Educators have the moral and professional responsibility to teach and lead on issues of race and racism in schools—it’s what children need, what most parents want, and what compelling research calls for.
But the evidence base on what works—and what doesn’t—in effectively teaching about race and racism isn’t well known or confidently cited, even by many education leaders. This leaves a vacuum that cynical political actors are filling with odious new laws that overburden teachers and essentially legislate educational malpractice.
We realized the research wasn’t really accessible to most education leaders when we convened cross-partisan roundtables last year at the Aspen Institute to explore what was behind new policies that restrict teaching about race. To address this gap, we synthesized the leading scholarship on addressing race and racism in education. Now, we call on educators to leverage the research to reorient the public discourse away from politics and division to one centered on evidence, outcomes, and the broad consensus on teaching about race that most Americans support.
The situation is dire: Policymakers have proposed legislation limiting how race and racism can be taught in schools in 42 states, and legislation has already been enacted or similar means of restriction have been established in 15 states. Under a new Tennessee law, activists are seeking to remove iconic stories of the civil rights movement from the curriculum, including a children’s story by Ruby Bridges about her own experience integrating public schools in New Orleans.
In a real-life example of the absurdity these laws create, a school leader in Texas advised teachers they need to present an “opposing perspective” about the Holocaust. Many of these misguided laws purport to make it illegal for teachers to activate certain emotional reactions among students, coercing teachers into avoiding explicit treatment of racism in their classrooms at a time when young people are yearning to learn more about what’s going on around them.
Children know racism exists in America and want to learn how to ameliorate it. A study from Sesame Workshop found that 86 percent of the children ages 6-11 who they surveyed report that people in the United States are treated unfairly on the basis of race; nearly half the children say that racism is top of mind for them. It’s not just young people that want schools to teach about race and racism: According to a recent survey commissioned by the Policy Innovators in Education Network, even as 86 percent of parents want students to be taught to love America, fully 86 percent also want students to learn about “the terrible things that have happened in our nation’s history regarding race so students can learn from them and make the future better.”
Parents report being more worried about the politicization of curriculum decisions than about their children getting COVID-19 or being bullied in school.
Moreover, parents really don’t want politicians usurping these educational decisions: In a recent survey commissioned by Learning Heroes, parents report their top concern about this school year is “having politicians who are not educators making decisions about what students learn in the classroom.” Strikingly, parents report being more worried about the politicization of curriculum decisions than about their children getting COVID-19 or being bullied in school.
Research suggests three attributes of effective practice when teaching about race and racism. First, teaching on these topics must be academically rigorous. It doesn’t do students any good to have watered-down lessons, especially on topics as serious and important as race. Second, instruction on race and racism should reflect cultural competence, meaning that students’ backgrounds and context should be taken into account to create connections between their lived experience and what they learn in school. Finally, good teaching about race and racism promotes students’ ability to interrogate why things are the way they are and whether/how they should be otherwise, sometimes referred to as critical thinking or critical consciousness.
We know from research that ignoring racism in schools increases prejudice, while explicit teaching about race and racism reduces prejudice—and improves student learning. In rigorous studies of ethnic-studies courses in Tucson, Ariz., and San Francisco, students’ attendance improved, achievement went up, and high school graduation increased among students who took those courses. These are outcomes valued by both conservatives and liberals; policymakers should empower teachers to do this job well. Expanding ethnic-studies offerings is one proven strategy, and enriching history and social studies instruction is another. Issues of race and racism can be woven into subjects across the curriculum.
Even under legislation seeking to censor educators and limit effective practice, there is still a lot that education leaders can do to better reflect the research and support high-quality teaching on race and racism. Educators should select curriculum materials that support serious, nuanced classroom discussions about race and racism with more diverse heroes and authors, more primary-source materials, and discussion prompts that facilitate deep inquiry and rich debate. District and school leaders should provide teachers with more consistent training, time to practice, and coaching on how to sponsor serious, sensitive conversations about race.
And while we’re working on these medium- and long-term strategies, educators should curtail short-term solutions that don’t actually solve problems. For instance, short, intensive anti-bias training doesn’t reduce bias, yet is easy to implement and all-too-common in schools and central offices. Research on the use of “white privilege” interventions suggests they can undermine empathy for white people living in poverty without meaningfully reducing racial prejudice. Good intentions aren’t enough when addressing race and racism in schools; we need good practice, too.
Education leaders have been put on the defensive by a well-orchestrated political campaign to malign and undermine the treatment of race and racism in schools. So far, the public discourse has been short on evidence and long on ideology from both ends of the political spectrum, which is terrain that educators are wise to avoid. Educators can assert their leadership, however, by speaking clearly and courageously about the strong research base on which they stand, explaining the harm done when politics displaces good practice, and banding together to reduce prejudice and expand justice through education.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2022 edition of Education Week as Ignoring Racism in Schools Actually Increases Prejudice