A decade ago, a push to change the nation’s reading and math standards blew up into a ferocious, multiyear clash. Obama administration efforts to promote the Common Core State Standards via its Race to the Top program and concerns about the impact on math and reading instruction combined to fuel a fight which ultimately turned a vaguely popular notion into a poisoned brand. The dispute wound up swallowing much of what the Obama administration sought to do in K-12 schooling.
You’d think the lesson would’ve stuck. President Joe Biden, after all, saw all of this up close as Obama’s VP. But recent efforts to promote civics education suggest that little was learned.
Over the last couple years, there’s been a growing effort to promote civics education, featuring a lot of time and energy devoted to making the case that it’s a nonpartisan, bottom-up effort. There’s already been a lot of headwind, given the enthusiasm in some circles for “action civics” and “anti-racist” resources that strike many of us as overtly ideological and frequently partisan.
Now, in late April, the U.S. Department of Education announced its new “priorities” for civics ed. In accord with Biden’s executive order on racial equity, the department proposed having federal civics programs “support the development of culturally responsive teaching and learning.” In response, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and 37 GOP senators called on the Department of Education to stop the rule, saying, “If your administration had proposed actual legislation instead of trying to do this quietly through the Federal Register, that legislation would not pass Congress.”
Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, slammed the proposal in National Review, writing, “In an early but revelatory move, President Biden’s Department of Education has signaled its intent to impose the most radical forms of Critical Race Theory on America’s schools, very much including the 1619 Project and the so-called anti-racism of Ibram X. Kendi. (Kendi’s “anti-racism”—which advocates a massive and indefinite expansion of reverse discrimination—is more like neo-racism.)”
Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights argued at a virtual conference last fall sponsored by the National Association of Scholars that the “1619 Project” is “one of the most significant attempts to propagandize history” in his lifetime—well before Biden held it up as a model of civics instruction.
And there was already grave concern on the right about the proposed Civics Secures Democracy Act, which would appropriate $1 billion for curriculum development and teacher training in civics education. Critics suggest that the bill’s wording all but ensures that the funds would be earmarked to promote and support critical race theory and discriminatory practices, such as the race-based grouping of students and staff, that many conservatives view as flatly at odds with the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and the plain meaning of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Erika Sanzi, the director of outreach at Parents Defending Education, recently wrote in Newsweek that the new organization is hearing daily “from concerned parents and teachers about what they describe as a ‘racially divisive curriculum,’ ‘blatant activism in the classroom,’ ‘infantilization of students and staff of color,’ ‘sanctioned discrimination,’ ‘radical gender ideology’ and ‘racist poison.’” One father told her, “We did not immigrate to this country for our children to be taught in taxpayer-funded schools that punctuality and hard work are white values.”
If you thought the fight about the wording of state reading and math standards got ugly, just watch what happens when the issue is whether public schools should be teaching students to label themselves based on race and ethnicity. If Obama incentivizing states to adopt the Common Core proved incendiary when the issue was how much fiction kids should read, wait until the issue is whether Uncle Sam should encourage schools to adopt materials that teach the U.S. is a “slavocracy.”
It’s a lost opportunity, on two counts. We sorely need to step up the quality of civics education. That includes teaching a richer, more complex historical tapestry than has been the norm. And, as Pedro Noguera and I have said ad nauseum, we must do much better in hashing out these fraught questions. But federal directives which push states and schools to embrace problematic historiography and unapologetic defenses of discrimination are not the way to go about that.
We’re on the precipice of Common Core 2.0. Here’s hoping those serious about civics education can still avert the plunge.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.