Image of a social studies book coming to visual life with edits to the content.
Social Studies

Revising America’s Racist Past

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 18, 2022 27 min read
  1. Chapters
  2. 01.
  3. 02.
    Why Standards Matter
  4. 03.
    LOUISIANA: A CRT Reckoning Awaits
  5. 04.
    SOUTH DAKOTA: Questions on Political Interference
  6. 05.
    NEW MEXICO: A Push to Acknowledge Identity
  7. 06.
    Making Civic Debates More Civil?
Social Studies

Revising America’s Racist Past

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 18, 2022 27 min read
  • Introduction

    Spiked drafts. Allegations of political interference. Confusing terminology. And thousands of angry comments: The volatile debate over how to teach about America’s racist past is wreaking havoc on states’ processes for deciding what students will learn about history and social studies.

    In state after state, commentators and politicians contended that proposed expectations for social studies embedded “critical race theory”—even as the educators sitting on the panels writing the new standards defended them for providing an honest, if sometimes challenging, view of America.

    Education Week reviewed hundreds of standards and thousands of pages of public comment relating to the standards-writing processes in South Dakota, Louisiana, and New Mexico, all of which took up revisions in 2021, and interviewed writers, educators, and state officials. Across the three states, we found:

    • None of the three states’ drafts mentioned the term critical race theory, but in written comments, people attacked dozens of standards in Louisiana’s and New Mexico’s drafts for purportedly embedding it.
    • In South Dakota, state officials removed about 20 references to Native Americans from the draft submitted by the standards-writing panel—then scotched the draft altogether.
    • The critiques about CRT in Louisiana led the writers to recast some standards and to delete others. And public comment protocols in Louisiana were changed out of fear for the writers’ physical safety.
    • The teaching method of having students take civic action to address classroom and local problems—an approach some conservatives contend is indoctrination—was mysteriously cut from both Louisiana’s and South Dakota’s drafts.
    • About 1 in 10 of some 2,900 pages of comments on the New Mexico standards referenced CRT, often citing language in the draft about “social justice,” “group identity,” and “critical consciousness.” Those terms also attracted confusion from district leaders wondering how those tenets should be taught.

    The findings illustrate how the fallout from the confusing and often misleading debate about CRT stands to alter history education in U.S. schools through subtle—but material—changes to day-to-day teaching expectations.

    “Standards provide teachers with cover to teach hard things—controversial things,” noted Lynn Walters-Rauenhorst, an instructor and student-teaching supervisor at the University of New Orleans, who was among the writers of Louisiana’s draft. “If we don’t have standards that support deep inquiry about things that may not be the easy topics to cover, then teachers aren’t going to do it.”

    And the discord stands as another testament to how the country’s polarization has affected K-12 policymaking at large.

    See Also

    Mary Hassdyk for Education Week

    “The uncivil discourse centering around these issues is detrimental not only to the process, but really, it’s also detrimental to these embedded ideas in our constitutional democracy of compromise, of listening to each other, not always agreeing,” said Tammy Waller, the director for K-12 social studies at the Arizona education department.

    Arizonans, she noted, faced some controversies over topics like civil rights and the LGBTQ movement when completing the state’s 2018 social studies revisions, but ultimately officials were able to complete a set everyone could live with. That is getting harder.

    “In the past I feel like we could have disagreements, and even really intense disagreements, but in the end, it wasn’t a zero-sum game,” Waller said. “We felt like we had something bigger that we were responsible for.”

  • Why Standards Matter

    Critical race theory—originally an academic tool for analyzing how racism manifests in public policy—has morphed into a catch-all term wielded by critics of districts’ efforts to rid schools of systemic racism.

    Since the topic exploded in the national discourse last year, a media frenzy has focused on sensational incidents, like reductive diversity trainings for administrators on “white supremacy culture”; a handful of fired teachers and principals who led controversial lessons about racism; and, most recently, on the removal of books written by Black authors from school libraries dealing with themes of racism.

    Those are important stories. But states’ revisions to history standards have attracted far less attention, even though they stand to affect millions more students.

    See Also

    Illustration of tug of war.
    Illustration by Laura Baker/Education Week, SvetaZi, and iStock/Getty

    Unlike education expectations in reading, science, or math, history standards serve a unique civic function. They are the starting point for textbooks—the narratives that make up most students’ first, and often only, introduction to the American story. In theory, the discipline also gives students an introduction to the tools historians use to interrogate, question, and revise those narratives.

    Crafting these K-12 standards is by definition a normative process. It demands that states reach consensus about what students should know. And implicitly, the standards either help tee up—or elide—the difficult and subjective question about the extent to which our country’s practices have matched its ideals.

    That question is especially relevant for K-12 students, who are now 54 percent Asian, Black, Latino, and Native American. Where—and how—are these students reflected in this complex story? What does their inclusion or erasure mean for their understanding of who they are as Americans? To what extent should K-12 teaching reflect academic scholarship, which has produced increasingly rich insights over the past three decades about cultural history, especially the experiences of women, Black Americans, and immigrants?

    What's in a Standard?

    States update teaching standards—the key guide for the content and skills that teachers must cover—about once every seven years. Teachers are legally and professionally obligated to cover these standards, which are usually drafted by panels of teachers, content experts, and lay people. The public also offers feedback before final versions are adopted by state boards of education. ...

    At its most basic, a standard is simply an expectation for what students should know and be able to do. It is not detailed enough to be a lesson plan—which lists the specific steps and methods teachers take to meet each standard, including lectures, discussions, and research projects—or a curriculum, which include the textbooks, primary source documents, videos, and so forth that underpin each lesson plan.

    The standards-rewriting process has long been contentious for U.S. history, because in a sense, what states choose to emphasize signals the civic values they want students to learn.

    A secondary challenge concerns the appropriate “grain size” of a history standard. Broadness gives flexibility for teachers and curriculum writers, while specificity ensures coverage.

    To illustrate these complex issues, take one representative standard currently under debate in Louisiana in grade 7. The standard, a broad one, directs teachers to explain events and ideas in U.S. history between 1789 and 1877, “including, but not limited to, the Whiskey Rebellion, Indian Removal Act, Fugitive Slavery [sic] Act, Reconstruction amendments.”

    As currently written, the standard highlights uneven progress towards true participation in the American democratic experiment. But several commentators in the state suggested replacing those examples with touchstones emphasizing expansion and enfranchisement, though mainly of white Americans: “Jacksonian democracy, Texan independence, Manifest Destiny, and Reconstruction,” they wrote.

    What the state standards address also has huge implications for the type of instruction teachers deliver. The current political climate means few teachers are likely to put their careers on the line to go beyond the text of the standards. In some 14 states, officials have passed vaguely worded laws or regulations that constrain how teachers can talk about race and gender. Administrators have largely advised frightened and confused teachers by the mantra: Keep to the standards.

    See Also

    Image of books on history.
    Social Studies Explainer Who Decides What History We Teach? An Explainer
    Sarah Schwartz, August 11, 2021
    15 min read

    “Teachers are not going to stick their neck out to teach something they think they ethically should talk about, but isn’t going to be assessed,” said Walters-Rauenhorst. “There’s no upside for them.”

    EdWeek selected the three states—Louisiana, South Dakota, and New Mexico—for analysis because all three issued at least one draft set of standards in 2021, and received public feedback on that draft.

    Other states in the beginning of rewriting their standards are already starting to see the same sort of contention. Minnesota, midway through its own process, has faced tensions over an ethnic-studies portion of its standards; in Mississippi, legislators filed a bill in November to outlaw critical race theory just weeks before the state education department posted a history draft for review.

    The stories out of Louisiana, South Dakota, and New Mexico are a preview of what these states and others can expect.

  • LOUISIANA: A CRT Reckoning Awaits
    Image of a proposed Louisiana standard.

    One by one, the commentators stood up at a June public meeting, one of three that the standards-writing committee held to present updates. And one by one, they condemned the state’s draft history standards for purportedly including critical race theory or indoctrinating students.

    A typical example: “There is no reason to make students feel guilty,” one speaker said. “We should teach the good things about this country.”

    Another: “If you want to continue to talk about slavery, [you should] go to China now.”

    As they did so, Lynn Walters-Rauenhorst, one of the 30-odd educators who had given up free time to help write the standards, felt herself growing more bewildered.

    She wasn’t alone. Midway through the marathon meeting, a fellow colleague sent an email to the writing team. “We didn’t use critical race theory to develop the standards. Why is this being assumed?” it read.

    “We were all looking at each other,” Walters-Rauenhorst recalled. “We knew it was coming from all the press about CRT, but it was evident to us the speakers had not gone through the standards themselves to try to compare them.”

    There was intimidation, too: Several speakers took photographs of the writers during the meeting. A few standards-writers were unnerved by unsolicited messages to their (or their spouse’s) private social-media accounts. Voices were raised. At the meeting’s conclusion, Walters-Rauenhorst and other writers were escorted to their cars out of fear for their safety. At the next meeting, fewer people were allowed in the room.

    Writing new standards was never going to be easy in this socially conservative state, even as the teams strove to make the new expectations more inclusive of broader perspectives.

    It was evident to us that [the commentators] had not gone through the standards.

    The draft standards now more frequently refer to racial and ethnic diversity than prior expectations, asking 8th graders to consider, for example, “the contributions, experiences of, and limitations on diverse groups of people,” including “women, Latinos, American Indians, Black Americans, European immigrants, and Asian immigrants and religious groups.”

    Now it’s unclear what will happen to the draft, which is set to be taken up by the state board of education in March.

    “I went to law school; I learned critical race theory in law school; I have a Ph.D. This is not something we use in K-12,” said Belinda Cambre, a social studies instructor at a lab school located at Louisiana State University who contributed to the draft. “Really the whole issue saddened me more than anything else, that it could be so weaponized to turn people against talk of diversity.”

    The criticism took its toll. Even before the Louisiana department opened up an online public-comment portal, the writers had made significant changes in response to the bruising June feedback.

    By August, they had removed the word “equitable” from one kindergarten standard. (That word, along with “equity,” is considered shorthand by some critics for critical race theory.)

    See Also

    10 Citizen Z Illustration
    Stephanie Shafer for Education Week
    Social Studies Project How History Class Divides Us
    Stephen Sawchuk, October 23, 2018
    18 min read

    Some revisions reframed a standard in a more optimistic way: One in the high school civics course originally called for students to “examine issues of inequity in the United States with respect to traditionally marginalized groups.” In its rewritten form, it calls on them to “analyze the progression and expansion of civil rights, liberties, social and economic equality, and opportunities for groups experiencing discrimination.”

    By far, the most substantive revision to the draft was the deletion of one of the overarching skills for students—meant to be embedded across the grade levels and courses—called “taking informed action.”

    This thread aimed to get students to take civic action to address classroom, school, and community problems—they might, for example, brainstorm ways to reduce waste or prevent bullying at school. Now, the entire practice has been removed—an irony, given the robust civic participation by those Louisianans who showed up to critique the draft at the June meeting.

    Neither Walters-Rauenhorst nor Cambre could recall who directed that deletion; they weren’t in the meeting where that element was yanked. But both described a palpable sense among the writers that the section was a no-go if they wanted to secure board approval for the standards.

    The explosion of Fox News agitation over CRT in the late spring also appears to have shaped the political context of the revision process.

    Louisiana’s board-appointed State Superintendent Cade Brumley, a former social studies teacher, wrote in a July op-ed that the standards should strike a balance between critique and patriotism, but should not include critical race theory, which he defined as “suggest[ing] America was intentionally founded on racism, oppression, supremacy.” By October, he said that he could not recommend the draft as written.

    State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley speaks during a news conference at the Knock Knock Children's Museum, in Baton Rouge, La., on Aug. 11, 2021.

    Brumley demurred when asked in a November interview with Education Week whether he agreed with critics that the draft standards, as currently written, included critical race theory. “If a standard is considered by our public to be an embed of CRT, I’d assume the public feedback would point it out,” he said.

    That is potentially a slippery slope, as a look at the standards-by-standards feedback shows.

    Public Feedback on Louisiana's Draft

    A draft of Louisiana’s social studies standards was released to the public right as the critical race theory debate became the top story on cable news coverage. In feedback, commentators accused even anodyne standards of being CRT, as well as standards that deal with complex topics like slavery, the civil rights movement, and non-Western cultures.

    Below are examples of standards and sample feedback received. ...

    Kindergarten standard: “Explain the importance of equality and diversity in building strong communities.”

    • “I am appalled that this critical race theory nonsense has finally made it to Louisiana. We are one of the if not the lowest scoring state in mathematics and you are trying to shove this LGBT BS on our children. You should be focusing on how to improve our math scores not teaching my kindergartner about underwater feminist lesbian basket weaving.”
    • “This is trying to get CRT in our curriculum because it is highlighting racial comparisons.”
    • “Is no age too young to begin leftist indoctrination? These concepts need to wait until the children have mastered basic reading, writing and arithmetic before you start to brain wash [sic] them.”

    5th grade global history standard: "Analyze historical events from the perspectives of marginalized or underrepresented groups. Including but not limited to Taino and Aztec perspectives on Spanish colonization; Indigenous perspectives on the encomienda system; and the perspectives of enslaved Africans and Indigenous people.”

    • “In an attempt to represent other cultures, you have ignored American culture. Our children will not be part of this global racism.”
    • “There seems to be a concerted, deliberate effort to exclude the contribution that white males had, and continue to have on the development of civilization and to the continued efforts to bring third world cultures into a civilized state.”
    • “Why do they have to continually be called marginalized. Why not celebrate their accomplishments rather than teach how they were oppressed?”

    High school U.S. history standard: “Analyze ideas and events in the history of the United States of America from 1898 to 2010 and how they progressed, changed or remained the same over time. Including but not limited to changes and continuities before and after the Civil Rights movement; changes and continuities during war or conflicts; changes and continuities before and after the end of the Cold War.”

    • “Any teaching that blames the plight of one or more races on another race is wrong. Most of the things that are out there today are opinions formed by people who only see things 1 way and cannot be trusted to present an accurate picture.”
    • “Critical Race Theory has no place in American education. History should be presented as factual without projecting historical failings onto present-day Americans. Yes, slavary [sic] happened. Yes, racism is bad. Those statements in no way imply that the typical American in 2021 is racist.”

    For now, the draft sits with the Louisiana education department; the standards-writers haven’t been asked to revise it yet. And there are consequences to the delay, Cambre pointed out: The state is supposed to update an end-of course exam for civics and can’t do that until the standards are completed.

    From afar, other history educators say that the draft, as it currently stands, still represents an advancement. For the first time it includes explicit references to Jim Crow—the state-sponsored system of racism and terror that segregated Black Americans for decades, noted Zevi Gutfreund, an associate professor of history who leads a social studies teacher-preparation initiative at Louisiana State University.

    (That is an notable addition: The court case that yielded the famous U.S. Supreme Court ruling permitting segregation, 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson, was brought by a mixed-race New Orleans train passenger.)

    But Gutfreund said he expects that additional changes will be made, and he is concerned about the removal of the informed-action tenets in the draft.

    “It just shows this is going to be a constant and persistent challenge,” he said. “I think there are ways to take action that is nonpartisan and nonpolitical, and we do need to have students civically engaged. Forget about knowing history: Can they know the present?”

  • SOUTH DAKOTA: Questions on Political Interference
    Image of an edit to a standard.

    Unlike Washington state, Montana, Oregon, and others, where laws require students to be taught about Native American history and culture, South Dakota has not emphasized the troubling and complex history of the Oceti Sakowin in its social studies expectations.

    (The name translates to the People of the Seven Council Fires, and refers to the speakers of Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota who live on land that spans the Dakotas, Nebraska, Montana, and into Minnesota and Canada.)

    In the mid-2000s, the state updated some teacher-preparation requirements and issued a voluntary set of lesson plans on the Oceti Sakowin. But although roughly 1 in 10 South Dakotans is Native American, the voluntary teaching guidelines aren’t in widespread use.

    At one level, it’s easy to see why: Native American history is hard history. Learning about the unique culture and resiliency of the Oceti Sakowin requires grappling with some of the darkest moments in South Dakota and U.S. history—notably the Wounded Knee massacre, in which around 300 men, women, and children were killed by American soldiers.

    Still, when the state education department opened up applications in May to sit on the panel to revise the history standards, Sherry Johnson, the tribal education director for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate—a federally recognized Oceti Sakowin treaty tribe—saw an opportunity to bring the state in line with North Dakota, which just a month earlier had passed legislation requiring new curriculum on Native American history.

    The state’s history standards, by definition, must be taught. And embedding the Oceti Sakowin content in the standards would pressure both state and district officials to develop new tools, curriculum, and resources to teach them, Johnson reasoned.

    Writing state standards is not a whole lot of fun. It’s not paid; it’s meticulous; it requires lots of time sitting around in badly lit conference rooms.

    Sherry Johnson, Tribal Education Director of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribe, poses for a portrait at the Tribal Headquarters in Agency Village, S.D. on Jan. 7, 2022.

    But, in a process that several writers described as productive, cordial, and well-managed, the team completed a draft whose standout feature was that knowledge about the Oceti Sakowin were included at every grade level. For the first time, students would be required to understand the concept of tribal sovereignty and these sovereign nations’ unique relationship to the state and the U.S. government.

    After agreeing on a draft, the teams submitted it to the state expecting only minor wording changes. Instead, with little advanced warning, the state education department released a revised draft that differed dramatically.

    It is not illegal for state education officials to alter standards during the revision process, but the changes in South Dakota fundamentally altered the focus of the draft.

    The new version removed at least 18 references to the Oceti Sakowin, leaving just one in the draft; the remaining standards refer more generically to Native Americans. Also excised were most of the draft’s “inquiry standards”—overarching skills designed to help students evaluate and critique historical sources, stay current of public issues, and use civic channels to solve problems.

    Added throughout were curious new elements that had not been there before: a lengthy preface extolling the Constitution and new references describing the nation as a republic and emphasizing the importance of individual rights.

    A Modified Draft

    South Dakota officials significantly modified the social studies standards draft created by an educator workgroup, mainly by removing new content about the state’s Native American population. But other additions and deletions are telling, too. The officials largely removed a set of inquiry principles and added new language that reflects conservative priorities about patriotism and republican forms of government. Also, some standards now direct students to “evaluate” a topic, rather than “analyze” or “critique” it. ...

    Examples of modifications and deletions between the working group’s final draft vs. the department’s revised draft.

    5th grade standards:

    • Describe the influence impact of other countries had on indigenous Native Americans in North and South America through exploration and conflict, and colonization.”
    • “Identify the basic structure of the government by studying the United States Constitution," and explaining why the United States was established as a Republic.

    High school standards:

    • “Analyze and evaluate how global economic, political, technological, and social trends have influenced South Dakota history, including Oceti Sakowin Oyate and other peoples who have settled in the state.”
    • Students will critique Evaluate the advancements and limitations of founding documents and other primary sources and assess how these documents impacted future domestic policies and changes in American society.”

    Standards deleted from the workgroup's draft:

    • “Discuss the culture of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate before European interactions.”
    • “Use information about a historical source (including the maker, date, place of origin, intended audience, and purpose) to judge the validity of the source.”
    • “Introduce sovereignty as it applies to federal, state, and tribal governments.”
    • “Critique significant primary sources, including Oceti Sakowin Oyate Treaties, and their impacts on events of this time period.”

    For Johnson, who had felt so proud of her state and its commitment to Indian education, the new draft was a betrayal.

    Teachers are unlikely to teach the Oceti Sakowin content without those references, she said, and that will have detrimental effects on all students, especially Native American youth.

    “You don’t validate their existence, and you don’t value the uniqueness of being Native Americans, the first Americans, and that we have a unique history. We survived an Indian Holocaust,” she said. “It’s like their history and who they are is some shameful thing that you can’t teach, and you can’t mention. And it perpetuates more racism.

    “We are not in this to make children feel bad about past mistakes,” she said. “You teach history so you don’t make the same mistakes as in the past.”

    There has so far been no detailed explanation from state officials for the changes. State Superintendent Tiffany Sanderson said in a radio interview that the revised draft still had far more Native American content than the prior standards. She attributed the drama to “misinformation and miscommunication.”

    But state leaders were under political pressure to alter the standards—and much of that rhetoric aligns with the changes in the draft.

    Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, had previously signed the 1776 Pledge—a project of a conservative political action group that asserts, among other things, that “the slander of our history and heroes in the classroom is being paired with toxic, anti-American theories that pit our children against one another on the basis of race and gender.” (The group was formed to support the thrust of former President Trump’s 1776 Commission, which issued a controversial report on civics and history education; President Biden disbanded the commission shortly after assuming office.)

    Governor Kristi Noem gives an update on back to school planning on Tuesday, July 28, at John Harris Elementary School in Sioux Falls, S.D.

    Far-right news sites had published op-eds falsely labelling the National Council for the Social Studies a radical group, attacking a consultant from a firm the state selected to help guide the writing process, and claiming the standards’ focus on civic action would permit the indoctrination of students into leftist ideologies.

    In late September, Noem threw out the South Dakota history draft altogether, saying that it needed “more balance”—she didn’t specify what kind—and that more work was needed for students to “learn a true and honest account of American and South Dakota history.”

    Her spokesman did not return a request for Noem to elaborate on those comments. An education department spokesperson said Superintendent Sanderson wouldn’t be able to talk until after the members of the new writing committee had been named.

    Noem has since introduced legislation to ban critical race theory, complementing an earlier executive order.

    We are not in this to make children feel bad about past mistakes. You teach history so you don’t make the same mistakes as in the past.

    Paul Harens, a retired public school teacher in the state who also sat on the writing panel, says that political context explains the sudden alterations in the draft.

    “We were told to keep politics out of it, and we did. The changes they make bring politics into it. Basically, it is now the 1776 project, and again the Native Americans are ignored,” he protested. “It’s a whitewashing of history. And I do mean white.”

    Another writer, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said the incident left her both personally and professionally troubled.

    “My name and school district are on these new standards that I didn’t change. My name is on this document that I didn’t support. It feels like I’m being falsely represented, my ideals,” she said. “Why don’t you trust us to teach your child?”

    Even before the draft was thrown out, the bowdlerized version had prompted huge backlash. The deletions of Native American content were by far the most cited criticism in nearly 600 written comments. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union warned Noem that the removal of the Oceti Sakowin content could violate students’ constitutional rights by denying them access to information about their heritage.

    Historian Jace DeCory, who is Lakota, is among those feeling discouraged by the situation. (Oceti Sakowin generally refer to themselves by their linguistic affiliation.)

    In the early part of her 30-year career teaching in the American Indian Studies department at Black Hills State University, she said, virtually no students entering her classes had even heard of the Wounded Knee massacre.

    See Also

    States Tracker Map: Where Critical Race Theory Is Under Attack
    Sarah Schwartz, June 11, 2021
    4 min read

    By the 1990s and early 2000s, some students had had a few targeted lessons about the state’s Indigenous communities in high school history; that increased steadily into the late 2010s. Now, she fears that, instead of expanding, the progress will wane.

    “I’m not sure what’s happening politically. I don’t know,” she said. “The only thing I know is that I believe reclaiming Native American heritage in our history and stories is vital to the future of South Dakota—and to America even.”

    In the meantime, neither Johnson nor Harens expects to be reappointed to a second writing panel, given their vocal criticism. But they’ve applied to serve on it anyway.

    “As verbal as I’ve been, I think I will probably not be sitting at that table,” Johnson said. But she still waits for a formal rejection—a sign that a government agency has once again reneged on a promise to do right by her people.

    “I want them to officially turn me down,” she said.

  • NEW MEXICO: A Push to Acknowledge Identity
    Image of a proposed New Mexico standard.

    Danny Parker is an associate superintendent in the Artesia, N.M., district, located in a majority-Hispanic county where 75 percent of residents voted for Donald Trump in 2020. The demographics partly explain why, Parker says, he and others here have had a strong reaction to the working draft of the state’s new history expectations.

    Many here are skeptical about new language in the standards that ask students, even in early grades, to consider their group identity and how it might differ from others. In that, parents hear an echo of the argument that critical race theory accelerates the division of people into racialized categories.

    “I think it’s much more developmentally appropriate and more educationally appropriate to say, ‘You know what, you’re part of a culture, and culture is everything that makes up your background, not just your group identity,’” Parker said. “In culture, we all have those things that make us unique individually, but it also identifies shared traits. And in Artesia, we’re a big football town, and we’re all Bulldogs.”

    In a sense, despite similar tensions to those in Louisiana and South Dakota, the situation regarding history standards in New Mexico is the inverse. Unlike those two states, New Mexico’s state leadership has politically trended more liberal in recent decades, and the state’s student body is 60 percent Hispanic.

    And it has a different context, too: A court order in a 2018 school funding lawsuit now requires that the state provide each student with an education that is “culturally and linguistically responsive.”

    As a result, New Mexico’s draft standards are unquestionably more detailed about cultural diversity than the drafts under consideration in South Dakota and Louisiana. They were crafted with specific guiding principles in mind, including “diverging from a singular Eurocentric cultural script,” and asking students to consider “the relationship between power and oppression,” among other things. A new strand woven throughout the draft focuses on “ethnic, culture, and identity” standards.

    That was a clear mandate to the writers from the state education department, said Wendy Leighton, a middle school teacher and founding faculty member at Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe., N.M. “Their stance is that they represent all students. That includes students from marginalized groups, and their identity needs to be reflected in the standards,” she said.

    Much of the vocabulary comes from ethnic studies—already a controversial discipline because of its focus on encouraging students to critique sources of inequality.

    But, the drafters noted, they didn’t pull standards out of thin air, either. A theme on the rise of conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century was inspired by language from Massachusetts’ expectations. Many of the identity standards were informed by tools created by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

    What's in New Mexico's Draft?

    At nearly 122 pages, New Mexico’s draft social studies standards are far more expansive than its previous set. Feedback in public comment focused both on the content and substance, with some educators pointing out that several standards are so specifically framed that they’re close to classroom assignments. But most comments focused on the draft’s themes of identity, power relations, and on its overall balance, especially in high school history. ...

    Below are a sample of standards that attracted especially strong commentary.

    Kindergarten: Ethnic, Cultural, and Identity studies

    “Communicate a positive view of themselves and identify some of their group identities.”

    “Describe ways they are similar and different from people who share their identities and people who do not.”

    Third grade: Ethnic, Cultural, and Identity studies

    “Compare and contrast cultural identity with other people and groups.”

    Fifth grade: Civics

    “Describe how inequity in the United States laid the foundation for conflict that continues today.”

    Sixth grade: Taking Informed Action

    “Describe the many facets of student identity (including family history and culture) and how they are connected to the collective history and culture of other people in their self-identified affinity groups.”

    Seventh grade: Ethnic, Cultural, and Identity Studies

    “Brainstorm ways in which New Mexicans might heal from past and current injustices.”

    High school: History

    “Determine the role of race and racism in the acts of land redistribution during the territorial period.”

    “Identify the ways in which gender and sexuality were changing and unchanged during the 19th century.”

    “Analyze state-sponsored persecution and ‘othering’ including anti-Semitism and homophobia.”

    “Examine the history of guns in America as compared to other world powers and the consequences of gun violence on American society past, present, and future.”

    “Create an action plan for a more just and equitable America for diverse groups of people, including Native Americans and African Americans.”

    “Explore the movement against police brutality.”

    Of 2,900 pages of public comments on the draft, about 1 in 10 pages mentions critical race theory. While that phrase does not appear anywhere in the draft, the state’s House Republican Caucus sent a letter to the state education department repudiating the standards, highlighting language they say accomplishes the same ends.

    “The continual and not-so-subtle inclusion of various phrases such as ‘inequity,’ ‘oppression,’ ‘unequal power relations,’ ‘racism,’ and ‘injustice’ are implicit admissions by the drafters of these proposed standards that CRT and it’s [sic] flawed vision of America is exactly what they are trying to impose through these social studies standards,” they wrote.

    Advocacy groups have been active, too, like the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market group whose blog post critiquing the standards became the basis of a form letter submitted by dozens of public commentators. Its president, Paul Gessing, concedes that while the standards probably aren’t actually critical race theory, he does think they’re too negative.

    “I just think it’s setting it up, it’s leading the witness. It’s pushing towards a negative, divisive, racial-essentialist view on American history,” he said.

    State officials all the way up to the Lieutenant Governor have said that the standards don’t contain critical race theory and are merely meant to paint a fuller, more historically accurate picture of the state’s multiethnic heritage.

    I just think it’s setting it up, it’s leading the witness. It’s pushing towards a negative, divisive, racial-essentialist view on American history.

    “They show and demonstrate the variety, the diversity of who we are as New Mexican students,” Gwen Perea Warniment, the deputy secretary of teaching, learning, and assessment, told a local TV station. “It’s imperative that students see themselves in the curriculum.”

    And feedback on the draft shows some teachers, parents, and students supporting the ethnic studies additions. “Social studies should not be nationalist mythology or fairytales,” wrote one current social studies teacher.

    Marie Fernández, a high school social studies teacher at an Albuquerque charter school who co-led the high school portion of the standards with Leighton, said she’s not surprised by the volume of feedback.

    “They’re sensitive topics, and the study of history is the study of human beings. It can be contentious and difficult and we’re in one of those moments,” she said. “But by having them, I think that’s actually what’s needed to put democracy into the classroom. It means we’re able to have conversations with other people, not shutting down conversations.”

    The debate aside, many district officials are worried about more practical matters, noting in their public comments that they fear that there aren’t yet many supports to help educators who will have to interpret terminology the draft doesn’t always define in detail, especially in early grades.

    See Also

    Image of an adult and two kids navigating a tightrope with a tangled center.
    Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty)

    But the standards-writers say those supports are coming, and the end goal truly is to show how differences are an American strength.

    “Children are smart and they observe things; they watch what adults do. If you’re in a classroom, even young students see they’re each unique and different. Maybe a student has glasses, or they’re in a wheelchair, or have a different skin color,” said Leighton. “It’s really more to do with recognizing, again, that diversity is one of our greatest values, and we have it in every classroom and to be able to celebrate and embrace that.”

    Parker, the associate superintendent, acknowledged he’s heard a multiplicity of opinions, even in his tight-knit community.

    In local board meetings and a chamber of commerce event, some parents objected to the draft, he said. Yet he was also approached by one parent of a biracial child whose teacher had sensitively handled his self-awareness about himself; she was afraid other students wouldn’t get that same kind of support in school.

    “I think she kind of got the idea that we’re against teaching the cultures, and that’s not what it is at all. You have to, especially in New Mexico, where we are so diverse,” Parker said. “But when it comes to identity, that word is so loaded, that it’s hard for a teacher to help guide that in students, in my opinion.”

    It’s really more to do with recognizing, again, that diversity is one of our greatest values, and we have it in every classroom and to be able to celebrate and embrace that.

    Some districts’ school boards have passed resolutions asking the state to take more time to review the draft standards. State leaders, too, say it will take a while to read all the comments and change the draft based on the results; a subset of the writing team now expects to finish the process in late February or early March, a spokesperson said.

    In the tiny Hagerman Municipal district, teachers combed through the draft to try to pinpoint the essence of each standard and to remove “buzzwords” that felt like they could be misinterpreted, Superintendent Curtis Clough said.

    It’s not an easy task—nor will it be for the writers in Santa Fe who are trying to respond to the thousands of comments, he added.

    “How do you ‘apoliticize’ something that’s already been politicized?” Clough asked. “Probably the biggest theme we got was political responsibility. How do we keep this in a neutral fashion, where kids are making decisions, and it doesn’t look like we’re telling kids what they need to think?”

  • Making Civic Debates More Civil?

    What’s happening in these states may be an inevitable extension of what observers say has been a vicious cycle.

    Social studies and civics have been neglected for decades. That’s led to less teaching of the discipline overall, which has led to a weaker grasp of the value of civic disagreement, which has led to greater arguments over standards, which were difficult to write in the first place.

    “We know for at least the last 20 years or so that the amount of [classroom] time spent on elementary and middle school social studies has decreased. We see a group of young adults who are just not nearly as educated as the ones before, and that’s problematic for the overall health of society and democracy,” said Anton Schulzki, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, which represents K-12 history teachers.

    We see a group of young adults who are just not nearly as educated as the ones before, and that’s problematic for the overall health of society and democracy.

    Yet some of the writers say they remain optimistic. The degree of public outpouring to consider education standards isn’t intrinsically a bad thing, noted Marie Fernández, the New Mexico writer.

    “Where else are we going to have a public conversation, not isolated on our phone in some alternate social media universe, talking about something that matters? If it makes people get engaged, and out of their bubble for a moment, maybe it’s doing something right,” she said.

    The solution to these debates, said Paul O. Carrese, the director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, at Arizona State University, is not to further retrench; it’s to double down on the importance of the social studies. Districts and states need to prioritize the topic even more, not to pull back. State officials need to do the tough work of figuring out how to write expectations everyone can live with.

    “It is a civic virtue in the American constitutional system to convene people to disagree and get them to work out compromises,” he said. “Someone needs to convene the stakeholders and different voices and get them to listen to each other.”

    For Walters-Rauenhorst, the Louisiana teacher-educator, nothing less than the foundations of democracy are at stake. What happens, she said, if students never hear ideas that challenge their own, if they never are taught the tools to respectfully debate, or are never encouraged to look at a historical event from somebody else’s perspective?

    “Across the last four years, we’ve demonstrated an inability to be tolerant of other people’s opinions, and to talk about them cogently and respectfully. And if that doesn’t get taught in school ...”

    She trailed off.

    “Well, you can see what happens.”

Illustrations by Laura Baker/Education Week (Source imagery: Orensila and iStock/Getty)

A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Revising America’s Racist Past


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