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Stephen Sawchuk: How the CRT Debate Is Shaping State History Standards

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Stephen Sawchuk wrote in Education Week about the ways that public controversy about “critical race theory” is affecting the drafting and revision of state history standards. He looks closely at three states that revised their history standards in 2021: Louisiana, New Mexico, and South Dakota.

For months, GOP officials and FOX news kept up a steady and alarming drumbeat, falsely claiming that public schools were indoctrinating white students to hate America and to be ashamed of their race. This weird notion was suddenly discovered in the last year of the Trump regime, when beating up on public schools became a cultural wedge issue. The governor’s race in Virginia showed that the campaign against CRT was effective in rousing people’s fears.

As Sawchuk shows, the effort to twist U.S. history to leave out anything bad that happened in the past is working its way into state standards. Message from the GOP, FOX News, and Chris Rufo: Teach lies about U.S. history!

He writes:

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.

“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.”


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.

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?

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. …Read more

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.

“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….


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…”

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.)

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….

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.

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