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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Educators Will Teach ‘Truth About Oppression’ Despite CRT Attacks

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 26, 2022 12 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

Have attacks on critical race theory, which have morphed into attacks on educators teaching about systemic racism, affected what you do in the classroom? If so, how? If not, why not?

In Part One, Marissa Dillon, Kathryn Vaughn, Erica Buchanan-Rivera, and Bill Ivey contributed their responses.

Today, Margaret Thornton, Keisha Rembert, Eva Thanheiser, and Courtney Rose, Ed.D. wrap-up this series.

Teachers Feel ‘Threatened and Demoralized’

Margaret Thornton is a visiting assistant professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Her research interests include equity-focused school leadership development, school leadership for detracking, and critical race theory:

This coming academic year, I will be working at a state institution, and I, like many educators, am more in fear of my job, but I also know I owe it to my students and the students they ultimately serve to tell the truth about oppression and what we can do about it.

I have been lucky to serve at a private institution of higher learning for most of the time the most recent whitelash against critical race theory has been happening, but this has not insulated me from the effects of such a racist attempt to silence educators who are willing to tackle tough topics. Many of my own students are public school educators, and they report feeling both threatened and demoralized by the resistance to teaching honestly about our country’s history and present. We should be clear that speaking openly about race and racism is not, in fact, critical race theory. CRT is a legal framework for understanding racist systems and how to advocate changes to those systems within legal frameworks. Studying CRT can be incredibly useful for educators trying to understand how systems harm students and how to undo that harm. CRT also does not lay the blame for racist systems at the feet of individuals but rather at systems that cause those harms. Some reactionaries, however, have proved very adept at bastardizing this theory for their own anti-public-school gains.

Earlier this year, the new governor of my home state of Virginia set up a “tip line” by which parents were encouraged to email to the state education department instances of educators teaching “divisive concepts.” I was curious to see what these “tips” looked like, so I filed a Freedom of Information Act request that was summarily denied. In the course of the reporting about my trying to get my hands on what should have been public information, administrators at my current institution were harassed by a racist seeking to have me “punished” for asking for what should have been public records. Even knowing that everyone at my institution had my back, I was filled with fear and dread, but I know I must continue the pursuit of truth. I also know that I have immense privilege that allows me to push back against attempts to stop educators from teaching the truth.

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‘Liberty Is on the Line’

Keisha Rembert is an award-winning educator who is passionate about anti-racism and equity in schools. Currently, Keisha is a doctoral student and an assistant professor of teacher preparation at National Louis University:

Resistance is my nature. The attacks on critical race theory in the classroom have only made me more emboldened to teach and lead class discussions using CRT tenets.

I am fortunate enough to live in a state that has not enacted policies making my decision to double down a threat to my employment, so I can resist without that risk, which I understand is a privilege. It is a privilege I do not take lightly and will not squander.

The fight against CRT affirms for me that those who can must now more than ever. It may sound hyperbolic, but I feel like liberty is on the line. If I don’t teach my students to critique American society, systems, structures, and history through the lens of race and understand why it is necessary to do and the implications of doing such, I cannot say with certainty we are ever going to exist as a truly free nation.

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CRT and Math

Eva Thanheiser is a professor of mathematics education at Portland State University in Oregon. Her work focuses on collaborating with teachers, students, parents, and community members to develop and implement anti-bias mathematics education that allows students to connect mathematics to their world. evat@pdx.edu:

Attacks on CRT and educators teaching about systemic racism have been a focus in the news and of legislation about what teachers can and cannot do lately. As such, they permeate education at all levels.

With mathematics, there is a notion that mathematics is politically neutral; however, this is simply not the case. Mathematics is a powerful tool that is used to harm people. Books like Outliers have helped more people understand how culture, family, and experiences contribute to achievement. There are many more books out there such as Weapons of Math Destruction, Invisible Women, and Data Feminism, for example which lay out how destructive mathematics is to encode racism and sexism into data collection and analysis procedures.

So how does mathematics fit in these dialogues? Why am I arguing that mathematics is not politically neutral? I see mathematics as a human construct (something that people create and do), which allows us to make sense of and influence the work around us. This means we make sense of societal issues such as the overrepresentation of minoritized communities in remedial mathematics classes as well as in the U.S. prison system. Using a lens of CRT in the mathematics classrooms allows us to ask and seek answers to relevant questions related to injustices that relate to race.

To dig into this example a bit deeper, let me start with a foundational assumption about the world. If opportunities were equal and the justice system impartial to its citizens according to race, we would expect the remedial-mathematics classes as well as the prison population to represent the U.S. population at large. Making assumptions like this then helps us to use mathematics to determine if our assumptions are true and make meaning. Thus, if 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black, then 13 percent of the U.S. prison system and 13 percent of remedial-math classes should be Black. This is proportional reasoning (a central focus of middle school mathematics.)

Recently, my daughter and I read the book Stamped: Racism, antiracism, and you: A remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the beginning by Reynolds, J., & Kendi, I. X. In that book, there is a line, “Today, the United States remains nowhere close to racial equality. African Americans make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population.” (Reynolds & Kendi, 2020, p. xii). What questions might one ask oneself when reading this? And what part of that is mathematics? Here are a few questions:

  • What does it mean that African Americans make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population but only 13 percent of the population at large?
  • How much more likely is it for an African American person to be in prison as compared with a white person?

A deep understanding of middle school mathematics allows us to uncover that a double issue is going on.

  • Black people are incarcerated at a higher rate 4.75 (estimates vary, this is a lower-end one) times as often as white people and
  • Black people make up a much smaller proportion of the population, 13 percent as compared with 60 percent of the white population

Together, this means that Black people are about 21 times more likely to be in prison than white people.

If so, how? If not, why not?

Back to the question of whether attacks on CRT or education affect what we do in the classroom. Yes, they do as they require a lot of explicit explanation of why we need to know and understand math deeply and contextually to understand exactly what the numbers mean that we get and how to question them. In my eyes, ethically we cannot teach math without context. Mathematics IS understanding the world, and without it, we cannot understand the level of unfairness and then harness mathematics to do something about it.

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‘CRT Is One of Many Theories’

Courtney Rose, Ed.D., is an educational consultant, culturally relevant/responsive educator and the founder of Ivy Rose Consulting through which she offers both individual and group services that foster critical dialogue, collaborative learning activities, and the exploration/development of innovative strategies to humanize teaching and learning. She currently serves as a visiting assistant teaching professor in the Urban Education program at Florida International University:

Before I get into the answer to this question, I want to acknowledge that my position as a university-based teacher educator who teaches courses specifically designed to explore some of the social and political policies, practices, and narratives that have shaped, and continue to shape, experiences in schools may position me, or give the perception that I am positioned, differently within the education landscape and dominant dialogue on this subject.

However, working at a public institution in a state where legislation was passed in direct response to critical race theory debates including in higher education, certainly places me in a position to reflect on how this will impact and shape my own practice.

As Gloria Ladson-Billings explains in a video (Gloria Ladson-Billings – Critical Race Theory) posted to The Brainwaves Video Anthology’s YouTube channel, CRT emerged as a “big explanatory framework” through which graduate students might analyze and make sense of social phenomena, particularly through the examination of how conceptualizations and constructions of race impact legal systems and policies. That being said, CRT is just ONE of many theories that students, scholars, educators, etc., can use to frame their discussions and explorations of social structures, norms, practices, and phenomena.

Given that developing a deep understanding of disparities along a number of identity markers, including race, is a core objective in all of my courses, I do explicitly teach and discuss many different theories that have informed and shaped policies, practices, narratives, and outcomes within education, including CRT.

Considering that the majority of my students are pre- and in-service teachers either preparing to enter or already holding positions in public schools, I feel as though it is my job to equip them with the necessary knowledge and skills to a) clearly understand what theories like critical race theory actually say and how they have been applied to and within education and b) determine for themselves how they can apply the theory in the development and implementation of their practice.

While they may not find CRT to be the most thorough or effective framework, I feel as though it is my job to provide them with as many perspectives and tools to use to dig through the nuances impacting and shaping education so they can ask the critical, fully informed questions and begin to identify effective long-term solutions for change. In other words, to pull back on covering CRT at all would be a disservice to my students, especially within a political climate that requires a clear understanding of it in order to navigate through district and state mandates passed in the midst of these public debates and attacks that place teachers and their work at the center.

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Thanks to Margaret, Keisha, Eva, and Courtney for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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