the white racial majority in the U.S. is shrinking quickly, and the future of racial balance in the U.S. is now reflected in K-12 education, where white students constitute less than half of students:

However, K-12 education remains a very white space except for that student population.

Almost 80% of teachers are white, and despite the false claims made in curriculum gag orders and anti-CRT legislation, K-12 curriculum and texts remain disproportionately white:

Research on U.S. history textbooks indicate White, European Americans are featured in over half of pictorials and illustrations. In some cases, it is more than 80 percent. Representation of people from BIPOC backgrounds are rarely featured, with some ethnic groups featured as low as 1 percent.

These racial and ethnic representations do not reflect demographics given in the 2020 U.S. Census, where 61.6 percent of the population is identified as White, 18.7 percent Hispanic or Latinx, 12.4 percent Black or African American, 6 percent Asian, 1.1 percent American Indian and Alaska Native, 0.2 percent Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, 8.4 percent some other racial population, and 10.2 percent multiracial….

In sum, studies on books and other materials reveal that White characters are more prominent than BIPOC characters. The data suggest that it is likely that students who identify as White will see mirrors of themselves more often than students from BIPOC communities.

The Representation of Social Groups in U. S. Educational Materials and Why it Matters, Amanda LaTasha Armstrong

DeSantis, then, personifies the resulting bully politics of Republicans as a response to the racial shift occurring in the U.S.

An examination of bullying in academia offers an important frame for understanding the larger phenomenon of bully politics:

What makes bullying an unethical, yet effective, means to rise through the ranks? An emerging body of research suggests that mediocre academics in particular resort to bullying, to remove their competition. Experimental research has shown that when male hierarchies are disrupted by women, this incites hostile behaviour specifically from poorly performing men, because they stand to lose the most.

Members of underrepresented groups report they are the targets of bullying with the intent to sabotage their careers. Some anecdotes suggest that bullies spring into action when their targets become too successful for their liking — and thus viable competition.

How bullying becomes a career tool, Susanne Tauber and Morteza Mahmoudi

This unpacking of bullying in academia fits well into understanding the bully politics of Republicans, often mediocre white men, like DeSantis, who feel threatened and cultivate political capital by stoking racial animosity through misinformation.

As I have noted before, K-12 public education is quite conservative and, as shown above, very white. While curriculum gag orders have characterized teachers and schools as hostile to white students (legislating bans on making students uncomfortable)—without evidence—and rampant with CRT—which isn’t occurring in K-12 schools—few people are directly exposing why bully politics is on the rise—the significant racial shift in society and schools in tension with the static whiteness of teachers and curriculum.

Unlike the ways in which Republicans have characterized U.S. schooling, Ranita Ray has witnessed a much different reality for students:

What I discovered was rampant racism, cruelty, and indifference from teachers working inside public schools. Most of the teachers I observed were not, in fact, teaching about America’s racist history but instead were perpetuating everyday racial violence against their students inside the classroom. While the idea is not prominent in public discourse, I am not alone in finding teacher racism to be an everyday presence in the American classroom. One recent study, for example, found that teachers hold as much implicit and explicit pro-white racial bias as nonteachers do. Education scholar Michael Dumas has written about teacher racism and Black suffering inside the classroom, showing that these attitudes have concrete outcomes. And students themselves know this. Social media is replete with students talking about teacher racism, and they have often taken to the streets to protest it.

It Never Seems to Be a Good Time to Talk About Teachers’ Racism

The irony of the racial shift spurring bully politics lies in ground zero, the backlash against the 1619 Project, which represents not a rewriting of history but a confronting of what history is—stories of the past shaped by who ever has power.

The facts of history do not necessarily change but the power behind what facts are told and why does shift. The 1619 Project changes what is centered in the telling of U.S. history (moving it away from the idealized founding and toward the grim reality of the institution of slavery)—in a similar way to the shifting racial centering of the U.S. in the 2020s.

Republicans are scrambling not to protect history or Truth, but to further entrench a mythology, an aspirational white-washed version of the country.

The impetus behind the 1619 Project and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is well expressed in Adrienne Rich’s poem:

I came to explore the wreck.

…the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

“Diving into the Wreck”

The facts of history and even the present—and not the myths—are disturbing, uncomfortable (“the drowned face always staring”).

Some of us, like the speaker in Rich’s poem, accept the discomfort as motivation to work toward a better world for everyone.

Others are petulant, bullies, carelessly grabbing all their toys and threatening to go home.

DeSantis and the other mediocre Republicans are playing political theater but their bully politics is all too real and has devastating consequences for academic freedom and democracy.

Histrionics characterizing masks as “Covid theater” are masking white fear that has reduced the Republican Party to bully politics in the service of a misguided whiteness—and to the exclusion of democracy and basic human dignity.

Gag Orders, Loyalty Oaths, and the New McCarthyism

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

“Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

An avalanche of gag order bills are being proposed in South Carolina—H.4325H.4343H.4392H.4605, and H.4799. While my home state of SC often likes to brag about being the first state to secede in order to maintain slavery (an uncomfortable fact many of these laws would ban from being taught), these bills represent the sort of crass copy-cat legislation that is also sweeping across other Republican-led states.

Not only is there nothing original in these bills (or even evidence-based or logical), but also there is a profoundly disturbing repetition of one of the lowest points in U.S. history—the New McCarthyism.

Let’s start with facts, which Republican legislation seeks to censor:

  • “Critical Race Theory” as it is mischaracterized by Republicans does not exist in K-12 schools.
  • CRT as properly defined (a scholarly theory created primarily by Black scholars for the the field of law and adapted in a few other fields such as education and sociology) does not exit in K-12 schools.
  • Systemic racism is a fact of the founding of the U.S. and a fact of the U.S. in 2022, supported by irrefutable evidence that defies simplistic explanations (such as individual racism).
  • Race is a social construct and not a matter of biology.
  • History is a living field for considering the facts of the past; there is no one true history.
  • Intellectual discomfort is often a necessary aspect of new learning when anyone must confront misconceptions or missing knowledge in order to better understand and navigate the world.

The gag orders such as those listed above in SC are blunt partisan politics driven by orchestrated lies that have nothing to do with protecting students or with teaching factual history or excellent literature/texts.

Curriculum and book censorship in 2022 is our New McCarthyism because the CRT veneer is being used to promote ideological agendas aimed at Black people and LGBTQ+ people.

The McCarthy Era, also known as the Red Scare, was confronted in The Crucible by Arthur Miller, who uses allegory to warn the U.S. at mid-twentieth century that McCarthy’s cries of “communism” were partisan lies similar to the Salem witch trials.

There were no witches.

There were no lists of communists.

There is no CRT poisoning U.S. schools.

Yet, in their extreme forms, some gag orders include requirements for loyalty oaths and mechanisms for withholding state funding for a decade. Even for private organizations.

The ultimate horror of these gag orders from Republicans is that by legislating censorship of what history and texts students are allowed to learn, we will be insuring the most damning of ideas about history itself—those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, often the very worst of it.

Yesterday I saw the following Tweet about the Russia invasion of Ukraine:

While I endorse the sentiment, I have been watching for over a year while most of the U.S. fails to resist censorship right here in the so-called land of the free and home of the brave.

Republicans are running roughshod over freedom, pushing the U.S. toward banning abortion (despite a majority of Americans supporting maintaining Roe v. Wade) and enacting curriculum and book bans (despite large majorities of Americans rejecting censorship):

CBS news poll

Ultimately, gag orders, loyalty oaths, and censorship are un-American and anti-democratic, as ALAN notes in their Intellectual Freedom Statement:

We know that intellectual freedom is foundational to an educated citizenry and essential to the preservation and practice of democracy. We are dedicated to protecting this natural human right, and therefore, we insist on open access to all school reading materials for all students.

Intellectual Freedom Statement

The New McCarthyism exposes the Republican Party as a party of oppression, the exact sort of fact that should make everyone of us uncomfortable.


Anti-CRT Gag Orders Lack Evidence, Logic

My home state of South Carolina, one of the solid red states in the U.S., is jumping on the anti-CRT gag order bandwagon, proposing copy-cat legislation that is repeated across Republican-led states.

As Dr. Susi Long carefully detailed, anti-CRT legislation lacks evidence since CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools and since the laundry list of what the legislation is supposed to prohibit in SC schools simply does not occur in our schools either.

That is part of the reason I have called anti-CRT gag orders a manufactured crisis.

But these partisan attacks on schools and teachers lack more than evidence; they lack a fundamental logic.

The racial make up of SC is 64% white (non-Hispanic), 27% Black, and 6% Hispanic.

However, the public school student population is 48% white, 32% Black, and 12% Hispanic. Like the rest of the U.S., SC public schools are now majority-minority schools.

Here is where anti-CRT gag orders make no sense; the teacher demographics in SC are 79% white, 13% Black, and 3% Hispanic.

SC public schools have a student population significantly unlike the racial demographics of the state, and then teacher demographics are dramatically unlike the state as well as the student population they serve.

Here is where logic falls apart. If we believe anti-CRT gag orders are needed, we must believe that teachers who are almost entirely white are making white students uncomfortable because they are spreading CRT propaganda.

These demographics not only challenge the logic of anti-CRT gag orders, they also expose what is really driving this legislation—white fright.

Demographics of U.S. public schools are a harbinger of the reality that white people will soon constitute less than 50% of the country, while likely remaining the largest racial group for some time.

Schools, curriculum, and teachers are not hostile to white students or white people, but white fright is targeting schools as one of many ways white Americans are clinging to their majority status, a majority status that has an ugly history and an ugly present that some white Americans want hidden.

One of the ugliest truths beneath this fear is that white Americans know exactly what many white people did with majority power—and now they fear what may happen when someone else has that power.

Despite the shifting demographics of students and false claims made by Republicans pushing anti-CRT gag orders, schools remain extremely white-centered and white friendly. And that is the real problem that should be addressed for the good of those students.

National Days of Teaching Truth to Power

Speaking at a recent hearing on yet another copy-cat bill in South Carolina to censor curriculum (targeting Critical Race Theory [CRT]), Dr. Susi Long, professor of early childhood education (University of South Carolina) offered a measured but pointed dismantling of the partisan misinformation in this legislation:

Not to oversimplify, but Long clarifies that CRT is not taught in K-12 (or even K-16) education, adding specifically that the laundry list of issues addressed in these bills are not how teachers teach or treat our students.

Last summer, I emphasized similar points, adding what does occur in schools in terms of race and equity. At one point, Long calmly suggests legislators should be learning from educators instead of legislating what teachers can and cannot teach, what students can and cannot learn.

One of the great ironies of efforts to ban CRT (beyond that CRT isn’t something taught in K-12 education) is that a key tenet of CRT is in order to overcome racism/inequity, everyone needs to be better educated, better informed—exactly what teachers offer students across the U.S.

Here, then, is my modest proposal: National days of teaching truth to power.

As a recent post of mine details, students and teachers are vividly aware of the rise in censorship as well as the potential negative consequences of those bans, such as self-censorship grounded in fear.

Will, for example, Paul Laurence Dunbar be erased from classrooms or will teachers be fired for honoring Dunbar’s voice that continues to resonate in 2022?:

“We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

Let’s identify days when we will target lessons and texts that are being misrepresented purely for political gain.

Lessons on race and racism, lessons on academic freedom and censorship, lessons on gender and sexuality—ultimately lessons one what it means to be educated in a country that claims to be free.

This semester I plan to dedicate a day in my courses to Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again.”

Like Dunbar’s poem reflecting the realities of being Black during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, Hughes creates a complex unpacking of many minoritized groups during the 1930s:

And Hughes also resonates today in his confronting of the failures of the American Dream, an ideal not yet realized even in 2022:

“The land that never has been yet” is facing us all now in the U.S. as Republicans are in denial and have turned to the antithesis of freedom, censorship, in order to cling to power.

As educators, as professionals charged with honoring the dignity of every student’s mind, we have only truth to break the cycle of oppressive power.

Teaching truth is the key. Can we do this, and do this now?

As James Baldwin implored, “[T]he time is always now.”

If you will join me, I will identify dates and lessons below, updating over the coming weeks with full lesson plans, texts being taught, etc.

[email: paul.thomas@furman.edu]


P.L. Thomas, Furman University

Lesson: “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

Date: TBD


Teaching in a Time of Conservative Tyranny

My spring 2022 schedule includes three classes, two sections of upper-level writing/research and one first-year writing seminar. During my second class today, while students were completing individual work before a class discussion, I scrolled through Twitter and found this:

I quickly Googled the poem, and decided to interject an impromptu mini-lesson between students completing the individual assignment and the class discussion.

Although I have been a teacher educator (and first-year writing professor) for twenty years now, I quickly put on my high school English teacher hat and conducted a lesson on Dunbar’s poem, reading it aloud and asking students questions along the way.

I repeated the lesson (also not on the schedule) in my third class, where students offered similar responses to the discussion.

Overwhelmingly, students identified the mask motif as an exploration of putting on an emotional front, noting, for example, the juxtaposition of “smile” and “cry” in the line “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries.” (Interestingly, one student immediately contextualized the mask motif in the current Covid era.)

When I directly asked students to identify the “we,” most immediately spoke about a universality of the poem being about “society” or anyone who identifies with the speaker in the poem.

After walking through the poem (and confirming that students were not familiar with the poem or Dunbar), I pulled up the Wikipedia page on the poem to highlight that it had been published in 1895 and that Dunbar was a Black poet who was born during U.S. Reconstruction and published in the Jim Crow Era.

I then noted the poem is about Black people masking for white people—the core of Chanea Bond‘s Tweet and the student’s awareness that at least 4 out of 10 students in the U.S. are now being taught in states with educational gag orders, a growing list of state-level legislation being proposed and passed by Republicans from Florida to Virginia to Texas to Oklahoma to Indiana and anywhere Republicans have unlimited power.

These educational gag orders include curriculum bans (often directly and indirectly invoking Critical Race Theory), book/text bans, and so-call parental rights bills that allow any parent to trigger censorship or reprimanding a teacher. While this legislation is devastating to public institutions (K-16), some bills include potential fines for private schools who take any public funds.

Attacks on books have spread beyond assigned reading, classroom libraries, and school libraries to include public libraries as well.

This wave of gag orders and censorship has included violence and threats as well as overwhelmingly impacting Black texts and topics along with any writers or works that deal with LGBTQ+ topics or experiences.

The mask being used to hide the racism and bigotry of these complaints and legislation is an insincere claim that student discomfort must be curtailed.

Some of the most extreme versions of gag order bills include requirements that teachers provide a year of lesson plans before the academic year in order for parents and others to review and approve them.

First, let me confront that last point; my impromptu lesson today was one of the best I have done in recent memory. Students were engaged, and I watched in real time as my students confronted ideas, as my students learned and became different people than when they walked into class today.

While lesson plans are important, they simply are not as valuable as being prepared to teach, and being prepared to engage with your students; a fundamental misunderstanding about teaching is that (as these gag orders and parental rights bills reveal) too many people think the job of the teacher is to transfer knowledge/content to students.

As most any teacher will tell you, we teach students—not lessons, not history or English or even The Great Gatsby.

As students and as future educators, my students today needed and deserved the lesson that came from a teacher’s Tweet. They also benefitted from a brief experience with how to read and engage with poetry along with the tyranny of partisan politics that is shutting the door on their lives as free individuals.

But my impromptu lesson today grounded in a text that may soon be banned from classrooms exposes the catastrophic misunderstanding of texts. Not a single student today recognized the powerful racial message intended by Dunbar because those students lacked historical and literacy context that is already missing from their formal education without the educational gag orders.

As I have stressed during this manufactured outrage from the Right, traditional education is already incredibly conservative.

Reading Dunbar’s poem, in fact, for its universal appeal strips it of its radical power—and cheats students from confronting the historical realities of Reconstruction and Jim Crow for Black Americans.

In 2022, students, teachers, teaching/learning, and academic freedom are under assault by conservative tyranny. There is nothing American or noble about censorship.

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste” is a seven-decades long slogan of the UNCF, and with the greatest of ironies, it now seems a central goal of Republicans to insure all minds are wasted.

Bond’s student is our canary in a coal mine, and soon, every classroom may be just as dangerous, literally, as a coal mine if we refuse to heed that student’s concern.

Curriculum as Windows, Mirrors, and Maps

Maybe these maps and legends/Have been misunderstood

“Maps and Legends,” R.E.M.

The metaphors of literature as windows and mirrors have become standard ways to advocate for diversity in the texts we invite our students to read [1]. Texts that are windows provide students opportunities to witness and understand people, lives, and cultures unlike their own; texts that are mirrors reflect people, lives, and culture similar to their own.

As an educator, I have been compelled by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers, who both make incredibly powerful and personal cases for mirrors in the reading and lives of minoritized and marginalized students as well as how those texts provide windows for students with race and gender privilege.

My journey as a reader and human has been profoundly impacted by texts as windows; particularly during my undergraduate years when my ideology was transformed by Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and other Black writers and thinkers.

The importance of windows and mirrors extends beyond the texts included in our classrooms, however, and must be a commitment to the curriculum of all courses our students navigate.

In 2022, curriculum, instruction, and text/book selection are under assault. State legislators are proposing and passing legislation banning curriculum and texts/books; further, additional legislation seeks to expand the role of parents in not only having access to curriculum and instruction, but also to review and over-ride teacher autonomy in curriculum and instruction.

The most extreme example of the latter is a mandate for teachers to submit a year of lesson plans by mid-summer for review and approval.

At their core, these partisan bills reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about lesson plans, instruction, curriculum, and the complexity of teaching and learning.

The curriculum/text/book bans as well as the parental rights bills are rooted in a White backlash, a fear that White students are being taught in w ays that cause them harmful discomfort.

A few aspects of this must be unpacked.

First, why have these same advocates not raised concerns about the discomfort of girls/young women confronted for decades by texts and curriculum that are male-centric and often portray negative messages about women; why no concern about the discomfort of Black and Brown students who must read texts that include racist language and hateful stereotypes; why no concern for LGBTQ+ students who must navigate texts and curriculum almost entirely populated by people unlike them (or worse, presented with narratives that suggest simplistic views of gender and sexuality)?

Second is the broader failure to recognize the need for curriculum as windows and mirrors for all students to instill self-awareness and empathy—and the related need for learning to be, at time, uncomfortable.

Discomfort is an essential element with changing and growing.

Intellectual and ideological discomfort is distinct from discomfort due to emotional, psychological, or physical discomfort grounded in fear. Education requires the former and is corrupted by the latter.

Despite the White backlash against a more diverse curriculum, a backlash that believes the Whiteness of that curriculum has disappeared, evidence shows that marginalized and minoritized students remain under-represented:

Findings from the report suggest there is disparity in representation of characters from different racial, ethnic, and gender groups. When portrayals of these groups are present, they tend to be affirming and authentic portrayals. However stereotypes, limited roles and inaccurate information are still present and tend to be unique to specific communities. Based on the review, the results indicate a need for educational materials that create a sense of belonging, develop cultural authenticity, and recognize nuanced identity in different characters.

The Representation of Social Groups in U. S. Educational Materials and Why it Matters [2]

Current education legislation de-professionalizes teaching, but that legislation is also suggesting solutions to problems that simply do not exist (such as banning CRT, which isn’t present or even relevant to K-12 education).

In 2014, Christopher Myers confronted the “apartheid of literature,” how Blackness remained mostly absent or misrepresented in the texts published and thus the texts students read. He addresses the value of texts as windows, but deems that inadequate; Myers argues:

Academics and educators talk about self-esteem and self-worth when they think of books in this way, as mirrors that affirm readers’ own identities. I believe that this is important, but I wonder if this idea is too adult and self-concerned, imagining young readers as legions of wicked queens asking magic mirrors to affirm that they are indeed “the fairest of them all.”…

The children I know … see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.

The Apartheid of Children’s Literature

We must acknowledge that the curriculum and book/text bans are coming in a time of U.S. public education when over half of students are Black/Brown while teachers remain overwhelming White (and mostly women). What possibilities are Black/Brown students witnessing daily simply by being students in schools?

And, more broadly, we must accept that whoever decides what students can or cannot read or learn is also deciding who students can become.

At the core of teaching, our commitments should be grounded in what we teach (curriculum) and how we teach (instruction) as that serves who we teach (students).

All students deserve, then, curriculum as windows and mirrors that will serve them in building the map of who they become.


[1] Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.

[2] See a review of this report here.

Recommended

Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction