Political Theater of the Anti-CRT Campaign

There is a wave of bills and resolutions that are sweeping across the country that on the surface claim to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools. Beyond the surface lie concerted efforts to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion activities and outlaw culturally responsive teaching, critical pedagogy, and restorative justice approaches.

As someone born in the USSR, I am struck by the statements made by those who are participating in this campaign.

“Our children should know that we live in the greatest country on earth!”

“This dangerous, anti-American ideology has no place in Georgia classrooms”

“Our young people don’t need to be taught divisive lies!”

“Students should be able to report what their professors are teaching, to stop the spread of dangerous propaganda and the indoctrination of younger generations.”

I am struck by these statements coming from legislators, policymakers, education board members, and parents because I have already heard similar proclamations before. And, with some luck, I can hear them again if I find the right video recordings of the Communist Party Plenums from the Soviet era.

Here is the problem in the nutshell – surveilling who says what to whom and reporting what has been said to stop the spread of “indoctrination” has already been done in the Soviet Union where indoctrination was blatant and ever present. Of all the things done in the Soviet Union – not all of which were necessarily bad – witch hunts of those who express different views is not the best practice to emulate. Importantly, witch hunts – whether in this country during McCarthyism or in any other country under dictatorial regimes – never lead to anything good. In fact, they more often than not create large-scale disasters. You know where the word “gulag” came from? From the country where witch hunts based on political views were the norm, aka the USSR.

You might say, “These debates about Critical Race Theory don’t concern me” or “I don’t want children in this country to be indoctrinated.” I don’t want children in this country indoctrinated either. But along with others who have shared their analysis of the political theater around anti-CRT bans, I think there is a lot to be concerned about here. My main point of concern is how the media, marketing, and legislative campaigns are getting parents and legislators to believe that some people should be stopped because they are “indoctrinating” young minds. Why? Because this rhetoric itself is a form of indoctrination.

What are some symptoms of indoctrination?

The simplest one is repeating the same talking points.

See, if a person had a chance to wrestle with some ideas, they end up rejecting some, changing the language in others, and then adding something from themselves.

Legislators are demanding that the following “divisive concepts” be removed from school curricula or discussions in educational institutions. Can you guess which state these ideas came from?

  1. The United States of America is a racist country
  2. One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;
  3. An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously;
  4. An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race;
  5. Members of one race cannot or should not attempt to treat others without respect to race;
  6. An individual’s moral standing or worth is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex;
  7. An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
  8. An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex;
  9. Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race;
  10. Fault, blame, or bias should be assigned to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex.

Well? Is it Michigan? Utah? Florida? Georgia? New Hampshire? Idaho? Tennessee?

The answer is – all of the above.

And this should give you a pause.

Think about this for a second. Why is the United States a federation? So that each member state could make its own governing decisions that are better aligned with local contexts, values, and priorities. For example, people often repeat – K-12 education is a state issue; federal government has no business telling what states should do. Take, for example, Governor Kemp of Georgia who proclaimed that, “Parents, educators, and local communities here in the Peach State know how to best educate their students – not the federal government.”

If states have their own governing bodies, so that they could make their own policies, why is the language so consistent?

The answer is fairly simple. A group of conservative organizations created networks that influence legislators and supply them with scripts for the bills that should be introduced. These organizations are also linked to advocacy groups and non-profits that receive scripts to distribute among “concerned parents” and “concerned citizens.” These operations are funded by large donors.

For example, one of the central actors waging the war against “wokeness” and leading the charge against critical race theory, diversity, inclusion, anti-racism, and equity is the Heritage Foundation. Its IRS 990 forms list $365,763,848 as its assets and $132,836,267 for its gross receipts. It can spend millions on lobbying and “grassroots” activities. One of the organizations it supports is “Concerned Women of America” that tracks the introduction of anti-CRT bills and mobilizes others for action in their state. Heritage is supported by Koch brothers who also support the American Legislative Council and State Policy Network, with such affiliates as Texas Public Policy Foundation, that deliver “state solutions” with “national impact” to state legislators. Philanthropy Roundtable that seeks to influence policy-making by guiding philanthropic support has also receive support from Koch brothers.

The Heritage Foundation is not waging this war alone. The letter submitted by Attorneys General to the Secretary of Education where concerns about divisive concepts are shared bases its argument on the Heritage Foundation posts and publications by the American Enterprise Institute. One person cited is Christofer Rufo one of the main figureheads of the campaign who has held positions with the Manhattan Institute and the Discovery Institute – libertarian think-tanks that are also participating in this campaign against “wokeness.”

In fact, the points I listed earlier appear in “The Partisanship Out of Civics Act” designed as a model bill by the National Association of Scholars (section B, points 7 and 8). This is one instance of a script that gets circulated among policymakers and legislators to prompt political action.

Why should you be concerned?

It’s plain and simple.

You voted for elected officials who are supposed to represent you. But instead, your elected officials represent the richest people in the country and sign into law bills created by powerful “influencers,” some of which operate on multi-million dollar budgets. When the same language gets parroted from one state to another, indoctrination unfolds.

And that is how you get bills with the same language introduced from one state to another. And when journalists ask simple questions – Is Critical Race Theory even taught in schools?, rich donors have nothing to say.

Why?

Because this has never been about Critical Race Theory. It has always been about teaching you to look at your neighbor, your child’s teacher, or a college professor and see the enemy, instead of paying attention to who is spending billions buying superyachts and taking rides on space shuttles.

We can have many perspectives on what Critical Race Theory offers and what limitations it might have. But it is time to consider how this battle against it is in itself a form of indoctrination.

My invitation is simple. Let’s not repeat TV one-liners and social media posts. Let’s not forward to our elected officials mass send-outs from organizations funded by billionaires. Let’s read, learn, and check for ourselves what these ideas are and what they stand for. In order not to become coopted into someone else’s game, we all have to take a simple choice to think for ourselves and use credible reliable sources to develop our positions. Fighting indoctrination happens through careful learning and reasoning. Not by repeating someone else’s talking points or by legislating who should be reported and disciplined for discussing certain concepts.

Why does it all matter? Because we cannot have a democracy without independent thinkers.

If we all repeat one-liners here and there, if we engage in witch-hunts, reporting, and punishments, if we accept what we are told without critically examining these ideas for ourselves, we slide into authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

I hope we can all agree that it is not the future we want for ourselves or our children.

Secret Lives of Teachers Amidst a Teacher Shortage Crisis

In the US and in many countries around the world, teachers are leaving the profession. To address acute teacher shortages, policy-makers have begun hiring international teachers for US or UK schools or bringing in hires with limited prior preparation for teaching through such organizations as TFA, its global partners, or other alternative programs. While these temporary solutions may partially address immediate needs, they don’t solve the underlying problems that have contributed to the current teacher shortage crisis.

Part of the problem is not just what solutions are offered and how effective they are, but also how the problem is framed. Reformers, policy-makers, and edupreneurs often claim that teachers don’t stay in schools because they lack practical preparation necessary for the job. In other words, their argument is that teachers leave the profession because of low quality teacher preparation they receive. While teacher preparation may contribute to some of the challenges teachers face, I would argue it constitutes only a minor part of what pushes them out of the profession.

This summer my husband started teaching third-grade at a local public school on an emergency license. Since school started three weeks ago, I have been watching the transformations he has been undergoing and the struggles he has been facing. In many respects, he has been quite fortunate to get a job at a school that has a good reputation, in general provides support to its teachers, and conveys to the children a message of love. Those are all very important perks.

But there are many challenges.

First, the salary. He was very fortunate that his ten years of teaching experience across a variety of contexts count. His starting salary is not that of a beginning teacher but that which a teacher with ten years of experience would normally make. He was also very fortunate to have his master’s and doctorate count. That added several thousand to his pay. Even with all of these additions, however, he is barely making $47,000. On a personal level, we have the privilege of being a two-income household with my employer covering my health insurance. If I did not have a job and insurance coverage, we would have struggled financially, even with all the pay additions he received. On the policy level, his salary presents a bit of a conundrum. The news sources in Arizona state that the average teachers’ salary is $49,000. With many teachers leaving after three years and very few veterans staying in schools, the claim about average salaries is deeply puzzling.

Second, the job is physically overwhelming. Every day he comes back home exhausted after 12 or 14-hour long days. He is on his feet all day, constantly surrounded by kids, eating at best on the go, barely having time to use the bathroom. When he comes home, he can’t sit down and relax. He has to prep for the next day or run out to get supplies. By 8, his eyes glaze. By 9, they turn red. By 10, he’s out, even if he still has prep to finish for the next day. During weekends, it is grading and prepping time. There are things that we still manage to do around the house, but most of the time he has to spend catching up on things for work. His feet hurt, his back hurts, his shoulders hurt. We have taught in many different contexts around the world but nothing has ever taken such a toll on him.

Third, the job is taxing psychologically and emotionally. He has 31 third-graders in his class. Keeping them on task, getting them to do their work, and making sure that they learn is challenging for numerous reasons. They are chatty and hard to manage. Some of the kids have serious problems they are dealing with. He often finds out about them only after crises flare up and melt-downs happen. All of this falls on his shoulders. As the primary adult responsible for all these children, he has quite a burden to carry.

Fourth, there is little time left during the school day for prepping, organizing the classroom, or getting the materials ready. The one period a day when he could get some of this work done often gets lost on getting kids to and back from special sessions, taking care of his own meetings, or attending to any other unplanned emergencies. The printer and the copier can break down and no one receives any information about when they will be back up. The projector in his classroom has been broken since day one. If it worked, it would have greatly helped with instruction or mitigated the absence of teaching materials when the printer breaks down. Together all these problems only further exacerbate an already challenging situation.

Fifth, there is the question of what position teachers occupy in the school. The curriculum in use is scripted and even though some administrators accept the possibility that teachers should have some freedom in how they implement it, there are still expectations of what needs to be covered on what day and at what speed. Most of the children in the school come from households that live below poverty line; for most of them, English is not their first language. His school also has one of the largest populations of homeless students in the area. Yet those factors have little bearing on how teachers and children will interact with the curriculum. There are mind-numbing PD sessions where the person in charge mostly clicks on links on the curriculum webpage. There are also moments where taking time off (because I had my citizenship ceremony) is regarded with great suspicion and distaste. His team is considered the team of trouble-makers (let’s say he is fortunate to be a part of a team) because they are critical thinkers who are concerned about matters of equity and social justice in their work. Teams that are more appreciated by the administration are the teams that are less critical of what they are asked to do. Together these factors underscore how (micro)managed teachers are and how “professional” becomes less and less applicable to the positions they occupy in schools.

Sixth, (and my list can go on but I will stop soon), there is that fleeting moment that can keep a teacher in a classroom despite all the other challenges – the moment when children’s eyes lit up and they have their “aha” moments. While he is happy to share the stories of when children got excited because they understood something or were finally able to do a math problem that they could not figure out before, those moments are hard to create in a classroom with 31 children and uneven external support. In the beautiful moments when children see a bug in the hallway and stop to look at it, instead of engaging with their curiosity and sense of wonder, he has to keep reminding them that there are rules and procedures to be followed – “voices off” and hurry to the next class. Most traumatizing are the tests. When parents brought their children in before school started, many commented on how stressed out their children become when they have to take tests. District pre-tests have already taken a day away and caused some of the children worry about how their performance on these pre-tests will affect their report card. The real doozy is coming in March and April when one test after another will take away most of the instruction time and any hope that learning can ever be fun (or worthwhile on its own terms).

There is so much more that can be and should be said and none of this is new. Anyone who has spent time in schools teaching or observing teachers would have seen a version or at least some parts of what I am describing. The situation is different in private schools, as a recent book “Secret Lives of Teachers” suggests. The situation might be a little better in suburban schools. But those are also not the schools where most of teacher flight is happening. It is schools like the one where my husband is now teaching that have to put a clause in teachers’ contracts that if they leave before the end of the school year, $2500 will be deducted from their salaries to cover a permanent sub. Even though it is a good school as far as urban public schools go, the HR have seen enough turnover to incorporate this clause into all new contracts.

The point is that what has become of teaching in the last fifteen years is dehumanizing to teachers and to students. It robs most people involved in the schooling processes of dignity, meaning, and joy. Concerns over teacher shortages – and the quality of education in general – are awfully misplaced if teacher education is blamed for what is currently happening in K-12 schools. In light of teachers’ experiences, suggestions that better-prepared teachers will make better schools are deeply misguided.

Collectively, we need to re-think what is happening to public education when people who turn schools into for-profit enterprises run the show. We also need to think more carefully about the role of educational research in this crisis situation. While teacher preparation may indeed need to be improved, educational researchers and teacher educators should build alliances and support teachers and communities they serve in the struggle for more equal educational opportunities for all. Many are already doing this. But I wonder how the situation could change if there was a more consolidated response from the field. I also believe that it is important to remember that this is not a uniquely American crisis. Similar and much worse struggles are happening around the world and it is worthwhile to re-imagine how solidarity among teachers, educators, and researchers can be built across national borders.

first day of school