The notices to parents began arriving fast and furious in the weeks after the death of George Floyd in late May.
In dramatic, urgent language, K-12 schools across the country – both public and private – professed solidarity with Black Lives Matter and vowed to dismantle white supremacy, as they scrambled to introduce anti-racist courses and remake themselves into racism-free zones.
The president of the Lower Merion School Board on Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line declared to families: “We need to eradicate white supremacy and heteropatriarchy in all of our institutions.”
In Maine, a coastal public school district where 3.7% of the 2,100 students are African American or Hispanic, the superintendent declared war on “the intentional barriers white people have built to harm Black people.” The top administrator added: “We grieve for all of the Black lives taken by white supremacy.”
Educators at the prestigious Brentwood College School in Los Angeles, have made more changes to the curriculum this year than any other in the private school’s nearly five decade history. Teachers are introducing critical race theory, which views U.S. history through the prism of racial conflict, and assigning readings from Ibram X. Kendi, the academic and author who contends race-neutral policies are the bulwark of the “White ethnostate.”
As part of the makeover, Brentwood School leaders have rolled out a fresh theme this year for fifth graders: “Identity and Power.”
“While some view these recent shifts as indoctrination, we see them as opportunities for engagement,” Brentwood’s head of school, Mike Riera, wrote to families this fall, acknowledging the growing resistance from some parents. “Will we overstep in some areas? Possibly. Will we understep in others? Possibly.”
The nation's K-12 schools have been incrementally adopting multiculturalism and ethnic studies for decades, but such courses have been the exception rather than the rule. This summer’s Black Lives Matter protests have sparked new level of commitment, a newfound urgency, and a new trend: anti-racist pedagogy.
If administrators deliver on their promises, the sweeping changes underway will introduce new courses, shift hiring priorities, rebalance student demographics, redirect stipends and scholarships, revise conduct standards – in many ways modeling K-12 educational philosophy on the social justice values endorsed by many universities and, increasingly, corporations.
The changes come at an unprecedented time when many schools are struggling to offer basic instruction under covid restrictions.
Fabienne Doucet, a New York University professor of early childhood education and urban education, said this momentum has been building for decades and the culture now appears primed to understand race in America from the moral perspective of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“What’s really different now – and this has been decades in coming – is talking explicitly about whiteness,” Doucet said, citing a term that academics and activists use to critique the cultural, political and economic dominance exercised by Europeans and their descendants.
Doucet, who’s on leave from NYU and working as a program officer at the William T. Grant Foundation in New York, acknowledged that some of the content of anti-racist pedagogy may seem militant to those hearing it for the first time. But, she said, it serves an important purpose: chronicling the nation’s history from all perspectives, even if those perspectives conflict with one another.
“Sometimes you need to go too far to get there or else we might not go far enough,” Doucet said. “I’m less anxious about overshooting than not ever getting there because the stakes are so high.”
The rapid and radical changes in public and private schools have triggered a backlash among some parents who find the anti-racist message to be anti-white and anti-American, and those who say it’s historically inaccurate, inflammatory and divisive.
Parents are forming Instagram sites, and at least one group calling itself No Left Turn in Education is seeking to mobilize parents around the country to reverse the woke juggernaut. The parents swap examples from their schools, but many are keeping incognito for fear of being accused of racism or other repercussions; indeed, several parents interviewed for this article didn’t want their names to be used.
Their concern is that the edgy, new educational materials indoctrinate pupils with identity politics and leftist ideology, and leave no room for discussion.
“They are using very positive words like diversity, equity and inclusivity to mislead you, but the message behind these words is horrifying,” said Elana Yaron Fishbein, a suburban Philadelphia mom who created the No Left Turn in Education organization. "They are grouping and stereotyping human beings by skin color, and they are attributing characteristics to your personality based on skin color.”
Some parents say that immersing students in the concepts of white privilege, structural racism and whiteness should be balanced out with “viewpoint diversity.” They want their kids not only to be exposed to multiple perspectives but also to be able to freely critique anti-racist materials, and to form their own opinions
Jerome Eisenberg, a Los Angeles developer of apartments whose middle-school daughter attends the Brentwood School, said it’s irresponsible to introduce American history to uninformed students from the single perspective of race.
“It’s just wrong to present this [material] as true to children who have no other background in U.S. history,” Eisenberg said. “It causes me consternation that bright line American heroes like Jefferson and Lincoln are cast as bad guys.”
Among the protesting parents: Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor who now has her own podcast. On a recent episode, she said she was so put off by what she saw as a radical turn in K-12 education that she’s pulling her three kids from their schools in New York City.
“It’s out of control, on so many levels,” Kelly said. “They have gone off the deep end.”
She read from an article that she said was circulated among the school diversity group, which included Kelly and other parents, and was recommended by the group to be circulated to all the faculty.
“I’m tired of White people reveling in their state-sanctioned depravity, snuffing out Black life with no consequences,” Kelly read, quoting a June piece by Nahliah Webber, the executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network. “They gleefully soak in their White-washed history that downplays the holocaust of Indigenous, Native peoples and Africans in the Americas. They happily believe their all-White spaces exist as a matter of personal effort and willingly use violence against Black bodies to keep those spaces white.”
Advocates of anti-racist pedagogy say that the insistence on viewpoint diversity rings hollow to activists who have been trying to diversify the curriculum for decades.
“How is it that when you’re talking about a Eurocentric curriculum, there isn’t this request that the story of Christopher Columbus be presented through multiple lenses?” said Julia Jordan-Zachery, the chair of the Africana Studies Department at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “It begs the question of why do we now insist on viewpoint diversity?”
Educators are overwhelmingly progressive on social justice issues. This summer the EdWeek Research Center found that 81% of the nation’s teachers, principals and district leaders support the Black Lives Matter movement, compared to 67% of the general population as surveyed separately by the Pew Research Center. The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ labor union, was among the numerous professional educator organizations that issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter in response to “the crisis of anti-Blackness.”
The K-12 changes are already taking shape. Some institutions, such as Hopkins School in Connecticut and Princeton Day School in New Jersey, are segregating faculty and staff into “affinity groups” – such as Latinx or “White Consciousness” – while holding discussions about racism and white privilege. Others, such as Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, are spending nearly half-a-million dollars for “anti-racist system audits” conducted by outside consultants.
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The $46,300-a-year Hopkins School, the third oldest independent school in the United States, is revamping its courses “to incorporate a social justice lens, de-center Anglo-European voices,” focus instruction on race and identity, fund student activism and projects, and add a stand-alone course on social justice.
Buffalo Public Schools, where whites account for 22% of enrolled students, this fall adopted Black Lives Matter-themed lessons plans that ask students in grades 2-4 if there are any similarities between the coronavirus epidemic today and the supposedly intentional spread of smallpox to the Native Americans, described as an 18th-century form of “biological warfare.” Middle and high schoolers are taught to think of Western justice as “punitive” and the justice meted out in traditional societies as “restorative/empathetic.” One of the included documents for instructors states: “All white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism.”
While some urban public school districts, including those in Chicago, New York City and Washington D.C., have been integrating social justice and anti-racism into their core curricula for years, at many schools administrators and teachers are new to the game and playing catch-up. To fill the need, professional educator organizations and advocacy groups are posting K-12 teaching materials online for teachers to use in their classrooms.
Anti-racist materials present a mix of themes – an emphasis on liberation and resistance movements, critiques of whiteness and systemic racism that come from critical race theory, and an introduction to other social justice causes. At times, the readings and lessons can take an unapologetic, even confrontational, stance toward America’s past and present. But unlike Black History Month, there are few if any mentions of African Americans who defied the color barrier as athletes, artists, inventors, scientists or soldiers.
The NEA teaching themes include Justice for George [Floyd] Day, Transgender Day of Remembrance, Globalism and Collective Value, Queer Organizing Behind the Scenes, Unapologetically Black Day and Student Activist Day. A link to social justice math used in Seattle Public Schools teaches data analysis and mathematical modeling through examples of police brutality and excessive use of force.
“Racism is perpetuated by silence – and silence is complicity,” one NEA teacher instruction reads. “Being ‘colorblind’ often serves as a pretense to downplay the significance of race, deny the existence of racism, and erase the experience of students of color.”
The BLM materials starting at the early childhood level are rooted in such guiding principles as empathy, loving engagement and diversity, as well as trans affirming, queer affirming and disrupting the Western nuclear family societal norm to celebrate extended families, nontraditional families and villages that “collectively care for one another.” Elementary school activities introduce kids to community activism, the visual symbols of the LGBT movement, advocating for people with physical disabilities, and a creating a communal activism mural.
An elementary school-level proposed activity called “Match the Action” teaches children to identify different forms of resistance: boycotts, protests, rallies, marches, sit-ins, walkouts, petitions, etc. A proposed activity for middle schoolers reads: "Think about the names of people who are no longer with us who you wish you could talk to. Activists, leaders, elders, people who have been murdered by police.”
Fatima Morrell, an associate superintendent at Buffalo Public Schools, describes her district’s approach to education as an “emancipation pedagogy” that empowers black pupils by “problematizing the Eurocentric perspective” and by authentically representing the African American experience, which allows black students see themselves reflected in the curriculum and realize their human potential.
Buffalo’s schools have been incorporating these concepts for the past five years, she said, but the introduction of Black Lives Matter-themed lessons this fall alarmed some parents. Morrell said she talked to concerned parents by phone, and Buffalo school officials held a virtual town hall via Zoom in September; school district officials plan to hold three more town halls to address concerns and explain changes to the curriculum, she said.
Morrell, who oversees the district’s Office of Culturally & Linguistically Responsive Initiatives, said many parents wrongly assumed that Buffalo schools were advocating for defunding the police. Some of the parental anger, she said, came from a “historically dark place.”
“When you teach from a black or brown voice about the legacy of enslavement, it has a very different tone and tenor,” Morrell explained during the Zoom virtual town hall. “One of the misconceptions is that this is about white hate, and it couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Buffalo students learn about the BLM movement, and focus on such themes as “I Love My Hair,” “Unapologetically Black,” “Understanding My Family’s History,” “What Is Community?” and “Mass Incarceration.” They learn about the late civil rights giant John Lewis and the concept of making a positive difference through protest and activism. And they complete a Jim Crow-era literacy test administered to black voters in Alabama.
They also learn about the concepts of racist, not racist, and antiracist, as defined by Kendi, who is quoted: “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle. … The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.”
One of the lessons for students in grades seven and eight, based on The New York Times’ 1619 Project, asks: “Why isn’t slavery considered/or included as a cause to the American Revolution? Possible Responses: our founding is pure/righteous, protect the narrative.”
In grades 11 and 12, students are asked to pick an assignment for their final project. One option is to write a rap about police brutality, compose a poem on inequality, draft a prose piece on systemic racism, or “Create a collage on a poster board that connects to any specific example related to the Black/Brown Genocide.”
This pedagogy runs counter to the educational philosophy of Ian Rowe, who has run single-sex charter schools in New York City for the past decade and is the co-founder of Vertex Partnership Academies, which is opening charter schools in the South Bronx in 2022 that will primarily attract black and Hispanic students.
Rowe, who is also a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that anti-racist pedagogy glosses over inconvenient facts, like Africans’ role in the global slave trade, and promotes a defeatist philosophy fixated on racial oppression, subjugation and injustice.
“It taps into white guilt and black people’s sense that someone else is responsible for these problems that I have,” Rowe said. “The way this stuff plays out, if you are a low-income black kid, after a while you really start to believe it. You develop a very skewed version of the country, where you believe everyone is hostile to your efforts and that white supremacy is so strong that you don’t have the ability to control your own destiny.”
Some of today’s most vocal converts to anti-racist pedagogy previously regarded the nation’s racial reckoning from the perspective of their whiteness, before they experienced an epiphany. That’s what happened to Jeff Porter, the superintendent of Maine School Administrative District #51, which serves the towns of Cumberland and North Yarmouth, after he went through mandatory diversity and equity training this past summer with an outside organization called Community Change, Inc.
“I also recognize that some of the terminology may have felt confrontational, such as ‘white majority’ and ‘white supremacy,’” Porter wrote to parents this summer. “When I first went through training on this subject I was very much taken aback by this language as well and felt personally attacked as a racist.”
Porter described himself as a “life-long Mainer” whose family’s farming roots in Aroostook County go back to his great-great-grandfather.
“To think because I am white and have always lived here would mean that I somehow contribute to a ‘white supremecist’ [sic] culture was deeply troubling and insulting,” Porter wrote. “I had never before considered myself in this way.”
But Porter urged the white families in the school district to open their minds and consider how they contribute to structures of oppression.
“However, I now fully understand that this language is an accurate (and necessary) depiction of the long historical reality of race in this country, whether we want to accept it or not,” Porter declared. “The facts speak for themselves: America has a 400-year-old history of discrimination and oppression of African-Americans that must be acknowledged if we are ever to truly live up to the ideals to which our nation was founded.”