What Will We Teach With Critical Race Theory Under Attack?
Twenty-one states (as of this writing) have ambiguous bills in their legislature to limit the discussion of racism and sexism in classrooms. Ten states have passed this legislation. In Ohio, the bill includes language precluding students from doing community service work with organizations such as Black Lives Matter and any organization working with the LGBTQ+ community. For many schools, community service is a prerequisite for graduation from high school.
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical race theory (CRT) is not the latest fad to hit schools and their curriculum; it is a concept that has been in the literature for more than 40 years. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, legal scholars developed the tenets of CRT as a way to look at systematic bias. The main idea is that “race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies” (Sawchuk 2021).
There is a great deal of confusion over what CRT actually means, especially when it comes to terms like social justice. CRT sprang from postmodernist thinking—skepticism toward ideas of objective knowledge, individual merit, and universal values.
Right now, CRT is linked to any discussion of diversity. The New York Times’ Pulitzer prize-winning social studies curriculum, The 1619 Project, has sparked controversy, raising questions about how history is depicted in textbooks and taught in social studies and civic classes. CRT has ties to other intellectual areas, such as sociology, where connections between “political power, social organization, and language” are made (Sawchuk 2021).
Critics of CRT feel that it divides people into “oppressed” and “oppressor” groups and fosters intolerance. The political debate over CRT has shifted to highlight power relations, focusing on how white students might be made to feel uncomfortable by studying such topics. In fact, according to CRT, “racism is part of everyday life, so people—white or nonwhite—who don’t intend to be racist can nevertheless make choices that fuel racism” (Sawchuk 2021).
The following quote from McLaren (2003, p. 86) needs to be analyzed and internalized by educators:
From the perspective of critical educational theorists, the curriculum represents much more than a program of study, a classroom text, or a course syllabus. Rather, it represents the introduction to a particular form of life; it serves in part to prepare students for dominant or subordinate positions in the existing society [his emphasis].
Furthermore, there is a belief that schools should be neutral spaces that treat everyone justly. However, all one needs to do is examine the graduation rates among all students, standardized test scores (ACT and SAT), and prevalence of tracking that still exists and often precludes students of color from taking college preparatory courses. The curricula used in most schools continue to be created and implemented around mainstream white, middle-class values. The racial achievement gap continues to widen. Who are schools actually serving? Whose needs and values are being served? Definitely not students of color.
How does CRT impact the science classroom?
Policies and practices that lead to the disproportionate disciplining of Black students, barriers to students of color taking AP science courses, underrepresentation of students of color in gifted programs, and curricula that reinforce racist ideas are pervasive in science departments among the majority of students who are now non-white. How many scientists of color do we share with our students? Will the banning of CRT prevent biology teachers from discussing race as a social construct? Our science students need to be able to live out their dreams and not worry about operating in a school system that places them at a disadvantage because of their (socially-constructed) race.
In this social justice-themed issue, we look at examples of educators implementing lessons, labs, and activities that make classrooms more critically-just places. Their work is to be applauded and emulated. What can you do to make your classroom a more socially-just place for science learning to occur among all students?
McLaren, P. 2003. The critical pedagogy reader. New York, NY: Routledge.
Sawchuk, S. 2021, May 18. What is critical race theory, and why is it under attack? Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/what-is-critical-race-theory-and-why-is-it-under-attack/2021/05
Schick, P. 2018. Personal Communication.