Critical Race Theory and California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum

Grassroots movements are sprouting up across the U.S. to advocate against the application of critical race theory in K-12 schools. Parents, teachers, and community members are joining forces to say: not in our schools. In California, organizations like Educators for Excellence in Ethnic Studies and the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies are advocating that critical race theory not be the underlying foundation of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. What gives rise to their concerns? There are two primary reasons they are ringing alarm bells about the application of critical race theory: First, they are concerned about the well-being of children. Second, they believe schools are obligated to teach young people how to think critically, not to advance an activist agenda.

Critical race theory, like other critical theories, espouses a truth — for example, hierarchical power dynamics permeate all aspects of society — then investigates texts and makes observations with that truth as their foundational lens. In other words, they do not ask if power dynamics were at play in a particular situation, they ask how power was manifested. Furthermore, for critical theorists, everything is political. As Rod Graham, a sociologist, described, for critical theorists, your assumption “determines how you see the world and your values and goals” rather than data. Erec Smith, in his book Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition, describes this approach as sophistic critical thinking. In sophistic critical thinking, the vested interest of the thinker takes precedence over reason and evidence and truth and objectivity.

K-12 schools strive to instill in students fair-minded critical thinking skills. As Smith describes, fair-minded critical thinkers empathize with diverse viewpoints, are devoted to truth over self-interest, use rigorous standards of evidence and proof to draw conclusions, and do not rely solely on feelings to make decisions. The concern of the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies is that by embedding critical race theory in the ethnic studies curriculum there will be a “lack of balanced inquiry and [fair-minded] critical thinking.”

Furthermore, teachers are concerned about the outcome of utilizing critical race theory as a framework and pedagogy in classrooms. One role of a teacher is to develop a positive classroom climate and positive relationships with her/his students. An assumption of critical race theory is that racism is inherent in society and permanent, and that society is made up of oppressors (typically white males) and victims (typically non-white). If this assumption is embedded in curriculum, teachers worry they will be implicitly expected to assign negative attributes to their students based on skin color, such as aggressor and victim. A representative from Educators for Excellence in Ethnic Studies described: “For teachers to be told to approach their students with this mindset is, in my opinion, educational malpractice. It’s prejudice.”

The representative went on to state that instilling the oppressor-oppressed power dynamic in the classroom may cause “students to not develop the positive collaborative relationships that they’re supposed to have in a classroom,” which is crucial for student learning and how students view themselves:

“[A] student who is told that they are racist, and that they may not think they are racist, but they are racist because of the color of their skin and that everything that they’re doing is racist in order to […] maintain power is a terrible thing to say to a student. Similarly, saying to a student, you are a victim, whether you know it or not, you have been victimized, that’s also disempowering.”

Students need to have a positive narrative in their head of themselves and their overall school experience. Moreover, they should strive to view their classmates as nuanced individuals, not members of a fixed group with inherently good or bad qualities.

Groups like Educators for Excellence in Ethnic Studies and the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies are not advocating that schools eliminate ethnic studies courses and curriculum or that racism should not be taught about in schools. They are advocating an approach that is more balanced and inclusive of a diverse range of viewpoints, not just the worldview of critical theorists. There are other perspectives that better meet the goal of inclusive education. David Ferrero proposes four alternative philosophies to critical theory and how they aim to achieve an inclusive education environment: perennialism, essentialism, progressivism, social reconstructionism. Given the shortcomings of critical theory, the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum committee would be wise to consider the alternatives.

The committee is accepting public comment on the current draft until January 21st.

Scholar of the politics of education and publisher of EduThirdSpace, a newsletter and podcast.

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