Social Studies

Critical Race Theory and the Fight Over History Standards: 6 Things to Know

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 19, 2022 2 min read
Illustration of tug of war.
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Since the debate about “critical race theory” began raging, Education Week has kept laser-focused on one question: How will this affect K-12 teaching and learning?

We have documented state laws, districts’ policy changes, the firing of a Tennessee teacher, public perceptions and misperceptions of CRT, and how teachers are trying to interpret vaguely worded policies banning CRT, versions of which have been passed in more than a quarter of the states. Now we are beginning to examine what this debate means for curriculum—the very substance of everyday lessons.

Curriculum is local: Districts choose textbooks, while teachers create lesson plans for daily instruction. But these are shaped by the broad expectations that states revise every decade or so, called standards. Our latest project, based on interviews and document reviews, shows that the CRT debate has run headlong into efforts to rewrite social studies or history standards in three states that were updating them in 2021: Louisiana, New Mexico, and South Dakota.

See the Project

Image of a social study book coming to visual life with edits to the content.
Illustration by Laura Baker/Education Week (Source imagery: Orensila and iStock/Getty)
Social Studies Revising America's Racist Past
Stephen Sawchuk, January 18, 2022
27 min read

The package shows how this debate was shaped by the state’s political and geographic makeup, how it convened standards committees and collected public feedback. But across the states, several themes stood out.

The project is a detailed, long read. Here are some immediate takeaways.

CRT has become a powerful weapon. The term critical race theory has been weaponized against standards that deal with a variety of topics—often about race and inequality, but also about other topics. (Some expectations in the younger grades around understanding diverse communities, for example, were called a “back door” to CRT.)

Core disagreements linger. There is still tremendous disagreement about how much relative emphasis should be given to slavery, Reconstruction, and the removal and slaughter of Native Americans. All three issues were focal points in public comments in the states.

Political interference—both active and passive—is occurring. In South Dakota, standards (mainly on Native American history) were removed by state officials after the working groups submitted a draft of the standards. In Louisiana, fear that the standards wouldn’t receive approval led the writers themselves to recast or delete some standards. In New Mexico, dozens of lawmakers repudiated an as-yet incomplete draft.

“Action civics” has become a bête noire in the social studies. The notion of having students learn how to use civic channels to address local problems—an approach sometimes called action civics—is increasingly being attacked as leftist by conservative critics.

Disagreements about diversity continue. There is a significant lack of agreement, as well as some confusion, about what it truly means to “diversify” the teaching of history. In particular, this focuses on whether and to what extent state standards should explicitly reference LGBTQ people, sexuality, specific ethnicities, or other ways people construct their identities. Much higher education scholarship on these topics has not yet filtered down to K-12 education—and the public is deeply divided about whether it should.

The level of debate often comes down to specific word choices. Among the words and phrases in the draft standards that have been deleted—or called into question by commentators: “perspectives,” “critique,” “diverse,” “equitable,” “equity,” “identity,” “critical consciousness,” “social justice.”

Read the whole project here.

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