In August 2020, Rydell Harrison joined a southwestern Connecticut school district as the new superintendent. When he started, the district had just established a task force to address racial equity, and the community seemed poised to take action. But by June of this year, Harrison had resigned. Why? A wave of resistance and harassment in response to his diversity and equity initiatives made it impossible for Harrison to make the progress he had set out to achieve. His story is not unique.
Twenty-eight states across the country have recently moved to limit instruction on race, racism, and history in public schools, often invoking the “threat” of critical race theory (CRT). The furor around CRT centers on the question of what students should learn about and how teachers should teach race. In the midst of these restrictions, which prevent meaningful education about race and racism, states must redouble efforts to support all students—including students of color—and best position them for success. Doing so will require accurate and honest teaching about America’s history of racism. While the challenge is steep, there are two areas in which states can focus: strengthening culturally responsive education (CRE) and increasing educator diversity.
CRE is an educational framework that views student diversity as an asset, and believes schools should be inclusive of and responsive to the diversity of their students across all components of their educational experiences—from curricula to cultural practices. Who does the teaching is also important: students’ educational experiences need to reflect their culture and their communities. Currently the diversity of teachers lags far behind the demographics of classrooms. In order to best educate students, states must commit to policies to diversify educators and create a representative teacher workforce.
To understand why these changes are necessary for policymakers to focus on, it is important to review the state of American education and the future that lies ahead if the latest restrictions on teaching are left unchallenged.
What Are the New Laws Against Critical Race Theory?
Although lawmakers cite the danger of critical race theory as justification for their legislation, the laws themselves do not actually address CRT. Critical race theory comes from legal scholarship, and is taught in graduate schools, not K–12 classrooms. Claiming to ban CRT in public schools is like writing a law claiming to ban multivariable calculus or thermodynamics in elementary schools.
Put simply, CRT argues that it is important to explore how laws and institutions perpetuate racial inequality, regardless of stated intent. While many detractors portray CRT as a racist and negative ideology that seeks to make white children feel guilty or name every individual white person as inherently racist, CRT deliberately focuses on structures rather than individual prejudice.
For anti-CRT actors, the distortion of CRT is key. At the same time that politicians say they are legislating against CRT, many struggle to even define it—and so does their legislation. Instead, these laws use their attacks on CRT as a Trojan horse, limiting a broader swath of content relating to race, history, and inequality. The resulting legislation has the potential to create a chilling effect as teachers fear reprisal for teaching a wide range of concepts and historical events deemed too contentious in a highly politicized environment.
A new law in Texas, for example, never mentions nor defines critical race theory, despite the fact that supporters labelled it an anti-CRT bill. Instead, the legislation states that teachers cannot be “compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs” and requires that if they choose to do so, they must present both sides of the issue without “deference to any one perspective.” Other language in the law targets unconscious bias and diversity trainings.
The Texas Senate recently passed a follow-up bill that previews the further consequences in education that could follow. In the first anti-CRT law, legislators included a list of civil rights topics and people they deemed appropriate to require teachers to cover. The Senate’s latest bill removes almost all people of color and women from that list, taking out more than twenty teaching requirements on women’s suffrage and civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, would no longer be required to be taught in Texas public schools. Other removed topics range from enslaved people’s writings to Native American history, the Chicano movement, and Brown v. Board. Teaching about the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments remains required. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime. The Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to everyone born in the United States and guaranteed equal rights under the law. But the Fifteenth Amendment, which protects voting rights regardless of race, is no longer included. The law also removes the requirement that students understand “the history of white supremacy… and why it is morally wrong.”
While the prohibition on or lack of requirements does not equate to a ban, reading the Texas Senate’s bill as indicative of lawmakers’ vision for public education is useful. The law is an expression of what Texas Republicans believe students must understand about their nation’s history. The curriculum legislators lay out in this bill imagines a history that unquestionably accepts their view of the premises of the founding documents without making space for contesting voices, and it skips over the nation’s rich history of activism challenging the inequality of American society. Rather than studying movements by marginalized groups, the Senate’s bill views history as moments of benign condescension: the government granting rights rather than people demanding them. And as Texas stands on the precipice of another voter suppression law—driving Democratic legislators to flee the state to prevent the bill’s passage—these Texas lawmakers do not view the Fifteenth Amendment as essential learning.
Moreover, the fact that the Senate’s bill does not ban civil rights material does not redeem the bill. Permitting the coverage of civil rights material per se, but not of the role of race and racism in American history, both restricts teachers and further opens teachers up to political pressure from parents and district administrators.
Already the controversy in school districts about critical race theory is straining teachers. We are seeing stories from around the country of teachers and administrators committed to racial equity in schools facing harassment, backlash, and threats from community members. For example, in June, a white high school social studies teacher in Tennessee, Matthew Hawn, was fired after a parent complained that he assigned a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay about President Trump and a poem about white privilege. The school board determined that Hawn was not adequately presenting opposing viewpoints. Hawn’s case demonstrates how the vague language of these laws combined with the fervor around discussions of racism in schools creates an extremely uncertain environment for teachers, whose job security rests on the political whims of parents and administrators.
These instances not only affect the individual educators and their district, but also send a message to educators and potential educators nationwide. Hawn was a tenured teacher and baseball coach at the school, where he had taught since 2008. If he could face this retribution, imagine the risk that a younger teacher or a teacher of color experiences as they consider how to teach their students about racism. This episode is merely a precursor to what is to come with these new laws.
These restrictions also harm students by privileging the feelings of white children above the needs of students of color. Again, the Texas legislation illustrates the case. Echoing the language in many other states’ legislation, the law bans instruction that causes a student to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.” When read within the context of a law that circumscribes teaching about racism, the consequence of such a statement becomes clear. These laws are about how white students feel (or claim to feel). The laws are efforts to insulate them from “discomfort” or “guilt” about the histories they may be taught.
The fact is that learning history often does not feel good. It is not meant to, and conservatives know that. An example from Florida demonstrates Republicans’ double standard. Florida’s new anti-CRT law rightly requires that the Holocaust be taught. But learning that history would understandably cause students “discomfort.” So why is Holocaust denial reprehensible, but denial of racism the new standard? Could a teacher accurately tell their students that Hitler found inspiration from America’s Jim Crow laws (an established fact, and a crucial one), or would that “discomfort” be legally impermissible, and the instruction a violation of the American Exceptionalism requirement? If this information is indeed prohibited, then would teachers really be sufficiently educating their students about the Holocaust?
The anti-CRT laws privilege white students because they operate from the premise that the discomfort and anguish comes from speaking about racism, rather than from the existence of racism itself. These laws argue that if we can outlaw such discussions, the discomfort goes away. Perhaps this is true for white students, though that’s debatable. But it certainly is not true for students of color. Racism exists, whether we talk about it or not. When we don’t talk about it, where does that leave students of color?
Without explanations for the persistent inequities they observe around them, students are left to fill in the gaps. Without an understanding of the racist history of mass incarceration, for example, students may conclude that the disproportionate rate of Black incarceration results from personal failings among Black people, a failing that perhaps extends to themselves as well. That is uncomfortable and anguishing, but, under these laws, encouraged.
To address the ways these restrictive laws protect the comfort of white children at the expense of students of color, states must implement policies to respond to the diversity of the classroom.
Why Culturally Responsive Education Matters
Culturally responsive education (CRE) is a pedagogical perspective premised on the idea that schools should be attentive to their students’ diversity. Take, for example, the books present in an elementary school classroom. As children read these books to learn literacy, they internalize more than just spelling and grammar conventions. They also absorb lessons about who matters in society based on the people the author features as characters in these first books they encounter, as well as what sort of person the author, as the storyteller, is themselves. But while 85 percent of New York City public school students are students of color, a recent study by the Coalition for Educational Justice found that 84 percent of books commonly used in New York City’s public elementary schools are written by white authors. Thus, students in the largest school system in the country encounter a remarkably homogeneous set of role models early in their schooling.
Recognizing this harm, New York City schools adopted a CRE framework in 2019. In the city Department of Education’s words, CRE “is a way of seeing diversity as a source of knowledge.” Under the status quo, as the book data showed, schools already relied on a set of cultural norms: the norms of white society. CRE seeks to expand these norms to recognize and support all students, not just white children.
Part of CRE unfolds in the classroom by making the curriculum itself more diverse and relatable to students’ lived experiences, teaching students about past and present forms of oppression, and adopting restorative rather than punitive responses to student behavior. But CRE also involves action beyond the four walls of the classroom by building connections among teachers, students, families, and communities to support children and shape school policies.
The New York City Department of Education uses the language “culturally responsive-sustaining education,” which synthesizes Geneva Gay’s “culturally responsive teaching” framework and Django Paris’s “culturally sustaining pedagogy” approach. In short, the CR-SE framework aims to achieve educational practices that both engage students’ identities and sustain their culture (e.g., supporting multilingualism).
CRE is not a direct response to the attack on CRT present in the recent conservative laws, as the two theories are not the same. But CRE does actively counter the ways these new laws privilege the feelings of white children at the expense of students of color. Rather than papering over differences, CRE leverages them, bringing all students into closer engagement with the material. And while anti-CRT bills assume students cannot handle truths that challenge their previous knowledge, CRE holds challenge and rigor at its core.
Importantly, CRE goes beyond mere revisions to social studies curricula when integrating students’ backgrounds. Using relevant examples in lessons makes material more engaging for students in every subject. For example, students could learn about science through the lens of environmental justice in the local community. Numerous studies demonstrate that students learn better when the material connects to what they already know.
CRE also has benefits for the social aspects of education, a crucial component of K–12 schooling. Students with a stronger sense of racial and ethnic identity have higher self-esteem and are more likely to befriend people across different backgrounds. Thus, CRE creates a more fulfilling educational experience for children inside and outside the classroom. In addition to learning the necessary concepts for their grade level, students gain a sense of agency and civic responsibility.
States can have a key role in implementing CRE by integrating it into their state teaching standards. New America identified eight components of CRE that states should incorporate, and evaluated the extent to which each state does so. Statewide teaching standards in most states currently include CRE to varying degrees, but what is needed is a more extensive and holistic approach nationwide. These standards shape teacher preparation programs and how teachers are evaluated. Thus, revising teaching standards to align with the goals of CRE is an impactful way that states can improve education for students.
In particular, New America’s analysis reveals the need for more states to include expectations that teachers bring real world issues into the classroom; reflect on their own cultural lens and biases, and how these affect their teaching; and understand institutional bias, and how it impacts their students. In addition to naming these expectations, state teaching standards must clearly outline how teachers can demonstrate these competencies.
To gain support for CRE, it is crucial that educators and policymakers are explicit and intentional in their framing. As we have seen with Republicans’ caricatures of critical race theory, a failure to effectively articulate the ideas of and justifications for CRE will result in further backsliding in education policy.
As critics of CRT highlight the theory’s supposed anti-white bias, it is important to preempt such attacks on CRE. In a sense, we already have CRE in our schools—it’s just that it’s responsive only to white students’ cultures. A classroom in which 84 percent of the books are written by white authors is evidently oriented around the experiences, expectations, and needs of white children. CRE agrees that educational materials should resonate with all students’ cultural experiences.
The Importance of Educator Diversity
Think back to your K–12 years. How often did you have a teacher who looked like you? How often were you taught by someone who didn’t?
For students of color, the latter is far more common than the former. In thirteen years of public schooling in suburban Massachusetts—that’s nearly forty teachers—I never had a single Black teacher. Across my three schools’ staffs overall there were only two Black teachers. This experience is unfortunately common. In Massachusetts, a quarter of Black students and a fifth of Latinx students attend schools without a single same-race teacher. This makes sense, considering that while 42 percent of Massachusetts students are students of color, 91.5 percent of teachers in the state are white. Nationwide, 47.2 percent of students are students of color, while only 18.5 percent of teachers are of color.
This imbalance highlights the necessity of diversifying educators. Research shows that teacher diversity improves educational outcomes for students. For example, in a 2018 study, students report feeling more engaged in the material and having more belief in themselves when taught by someone who shares their racial identity. Students also attest to putting forth more effort and having higher academic aspirations. The study also notes that teachers of color are better able to present material in a culturally engaging way, with especially strong effects for Black students taught by Black teachers. Numerous studies have similar findings.
So, how can states increase the diversity of the teacher workforce, and the educator workforce more broadly? This requires efforts in recruitment, retention, and development.
The Education Trust has outlined a series of recommendations to this end, and analyzed which states meet the various criteria. The work starts with states making data on the diversity of their teachers and educators publicly available and accessible. Secondly, states must set clear goals for districts to improve diversity, with input from relevant stakeholders, and designate task forces to monitor progress. To improve recruitment of teachers of color, states must invest in the pipeline of teacher preparation programs. Expanding affordability and investing in programs at minority-serving institutions are two ways states can better recruit a diverse teacher workforce.
Developing and retaining educators of color goes hand in hand: if educators of color feel supported, they will continue to teach. States should thus implement programs that give educators of color clear paths to advancement and support them as they progress. EdTrust suggests cohort or mentorship models to achieve this goal.
States must take a holistic approach to improving the diversity of educators, investing in recruitment, development, and retention. Having an educator workforce that reflects the diversity of the students they serve is necessary to create truly inclusive classrooms where all students feel supported.
A Long Road Ahead, but the Best Place to Start
As the politicization of education about race increases, states must prioritize enhancing educational experiences for all students. Rather than circumscribing teachers’ curricula or preventing students from confronting the complexities of the past and present, states must allow—and encourage—schools and educators to empower students, not shield them.
Culturally responsive education and educator diversity are not silver bullets that will perfect K–12 education. But they are necessary steps in the direction of a more inclusive education for all students.