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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Drive Instruction With Mastery-Based Assessment
Deliver the right data at the right time—in the right format—and empower better decisions.
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
How Does Educator Well-Being Impact Social-Emotional Awareness in Schools?
Explore how adult well-being is key to promoting healthy social-emotional behaviors for students. Get strategies to reduce teacher stress.
Content provided by International Baccalaureate
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies Opinion Overhauling Social Studies in a Polarized Era. One State Chief Tells the Tale
One thing that helped Louisiana accomplish the politically charged task was acknowledging upfront the process would be confrontational.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Social Studies Louisiana's History Standards Got a Closed-Door Rewrite. What's In and What's Out
Amid a volatile debate over how to teach about America's racist past, state officials fundamentally altered educators' proposed standards.
10 min read
Image of a social studies book coming to visual life with edits to the content.
Laura Baker/Education Week (Source imagery: Orensila and iStock/Getty)
Social Studies Opinion Searching for Common Ground: What the Russian Invasion Means for Teaching Civics
To understand what's going on in Ukraine and Russia and why, students need to understand some central facts about the region.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Social Studies Opinion An Unlikely Tool Can Help Students Understand the Russia-Ukraine War: Sports
For some students, sports can help make sense of the complexities of war. Here are three strategies.
Anne-Lise Halvorsen, Donald R. McClure & Jacinda Bowman
4 min read
Illustration of the colors of the Ukrainian flag superimposed over sporting equipment.
Paul Campbell/iStock/Getty