Why Teachers Are Afraid to Teach History

Originally published in the April issue of the New Republic magazine, and online March 28.
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For a decade, Jonathan Greenberg, a social studies teacher at the Center School in Seattle, taught an advanced placement course for high schoolers called Citizenship and Social Justice. A broad-shouldered man with penetrating eyes and a warm manner, Greenberg brought in speakers to talk about their experiences of racism and invited his students to share, too. Sometimes, he separated them by race so they could consider questions more privately. In an exercise known as “affinity-based caucusing,” he might ask white students, “What’s the role of a white person in fighting racism at school?” Students of color, meanwhile, might share how they cope with discrimination they’ve faced.

Greenberg shaped his curriculum according to guidelines developed by Courageous Conversation, a group founded in 1992 to help teachers facilitate dialogues about race. The organization intends its discussions to be structured by four agreements: to stay engaged, to expect discomfort, to tell the truth, and to accept a lack of closure. Frank talk about encounters with racism, Greenberg believed, would help bring attention to the struggles of underrepresented populations at his majority-white public school, and help all his students link their present lives with the historical realities of race.

In December 2012, the parents of a white student in Greenberg’s class filed a complaint with the principal. Greenberg, they alleged, had not only created “an emotionally-charged classroom environment” and a “climate of fear,” he had fomented “racial hatred and prejudice.” The complaint made its way to the school district, and, within a month, Seattle Public Schools launched an HR investigation and told Greenberg that he could not teach the racism curriculum or a planned unit about gender before the investigation concluded. Besides the teen whose parents initiated the complaint, officials interviewed no students about their experience in the class. By mid-February, the superintendent wrote Greenberg that his lessons had created an “intimidating” atmosphere for the student and “disrupted the educational environment” for others. Students began circulating a petition demanding that the curriculum inspired by Courageous Conversation be reinstated; ultimately, they gathered more than 1,000 signatures. One day, as another teacher supervised Greenberg’s class, some students signed the petition. The parents who’d originally objected filed a second complaint, this time for harassment. Within months, the district transferred Greenberg to another school.

Nine years later, as states rush to pass laws banning “critical race theory,” a term that in popular usage on the right has come to mean nearly any curriculum that refers to systemic or structural racism, teachers around the country are wondering whether they’ll meet similar fates. By the end of January, more than 35 states had introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict classroom discussions of race and gender, and at least 14 had passed laws or directives. The content of the laws varies somewhat from place to place. In Tennessee, for example, legislators banned 11 “concepts” from public school instruction. Educators aren’t allowed to promote “division between, or resentment of, a race” or suggest that individuals should feel “discomfort,” “guilt,” or “anguish” because of their race. In Iowa, lawmakers prohibit describing the state or the country as “systemically racist or sexist.”

For teachers, one of the most concerning aspects of the bills is their vagueness. Oklahoma’s law, for example, bans teaching the concept that one race or sex is inherently superior to another, but lawmakers declined to clarify how educators can teach about individuals who subscribed to these supremacist views. Texas’s law says any controversial issue must be taught “in a manner free from political bias” but doesn’t define what counts as controversial. Violating the new rules can bring about steep consequences: Teachers may be fired or lose their licensure; schools’ funding may be cut. Doubtless because the bills offer scant clarity about how one might comply, teachers have already begun self-censoring their lessons out of fear.

Their anxieties are not unfounded. In New Hampshire, the state’s education department created an online form to assist parents and students in filing complaints. The conservative group Moms for Liberty even pledged to pay $500 to the first person who “successfully catches” a New Hampshire teacher breaking the state’s new statute. Incoming Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin announced 10 days into his job that Virginia would offer a tip service for parents “to send us reports and observations” of teachers they believe are misbehaving. A group called Save Texas Kids—dedicated to “fighting CRT and any other form of woke politics”—emailed Dallas teachers asking for names of colleagues promoting critical race theory or “gender fluidity.” In December, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, proposed a bill that would allow parents to sue school districts that permit lessons allegedly rooted in critical race theory, and collect attorney fees for doing so.

For years, the school culture wars were waged over God and prayer, and how and whether to teach evolution and sex. But over the last decade, the fights have turned more toward how we frame our nation’s past, particularly how we characterize America’s histories of racism and colonization, and their relevance to today. In many ways, these debates are much harder to adjudicate; the law provides more clarity on the separation of church and state than on history curricula, and evolutionary theory offers more certainties than the vagaries of historical interpretation. For example, how should educators describe U.S. expansion of the West? Were the settlers bigoted imperialists or courageous pioneers? And is it possible for schools committed to anti-racism to embrace “color blindness,” or is that a contradiction in terms?

Public school theorists have long worried about the consequences of bringing heated matters into class. As far back as 1844, the famed educator Horace Mann warned against it. “If the day ever arrives when the school room shall become a cauldron for the fermentation of all the hot and virulent opinions, in politics and religion, that now agitate our community, that day the fate of our glorious public school system will be sealed, and speedy ruin will overwhelm it,” he wrote. Indeed, if there’s been one constant in the history of U.S. schooling, it’s the suspicion with which local communities respond when their teachers tackle controversial issues.

Parents’ fears notwithstanding, administrators stress that critical race theory is not taught in public schools; they are technically correct. As an academic field, CRT is a relatively obscure discipline that examines how laws and institutions harm or benefit people according to their race and relative power; its study is largely reserved to graduate programs. Yet parents who sense that change is afoot are also not wrong. Certain longstanding assumptions about identity and opportunity are being contested in K-12 classrooms around the nation—the same assumptions contested today in workplaces, in media organizations, and in the halls of Congress. The way these struggles shake out will have everything to do with how much control certain parents are able to exert in school districts and how well teachers can protect their autonomy.

Progressive groups and teacher unions have largely responded to critical race theory attacks with pleas that the public should trust educators to teach honest and accurate history. The appeal sounds reasonable enough, but what it means in practice is far from clear. Should teachers teach all perspectives on every issue? Is such a thing remotely possible within the constraints of a school year? What do young people need to know to thrive in a diverse, globalized, and democratic society? And who should get to decide?


On a Saturday morning in mid-November, just weeks after Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial election by campaigning on “parents’ rights” in education, an earnest and avuncular Colorado Springs high school history teacher named Anton Schulzki addressed a group of fellow teachers at the one hundred and first annual National Council for the Social Studies conference. Schulzki, the president of the council, acknowledged that the social studies curriculum has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, particularly since The New York Times Magazine’s publication of The 1619 Project, a compilation of articles and essays asserting the centrality of slavery to any accurate story of the nation’s founding. “Time and time again,” Schulzki said, “teachers, administrators, and school boards have been accused of somehow indoctrinating their students.”

He noted the irony of history curricula dominating public debate around K-12 schooling when the hours of class time actually afforded to it—particularly at the elementary and middle school levels—have decreased precipitously over the last two decades. The primary result of the new rules passed by states and school boards, Schulzki argued, has been that teachers avoid certain topics altogether. But, he implored, they should try very hard not to. It is a time “for us to stand together in solidarity for social studies,” he said, “to use our collective voices in solidarity against ignorance, injustice, and indifference.”

The pressures around critical race theory shaped many other panel discussions throughout the weeklong virtual conference. One presentation—“Decentering Whiteness: One School District’s Approach”—explored the changes the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest in Minnesota, is making to the history curriculum to reflect the needs of its changing population. Like many other suburban areas, Anoka-Hennepin, which serves a large geographic region just north of Minneapolis that includes liberal inner-ring suburbs, conservative exurbs, and rural countryside, has grown markedly more diverse over the last 15 years; nonwhite students now represent a third of its student body. Some pockets of the district voted for Trump in 2020, others leaned toward Biden. Both the leftist Ilhan Omar and the far-right Tom Emmer represent parents from this area in Congress.

Dan Bordwell, the thick-bearded teaching and learning specialist in his mid-thirties who led the “Decentering Whiteness” presentation, described the work educators have done in his district since 2017 to incorporate more diverse voices into their social studies lessons. When students learn about Brown v. Board of Education, Bordwell asked, do they also learn about Linda Brown, the student who inspired the case, and her family? When they learn about the antebellum period, do they hear perspectives from Black lesbians? With the help of Keith Mayes, a historian of African American studies at the University of Minnesota, Anoka-Hennepin teachers worked to identify where they could “infuse” new discussions of race and racism into their curriculum, while still following Minnesota’s social studies standards, last updated in 2013. Anoka-Hennepin also established an honors-level Black history elective and ramped up professional development aimed at helping teachers incorporate narratives from underrepresented populations. It’s about “telling a more complete picture,” Bordwell explained.

Helping students see themselves in the curriculum, leaders in a growing number of school districts say, will lead to higher academic achievement and deeper learning for all. In 2019, Anoka-Hennepin issued an Equity and Achievement Plan, lending more support to the work its social studies department was already doing to bring perspectives of underrepresented groups to the forefront.

But not all families saw these changes as developments in the right direction. And over the last two years, as parents began mobilizing against the specter of critical race theory, much has changed in the district. In the Anoka-Hennepin Better Together Facebook group, which has more than 550 members, parents fulminate against excessively “woke” teacher trainings and other aspects of student learning. Krissy Erickson, the founder of the Facebook group, told me she started it after the principal of her kindergarten-age son’s school signed a “Good Trouble” pledge with other school principals in the Twin Cities metro. The pledge committed to “de-centering Whiteness” and “dismantling practices that reinforce White academic superiority,” such as tracking students. Erickson, who had never been involved in parent activism before, joked that “the mama bear just recently came out.” At a school board meeting in late August, she announced that she and her fellow parents were “done being bullied into silence” and criticized the “CRT-related ideologies” that have been presented to staff and “directly trickle down into students’ assignments.” Erickson stood “in full support of teachers,” she said, but insisted that “the only real privilege we need to reflect on is the privilege we all have to live here in the United States of America.”

Thousands of other, mostly white, parents across Minnesota have similarly been protesting proposed state social studies standards that for the first time would include ethnic studies as a core component for all students. The standards—which would take effect in 2026—reflect “a relentless fixation with Native American history” and replace “objective historical knowledge … with a fixation on ‘dominant and non-dominant narratives’ and ‘absent voices,’” according to a petition led by the Center of the American Experiment, a local conservative think tank. This past November, Anoka-Hennepin residents elected a school board member, Matt Audette, who ran on a fiercely anti-CRT platform.

Bordwell, whose emails have been subject to FOIA requests by suspicious members of his community, has felt the increased pressure acutely. He submitted the idea for his “Decentering Whiteness” panel in February 2020; had he crafted the pitch a year later, he said, he would likely have proposed a different name for his presentation. “We have teachers who are walking on eggshells worried that they’re going to have a picture taken by a student or parent, that they are going to be unfairly targeted for the work that they’re doing.”

At my request, Erickson asked other parents in her Facebook group what they make of teachers’ fears about retaliation. Some teachers, she told me, are “obvious activists who will stop at nothing to promote their own OPINION.” But she believed that most parents would be satisfied so long as educators are “presenting facts and multiple viewpoints.” Members of her group, she explained, feel that issues of race, sex, and gender have “been thrown at our children from every angle”; they want “to simplify things and get back to education and academia.” As a compromise, Erickson proposed making certain subjects elective, or providing families with a heads-up about unit discussions and allowing them to opt out if they disapprove. In this, she echoed a call common among the anti-CRT cohort, who argue that teachers should alert parents of any plans to include controversial subjects in their curriculum, and even let them review teaching material ahead of time.


If the members of Erickson’s group—and similar parents—are to be taken at their word that they would support the inclusion of multiple viewpoints, they should be reassured by the work of some nonprofit education groups aiming to help teachers tackle controversial issues. One such group is Close Up. Founded in 1971 initially to bring high school students on trips to Washington, D.C., Close Up encourages “deliberation” on heated policy questions as a way of helping students build consensus. A study of its model, published this past summer by professors at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, found that high school students felt more respected in classroom political discussions designed as deliberation rather than debate.

A class using Close Up’s approach might ask, for instance, what policies, if any, are needed to reform police practices. Students would read about the disparities between Black Americans’ encounters with the police when compared to other groups, explore different policy proposals to address the issue—banning the use of neck restraints, for example—and review the arguments supporters and opponents make for each idea. At the end, students would be asked to write about which proposals they favor, which they would change, and which they would reject, and could suggest other proposals.

At least in theory, it’s possible to imagine such an approach satisfying people across the political spectrum. But on certain deeply polarizing issues, such as rights for undocumented immigrants or the place for transgender students in school sports, some on the left have argued that it’s harmful even to have those discussions; normalizing certain perspectives, the thinking goes, can be destructive to the vulnerable people they’re about. And on the right as well, many parents find certain points of view too dangerous to debate; talking about transgender athletes, for example, legitimizes the gender categories these parents patently reject and believe could corrupt their children. Sante Mastriana, a curriculum design manager for Close Up, said the group doesn’t support deliberating on everything; certain topics, like white supremacy or the efficacy of fascism, are off limits. “There are certain arguments which we are not going to entertain as valid,” he told me. Of course, if some subjects are out of bounds, it’s impossible to claim that ideology doesn’t, at some level, govern the choice of study; some administrator somewhere is choosing what to include and what not to. Mastriana said that Close Up’s solution is to rely on multipartisan resources and facts. “Unless it’s the sort of argument that just categorically makes a supposition about the nature of things without actually providing any grounding,” he said, “then it is something probably worth addressing.”

Chris McDuffie, an eighth-grade civics teacher at Heathwood Hall, a private school in South Carolina, uses Close Up materials in his classroom. He likes their “fact-based, middle of the road” format. “I tell kids to wait at least three days, check at least three sources, and to enter a conversation with three pieces of information or three questions before they form an opinion about a current event,” he told me. “No one knows where I fall politically, and I pride myself on that.” But McDuffie, who has been teaching for 21 years, including 12 in public schools, acknowledged that it’s easier to tackle political issues in a private school, where he’s afforded a great deal of autonomy over lessons. When he worked at a public school, some administrators, wary of backlash, didn’t even support teaching current events.

Like the nonprofits, some state school board associations have been encouraging local school districts to better support educators teaching contentious issues, a risky move given the intense politicization of the National School Boards Association in 2021. Last year, the national group compared parents protesting critical race theory at school board meetings to “domestic terrorism,” which led 21 mostly GOP-controlled states to withdraw membership, participation, or dues from the organization. Nevertheless, in late November, in Loudoun County, the northern Virginia region that became a national epicenter of parents’ protesting CRT, school administrators recommended that their school board adopt a policy called “Teaching About Controversial and Sensitive Issues,” based on a model promoted by the Virginia School Boards Association.

Examples of such controversial topics, said Ashley Ellis, Loudoun County’s deputy superintendent for instruction, are slavery, colonization, immigration, and the Holocaust. “Schools are under more scrutiny for what they’re teaching,” Loudoun Now, a local paper, quoted Ellis as saying. “Our teachers have asked for support in how to approach these topics with confidence.” A spokesperson for the district declined to comment on the proposal.

Teacher unions, too, have been exploring ways to support educators who tackle controversial issues. The three million-plus–member National Education Association has been organizing to pass a model school board policy that affirms the value of Black and other ethnic studies courses and pledges to defend teachers who use materials “that incorporate diverse perspectives.” The unions have also been organizing to back candidates in school board elections. “We are preparing and training our educators to be involved in elections of those who have the power and authority to make the decisions,” Becky Pringle, the president of the NEA, told me.

But parents opposed to CRT have likewise stepped up their school board efforts. In 2021, the 1776 Project PAC, a national right-wing group, formed to elect school board members who are committed to “abolishing” critical race theory and The 1619 Project from public school curricula. The group backed 57 candidates across seven states, 41 of whom won. In 2022, its sights are set on 200 additional races.


Some of the current disputes over curricula can be traced to the beginning of the Obama period. The election of the nation’s first Black president led to new cultural and political backlash, including fights over how to teach about American identity in schools. As the education historian Jonathan Zimmerman has observed, critics began labeling ethnic studies courses as “divisive” and “un-American,” and by 2014, groups were lobbying against the College Board’s revised A.P. U.S. history course, which opponents alleged cast U.S. history in too harsh a light. For example, the revised guidelines described the idea of manifest destiny—the nineteenth-century doctrine that said the expansion of the United States throughout North America was both justified and inevitable—as “built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.” The Republican National Committee passed a resolution that year blasting the framework for its reduced focus on the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and U.S. military victories. The framework “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” the RNC said. (A year later, the College Board issued yet another revised framework, filled with edits that successfully quelled its conservative critics.)

Last spring, after state lawmakers began introducing bills banning critical race theory, the left-leaning Zinn Education Project sponsored a Teach the Truth pledge, garnering thousands of signatures from teachers. The National Education Association has its own Pledge to Support Honesty in Education. Both groups argue that CRT critics want teachers to avoid addressing topics like slavery and redlining, but conservatives insist that charge is a lie. Regardless, mainstream history textbooks do cover the nation’s disturbing history of racial violence better than they used to. A content analysis led by education historian Jeffrey Snyder found that leading contemporary texts depict in detail “everything from slave whippings and lynchings to race riots and church bombings.” According to Snyder, “it is not uncommon for textbooks to include even the most grisly of images, such as a photograph of the charred body of seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington, lynched in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916.”

Perhaps the fiercest debate is over whether to teach that the United States has overcome its dark legacy of racial discrimination, or whether, as The 1619 Project suggests, slavery’s harms continue to oppress Black Americans in the present. “White supremacy affects every element of the U.S. education system,” argues Learning for Justice, a national social justice nonprofit that provides free resources to educators and school districts, on the cover of its spring 2021 magazine. In a sponsored session at the National Council for the Social Studies conference—entitled “Teaching Honest History Through Critical Inquiry”—Learning for Justice facilitators asked participants, “How comfortable are you teaching about American enslavement, including the idea that it shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness?” They encouraged educators to avoid interpreting historical texts through a “white, Eurocentric” lens that would perpetuate stereotypes, and instead to teach students “resistant” readings, which in their definition lend themselves to anti-racist interpretation and challenge dominant cultural beliefs.

Part of what makes the fights over how to teach history and social studies so tricky is that, while virtually everyone says they oppose racism, enormous disagreement exists, within the broad left as well as between left and right, about what an ­anti-racist education should look like. Ibram X. Kendi, one of the most influential writers on anti-racism, argues against standardized tests, calling them “the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds.” Others see testing as a key tool for leveling the playing field for marginalized students, allowing them to access opportunity and compete on merit, and they view moves away as discriminatory against Asians, who tend to perform better on the exams. Still others see the very ideas of competition and meritocracy as by-products of white supremacy. Tema Okun, a popular consultant on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, describes “a sense of urgency,” “perfectionism,” and “individualism” as values inherent to white supremacist culture. In Learning for Justice’s spring issue, an educator describing anti-racist teaching voiced a similar opinion: She sees white supremacy wherever there’s a “sense of urgency to meet particular deadlines that don’t necessarily speak to actual student growth.”

The Seattle parents who complained about Courageous Conversation, the curriculum Jonathan Greenberg was punished for incorporating, were not the last family to object to the ideas it encouraged. And even people who broadly agree with including discussions of racism in the classroom might object to certain arguments of Courageous Conversation’s founder, Glenn Singleton. One New York Times Magazine article, for instance, quoted Singleton as saying that valuing writing over other forms of communication is “a hallmark of whiteness” that harms Black students. (Brooke Gregory, the president of Courageous Conversation, argued that most critics of the program haven’t participated and misunderstand its goals. The point, she said, “is not to demonize anyone, it is not to create good and bad or right and wrong, it is to say that all of these voices have a need to be heard and understood.”)

Most parents organizing against critical race theory have been white, but not exclusively. Last spring, Shawntel Cooper, a Black mother of two, testified at a Loudoun County school board meeting that was picked up by national news, and has since spoken out in the media about teacher training materials she finds offensive, like one obtained via FOIA that contrasted “White Individualism” with “Color Group Collectivism.” Cooper said she did not identify with the values ascribed to the “Color Group” side, which didn’t include things like private property and independence. The trainings also asserted that “culturally competent professionals” do not embrace color blindness, and they “accept responsibility” for their own racism and sexism. “I don’t understand how you would not want to ban anything that is this divisive and divides each other because of color,” Cooper said.

When I asked Jalaya Liles Dunn, the director of Learning for Justice, how her group is contending with the possibility that educators will face political backlash if they incorporate their more radical resources, she said her members have been talking with teachers about how to develop materials that won’t get them in trouble. “We’re being really practical about what teachers can and can’t say, and can and can’t do,” she said. “We don’t create a finished product and say ‘This is what teachers need’…. They know what they need, they’re on the front lines.”


The claims of parents in Erickson’s Facebook group notwithstanding, the idea that concerned communities might be satisfied by teachers presenting multiple viewpoints on thorny subjects is not borne out by history. Even before the wave of anti–critical race theory bills, most public schools throughout our nation’s past have shied away from teaching controversial issues. In The Case for Contention (2017), co-authors Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson, a philosopher of education, note that, in general, communities have not wanted their schools to present “both sides” of an issue, much preferring teachers to reinforce local norms. Indeed, “the most significant restriction” on public school teachers tackling controversial issues, Zimmerman and Robertson conclude, has always been the public itself. Educators, who keenly feel this distrust, have generally chosen to stick to topics they believe will agitate no one.

The law offers K-12 teachers who do suffer backlash little protection. It’s been more than 50 years since the high point for teachers’ free speech. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision concluding that loyalty oaths, including anti-communist pledges, violated educators’ First Amendment rights. In 1968, the court ruled in favor of Marvin Pickering, a teacher who had written a letter to his local paper opposing a tax levy decision made by his school board and criticizing the board’s tendency to allocate funds to sports over academics. The board fired Pickering, but since his letter didn’t criticize the school employees with whom he worked on a daily basis and pertained to a matter of public concern, the court said his speech should be protected. And in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in its famous Tinker v. Des Moines decision that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Since then, however, the courts have largely retreated from protecting teacher free speech at the K-12 level, both inside and outside the classroom. In 2006, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that when public employees speak in the context of their jobs, they’re “not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes,” and thus should not be insulated from employer discipline. Less than a year later, the Seventh Circuit upheld the firing of an Indiana schoolteacher who told her class that she had honked in response to a HONK FOR PEACE sign protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq and she believed in peaceful solutions to conflict. “The school system does not ‘regulate’ teachers’ speech as much as it hires that speech,” the court ruled, asserting that she could not cover topics or advocate perspectives in class that depart from what the local school board approves.

There are nearly 14,000 K-12 public school districts across the United States, and almost all are governed by locally elected school boards. Turnout in these elections is notoriously low, often just 5 or 10 percent of eligible voters. Nonetheless, these representatives are legally empowered to set policy on virtually everything related to their schools, from budgets and bus schedules to curriculum and enrollment boundaries. The major limitation on their authority comes from state lawmakers, who can impose obligations on local districts to do with school vaccinations, standardized testing, or, of course, new rules curtailing discussions of race.

“The fact of the matter is we work with a captive audience,” said Steven Cullison, a high school economics teacher, in a National Council for the Social Studies presentation he led about free speech. “That is, the law requires students to come to school, and what’s more, we require the community to pay for it. That means that the community has a right to far greater say in what occurs in a public K-12 school than, say, in a college or in a private school.” Speaking this fall on a podcast, Alice O’Brien, the general counsel for the National Education Association, told educators that if they work in a state that passes a law against teaching that the United States is systemically racist, they must be particularly careful about how they craft curricula and answer student questions. “I wish I didn’t have to say that,” she said. “But the fact is we do have members who have gotten in trouble for appearing to promote a viewpoint in their classroom that is at odds with that prohibition.”

If educators cannot deny the stake lawmakers, parents, and other community members have in shaping school curriculum, political leaders certainly question parents’ interest at their peril, as Terry McAuliffe discovered this past fall in his failed Virginia gubernatorial bid. In a late September campaign debate, McAuliffe said a few words he would never live down. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” he announced. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” In the closing weeks of the race, Youngkin’s campaign made those remarks a centerpiece, running ads and circulating petitions proclaiming that “Parents Matter.” Post-election public opinion research showed that McAuliffe’s comments were highly influential, including among Biden voters who cast their ballots for Youngkin.

Though the fact often gets lost in contemporary media coverage, it’s never been only conservative parents who have disputed what’s taught in schools. Throughout the twentieth century, Black parents, with the assistance of the National Urban League and the NAACP, challenged school boards and book publishers about racist passages that they found in textbooks. The advent of ethnic studies courses, too, was driven by families pressuring their local leaders for more equitable representation in the classroom.

Perhaps surprisingly, not just parents think parents should have a say in curricula. In November, in a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of district administrators and teachers, 63 percent of respondents said local parents should be involved in selecting the curriculum and materials, even though just 31 percent said parents are involved. And while it may be because they are so eager to avoid fights and criticism, more than 50 percent of educators said they supported letting parents opt their children out of classes, curricula, or units they disapprove of; 25 percent even said they “completely support” the idea.


In 2013, following the news that Greenberg would be transferred to another Seattle school, fellow teachers and former and current students rallied to his defense, shocked by how quickly administrators had caved to the grievances of a single family. More than 100 of his supporters showed up to a Seattle school board meeting decked out in green clothes, and at the school’s graduation ceremony that year, a senior delivered a speech demanding Greenberg’s reinstatement, after which his peers opened their gowns to reveal shirts with the letter “G” on chest plates. Although Greenberg was forced to spend the next year working at a middle school, an arbitrator eventually ruled that the school district had inappropriately used a transfer to punish him, and permitted him to return to his old job.

Greenberg, who still teaches high school civics in Seattle, has noticed changes in his two-plus decades in the classroom. “Students are so much more aware of systemic oppression than they used to be,” he remarked. When he used to ask his classes why people were poor, teens tended to invoke individual choice. “Now there’s a reluctancy to even mention individual choices,” he said. “I credit Black Lives Matter with so much of that. Back in the day, I might have just been happy to even discuss the concept of ‘white privilege’ with my class—now I feel like it’s not even a debate.”

Few teachers today, though, feel confident that they’d get their jobs back if they got on a parent’s bad side, and Greenberg himself suspects that his own race and gender played a role in the community’s defense of him. “I certainly feel like educators of color who get persecuted don’t get that showing of support,” he told me.

Keith Mayes, the University of Minnesota historian who helped Anoka-Hennepin social studies teachers include more Black history, sees community backlash to critical race theory as just a “foot in the door,” the first step in a project to eventually go after ethnic studies courses, racial equity initiatives, and broader discussions of racism. While he recognizes that the fear educators experience is real, Mayes thinks that what is most needed is backbone. “The real question will be how well-meaning white teachers and administrators stand up to this opposition,” he said. “That’s the fundamental question, and I’m always watching that.” Teachers, after all, are members of their communities, too; they can elect candidates for school board, testify at meetings, and advocate collectively for their interests.

In the end, as communities continue to spar, it will be students who pay the price for the laws, rules, and cultural pressures that deter educators from tackling so-called divisive subjects. A wealth of research, from both nationally representative samples of schools and individual schools, has shown that students who are encouraged to discuss controversial issues are more likely to develop civic tolerance, political interests, a sense of civic duty, and expectations of voting than their peers without similar classroom experiences. Teachers “cannot simply be mouthpieces for the state nor conduits for the majority beliefs in the local community,” Zimmerman and Robertson argue. But are we willing, on the left or the right, for teachers to be anything else?

As States Build Barriers to Racial Justice Teaching, Educators Fight Back

Originally published in Rethinking Schools on January 3, 2022.
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Heather Smith is a middle school technology teacher in Youngstown, Ohio. In late May she watched in horror as Republicans introduced House Bill 322, legislation that would restrict how educators like her could teach about racism.

“No teacher or school administrator . . . shall approve for use, make use of, or carry out standards, curricula, lesson plans, textbooks [or] instructional materials” that suggest “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States,” the bill read.

Backed by national conservative organizations, more than 25 other states have introduced similar bills that would require educators to pare down or even eliminate their lessons around systemic racism. As of December, nine of those states — Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Arizona, and South Carolina — had enacted their bills into law. In other states, including Florida, Georgia, and Utah, state education boards have introduced guidelines and resolutions to restrict teaching about racism in schools.

The advent of legislation and rumblings of more to come have created an intimidating environment for educators, who already felt embattled after a year of pandemic teaching. Threats of legal retribution abound. In New Hampshire, the conservative group Moms for Liberty pledged in November to pay $500 to the first person who could catch a public school educator “breaking” their new state law. In December, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced a bill to allow parents to sue school districts that teach lessons about race they object to.

In response to the new rules and guidelines, district administrators have started pulling books from school libraries and reconsidering what educators can permissibly say in their classrooms. In October, one Florida school district ordered the removal of a 5th-grade reading text that depicted a child and father attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Atlanta in 2020. The school district required it be replaced with a narrative that was similarly constructed but that took place in 1963 instead, during a Civil Rights Movement march. The contemporary anecdote “contained content that may be controversial and in conflict with [Florida Department of Education] requirements,” the school district wrote in a letter to parents. The problem with the text, in other words, was the suggestion that racism is not confined to the past.

Recognizing the danger this sort of censorship poses to students and society, teachers nationwide have been standing up to register their resistance and solidarity, organizing rallies, supporting school board candidates who reject these bills, and doubling down on their own efforts to learn and teach about race.

Pledging to “Teach Truth” Across the Country
When Smith heard about the national day of action educators were organizing on June 12 in response to these types of bills, she felt relief, and looked to find something local she could attend. But when she realized that no one was planning anything in Youngstown, she thought, “Well, why don’t I just try to do it myself?”

She reached out to Penny Wells, the director of the Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, which takes high school students on immersion trips to southern Civil Rights Movement landmarks. The Zinn Education Project (coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change) had called for the day of action, and was encouraging organizers to hold events at the kinds of historic sites that teachers would have to lie about or omit entirely from their curriculum if the oppressive bills became law. So in Youngstown, Smith and Wells invited activists to gather at a local swimming pool that was segregated throughout the 1940s. At the rally, they explored the history of segregated pools and an Ohio State Board of Education member, despite what the state legislature was doing, read the board’s official resolution against racism and hate.

Smith is not alone in feeling the pull of action and responsibility. In Providence, Rhode Island, 3rd-grade teacher Lindsay Paiva felt worried as Republicans introduced House Bill 6070 in her state legislature — to ban teaching so-called “divisive topics” in public schools. Although the bill ultimately died in committee, conservative groups have continued to organize for its reintroduction. So when Paiva saw the call to action for educators in June, she too felt compelled to organize. They held their local rally at the DeWolf Tavern in Bristol, which formerly held enslaved people between auctions. Michael Rebne, a teacher in Kansas City, Kansas, heeded the call too, and with his chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice helped organize a roughly three-mile march of educators from a historically Black high school to the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, Missouri. “We wanted our rally to be a message to push back against all the white parents and community members in the suburbs who have been protesting CRT [critical race theory] at school board meetings,” he explained.

Rebecca Coven and Ari Abraham, two Chicago educators, teamed up to plan a local rally in late August with the support of the Chicago Teachers Union. Their city has a strong community of anti-racist activists, and Illinois is doing far better than most states in encouraging inclusive curriculum. This past July, Democratic Gov. J. B. Pritzker signed the first law in the nation requiring public schools to teach Asian American history, and a month later he signed another bill to ensure that contributions of LGBTQ+ people are represented in classrooms. Still, Coven said, there is not always enough time and resources for educators looking to teach about systemic racism.

“In Chicago, what we wanted to do was stand in solidarity with fellow educators who live in states that are fighting bans on teaching truth, and we also wanted to create a community of educators here who are committed publicly to teaching truth and empowering our students,” Coven explained. They gathered together at the 1919 Chicago Race Riot marker, near where Eugene Williams, a Black teenager, was stoned to death by a white man while he was swimming in Lake Michigan. Coven herself made a pledge that day to not only teach the difficult parts of U.S. history, but also to teach more about joy and resistance among Black people, Indigenous communities, and other individuals of color. “Education can be a tool for liberation by centering our shared humanity,” she said. “But our schools don’t spend as much time as they should uplifting our students and the contributions of people who look like them.”

Like Coven and Abraham in Chicago, Lena Amick, a high school teacher in Maryland, also felt it was necessary to help organize an event in a blue state. “Not because there’s a huge threat of those anti-CRT laws happening in Maryland but because the rhetoric behind those laws is what’s dangerous in this area,” Amick said. “The rhetoric is just one more tool used to undermine public education and undercut teacher autonomy.” About 70 people attended her local Teach Truth rally, where they gathered near the historic East Towson neighborhood, a community founded by formerly enslaved peoples in the 1850s.

Fighting Back Against a History of Classroom Censorship
The contemporary wave of bills attacking teaching about systemic racism and so-called “divisive topics” is not, by any means, the first time that educators committed to social justice have had to battle efforts to censor content in the classroom.

Back in the 1930s, conservative groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution ginned up opposition to leading school textbooks that encouraged exploration of American racism, exploitation, and inequality. (Anti-capitalist critiques had grown more prevalent and pronounced following the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression.) In the 1950s, conservative groups like the American Legion and National Council for American Education targeted so-called “unpatriotic” textbooks and teachers, accusing educators throughout the McCarthy era of teaching students disloyalty. Fights around textbooks and appropriate curriculum grew even more contentious in the years following desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

But educators don’t have to look back decades to find antecedents to the most recent backlash. More recently has been the wars around ethnic studies, which sparked major resistance beginning in 2010, when conservative Arizona lawmakers banned the Mexican American ethnic studies program in Tucson public schools. (The Rethinking Schools publication Rethinking Columbus was one of the banned books.) The lawmakers claimed the program had “radicalized” and “indoctrinated” students. In fact, the objections to ethnic studies then sounded almost identical to critiques leveled at “critical race theory” today: that the curriculum makes white students feel bad about themselves, that the lessons are too focused on race, that the material should be taught only at the college level.

The Tucson ethnic studies program launched in 1998, and efforts to shut it down ended up galvanizing new efforts to promote similar programs across the country. In 2020, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1010, which will require every public school student in California to take an ethnic studies course before graduating.

Momentum to diversify teaching, pursue equity initiatives, and push ethnic studies further accelerated during the Trump era, when immigrants faced heightened threats of deportation and the movement to end police brutality against Black Americans picked up steam.

Many teachers point to September 2020 as a turning point, when Trump attacked the New York Times’ 1619 Project, calling it a “crusade against American history” that “will destroy our country.” He kept up his public criticisms, and shortly before he left office in January 2021, he established a commission to counter the idea that “the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.”

Following his lead, state lawmakers began introducing their bills targeting educators last spring. More than 7,500 educators responded in turn by signing the Zinn Education Project’s Pledge to Teach the Truth. The pledge endorses Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Pledge signers also promise to “refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events.”

Signing that pledge carried consequences for some teachers. The Daily Wire, a conservative news outlet, reported on the pledge and call for action, and numerous educators who signed publicly said they were subjected to harassment, intimidation, and physical threats. Other teachers and administrators have resigned or been threatened with firing over the last year due to their classroom lessons and public advocacy.

Jennifer Lee, a high school educator in Killeen, Texas, worked to support teachers in her state who faced threats from The Daily Wire’s attention. Lee spoke with educators facing retribution and encouraged them to contact the Texas State Teachers Association, her teacher organization and the state affiliate of the National Education Association. “One Texas teacher got a letter from her superintendent saying that they did not appreciate her signing the Teach Truth pledge, and so we talked through the process to join TSTA,” Lee said. The organization, as well as its parent union and the American Federation of Teachers, have all promised to defend educators who face punishment for doing their fundamental jobs.

Lee herself has also been organizing local rallies in defense of teaching un-sanitized history. She describes her community as “very Republican” and “passionate about certain kinds of history” — namely Confederate history. In her town of Killeen, there have been multiple protests dedicated to keeping Confederate statutes up.

Given this local context, Lee and her colleagues decided to organize a Teach Truth rally in front of their county courthouse, where a Confederate monument still stands on the lawn. Lee acknowledged that those in favor of Confederate memorabilia also use the “teach truth” language in their advocacy. “They would say they also want history to be taught but correctly,” she said. “Correctly to them means that you don’t bash slave owners.”

As summer break transitioned into the fall, some activist teachers acknowledged that the new school year brought about barriers to organizing against attacks on anti-racist teaching, especially as educators contended with new staff shortages and shoddy COVID-19 safety protocols.

“When our governor put a mask mandate ban in place — even as COVID cases were skyrocketing — our organizing energy shifted to that,” said Lee. Still, the group of Texas activists who came together over the summer to organize their rally has not dissolved. “We now have a Facebook page, we have Zoom meetings, a group text, and we can pivot again [after COVID-19] to other things,” Lee said.

Paiva, in Rhode Island, also said educators have had to slow their work down since the new school year started. “There’s a lot of school-based organizing that pops back up and union organizing also resumes,” she said. Amick in Maryland highlighted the additional barrier of burnout. “Our staffing shortage has forced us all into enormous stress this year,” she said. “When you literally do not have enough adults to put into the classrooms with the students, you start to lose valuable time and energy.”

Study Groups and School Boards
Yet another avenue educators have embraced to register their resistance has been through study groups. Teachers are joining new study groups and attending online classes and professional development focused on deepening their commitments to racial justice.

Rebne from Kansas is involved with one of the Zinn Education Project’s Teaching for Black Lives study groups, which explore anti-racist perspectives to teaching. His cohort is using the associated readings to plan the first Black Lives Matter Week of Action at their high school, organized in collaboration with student groups and the student council.

Rebne says his own learning has made him a more conscious educator during periods like Thanksgiving. “Even in physics class, we spend some time dispelling these myths and featuring Indigenous mathematicians and scientists,” he said, adding there’s also now a greater focus on connections between racism and the underrepresentation of people of color in STEM fields.

Amelia Haynes Wheeler, a former public school teacher who is now a graduate student in the Social Studies Education program at the University of Georgia, helped plan a new series of professional development modules this year for teachers called “Teach the Truth Thursdays.” The sessions consisted of eight weekly workshops hosted by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, a civil rights nonprofit, and Haynes Wheeler helped design the curriculum. Their goal, she said, is to support classroom teachers “in whatever place they are in their journey to become anti-racist educators.” A similar series is being planned for the spring.

School board elections are another ripe domain for organizing. Earlier this year the 1776 Project PAC, a right-wing national group, formed to elect school board members who oppose critical race theory, racial justice teaching, and lessons that could make white students feel uncomfortable. Any endorsee from this group must agree to restore “honest, patriotic education that cultivates in our children a profound love for our country.” Rebne and his colleagues have been working to support school board challengers who reject these ideas, though it’s been something of an uphill climb. In November, seven of the 10 Kansas candidates the 1776 Project PAC backed won their elections.

In New York, Vanessa Spiegel has also been keeping her pulse on upcoming school board elections. Like many educators, Spiegel reflected during the pandemic about what role she could play in the movement for racial justice. “As a teacher in a New York City Title I school, it was easy to think I was doing enough just by showing up at work,” she said. “But I realized that I needed to be more affirming and purposeful in my efforts to fight racism.”

In her home community of Westchester, Spiegel began organizing other parents to counter the rhetoric coming from Save Our Schools for Westchester Children — a parent group formed to fight lessons about systemic racism. Spiegel is a founding member of Teach the Truth – Westchester, which helps mobilize parents to support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in local schools. “In Westchester it really runs the gamut of very liberal and very conservative school districts, and I think I was living in a bubble before that these attacks [on anti-racist teaching] couldn’t happen here,” she said.

Pushing Forward for Students
Anthony Downer, a teacher in Atlanta, is optimistic about the future of educator and student organizing for racial justice, but acknowledged the consequences for teachers doing so right now are real. Downer, who emerged as a leader in his former school district in Gwinnett County, Georgia, advocating for initiatives like more culturally responsive courses, anti-racist professional development, and restorative justice training, was not invited back to teach this year. He’s happy now in Atlanta Public Schools but was discouraged by what he felt was the message the Gwinnett leadership sent.

“I’ve been hesitant to share my story because I don’t want educators to be scared off, and my story is the ultimate fear,” he said. “This is why teachers worry about getting involved. We need more assurances that we won’t lose our jobs.” Downer says he remains hopeful nonetheless, because “so many teachers are saying ‘I’m going to organize anyway, come hell or high water.’” Activists in Georgia are now looking to push local school boards to pass more job protections for educators like Downer, and they have their eyes long term on the state level to push new requirements around multicultural curriculum.

Georgia so far has not passed a law restricting the teaching of racism and other “divisive” topics, but Republican Gov. Brian Kemp urged the Georgia Department of Education to get involved. In response, in June 2021 the state board passed a non-binding resolution declaring that the United States and Georgia are not racist. The resolution also says students should not be taught that racism or slavery are anything but exceptions to the country’s “authentic founding principles” — language echoed in other statutes, including Ohio’s House Bill 322.

Haynes Wheeler said the Georgia resolution has had a chilling effect on her friends teaching in predominantly white, affluent school districts. “Though the resolution is not law, the discourse they’re hearing from administrators is very much emphasizing that so-called ‘neutrality’ is the gold standard for teaching,” she said. “Parents have a tremendous amount of influence and teachers are told no one should know their own political beliefs. All it would take is for one kid to go home and say a teacher made them feel uncomfortable and it then blow up and the teacher receive very little support.”

In other Georgia school districts though, Haynes Wheeler says there’s been “a doubling down” of teaching about racism in the face of the state resolution. Dawn Bolton, a middle school teacher in Decatur, is one such Georgia educator doubling down. She says even with the state board resolution, she’s not afraid to lead real conversations about racism in her classroom. “I feel fortunate that in the city schools of Decatur, we are given a certain amount of autonomy to teach the truth,” she said. “I know that’s a rarity, for teachers in other districts.”

A critical role Bolton sees for herself in this moment is helping young people learn how to effectively fight for their rights and for change. “It’s important to me to teach students how to identify issues and have the courage to address them in an intelligent and informed way,” she said. “Because this orbit of discrimination and inequity and racial bias is just picking up velocity — it’s just spiraling — and I think as adults we even sometimes forget that.”

Ultimately these efforts of resistance and solidarity by teachers are in the service of students, who see the daily battles around racism and history reflected in their own lives. Bolton and Downer both say they’ve noticed new energy in their classrooms, with students asking new kinds of urgent questions about race and equity. “Students are standing up independently of us educators,” said Downer.

Bolton’s goal, she stressed, is to let students know that adults are here to support them as they navigate an unjust world. “The thing is, we adults need them as well,” she said. “But students need to know they don’t have to stand alone.”