Critical Race Theory Prevents Real Progress on Closing Achievement Gaps

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How widespread is critical race theory in America’s K-12 classrooms? In an essay for National Review, teacher Daniel Buck argues that while most teachers don’t personally espouse the extreme racialist views of critical theory, the universities where they are trained certainly do. It’s inevitable that the pernicious aspects of critical race theory (CRT), which assume that every difference of student outcome is explained by bias and oppression, will influence what gets taught to our children, and how.

Daniel’s essay prompted a vigorous Twitter exchange among prominent education policy wonks. Thomas B. Fordham President Michael Petrilli called for more research on how widespread CRT really is in K-12 schools, while American Enterprise Institute education scholar Max Eden insists that states should ban the use of CRT in schools outright because of its sweeping and totalizing claims.

I share Buck’s feeling that most classroom teachers are not antifa sympathizers nor devotees of Marxist pedagogy. Regardless, because of the prevalence of such views at the university level, the core assumptions of CRT have come to dominate the professional discourse in K-12 schools, so much so that individual educators are increasingly afraid to push back against those assumptions and just silently endure CRT indoctrination. 

This is bound to eventually have an effect on classroom practice and actually makes it harder to address real equity issues in our schools. When you assume, as CRT does, that all outcomes are the result of bias and oppression, you silence discussion of all other explanations and solutions.

For example, many of CRT’s assumptions create a culture of low expectations in many classrooms. Research from education advocacy group TNTP, billed as “The Opportunity Myth,” shows that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds regularly receive classroom assignments that are below grade-level expectations. In fact, the Opportunity Myth study found that in 4 out of 10 classrooms with a majority of students of color, students never received a single grade-level assignment (compared to only 12% of majority white classrooms that never received a grade-level assignment). 

Does racism play a role in this abysmal display of low expectations? Perhaps. The biased belief that students of color are incapable of completing rigorous assignments almost certainly does. But a fair number of minority teachers and administrators would also have to be guilty of this assumption.

Is white privilege at work in this pattern? Perhaps – to the extent that teachers assume white students are capable of high achievement and therefore challenge them with rigorous work. So racial prejudice may indeed make a difference in student outcomes. But what do we do about that? And does that explain everything about these differences?

CRT advocates would say we have to expose these implicit biases in educators—presumably the minority teachers with low expectations for students of color also hold those views because of some mysterious pattern of white supremacy—and insist that students receive more “culturally responsive” instruction like the CRT-approved but historically inaccurate pablum of the 1619 project or ethno-mathematics where concepts like finding the right answer in a math class is an alleged reflection of “whiteness.” 

Instead of imposing ineffective, CRT-inspired equity trainings or ideologically-driven curriculum on students, what if we just showed educators the research on low expectations and then trained them in understanding what high-quality, rigorous instructional resources look like and how to use them? For all students. From my own personal experience when I’ve confronted teachers and administrators with the Opportunity Myth research, they recognize the pattern and tendency to use the past performance of struggling students to justify giving them low-quality assignments, and they immediately want to help their schools do better.

Similarly, we know that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are often taught by the least experienced teachers. Is it more valuable to train teachers in implicit bias, or to simply insist that every student be taught by a skilled teacher using effective instructional methods? 

Of course, there are also other factors that contribute to disparities in student learning outcomes. As black educator Ian Rowe regularly points out, the disintegration of the family has an untold impact on student achievement and educators are committing malpractice for failing to champion traditional family structures as a means of improving student performance in all racial groups. But these are the kinds of important education variables that CRT forbids us to discuss.

The gaps in student learning based on race are real and troubling. And racial bias on the part of the educators may play a role. But indoctrinating teachers and students in critical race theory won’t help, mainly because CRT advocates are far more interested in promoting their extremist, racialist ideology than actually solving problems.

Fortunately, most teachers and school administrators really do care about their students and doing better by them. They know achievement gaps exist and that closing them is at least partly within their control, even – and especially – if they reject the totalizing assumptions of critical race theory. And they know that becoming more effective in their teaching practice is the most powerful way to get there.

Dr. Gary Houchens
Gary W. Houchens, PhD, a former teacher, principal and school district administrator, is professor of education administration at Western Kentucky University. He has served as policy advisor for several education reform organizations and was a member of the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019. Follow more of his work at http://schoolleader.typepad.com

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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