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“I’m here to throw hot coals over all of your heads,” the man said at a Brainerd Public Schools board meeting in Brainerd, Minnesota, last summer. “It’s not a mean thing… It talks about it in the Bible. If you’re wrong, if you’re on the wrong side, it hurts. If you’re on the good side, [it] It doesn’t hurt a bit.”
His written evocation of the subject was frantic: critical race theory, the now-familiar academic concept that conservatives have adopted as an insult to attack the lessons they see as critical of American political institutions. His anger was not unique. Disagreements at school board meetings have made national news for most of the past year. The pandemic has been horrific for our social cohesion, deepening divisions that were already already fraying.
Unfortunately, however, schools are convenient forums for these disorders. The school divisions we’ve tolerated for too long—segregated schools that facilitate unequal underfunding of college campuses with large shares of children of color, wide disparities in school safety and quality, and the like—are not only horrible for children, they are deadly to American democracy. These systemic biases reveal the intrinsic rot in what our country claims to offer to all members of its society.
On the other hand, the schools represent the universal promises of American society. Longtime teachers’ union leader Al Shenker once explained public schools as being “created for the purpose of teaching immigrant children reading, writing, arithmetic, and what it means to be American in the hope that they will then go home and teach their parents.” Schools are perhaps the nation’s most visible public investment in its citizens–a clear contribution of collective resources to ensure that each of us gathers the knowledge and skills necessary to make a career in economics, to practice learning and to live with our peers, and to participate in the various systems that make up American life.
But the schools are also where the state spouts those promises, where many of the prejudices of American life are systematically imparted and perpetuated. The country says, “Work hard here, succeed here, and you will rise through American society.” But when children of color arrive, when children from low-income families arrive on campus, academic rigor is often scarce, exclusionary discipline harsh and plentiful, and real opportunities for advancement are sorely lacking. And years later they The kids arrive at the same campus, only to find the same circumstances.
When researchers write about “historically marginalized” children and communities, these are the harsh mechanisms that determine the people they address. This is the means of marginalization. So, is it any wonder that children from these schools, from these backgrounds, grow up to be die-hard skeptics of American society and its economy? It’s hard to believe, let alone support, let alone support trust, A system that promises meritocracy while delivering exorbitant opportunities by truckloading to the privileged—and pushing kids over and over again into dysfunctional, under-resourced campuses. The inequality in our school system mocks the cathartic rhetoric of the American dream.
Even worse, the pandemic has sharpened divisions between those for whom the system has historically worked and those whom the system has historically failed to serve. English language learners (ELs), who are disproportionately likely to attend socio-economically segregated and high-poverty schools, are often excluded from local pandemic learning plans and are more likely to be chronically absent from school. Students in high-poverty schools made less academic progress during the pandemic than their peers in wealthier schools. Children of color, in general, were not well served during the school’s many months of scrambling through virtual and/or blended learning plans.
As my colleague Kevin Mahnken put it in a recent article summarizing new data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “at all levels of performance across [math and reading], 9 years old experienced a significant drop in their grades. But even with the same downward trajectory, struggling students have lost so much ground that disparities continue to widen.”
Incidentally, what is the basic claim underlying the critical race theory? It goes like this: racism can be detected in public systems, and the design and structure of social policies contribute to social inequalities. In other words, he charges that the laws, regulations, and institutions that shape public life serve to perpetuate and entrench racial divisions across generations. Seemingly neutral systems are rigged — and they are rigged in ways that are deeply harmful to certain communities of people.
So whether you like the term “critical race theory” or not, it provides a very accurate description of the unfair reality of public education in the United States. The pandemic is a global experience that has imposed roughly equivalent risks and restrictions on all American schools. But in our country, public schools and communities are not universally the same, universally supported, or universally high quality. So the effects of the epidemic were not felt in equal measure; COVID-19 has taken a public education system that was already skewed unfairly against historically marginalized children — and increased the inequality.
So now, more than ever, these divisions are driving the broader culture wars that infest American education discussions today. The people for whom the system operates—the broader American social and economic system, its markets, its schools, and beyond—are generally defensive of the idea that it is not, in fact, wholly fair and meritocratic. It is axiomatic to them that the system should be protected from books and curricula that suggest otherwise. Things worked out well for them, after all!
Yet the past two years have provided predictably tragic evidence that American public education remains systemically unfair to families of color, low-income families, English language learners, and other historically marginalized groups. Members of these groups have ample evidence that they should NotBasically, trust that American schools—or society—will routinely prioritize their best interests.
So we sit here, from Brainerd to Florida, from Maryland to Orange County, debating whether or not it should be legal to discuss this fact. Our predominantly white, mostly privileged people are anxiously demanding that schools not talk about the ways in which the nation’s public institutions have unfairly served marginalized communities throughout history — rather than address the consequences of the unfair treatment marginalized communities have received during the pandemic. We’re not just discussing how American schools teach the sins of Americans past. We decide whether we, as societies, are willing to address America’s unequal realities Present.
For years, Americans have struggled to unite in common cause–to solve political problems, confront public health crises, and respond to injustices in our collective society. Our segregated and divided society emerges in part from our segregated and segregated schools. The pandemic has made it clear that the educational disparities associated with these divisions are why we are not—regardless of a particular collective challenge—all this together. How can we be? Americans learn from the start that we are not actually in a community with these other citizens.
There is no short term solution. But the long-term solution to our incoherence is not about asking children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or reading fables extolling the virtues of George Washington and excluding slave ownership from the public record. It is about rebuilding our schools in a way that treats all children with the care and respect they deserve, in a way that enrolls all children in schools that are more like the diverse community in which they will one day reside as adults.
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