Posted on December 26, 2020

An Anti-Racist Education for Middle Schoolers

Robby Soave, Reason, December 21, 2020

K-12 students in large public school districts across the country spent much of the fall semester at home, a less-than-ideal result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Zoom learning was hardly the only significant change to the education system. Some school districts are embracing trendy but dubious ideas about how to fight racism in the classroom.

The San Diego Unified School District, for instance, moved this fall to abolish its traditional grading system. Students will still receive letter grades, but they won’t reflect average scores on papers, quizzes, and tests. Under the new system, pupils will not be penalized for failing to complete assignments or even show up for class, and teachers will give them extra opportunities to demonstrate their “mastery” of subjects. What constitutes mastery is not quite clear, but grades “shall not be influenced by behavior or factors that directly measure students’ knowledge and skills in the content area,” according to guidance from the district.

District officials evidently believe that the practice of grading students based on average scores is racist and that “anti-racism” demands a learning environment free of the pressure to turn in assignments on time. As evidence for the urgency of these changes, the district released data showing that minority students received more Ds and Fs than white students: Just 7 percent of whites received failing grades, compared to 23 percent of Native Americans, 23 percent of Hispanics, and 20 percent of black students.


Getting rid of grades is an old idea: As far back as 1964, the Public Education Association urged high schools to stop using grades due to fears that students were deliberately choosing easier classes.  {snip} But in the past, the concern was that grades tell us too little. Today, the concern seems to be that grades tell us too much.

A related push is occurring in the world of standardized testing. In 2020, California eliminated the SAT—a measure on which students of color have historically underperformed whites—as a mandatory requirement for applicants to state universities. Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, is giving officials four years to propose a better and more equitable test; if one does not materialize, testing will cease to be an admissions factor entirely.


{snip} Diversify Our Narrative, a Black Lives Matter–affiliated organization for California college students, is pressing K-12 schools to make the study of history less Eurocentric and to add more minority-authored literature to the curriculum. Expanding students’ choices is seldom a bad thing, and there’s certainly room for schools to update their offerings with more Asian history, African art, South American literature, etc. {snip}

{snip} Poorly considered initiatives on college campuses have backfired dramatically while imperiling students’ free speech and due process rights: Prohibitions on “microaggressions”—slight, unintentional racial offenses—have created incentives for students to call police hotlines and snitch on each other over petty grievances. Many professors are afraid that saying the wrong thing, even inadvertently, will produce a lengthy investigation that could cost them their jobs—and indeed, there are plenty of examples of such investigations taking place. {snip}

These ideas are gradually spreading from secondary to primary education. In August, Fairfax Public Schools in Virginia invited Ibram X. Kendi, an activist and author of the books How to Be an Antiracist and Antiracist Baby, to have a virtual conversation with principals, administrators, and teachers. Kendi, who was paid $20,000 to speak for one hour, believes that the Constitution should be amended to create a federal Department of Anti-Racism with the power to censor public officials who make racist statements. The district also bought $24,000 worth of his books, which argue that any arrangement producing unequal results along racial lines is racist by definition.