John Murawski, Real Clear Investigations, November 24, 2020
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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 “collective 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.”