More than 17.7 million public school students enrolled in almost 900 districts in the US have had their learning restricted when teaching concepts related to race, racism and gender, according to a new study.
Researchers at UCLA and UC San Diego released a study, titled “The Conflict Campaign,” last week. The findings showed widespread conflict over teaching and learning about critical race theory in K-12 education; the role media plays in the divide in communities regarding teaching CRT; and revealed that there was more division over CRT in districts where White student enrollment fell by more than 18% since 2000.
For more than a year, there have been numerous efforts to ban and restrict critical race theory, a concept that seeks to understand and address how inequality and systemic racism is part of American society.
Authors of “The Conflict Campaign” say the study, which focuses on 2020 to 2021, details the media-fueled, broadly connected and “often powerful partisan efforts to incite and encourage local community members to target teaching and diversity work in schools and districts, often by distorting educators’ work.” They say it “seeks to pit community members against others in their schools and communities.”
Mica Pollock, a co-author of the study and professor at UC San Diego, said seeing the growing set of bills and local conflicts trying to restrict work on issues of race and diversity inspired the authors to conduct the study. The study says these restrictions hinder students and educators from discussing and grappling with difficult historical facts, current events, biases and the voices of marginalized communities.
“In a country ostensibly committed to free expression, I’ve been shocked by efforts to ban and control a wide set of school conversations on race and inclusion,” she told CNN. “We also were concerned about communities being purposefully inflamed and divided in an already-divided nation.”
Pollock said learning that parents were being encouraged to target local educators and to send tips to school administrators came as a shock to her.
“Instead, walk in to talk with local educators about improving the craft of teaching,” she said. “We can have differences of opinion in education, but we shouldn’t be trying to ban topics and shut learning down.”
Since January 2021, 36 states have introduced bills or taken steps to restrict teaching critical race theory, according to an Education Week analysis.
Between January and September 2021, 54 separate bills, according to PEN America, which “intended to restrict teaching and training in K-12 schools, higher education and state agencies and institutions” were introduced. The nonprofit organization calls these restrictions educational gag orders.
Just last week, a Florida school district canceled a professor’s civil rights lecture intended for middle school teachers over critical race theory concerns. Michael Butler, a professor at Flagler College, said knowledge is intended to make students reflect, think and at times — feel uncomfortable.
When asked his thoughts on the new study, Butler said these restrictions affect students from entering the educational profession. “The people that we want in the classrooms teaching difficult teaching difficult historical truths, want no part of a profession in which they feel monitored, scrutinized and even harassed by people who aren’t interested in education,” Butler told CNN.
‘Protect students’ rights to learn,’ co-author says
“The legislative aspect of the conflict campaign is picking up speed,” Pollock said. “All Americans need to proactively protect students’ rights to learn on issues of race and diversity in school to get an accurate and inclusive education.”
Pollock said she was shocked to see there have also been anti-CRT toolkits and videos made by well-funded organizations.
The study also reveals that conservative media has played a role in creating a divide between communities regarding teachings of critical race theory. After analyzing about 10,000 news articles about critical race theory between September 2020 and August 2021, the study found there were more than seven such stories from conservative news sources for every one story from a liberal news source. Fox News had the highest number of articles about critical race theory in public schools, leading with 378. The New York Times had the least with 76 related articles.
“The conflict campaign’s loudest, most powerful voices use the internet, media appearances and legislation to caricature actual teaching and stoke parent anxiety,” Pollock told CNN. “We need more stories about the teaching and learning actual students are calling for, and the work actual educators are trying to do.”
Pollock, along with her co-author, John Rogers, also looked at where conflict over CRT is occurring. The study found that impact is greatest in suburban communities with rapid demographic change. School districts in which the percentage of White student enrollment fell by more than 18% since 2000 were more than three times as likely as districts with minimal or no change in enrollment of White students to be impacted by conflict surrounding CRT, according to the study.
“This means that in the very districts where students’ families and communities experienced rapid demographic shift, the conflict campaign could particularly restrict students from analyzing that experience — and restrict educators from learning to better support students,” Pollock said.
Pollock believes critical race theory should be taught in K-12 education in order to investigate racial discrimination both in US history and in society today.
“Accurate K-12 explorations of US history factually explore how racial inequality of opportunity has shaped and still shapes American society, to inspire students to think deeply together about improving their shared country,” Pollock said.
She hopes that with this study, researchers will begin to look into local communities to “understand how and whether learning opportunities about race and diversity are being restricted.”