Critical Race Theory in the Classroom

By Christine E. Sleeter

Dr. Sleeter is professor emerita at California State University, where she was a founding faculty member. A prolific author, her work centers on multicultural education, ethnic studies, and teacher education. She is a member of Kappa Delta Pi’s Laureate Chapter.

I have watched in amazement as state legislatures have rushed to ban the teaching of critical race theory, or any curriculum that is based on it. To date, bills have been advanced in seven states banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools, and in one of these states—Idaho—the bill has been signed into law. Although such bills have not been advanced in my state of California, attacks on ethnic studies increasingly call out critical race theory. Critics claim that it is a divisive ideology that teaches hate, indoctrinates students with hate toward white people, and injects race into what should be a colorblind curriculum.

I come to this controversy as a white scholar of race and curriculum who has used critical race theory as an analytical tool in some of my academic work, and spent decades teaching predominantly white audiences about race and racism. I view attempts to censor critical race theory as an uninformed reaction to fear, a reaction that over the long run will be more harmful than helpful to the nation’s ability to grapple with its legacy of racism.

Critics of critical race theory (as well as critics of various forms of anti-racist education) often base their concern on the belief that talking about race is what produces racism, and that if we all try to be colorblind, racism will go away. This belief contradicts findings of the numerous research studies I have reviewed for the National Education Association on the impact of ethnic studies courses on students (including white students). Studies find fairly consistently that students (especially white students) begin with shallow conceptions of what racism is and how racism works, but by the end of a course that focuses on structural racism, have generally more positive racial attitudes than they began with. In other words, rather than fomenting racial hatred, coursework that examines structural racism generally improves cross-racial understanding.

The words “critical” and “race,” especially when put together, seem to operate as red flags that scare people. So let us briefly examine what critical race theory actually is. It is a stretch to call it an ideology. Merriam and Webster define ideology as “the integrated assertions, theories, and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program” and “a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture.” Critical race theory can be understood more accurately as a body of analytical tools for examining how race and racism work, premised on the assumptions that race is a social construct rather than a biological fact, and that racism is deeply ingrained in U.S. society. Critical race theory emerged from legal scholars of color who wanted to understand why civil rights legislation and litigation that purported to eradicate racism did not achieve these goals. In other words, following the Civil Rights movement, people of color have still experienced ongoing racial discrimination. Why? That is the central question the analytical tools of critical race theory seek to understand.

For example, one analytical tool is taking seriously people of color’s experiences with racism, based on the assumption that white people experience race differently from people of color, but that most public theorizing about race has been done by white people. (The unfounded theory that talking about race produces racism is one such theory.) Another analytical tool, interest convergence, holds that people act on their own self-interest. Interest convergence asks how racial remedies that seem fair to white people actually advance white self-interests.

If this brief explanation doesn’t sound like critical race theory as you have heard it discussed publicly, you’ve probably heard it discussed by people who do not understand it and extrapolate what they think combining the words “critical” and “race” must mean. If I don’t recognize critical race theory as I hear it characterized in the news and on the floor of state legislatures, that is because the bogey man people have invented out of fear doesn’t bear much resemblance to the academic theory I have studied and used.

I think the deeper question legislators are wrestling with is this: Should elementary and secondary age young people study race and racism in U.S. society, particularly as framed through the intellectual work of scholars of color? Does such curriculum teach hate?

It is important to realize that there is a huge difference between understanding, critiquing, and working to change white supremacy, versus hating white people. White supremacy is an institutionalized system that uses power to prioritize the needs and well-being of white people over of people of color, based on the assumption that white people are superior. White individuals do not have to uphold white supremacy, and many do not. In fact, challenging white supremacy and building inclusive institutions requires the involvement of white people! If we want to eradicate this nation’s legacy of racism, we must learn to confront racism directly, and to see it as a systemic issue and not only an issue of individual prejudice. Teaching young people about racism is not indoctrination, but rather means teaching viewpoints and providing factual data related to racism that they otherwise are not likely exposed to. Young people need to make up their own minds about how to think about race, and the better informed they are, the more thoughtfully they will do so. Rather than banning the analytical and pedagogical tools that enable this work, we would get much farther if we supported the preparation of teachers to teach race in the classroom.

Telling Stories: The Need for Strong Leadership and Qualified Teachers

By Carlos J. Minor

Dr. Minor is currently an educator with the Clayton County School System in Metro Atlanta. He has served as an elementary, middle, and high school educator. Additionally, he has served as both an adjunct and full-time professor of education.

I am currently ending my 20th year in education and will be back next year for my 21st. I am a career educator, highly qualified, and have served at every level of the P-20 continuum in more than one state. The studies always tout what is wrong with K-12, but this educator thinks he has at least a partial solution: Highly qualified (and dedicated) teachers and strong, school-based leadership.

At one point I was a K-12 educator in Middle America. The pay for teachers was very low compared to other jobs in the area. One could become a firefighter, a police officer, or literally a manager at a convenience store and make 10-15K more than a beginning teacher. Thus, the urban district I worked in struggled to staff, and they literally took anyone off the street with a degree and plugged them into a classroom. There was no training, no regard for GPA or work history, and some people bounced from school to school and district to district after being repeatedly fired. For most of them, teaching was not a calling or a sense of duty; it was merely a job.

The elementary school where I worked (since closed) was one of the worst in the state. Of the 16 classroom teachers, only four were actually certified educators. Three of those were Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers, so it was entirely possible for a student to go through that school and never have an actual teacher. Adding to this, the school served a high-poverty area, where the need for highly qualified teachers is the greatest.

To say that the school administration was weak would be an understatement. The “teachers” were allowed to come and go as they pleased with no repercussions. The “teachers” were allowed to stand in front of a classroom dressed in wrinkled t-shirts and sweatpants, jeans full of holes, hoodies and leggings—you get the point. Additionally, one “teacher” would come in 45-60 minutes late daily while his students sat idle in the hallway…and this was never addressed. Another “teacher” was allowed to spend the day walking the halls talking on her cell phone while her students sat idle with a paraprofessional…and this was never addressed. A third “teacher” went off on an administrator in front of students because he did not feel that he should have to come to work on time. In fact, this third “teacher” went around the building telling all who would listen that the administration was “tripping” by expecting folks to come to work on time…and he kept his job.

These behaviors (and others) would not have been tolerated from teenagers working at the mall or at a big box store, but this went on with the full sanction of both the building administration and the Central Office. As the student body was overwhelmingly Black, Brown, and indigent, the message was clear: The Powers That Be could care less if poor minority students learned.

This school was for years an F school and eventually the Central Office made the decision to close it and lease the building to KIPP. However, most of the “teachers” at the school, many of whom could not pass the Basic Skills Test for Teacher Certification and who did nothing but give worksheets, were given good teaching evaluations and positive recommendations to move on to other schools.

This stands in stark contrast to the school district where I am currently employed. I am at a middle school in Metro Atlanta that also serves a high-poverty area, and the student body is also overwhelmingly Black and Brown. However, the educational outcomes are completely different, for several reasons.

First, the pay in this district far exceeds that of the district I worked for in Middle America. A first-year teacher here starts off making about 20K more than a first-year teacher in the other district, and this is not the highest paid district in the area. This means that this district is able to both attract and retain actual, trained teachers, and not have a staff of what can best be described as long-term subs.

Second, there are multiple Instructional Coaches working full time in the building. They are there to help that new teacher improve, to help that good teacher become great, and help that great teacher become excellent. This is reflected in the educational outcomes, as our students perform well academically given their circumstances. At the school I wrote about earlier, the administration refused to allow the hiring of an Instructional Coach, likely because they knew that the school was a veritable zoo and did not want those aforementioned staff behaviors to come to light.

Third, four strong administrators work in the building: Three Grade Level Administrators and a Building Principal. These administrators have a presence in the building, coming into classrooms and offices. They keep constant tabs on their grade levels and the other personnel in the building they are tasked to supervise. The teachers and staff under their purview are held accountable: The standards must be taught. Teachers and staff must adhere to district policy in terms of attendance, dress, conduct, and phone usage. This stands in stark contrast to the situation at the school in Middle America, as previously stated. If one were to walk into 10 classrooms at the Middle America school, 8 teachers would be seated, on their phones, while the students had busywork. Additionally, the principal was caught sleeping in the teacher’s lounge and spent a good bit of time every day playing games on her phone. Departing teachers would state in their Exit Surveys how the administration never came into their classrooms.

Fourth, my school places a premium on educational attainment. Diplomas are up on walls. College alumni status is displayed both in attire and material placed in classrooms. Teachers come to work in professional attire and present themselves in a professional manner. Instruction incorporates minority achievement and students are taught that education is The Great Equalizer.

Educational attainment was maligned in the previous district. I was considered “uppity” (among other things) for wanting to be addressed by my proper honorific of Doctor. I actually had a human resources official tell me that I (an Afro-Latino) should have hidden the fact that I have an earned doctorate. I was criticized throughout the district for having my degrees on the wall in my office. I became a target, and the message was clear: They did not want a highly educated, experienced, certified male educator of color, ostensibly because the presence of such might inspire students of color to want to be the same. Instead, the district sought to employ those who would miseducate indigent, minority students, likely to create and perpetuate a permanent underclass comprised solely of people of color.

Studies show that we educators cannot control the neighborhoods our students come from or what goes on in their homes. We can, however, control what goes on at school. When students have a highly qualified and highly dedicated teacher who comes in prepared, can relate to the students, and holds the academic bar high, the result is improved academic outcomes. When students have a well-dressed, erudite professional in front them, holding them to high standards, the students tend to reach higher. No profession is possible without a teacher. Speak with anyone who is doing something positive, and they will tell you that, at some point in their educational career, a teacher inspired them. I myself was greatly influenced by the Dean of Students at my undergraduate institution. This gentleman was always nattily attired, spoke and carried himself well, and was the consummate professional. I wanted to be like him: A nice home, a nice office, and being a positive influence the same way he was. Again: Not one professional can honestly say that they were not influenced by at least one strong teacher.

This is why we need highly qualified, dedicated teachers supervised by strong educational leaders, particularly in the urban setting. With this we will produce more people of color doing positive things who will hopefully reach a hand back. Without a doubt, teaching is the foundation of all professional work. We have a duty to prepare our students not only academically but socially as well.

Growing Teachers for Today’s Schools

By Rebecca R. Garte and Cara Kronen

Dr. Garte is an Associate Professor of Teacher Education. Her grant-funded research uses observational and mixed methods to understand the factors that contribute to cognitive and social–emotional outcomes for young children through late adolescence. She has also partnered with NYC public schools to create professional development interventions designed to investigate teachers’ professional identities and practice from pre-service to in-service.

Dr. Kronen is an Associate Professor of Teacher Education and Coordinator of Secondary Education Programs at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. Her research areas include urban education, social foundations of education, and the art of teaching and learning. Her current projects focus on increasing the number of non-traditional pre-service teachers and supporting them through full certification attainment and early career. 

This month’s authors from the current Educational Forum wrote the article, “From the Margins of the Classroom to Mattering: How Community College Education Students Develop Future Teacher Identities.” It is available free for the month of May here.

Like the two of us, the overwhelming majority of teachers in the U.S. are middle-class, white women. As the demographics of the United States become increasingly diverse, children from Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian racial groups must see themselves reflected in their classroom teachers. The key to increasing teachers of color with the cultural competence to relate to the growing majority of minority public-school students may begin with supporting community-college education students.

Community-college students majoring in education are more likely to be from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and from lower income families, than pre-service teachers enrolled in 4-year colleges and universities. Unfortunately, many of these students do not persist in the teacher career track all the way until certification. This may be due to inadequate preparation for college, but a more significant barrier may be a negative experience with early fieldwork. Most teacher-education faculty are white, and therefore often select practicum classrooms where the teachers, administrators, and even the children are predominantly white. Although these school settings may showcase model pedagogy, the lack of diversity often conveys to community college students that they do not belong in the field. When Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) feel out of place—or worse, experience biases and micro-aggressions during early fieldwork—they may be less likely to develop a sense of themselves as a future teacher.

Our article explores future-teacher identity development among 60 community-college, early childhood education majors during their last semester fieldwork course. This course was designed to support their transfer to 4-year schools of education. We conducted an experiment to see whether the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the classroom and the students’ role during fieldwork would impact their future-teacher identity. Half of our students (randomly assigned) interned in a Title 1 public school, where BIPOC children and teachers were predominate. In addition, these students created action research projects in consultation with their cooperating teachers and with support from us­: their professors. The other half of the students attended the schools typically used by our colleagues. These schools were located within the same affluent neighborhood as our community college, serving predominantly affluent white families, and staffed by predominantly white teachers and administrators. Instead of the action research projects, these students created the traditional activity plans for the course.

We found striking differences in indicators of future-teacher identity between the two groups of pre-service teachers. The experimental group showed much higher degrees of critical self-reflection regarding planning for teaching than the traditional students, and they were rated as much more integrated into the classroom by their cooperating teachers. In addition, the experimental students described themselves in terms of feeling connected and committed to the teaching profession. It seems that for students who are the first in their family to attend college, seeing themselves in the role of a professional requires a major shift in their identity. To cultivate the teacher force that the diverse children in America’s public schools need, we must necessarily look more deeply at how future-teacher identity is formed. We particularly need to consider the role of community-college teacher preparation programs and how they can better support non-traditional students entering the field. We recognize that the socio–cultural environments of classrooms impact children’s feelings of belonging. Teacher educators need to consider how the socio–cultural contexts of fieldwork classrooms impact pre-service teachers’ perception of whether they belong in the field of education.