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Critical Race Theory in K-12 Education

Critical Race Theory in the K-12 school setting is a fireball topic right now, but why? It’s not new, and it’s not widely practiced in classrooms right now. So why the uproar? And if it’s not widely taught, should it be? 

First Things First: A Solid Definition 

When people talk about Critical Race Theory (CRT), they often have only a vague understanding of what the term means and how it’s applied in different settings. 

Critical Race Theory, coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, stems from Critical Legal Study (CLS), a theory that the law is intertwined with social issues. Scholars of both CLS and CRT recognize that the law can be complicit in maintaining an unjust social order.

At its core, CRT teaches that racism is a social construct and not the product of individual bias or prejudice. That racism is embedded in our legal systems, our national policies, and our institutions. 

The questions that underpin the foundation of CRT are:

  1. How does the law construct race? 
  2. How has the law protected racist policies and institutions?
  3. How does the law reproduce racial inequity?
  4. How can the law be used to dismantle race, racism, and racial injustice, and inequity? 

What CRT is Not

According to Crenshaw, Critical Race Theory is a verb, not a noun. It’s something that is constantly changing and needs to be practiced, not learned. 

Critical Race Theory is also not a DEI training initiative in and of itself, but rather the intentional practice of looking at the roles of race and racism in society. 

For example, we can take the case of Milliken v. Bradley (1974) and apply the CRT lens to what happened afterward. Milliken v. Bradley was a significant case dealing with the planned desegregation busing of public school students across district lines among 53 school districts in metropolitan Detroit. It concerned the plans to integrate public schools in the United States following the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision. In this case, the Court ruled that the school systems were not responsible for desegregation across district lines unless it could be shown that they had deliberately engaged in a policy of segregation. 

Between this ruling and the racially discriminatory housing practices that began in the 1930s, Black students were essentially locked into Detroit with no realistic way to reverse the segregation of its schools or the segregation of its all-white neighbor districts. 

The results in the decades since are astounding.

So what is the Problem with Teaching CRT? 

Most Americans understand our shared history of slavery. Most can even admit now that racially segregating our schools, teaching staff, and cities was, and still is, wrong. So why are some parents upset about the possibility of teaching CRT in America’s schools? 

Well, it may be a reality vs. perception situation. 

According to the group “Parents Defending Education,” some concerned parents believe schools teach kids that “white people are inherently privileged, while Black people and other POC are inherently oppressed and victimized.” 

Is that what is being taught? Is that what proponents of Critical Race Theory believe?

No. The conversation around CRT is much, much more nuanced and usually introduced as an optional field of study in college. And at this point in time, it is not broadly practiced in most K-12 settings. But should it be? 

Critical Race Theory vs. Culturally Responsive Teaching

Although Critical Race Theory is largely considered a collegiate level study of how societal constructs such as race intersect with law, we can identify some tenets as being taught to much younger students.

Photo credit: Sylvia Duckworth @sylviaduckworth

In the K-12 setting, we’re more likely to see what’s called “the other CRT” – Culturally Responsive Teaching. 

Culturally Responsive Teaching is defined as a research-based approach to teaching; a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning. It connects students’ cultures, languages, and life experiences with what they learn in school. These connections help students access rigorous curriculum and develop higher-level academic skills.

Our brains are hardwired to learn through connections. We are better equipped to retain and remember information taught to us when we can make a personal connection to it. But for students of color, English Language Learners (ELLs), and other underserved student populations, those connections are more often overlooked. When that happens, educators miss the chance to use real-life examples to support learning. Check out some recent work by Zaretta Hammond for more information on the neuroscience behind this.

Put into practice, culturally responsive teaching makes learning contextual. It allows teachers to tie lessons from the curriculum to the students’ social communities to make them more relatable and relevant. 

For example, if we go back to Milliken v. Bradley, suppose a teacher is reading a chapter on how laws are made in history class. In this case, the teacher and students could discuss why the decision still matters today, in their school or community. Students can see the effect that this legal decision has had, and draw the necessary parallels from their own experiences to make the subject matter personal and more easily retained.

No matter which “CRT” we’re discussing, the fact remains that there are plenty of so-called “critics” pushing back on this line of teaching, and we cannot let fear dictate the narrative around this important work. 

Why We Should Keep Pushing

So if CRT is not the exaggerated context most white parents fear, why are we still so afraid to address this topic? 

We should be teaching our children to think critically. About everything. Our history, our policies, our institutions should all be looked at through several different critical lenses. And so should the impact race, gender, sex, religion, etc. have on these institutions and vice-versa.

But instead of pushing back on critics by trying to take them on a deep dive into the pedagogies’ differences, or telling them their fears are unfounded, maybe we need to change the narrative. 

“I’ve been thinking,” writes High School English Teacher Heather Munao on Facebook, “we need to change the conversation around Critical Race Theory. So far, the defense is ‘no one is teaching that to kids!!’ But that line of reasoning is ultimately unhelpful. It makes it seem like something that should not be taught when in actuality, we should be applying its lens and affirming its tenets in lessons and learning activities, not unintentionally agreeing that it has no place in K12 classes. It is the vehicle through which we as thinkers and learners disrupt problematic single stories, texts, and textbooks, cultural mythologies, canons, and bodies of knowledge. I say we lean into it to defend it, not distance it.”

The point of Critical Race Studies isn’t to make a kid feel bad about who they are. Critical Race Theory does not seek to attack individual students, but rather, it makes them aware of how different systems in the U.S. discriminate against others and prepares them to do what children are supposed to do, become the future leaders who will promote change and move us to a closer embodiment of our ideals.