Kelly Niccolls

First They Came for Critical Race Theory…

A year ago, there were protests all across the country building a movement and calling for action and systems that believed Black Lives Mattered. Hundreds of thousands of people advocated and proclaimed wanting to learn how we can build communities of support and care for each other and heal from continued violence against our neighbors.

As quickly as people mobilized in support of building community, there is a new mobilization of people fighting against the collective learning and action to heal and support a united country moving forward, particularly in public education settings. One key campaign currently being proposed by legislatures and in many communities across the country is an appeal against teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) in K-12 schools. Why would a legal theory be threatening to K-12 education? Why would a scholarly legal theory not present in K-12 curriculum be something concerning in K-12 education conversations?

What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical Race Theory was founded by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw and Richard Delgado. It is an academic theory for legal frameworks that center race as a social construct. It is utilized in other disciplines and academic research related to humanities and sociology. It is a theory- a critical lens. It is exemplified through academic research and analysis. It is not a curriculum. It is not relevant to K-12 standards or content.

Critical race theory is not synonymous with equity, cultural competency, critical thinking, or other responsive and respectful ways of being for that matter. However, if you look at organized campaigns against CRT at board meetings and through records requests across the country, you wouldn’t be too sure. The information presented conflates CRT with equity frameworks and culturally responsive pedagogy. There is fear that if teachers and students learn about race and how to build relationships across racial identities that it is divisive because it names racial identities and builds racial awareness. Parents and organizations are storming school board meetings demanding we eliminate policies that center each student and ensure learning access in the name of CRT. Legislatures are prohibiting students from accessing curriculum and questioning key skills like critical thinking because of CRT.

Cultural Competency is the active learning and practice of seeing, valuing, and engaging across cultural contexts and building community with others and among others whose culture is unlike your own. Culture is not race.

Equity is ensuring that each and every student, no matter circumstance or need is able to access meaningful learning experiences so that they can pursue their goals. It eliminates barriers. It empowers families and key stakeholder partnerships. Equity work is not limited to race, but it is incomplete if not accounting for race-based injustices and barriers.

Critical Thinking is a key skill necessary for our students to discern information and be able to problem-solve. In order for students to compete in a nuanced global economy, they must be able to think critically and analyze information from various sources and multiple platforms. Thinking critically does not mean learning to criticize based on race.

Teaching Our Students CRT

Are we teaching our students CRT by protesting against teaching CRT? Our students are watching. The irony in the efforts to prohibit students from learning about CRT is the fact that all of this fear-mongering intrigues our young people to know what all the fuss is about. They are googling CRT and asking on social media sites and downloading legal scholarly articles. Students are learning what certain people in their communities believe, and what they fear. And then they wonder why. Our students are asking at the dinner table, they are asking at community events, they are talking about it with friends, with other adults, and they are learning about CRT. K-12 students would not know about CRT unless this attack on CRT in K-12 schools started. Now more students are learning about it than ever before.

“I had no idea what critical race theory was until I saw the Facebook post about getting it out of our schools,” one student in Idaho shared. “I went to school the next day and asked my government teacher and he said, ‘I have no idea what that is.’”

What students will do with this learning will impact local communities and the futures of young people for years to come.

“Seeing what parents and politicians are organizing against recognizing students like me in school, or learning about my people’s history makes me see that white people don’t want Black lives to matter in America,” shared another student in California.

Teaching the Truth

The future of our country depends on public schools’ ability to teach the truth as well as build skills of critical analysis, civil debate, and informed disagreement. Participatory democracy that represents the people (for the people, of the people, by the people) is not currently under debate. However, it is under attack with voter restrictions being passed across the country. There are also examples of states and school boards restricting access to curriculum and shifting policies to prohibit student access to historical accounts, resources, publications, and perspectives. That eliminates participatory democracy as it limits the informed understanding of voters. If this country is expected to thrive through significant shifts in economy, environment, and technological advancements, the people in this country must be able to engage in informed civil debate and informed disagreement. Citizens must be trusted with the truth, from a young age, to grow into adults who value the complexity of humanity. Compromise arrives in the company of quality information, empathy, and trust. If students are restricted from quality information, they are not trusted by, or able to build trust in, compulsory systems and other people. Significant ethical questions and resource dilemmas await our current and future generations.

Tyler Kingkade said in a recent interview on NPR, “even elementary school kids – they see what’s on TV. They hear what parents are talking about, and they need some sort of frame of reference to understand these issues. So we can’t just ignore them and say, well, we haven’t come up with a solution to police brutality or we haven’t come up with a solution to systemic racism, so let’s just not talk about it for now. I mean, educators are saying, no, we – if we want our kids to be prepared to talk about them, to address them as they become of age, we need to start teaching them when they’re young.”

If America allows its schools to be controlled by forces stemmed from fear and power, American democracy will perish. We know this because many countries exist in this way now. We know this, as these countries are further along with human experiment than America. We also know it because we are taught it through a comprehensive world history curriculum.  And we might not know it in a few years, as our democracy declines, and we find ourselves in those circumstances of other less free, less powerful nations. Unable because we allowed the institution founded to ensure America has an informed democracy to become the institution preventing information and participation.

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Kelly Niccolls

Kelly Niccolls

Kelly has been an educator for fourteen years. She began her career teaching in Southern California and has helped schools and systems reimagine teaching and learning, as well as serving as a school administrator. She is a Deeper Learning Equity Fellow, driven by the relentless belief in the possibility of social justice within education systems. Kelly focuses her education leadership on re-imagining structures for teaching and learning in order to empower all students for the future. Kelly is also a member of the Getting Smart Advisory Board.

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