When looking for models of ambitious inspiration, Americans often hearken back to President John F. Kennedy’s “moonshot” address at Rice University on September 12, 1962:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.
At this time of pessimism and deep division in our country, it often feels like we have no choice but to look back sixty years to resurrect the sense of optimism and unity that was generated when Kennedy catapulted our collective imagination by setting the goal for America to be the first nation to send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth.
Yet in just the last six months, two equally, if not more, inspiring “moonshots” have been achieved, one in space and the other here on earth. On July 11, 2021, Virgin Galactic launched fifty miles into space a small rocket plane, named V.S.S. Unity, that carried six people—two pilots, David Mackay and Michael Masucci, and four passengers, including the CEO of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson. For nearly two decades, Branson has worked towards the dream to make safe, commercial air travel to and from space a routine and affordable adventure for private citizens. This inaugural trip makes Branson’s dream achievable within our own lifetimes.
Here on earth, our planet has been gripped by a Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than four million people worldwide during the last eighteen months. In a college commencement speech, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla explained how he had to mobilize his team of scientists, engineers, researchers, and distributors to “think far out of the box and design completely new ways of working” to craft an effective vaccine:
If we had asked our scientists to find ways to develop the vaccine in eight years instead of the ten that it usually takes, they would have found it very difficult and likely would have tried to achieve it by improving the existing process.... But we asked them to do it in eight months, not eight years.
And if we had asked our engineers to manufacture 250 million doses within a year, they would try to do it by improving the way we already work. But we asked them to make two and a half billion doses. Both groups recognized immediately that simply making improvements wouldn’t bring them even close to achieving these goals.
Much of the reason all of us are now able to walk mask-free, see and hug our families, and even contemplate fully reopening schools is because of the utter audacity of the goals set by Bourla and the relentless pursuit of his team to achieve them.
The innovation doesn’t end there. We are on the verge of all-electric air mobility that makes possible a “service that will combine the ease of conventional ridesharing with the power of flight.” Breakthroughs in the battle against climate change, strengthening the global food supply chain, and continued discoveries in artificial intelligence all hold within them the promise to make the lives of millions of Americans safer, healthier, and more upwardly mobile.
With these prospects, it should be a phenomenal time to be an educator because we have the solemn and exciting responsibility to ensure the rising generation of preK–12 students are prepared to be leaders and active participants in this world of innovation. Yet more often than not, educators are mired in one or another academic brouhaha, with the latest hullabaloo dominated by critical race theory. The intense focus on critical race theory has become the latest and massive distraction to the decades-long literacy crisis that is truly subverting the life prospects of children of all races, as I argued in a C-SPAN discussion with a Bryn Mawr professor who is a CRT advocate.
Yet the only way to make progress on the issue is to have constructive dialogue on how best to move forward. Sharif El-Mekki and I had the opportunity to speak about the topic at the National Charter School Conference, and we appreciate Andy Rotherham’s offer to provide an opportunity to share our thoughts via Eduwonk, where this was first published.
Since it seems that most discussions regarding critical race theory are hampered because there isn’t even a common definition, I ground my thoughts in the meaning provided by two of CRT’s intellectual architects, Richard Delgado and Jeanne Stefancic. In the Foreword of their co-authored book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Delgado and Stefancic write, “Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”
I, for one, am opposed to an ideology that, by definition, questions equality theory that encompasses equal rights, equal protection under the law, and equality of opportunity. I choose to work every day and run schools to make those ideals true for every American, especially given the country’s scarred history when “equality theory” was not true in practice for people of all races. But the answer, as some state laws are sometimes falsely accused of doing, is not to ban critical race theory (as you wouldn’t ban the teaching of communism). Rather, expose it as one of several frameworks through which to evaluate laws and history. Those who want to “question the very foundations of the liberal order,” should be given the floor to make that argument. Simultaneously, they must be enjoined by those like me who want to protect the principles that critical race theory, by definition, repudiates—such as equality theory and neutral principles of constitutional law.
Given the sophisticated nature of these concepts, I think this type of CRT debate happens best in higher education, and not as indoctrination nor inaccessible content in K–12 classrooms. Within K–12 however, disturbing practices associated with critical race theory should be addressed. For example, Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, has created a fund for her union to “defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history.” If a teacher were somehow barred from teaching about racism, slavery and Jim Crow, and the incredible American story of emancipation and progress in their aftermath, then obviously the school leadership should be penalized. Though it has to be said: If Ms. Weingarten genuinely wants to improve the outcomes of kids, she should reverse her organization’s fierce and longstanding opposition to school choice and public charter schools, and instead empower low-income families with the power to select the best education for their child.
Where I get concerned is if in the real world, practices related to critical race theory, or anti-racism, result in actions that violate the equal protection clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that already prohibit discrimination on the basis of race. For example, a teacher in Evanston, Illinois is suing her district on the basis that “its race-conscious training, policies, and curriculum violate federal law through ‘conditioning individuals to see each other’s skin color first and foremost, then pitting different racial groups against each other.’” Among the discriminatory actions the Evanston district is accused of using are privilege walks in which kids are lined up horizontally. White kids are told to take three steps forward because they are White and Black kids are told to take five steps backward because they are Black.
Equally noxious is either coerced speech or suppressed speech associated with CRT that would violate the First Amendment. In a federal lawsuit, a Nevada charter school is being sued for violating a “high school senior’s First Amendment rights by ‘repeatedly compelling his speech involving intimate matters of race, gender, sexuality, and religion’ during a required civics class.”
We should all stay abreast of these legal challenges and their ultimate judgments. Yet while all of this legal maneuvering is happening, America’s literacy crisis rages on, now even further worsened by eighteen months of inadequate schooling. This is especially true in low-income communities in which remote learning was far from sufficient. It is still the raw truth that barely one-third of all American kids are reading at NAEP proficiency levels. In my next post, I will focus on how a decades-long obsession with closing the racial achievement gap, and more recently the fight to achieve “racial equity,” has not only not closed the racial achievement gap, it has also not materially improved reading outcomes for kids of all races.
However, there is one area in which the need to teach broader history can align with the effort to address the nation’s literacy crisis. I think most people can agree that all kids should learn a more complete history of the United States through more content-rich curricula. It is unfortunate that recent offerings like the New York Times 1619 Project, before clandestinely scrubbing their content, falsely claimed that America’s true founding was 1619, not 1776, and that the primary reason the American Revolution was fought was to defend slavery. That said, the 1619 Project can be credited with revealing strong interest in materials that offer a more accurate telling of the African-American experience in the United States. There are empowering new alternatives.
Reconstruction, a new offering from former D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson, was “created to show our kids that they are descendants of powerful, creative, and resilient ancestors whose contributions permeate every aspect of life across the globe; and that they too are called to contribute to this rich legacy.” There is also the freely available curriculum from 1776 Unites, an initiative founded by the legendary Bob Woodson that maintains a special focus on voices in the Black community who celebrate Black excellence, reject victimhood culture, and showcase the millions of Black Americans who have prospered by embracing the founding ideals of America. The curriculum, which features lessons on The Rosenwald Schools and other lesser known stories of Black resiliency in the face of adversity, has been downloaded more than 15,000 times by teachers in all fifty states, and is now being taught in public, private, and parochial schools, afterschool programs, prison ministries, via homeschooling, and anywhere character formation is happening with children.
I will close by going back to the commencement speech of Albert Bourla, who quoted from Aristotle when he said, “Our problem is not that we aim too high and miss. Our problem is that we aim too low and hit.” Let’s hope we as education leaders can join together to find productive ways to not only to teach America’s full history, warts and all, but perhaps more importantly, prepare students of all races to aim high and be ready to help achieve the ambitious new goals being set for America’s future.
Editor’s note: This was first published on Bellwether Education’s Eduwonk blog as part of a conversation between Ian Rowe and Sharif El-Mekki about what we’re actually talking about when we talk about race in the classroom.