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The Bottom Line What do Critical Race Theorists Think of the Current State of K-12 Education?

In the debate over the inclusion of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in K-12 curricula over the course of the past year, notably absent from the debate have been the critical race theorists themselves. In the many articles I have read on CRT in K-12 education, not one has been authored by a critical race theorist, nor has any critical race theorist been specifically quoted from CRT literature on this topic. It is quite odd, but in the highly partisan and polarized news cycle today, few appear interested in what critical racist theorists have actually expressed about the current state of K-12 education. What follows summarizes their perspectives based on their source writings. Their ideas are controversial, but many may also be surprised by some of their conclusions regarding K-12 education.

Critical race theory is, and has always been, a Marxist-oriented academic discipline critiquing civil rights litigation in areas such as legislative districting, affirmative action, criminal sentencing, and campus codes.[1] According to their literature, a backlash has occurred against racial reforms in the 1950s and 1960s that had made considerable progress in dismantling longtime discrimination in schooling, hiring, and housing. They argue that school integration has failed due to white flight, that many blacks are in a permanent underclass due to discriminatory lending and hiring practices, and that the law in its current construction maintains racially based social and economic oppression.

With respect to education, critical race theorists argue that states generate legislation under the rubric of “equal opportunity” and “equal treatment under the law” that thwarts progress for blacks by making no efforts to redress inequities of the past. According to University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and critical race theorist Gloria Ladson-Billings, even though there has been a move toward the creation of protected classes for blacks and other marginalized groups to remedy systemic issues such as exclusion from job, college admission, and housing prospects, public education as currently constructed sustains inequity in the areas of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and school funding.[2]

Regarding curriculum, Ladson-Billings sees official school curriculum as specifically designed to maintain white supremacy since it is deemed to be taught in a white, upper-class, male voicing as standard knowledge, thus muting or erasing other voices. She contends that the race-neutral presentation homogenizes the American experience instead of reflecting its diversity. Furthermore, she argues that current race-neutral and generic instruction strategies lead to deficient outcomes in black students because they do not account for the different ways in which black children learn.

From an assessment perspective, Ladson-Billings contends that intelligence testing, under the guise of being scientific, is designed to legitimize the notion that black students are inherently deficient. In conjunction with a dysfunctional curriculum and a lack of instructional innovation, intelligence testing reinforces long-held stereotypes when blacks students perform poorly using traditional measures. In other words, while assessment measures tell us what students don’t know, they don’t tell us what the students do know and are able to do, particularly for students who are under stress living in dire family situations, as are many black students. Current assessment measures simply do not account for this.

Ladson-Billings further asserts that school funding functions to institutionalize racism and promote inequity — the unfortunate result of which is that the low educational achievement of many blacks leads to poor outcomes in employment and housing. A key example is that since almost all states fund schools based on property taxes, areas with greater property wealth will naturally have better funded schools. While Ladson-Billings concedes that family dynamics are far more powerful in determining student success than school funding, she asserts that black students in overcrowded, unsanitary schools are at a significant disadvantage to the well-funded, technology-rich schools with modern, inviting buildings attended by many white children.

Desegregation has long been held as a solution to reducing inequity and providing effective education for blacks. While acknowledging its merits, critical race theorists believe desegregation has only been promoted when it benefits whites (what critical race theorists have coined “interest convergence”) in terms of providing them greater access to magnet school programs and extended childcare at no cost, even while black students continue to be poorly served by public school systems. Incidentally, law professor and pioneering critical race theorist Derrick Bell (now deceased) has argued convincingly that desegregation should have been a secondary result of integration, as the primary goal should always have been effective schools for blacks regardless of the level of integration.

The positions outlined above are highly debatable, as they flow from questionable key critical race theory tenets, such as that racism is the “normal order” of American society and that most racial remedies reflect only white interest convergence and are mostly symbolic rather than substantive for blacks. While the argument that inequities in curriculum, instruction, and assessment are specifically intended structurally to harm black students is unconvincing in my view, it is evident the status quo in public education for black students is unacceptable. Lowering academic standards, as some districts have pursued, is not a solution. And I think it is generally misguided to argue that black students should be instructed and assessed differently than whites.

So what are the remedies moving forward for the problems critical racist theorists have identified in public education? It is clear in major urban areas such as Los Angeles that there are inequities in funding largely due to lower property tax revenues in lower income areas, which is problematic purportedly because lower income neighborhoods have more needs due to the economic and social struggles children live with. Nonetheless, it’s questionable if higher educational spending necessarily leads to better education, as noted economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell has persuasively argued. But even if we grant that it is an issue, rectifying this problem has no easy path since parents in wealthier neighborhoods would strongly resist portions of their property taxes being redirected to lower income districts.

What Bell saw as the primary barrier to equal education, which will be surprising to many, is teacher unions and others who have vested interests in maintaining the status quo of public education. On this point, I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, Bell was a proponent of charter schools, tuition voucher programs, and independent schools that specifically target the needs of mainly black children.[3] Bell saw charter schools as an option that provides a quality education and parental choice, eliminating bureaucratic and contractual regulations of the public school system that inhibit innovation (and I would argue, adds significant cost to the equation as well). Charter schools also, notes Bell, place competitive reform pressure on public school systems which are not adequately serving black students.

The push for inclusion of CRT in K-12 classrooms is one made from ignorance, as critical race theorists themselves are not calling for it and cannot be said to be supporters of public school systems as currently structured. In fact, Ladson-Billings presciently argued that CRT in education would become the “darling” of the “radical left,” who would push CRT in the wrong way and never deliver anything that improves the daily experience of children of color. This is because, as I have argued elsewhere, CRT is not a suitable subject to be taught in K-12 schools — rather, its value lies in its ardent and clear call for structural reform within public school systems. While I disagree with some tenets of critical race theory with respect to causes of educational inequity, on this we agree: educational reform can only be accomplished through a fundamental move away from publicly funded and run schools towards charter schools, tuition voucher programs, and independent schools as suggested by Bell.

[1] Edward Taylor, “The Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education, An Introduction,” in The Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education, 2nd Edition, ed. Edward Taylor, David Gillborn, and Gloria Ladson-Billings (New York, Routledge, 2016), p. 2.

[2] Gloria Ladson-Billings, “Just What is Critical Race Theory and What’s it Doing in a Nice Field Like Education?” in Edward Taylor, David Gillborn, and Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education, 2nd Edition, p. 24.

[3] Derrick A. Bell, Silent Covenants, Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (New York: Oxford, 2004), p. 166.

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