Will the Controversy Over Critical Race Theory Damage Students’ Pursuit to Better Understand Cultural, Racial, and Individual Differences?

Will the Controversy Over Critical Race Theory Damage Students’ Pursuit to Better Understand Cultural, Racial, and Individual Differences?

Is Our Nation At-Risk. . . for Different Reasons than in 1983?

Dear Colleagues,


   In my last Blog, I summarized the “take-aways” from a Student Focus group that a colleague and I facilitated at a prototypical suburban high school near a large metropolis. The goal was to gather the students’ impressions of their academic and (especially) social, emotional, and mental health needs, and how their school was addressing these needs.

   The group included the student leaders from all four classes in the high school, and a majority of this diverse group included students from different racial and cultural backgrounds, as well as students with different gender identifications.

[CLICK HERE to Re-Read this Blog]

   Three themes emerged from the discussion:

  • Theme 1. The students wanted more ongoing education, discussion, and understanding of the racial, cultural, and religious histories, traditions, and practices of the students and staff represented at their high school and across their community.

This extended to issues related to gender, gender identity/sexual orientation, national origin, socio-economic status, disability, and age.

The students understood that, in the absence of this education and discussion, (a) they and their backgrounds might not be understood by other students and staff; and (b) they would not be prepared to work and live successfully in their post-high school worlds.

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  • Theme 2. The students were confused and disappointed that—in the face of their Pandemic- and non-Pandemic-related social, emotional, and mental health needs—the staff at their high school appeared to totally ignore (or avoid) discussing these needs.

Indeed, the students noted that—after almost 18 months of virtual instruction and isolation—the new school year began in September, 2021 just like any pre-Pandemic school year. That is, the teachers moved right into the academic program without allowing the students to discuss and debrief their personal and educational experiences during the past 18 months, or to build and rebuild their student-to-student and student-to-staff in-person relationships.

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  • Theme 3. The students were frustrated with their teachers’ (and parents’) “obsession” with “catching them up” academically—to the point that teachers were fast-tracking instruction and doubling-up on assignments.

More critically, the students noted that teachers were not coordinating across teachers—resulting in unrealistic and inconsistent workloads that required them to pull “all-nighters” in order to complete assignments. Students felt that they were “doing stuff,” rather than learning and mastering important content and skills.

Here, the students wondered why essential work was not prioritized, scaffolded, and taught in trans-disciplinary ways. They wanted to learn and grow academically. But they feared that their teachers’ current instructional approaches were actually leaving them further behind than they already were due to the Pandemic.

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Concerns Over Critical Race TheoryMeeting Students’ Needs to Discuss Race, Culture, and Individual Differences

   In 1983, a report A Nation At-Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was published by the United States National Commission on Excellence in Education. The report warned educators nationwide that our schools were not graduating students who were able to compete academically with the graduates from other countries. This report sparked a school improvement and reform process that has been codified in the last three (and current) Elementary and Secondary Education Acts (ESEA).

   In contrast, over the past year, more than half of our country’s state legislatures—and many individual school districts—have proposed or passed policies that ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) or that limit the teaching of history, events, or topics related to racism, bias, diversity, and equity.

   Using CRT as the antagonist, many of these policies—and/or the debates around them—clearly show either that (a) the true nature of CRT was unclear or misunderstand; or (b) CRT was used to politically or emotionally manipulate the support needed to pass or push the policies.

   In the end, one short-term outcome from these CRT policies and debates is that the first need expressed by the students in my High School Focus Group (see Theme 1 above) is now threatened. That is, the students in communities that have restricted or removed educational opportunities to learn about different racial, cultural, and religious histories, traditions, and practices will end up learning on their own. . . or not learning at all.

   A second potential long-term outcome is that, in another decade, we may be reading a second Nation At-Risk report. . . a report on The Imperative for Education Regarding Race, Culture, and Individual Differences.

   This report will be discussing the need for enhanced cultural, racial, and individual difference education in our schools so that students and staff from diverse backgrounds can better understand each other, collaborate together, and learn the skills needed for success in their post-graduation job and community interactions.

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The Facts Behind Critical Race Theory

   The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), which represents over 25,000 school psychologists across the country, recently published a handout,

“The Importance of Addressing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Schools: Dispelling Myths About Critical Race Theory” (2021)

in its membership newspaper The Communique. This handout summarizes many significant points related to this Blog.

   In its Introduction, the NASP handout states:

"Schools have long explored the role of race and racism in our country's history, including disparities in opportunity and education. It is important that we provide students with an honest and accurate assessment of history so that they can create a better future.

The growing politicization of these issues has manifested in the demonization and purposeful misrepresentation of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and other well-established policies and practices in schools, such as social–emotional instruction and the implementation of culturally responsive practices. These discussions are happening at local school board meetings, in communities, in state legislatures, and in Congress. Students are paying attention, and the divisive rhetoric and intentional misrepresentation of CRT is causing confusion and disruption and could undermine a positive school climate. . .

Central to this effort is allowing for honest, respectful, and developmentally appropriate discussions about topics such as privilege, racism, bias, and systemic racism in our nation's schools. These conversations are not meant to divide students, teach them to hate each other, or to make students feel shame about their race, community, or country. Rather, these dialogues foster critical thinking and provide a framework to understand how existing systems, structures, and policies can cause inequitable outcomes.

Professional development for teachers and educators on privilege, racism, bias, and systemic racism is essential but not because individual educators or students are consciously racist. Rather, this type of professional development provides them with necessary tools to advance equity in their schools and classrooms, ensure that all students see themselves in the curriculum, and identify and remedy the impact their individual biases may have on their students.

Positive educational and social outcomes for all children and youth are possible only in a society—and schools within it—that guarantees equitable treatment to all people, regardless of race, class, culture, language, gender, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, citizenship, ability, and other dimensions of difference. NASP firmly believes that all students are entitled to an education that affirms and validates the diversity of their cultural and individual differences, fosters resilience, and facilitates well-being and positive academic and mental health outcomes (NASP, 2019)."

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   On the topic of Critical Race Theory (CRT), the handout clarifies:

  • CRT is a theoretical framework for examining American society with a belief that racism is embedded in U.S. laws and institutions and not just the result of individual prejudices or biases. CRT seeks to understand inequities that exist based on race.
  • CRT is a collection of ideas rather than a single doctrine, and many scholars have contributed to the body of CRT work. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and Derrick Bell are often considered the founders of modern CRT.
  • CRT is most frequently applied at the higher education and policy levels to understand how racism may or may not be shaping structures and systems in the country, and, ideally, inform necessary changes to improve their function for all people.
  • CRT recognizes that race is a social construct and race does not reflect biological differences among people (e.g., differences in intelligence, physical ability).
  • CRT includes an understanding that systemic racism is part of American history and still exists in modern society.
  • CRT identifies and examines the ways in which White supremacy and racism permeate systems today, including the continuation of generational poverty; barriers in accessing housing, education, and healthcare; and funding and economic development approaches that privilege predominantly White neighborhoods and disadvantage marginalized and minoritized communities.
  • CRT is a framework to examine the inequities in existing structures, policies, and laws in order to rebuild them equitably.
  • CRT focuses on examining and remedying disparate outcomes rather than changing individuals’ beliefs.

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   The NASP handout also corrects some of the inaccurate information sometimes ascribed to CRT:

  • CRT does not imply that one race is superior or inferior to another.
  • CRT does not posit that all White individuals are racist and all racially minoritized individuals are oppressed.
  • CRT is not a way to enact racism and discrimination against White individuals.
  • Though related, CRT is not synonymous with cultural responsiveness, culturally relevant teaching, or equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives.
  • CRT is not the same as social–emotional learning (SEL).
  • CRT is not an attempt to make people feel bad about their race.
  • CRT is not a tool to divide students or school staff and teach them to hate others.
  • CRT does not promote or condone a specific political ideology (e.g., socialism, Marxism, anticapitalism).
  • CRT is not a means of judging another person based on race or making assumptions based on race.
  • CRT is not the same as teaching the good and bad parts of U.S. history.
  • CRT is not The 1619 Project, which is a Pulitzer Prize winning long-form journalism project.

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Going Beyond Students’ Needs: The Need for Schools to Model Racial, Cultural, and Individual Differences Equity

   The purpose of this Blog is not to get into the process and content of how to better educate our students in the areas of culture, race, and individual differences.

   The goal is to protect the importance of continuing to do this in effective, objective, comprehensive, historically-accurate, and meaningful ways—for both students and staff.

   And beyond the need to do this by addressing students’ stated needs (for example, as expressed by my Student Focus Group), it is essential to similarly address students’ systemic cultural, racial, and individual difference needs.

   The NASP handout identified a number of possible systemic targets (some minor edits have been made):

  • The incorporation of equity, diversity, and inclusion topics for staff and students in public schools. This includes adequate funding and guidance to support these efforts.
  • The delivery of comprehensive curricula that are culturally responsive, developmentally appropriate, and academically engaging for all students.
  • The assessment and remediation of disproportionality in special education identification, eligibility for gifted (and talented) education, access to advanced/AP courses, and academic outcomes, including high school completion rates and student discipline and arrest rates.
  • The implementation of accountability systems that promote a culture of constant improvement, disaggregated data collection and reporting, and intentional remedy of any disparities.
  • The promotion of supportive, effective, and equitable discipline policies and practices, the elimination of zero tolerance discipline policies, and the limiting of exclusionary discipline practices that disproportionately impact students from minoritized backgrounds.
  • The systematic assessment of institutional climate within schools, ensuring that bias and its potential consequences are understood, and that people of traditionally underrepresented backgrounds feel welcome, respected, and are met with high expectations.

   While it is important to meet the expressed academic and social, emotional, and behavioral needs of our students—as related to race, culture, and individual differences, students need to concurrently see their schools value and model racial, cultural, and individual difference equity in a systemic way.

   This eliminates the disconnect, inconsistency, or contradiction that sometimes occurs when we expect students to interact in sensitive and equitable ways, and yet their school systems are actually practicing insensitivity and inequity.

   None of these issues (or goals) are new. It’s just that they, tragically, have been recast—over the past number of months— in a political context that, at times, has created its own “reality” based on misunderstanding and misrepresentation, ignorance and inaccuracy, prejudice and power, and fear and exploitation.

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   Without being naïve, one would hope that the professional ethics that all educators are expected to demonstrate—whether as members of their national organizations, or as certified or licensed through their respective State Departments of Education—would “rule the day.”

   That is, we all have an ethical and professional responsibility—as stated in the NASP handout—to “attend to issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. . . , as well as advocate to eliminate systemic racism, inequity, and other discriminatory factors in schools that can harm or marginalize students.”

   As a school psychologist, I must admit that I have always worked to elevate all students—especially those who have been affected by intrinsic issues of disability, and/or extrinsic issues of oppression. This advocacy has resulted in times when some colleagues have not appreciated or agreed with some of my statements, choices, or decisions. . . indeed, it will be interesting to see how many “unsubscribes” or negative comments this Blog will generate.

   I also admit that the events of the past months—as related to the debates and/or legislations to suppress legitimate educational activities and discussions about culture, race, and individual student differences in the name of eliminating Critical Race Theory from our schools—are complex, multi-layered, and not always explainable.

   At the same time, I do know that a discussion cannot occur (or continue) unless someone begins the discussion. And I do know that our students—as represented by our Student Focus Group—want this discussion to occur.

   While I hope to be wrong, I believe that our Nation IS At-Risk in this essential area for the common good. . . given the current direction in some of our states, districts, and schools.

   If I am wrong, then don’t shout me down. Let’s talk about it.

   Let the discussions. . . with full engagement, professionalism, mutual respect, and humility. . . begin.

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   Even as the holiday season approaches, many of our schools will still be in session for the next few weeks. I hope that this Blog resonates with you and motivates you to think about how you want to begin the next part of the school year when the Holiday Break ends in January.

   For the schools that missed opportunities to address their students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs at the start of the school year, you have an opportunity to spend the first day—or three days—in January. . . making up for or recovering from this gap.

   Your students still have needs, and you can’t go back in time.

   Think creatively. Involve your students in planning a meaningful re-entry to school in January. Take a courageous step to open up discussions that have been missed, ignored, or avoided.

   I just read that one district superintendent has given his students and staff an additional “mental health break” by adding three days to the Winter Break.

   What if this—and all—district(s) used these three days instead to implement a series of student, staff, parent, and community discussions, activities, and opportunities. . . addressing the social, emotional, mental health, cultural, racial, and individual difference issues and needs that are (or not) apparent?

   Would this not go further in addressing these needs in a collective way. . . rather than assume that three days of personal and individual time—away from the school community—is going to have the same effect?

   I appreciate everyone who reads this bi-monthly Blog and thinks about the issues or recommendations that are shared.

   As always, if I can help you in any of the areas discussed in this message, I am always happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call to help clarify your needs and directions on behalf of your students and colleagues.

   You, too, can be one of the hundreds (near a thousand) of districts or schools that have seized this post-Blog opportunity. I hope to hear from you soon.