Social Studies

Social Studies Groups Are Training Teachers to Navigate ‘Divisive Concepts’ Laws

By Sarah Schwartz — June 08, 2023 8 min read
Teachers walk out onto a field of speech bubble shaped holes.
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When Sarah Kaka started teaching future social studies teachers about a decade ago, she talked about featuring diverse perspectives and strategies for addressing hard history—the more complicated and troubling aspects of America’s past. But the idea that there might be chapters of U.S. history rendered off-limits in the classroom wasn’t a concern on her radar.

All of that has changed in the past few years, said Kaka, an assistant professor of education at Ohio Wesleyan University.

“The things that I was teaching in my social studies methods courses back when I started in 2012 are vastly different than what I’m teaching now,” she said.

Kaka still covers social studies standards and methods of assessment. But now, she also coaches prospective teachers on how to square best practices in social studies education with the growing collection of state laws across the country that restricts how teachers can discuss race and LGTBQ+ issues in the classroom.

She tries to help them understand and prepare to respond to potential challenges to the content they teach from parents and community members.

This advocacy on behalf of social studies teachers, colleagues, and the disciplinary practices of the field itself—using primary sources, encouraging student inquiry, and fostering civic engagement—represent a subtle but significant shift within the field of K-12 social studies. It moves beyond calls for more federal funding, or warnings not to marginalize the field at the expense of tested subjects like math and reading.

“Now that social studies is under attack around the country, we’ve had to defend our profession,” Kaka said.

Map: Where Critical Race Theory Is Under Attack

The map below shows which states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.
It will be updated as new information becomes available.

Click here for more information on the measures and variations from state to state.

It’s a change that the National Council for the Social Studies, the country’s largest professional association for history and civics teachers, has made as well. The group is working on talking points for teachers to use to respond to parents or advocate at school board meetings, and it has updated its advocacy toolkit for members to include resources on state and local politics.

For NCSS, these steps represent a shift in strategy. The organization is nonpartisan, and historically, its board has avoided taking positions that could be perceived to have a political bent, said Shannon Pugh, the NCSS president. That’s changed in recent years, she said, as one political party has started introducing legislation that the NCSS believes is counter to its mission. (All of the state legislation restricting classroom conversation topics has been introduced by Republicans.)

“It’s objectively true that it’s harder to walk the line of nonpartisanship today than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, about this shift.

Politicians with national ambitions, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have made claims that schools are indoctrinating children as a key part of their platforms. Pushing back against this narrative could make organizations like the NCSS visible targets in a larger national debate, Henig said.

But the organization isn’t alone in making this political calculation, he added.

“What we’re seeing on the part of many in the education world is that the imminent culture wars threats in some of these states are so existential ... that self-censorship in order to maintain a nonpartisan reputation can’t be justified,” Henig said.

Understanding the political reality in schools

Politics and “culture wars” have always had a hand in shaping what subjects teachers feel they can and can’t address in the classroom, said Alexander Cuenca, an associate professor of social studies education at Indiana University Bloomington.

But the list of topics Cuenca’s preservice teachers worry about has grown recently, he said. His students used to feel they had to avoid “those big third rail issues in society,” Cuenca said—like gun control, for example.

Now, he said, they’re concerned about how they approach almost every issue in the standards: Are they showing multiple perspectives, as some states’ legislation requires?

Cuenca tries to impress upon his students that the mandate to incorporate “multiple perspectives” leaves room for some teacher decisionmaking. It doesn’t have to mean giving equal weight, or equal framing, to both sides of every issue. With his students, he uses the extreme example of the Ku Klux Klan during the Jim Crow era. Teachers have the autonomy to decide that the KKK’s views aren’t ones they will validate in the classroom, he said.

Still, even when teachers are working inside the letter of the law, there might still be gray areas, said Chris Clark, an assistant professor of teaching and leadership at the University of North Dakota. He tries to prepare social studies teachers to navigate that murky space.

He has his students read North Dakota’s law and then facilitates a conversation about what it means for their work. Their dominant reactions are confusion and anxiety, he said—in part, because the law itself seems contradictory.

For example: The North Dakota law bans teaching critical race theory, which the legislation defines as “the theory that racism is not merely the product of learned individual bias or prejudice, but that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality.”

But the law also requires that instruction be aligned with the state’s content standards. And those standards documents reference the Jim Crow Laws—state and local legislation passed after the Civil War that legalized and enforced racial segregation. Clark’s students want to know: How can they teach about Jim Crow, without explaining that it was a part of the American legal system explicitly designed to facilitate racial inequality?

“I wish I could tell them, ‘This is how you thread that needle,’ but unfortunately the guidance isn’t there yet,” Clark said. “They hear stories about people threatening teachers; they hear stories about teachers getting disciplined. And they don’t want that to happen to them.”

For now, his advice is to advocate for guidance from the state department of public instruction. “It’s not [students’] job to resolve legal contradictions,” Clark said.

Teachers shouldn’t have to feel like they’re navigating this landscape without support, said Cuenca. That’s another lesson he tries to impart to his students.

Every year, as a class activity, he asks a school administrator to visit his class of future teachers. It’s preparation for a sort of reverse job interview—an opportunity to practice asking school principals the kind of questions that illuminate the culture and environment in different workplaces.

In the past, Cuenca’s students used to ask questions about career progression and mentoring. This year, though, they asked about the political climate. They wanted to know: If a parent came in, upset about me teaching to the standards, would you defend me?

“It can’t just be the teacher floating alone,” Cuenca said. “It has to be the teacher being protected by an administration.”

Helping teachers ‘advocate for themselves’

Teacher professional groups, like the NCSS, are also thinking about how best to protect their members.

In years past, said Pugh of the NCSS “it wasn’t in our mind that we were going to have people in the community that were going to stalk teachers, or go to their houses, or call them, or post pictures of their kids on social media.” Now, those are real concerns, she said.

“We’ve really been looking more at: how do we help our members advocate for themselves, their curriculum, all those pieces, at the state level,” she added.

An NCSS task force is developing language for teachers on how to respond to certain situations—if they’re asked by a parent where standards come from, for example, or if they want to counter claims about indoctrination at a school board meeting. NCSS plans to release a guide for elementary teachers this fall, and then develop resources for middle and high school teachers from there, Pugh said.

“We teach kids how to do this. We teach them, as citizens, as community members, they should sign up for meetings, they should be speaking,” Pugh said. Social studies teachers should have a playbook for doing this kind of advocacy as well, she said.

Some teacher-educators, both in social studies and beyond, are trying to prepare candidates with these skills before they enter the classroom.

Teachers often complain that their voices are not heard in education policy. And that doesn’t have to be the case.

At Rhodes College in Memphis, Laura Kelly has her students, many of whom are preservice teachers, practice policy advocacy as part of an urban education policy elective she started teaching two years ago.

“I’m not trying to get them to align with any particular party; I’m not trying to make them take any particular stance on any issue,” said Kelly, an assistant professor of elementary literacy. “To me, what is important is that they learn how the process works, and that hopefully, they’ll consider doing it again after they leave my class.”

For one assignment, students are asked to contact one of their representatives and advocate for an education-related position of their choosing. For another, Kelly asks them to attend a school board meeting. They can participate, or observe.

Kelly’s students have a range of experiences, she said: Some of them say they didn’t realize contacting their representatives was so easy. Others say the experience felt like shouting into the void. They strategize: To make your voice heard, is it better to Tweet at a representative? Call them on the phone? Show up at the office?

After the school board meeting, students analyze how this specific, local political process works. They talk about how items made it onto the agenda, who attended, who the key players in the room were, and how they could tell. Some students witness dramatic conflict, Kelly said. But many don’t.

“The school board visit is always boring. And that’s kind of the point,” Kelly said. She wants to impress upon the students that the day-in, day-out work of politics involves a lot of dry minutiae—but that even small decisions add up to shape the direction of a school system.

“There are so many people weighing in on education policy … but the people around the table are not alway the people closest to the children,” Kelly said. “Teachers often complain that their voices are not heard in education policy. And that doesn’t have to be the case.”

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