Some call it 'teaching history,' others call it 'indoctrination,' and the fight is far from over
In August, North Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson published a report entitled, ‘Indoctrination in Public Education.’ The report includes praise for Brunswick County Schools and criticism of New Hanover County Schools. WHQR checked in with some local school leaders about how they’re feeling in this new climate.
These are some of the comments from audience members at the July 13th, 2021 New Hanover County school board meeting -- the one that ended abruptly for a lack of decorum. They speak to the passionate, divisive climate around the issue of teaching race and history in schools
- “Teachers should not use their platform and access to kids to teach them political ideologies.”
- “Start teaching them things like science, math, and reading and writing, not to teach things like this critical race theory. This bull... it’s garbage.”
- “So I believe that vague and generalized concepts in these standards leave the door wide open for our schools to abuse the teaching of civics and history by using that time to end space to teach social-emotional learning.”
- “And just so we know the truth, Africans sent their African brothers and sisters to other countries, Muslim countries...”
This is part of the climate in which North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson created the F.A.C.T.S. task force — which stands for fairness and accountability in the classroom for teachers and students. For the task force’s report, over 500 submissions from parents, students, teachers, and administrators were collected from around the state.
These included complaints about the teaching of critical race theory, biased lesson plans against conservative viewpoints, and white shaming.
Robinson said at his August 24 press conference for the unveiling of the report, “it's not a question of if this is happening. It is happening. This report is the beginning. The beginning of taking a serious look at what's going on inside our public schools.”
Among those who joined him at the conference were State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, Senator Michael Lee, and Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger. Berger spoke about what he believed was at the core of the report.
“It has nothing to do with teaching about our country's ugly past. Students must learn about slavery, the Wilmington massacre and race riots, Jim Crow, redlining, and everything else. It's part of our history, and it must be told, critical race theory warps that history and twists it into a worldview that sees everything and everybody always through the lens of race, a doctrine that teaches quote, ‘the only remedy for past discrimination is present discrimination.’ That's what we're pushing back against,” said Berger.
Both New Hanover and Brunswick County school officials have made statements that they do not teach critical race theory in the classroom -- a theory that academics say is a tool to analyze how race functions in the country’s institutions.
Stefanie Adams is one of those officials. She’s the Chair of the New Hanover County School Board.
“History is history. Even if it doesn't feel comfortable, and I often say we have to be on we have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Just because history doesn't say the things that you want it to say. It doesn't mean we can ignore it. Again, New Hanover County Schools does not teach critical race theory. We follow North Carolina standards for social studies. That is the curriculum, encouraging conversations around equity, encouraging conversations around history, as it is truly,” said Adams.
But over in Brunswick County, the school board passed a policy in June that specifically prohibits the teaching of critical race theory. Steven Barger is the vice-chair of the board.
“And what we did was made some modifications to Policy 7720, to prevent the personal bias from being put into the education. [...] There was a lot of concern from the community, and some of it was fear, and some of it was absolutely legitimate concern over what was possibly being taught, or what could be taught,” said Barger.
And as part of this updated policy, Barger said the intent of the board was to have community members officially report any incidents of bias teaching: “But basically, it's similar to our bullying reporting, that we already have in our school system. So it will be an online form, so folks can make their concerns known.”
But since the policy update passed in June, Barger said he hasn’t heard of any of these reports coming through -- and he said even if someone makes a report, that doesn’t mean that after it’s reviewed, the school system will act on it.
And Barger said that Brunswick County Schools does value social-emotion learning (SEL) and that, “the war on SEL is unfortunate because it was started to assist our at-risk students, and I don’t want to see it go away because of political highjacking. We need politics to get out of public education.”
Stefanie Adams said as far as the New Hanover board goes, there are no plans to formalize a policy that specifically prohibits CRT, but “If a parent or community member has experienced what they believe is indoctrination, or they feel it is something that supports critical race theory, I encourage all of them to submit them to the district, talk to your principal. And if there is a situation it is going to be reviewed, it is going to be looked at, but we are not aware of those things going on in the classroom. But if you see them, and that is your perception, please share it with your principal, and it will be run off the chain.”
And she said she values the work of equity, diversity, and inclusion, “Our world is changing. And our students are going to go out into a global workforce, at some point, they are going to be working with people that are different than them, whether it's different learning styles, different races, different religious beliefs, different sexual orientation, our children are surrounded by differences. And that's not going away."
Stephen Jones is an AP World History teacher at Hoggard High School. During his 14-year tenure, he’s taught U.S. History and Civics and Economics. He said the current political climate is not changing the way he teaches.
“But I like students to think freely as possible. So the way I teach, I mean, I love this country, and I don't really know an educator who doesn't, but a historian really isn't worth their weight, if they don't strive to be honest about history. And that means discussing those things that make America exceptional. But it also means delving into those low moments warts and all,” said Jones.
And Jones said a way to change the divisiveness in the community is to become more connected with one another.
“A nation should be viewed in the same way we see family, and our personal self, it's not disloyal to reflect on our mistakes, to acknowledge the truth, even ugly truth. It's really how we improve ourselves and move forward. And it's the straightest line to a better world. So as a historian and instructor, objective teaching of history is the only way to achieve this,” said Jones.
He added that “And some people don't like to hear negative things about anything related to the nation, and I find that more jingoistic than really patriotic.”
But what some call ‘teaching history,’ others call ‘indoctrination.’
In the lieutenant governor’s report, there were two New Hanover County Schools tweets from 2019 that were listed as examples of indoctrination. One was about holding implicit bias training, the other, a book study on ‘Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain’. Board Chair Stefanie Adams said she stands by those efforts.
“I think they're examples of open conversations. Bias is actually something that the brain does. That is science, that is not about the culture, that is not about equity, that is not about the words that everyone seems scared of right now or is questioning. We have an open dialogue in New Hanover County Schools, we want our students to be critical thinkers and think outside the box,” said Adams.
Jones said there needs to be some reflection on the part of those engaging in this discourse: “I would love it if we had a national dialogue, a real national dialogue, somehow, someway where we could work through things so that we're not so suspicious of the other side.”
Chair Adams said this controversy over social studies standards and CRT is wearing on teachers, "[They] have been through a lot over the past 18 months, and a lot of that has generated because of the pandemic. They have had to move into remote learning; they've moved into hybrid learning; they've moved back to in-person learning. It's been a lot, and to layer a conversation around critical race theory, which they are not teaching, it definitely complicates things.”
And this dialogue is continuing to strain local school boards — last week the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking for help from federal law enforcement to quell confrontations at meetings over things like masks and CRT.
Board Chair Adams also said she acknowledges that discussions have been heated but said she values hearing from constituents.
“And I think that you know, it's a very volatile time in our community, and I will continue to listen. However, disrespect and any type of behavior that is impeding governmental processes at board meetings will not be tolerated. And we will have to draw a line if it goes over it. You know, I always welcome respectful dialogue,” said Adams.
Even if that dialogue remains civil -- it looks unlikely to reach an agreement in the near future.
Recently, the lieutenant governor’s task force endorsed House Bill 324 that would have limited how teachers discuss race in the classroom, Governor Roy Cooper vetoed it in mid-September, saying the bill pushes conspiracy-laden politics into public education.
More info: you can find the updated state social studies standards, approved in February 2021, here.