Voices in Education

Curriculum is the Answer to Questions about CRT
Some governing bodies are working vigorously to ensure that every student has space in their classrooms to discuss race. Several states are working towards ethnic studies (and similar programs) as mandated curricular offerings. Others are moving forward legislation that will dramatically change whether (and how) teachers are able to discuss race in their classrooms at all. There is a well-coordinated, national political campaign, the aim of which seems to be turning Critical Race Theory (CRT) first into a red herring, a powerful wedge issue second. How strange that our national culture wars would metastasize on the curriculum.

I find this surprising because the subject of race in the curriculum has been sidelined for decades. In April I published a book on race in the curriculum. I raise this not to toot a horn, but because it appears to be the first text of its kind. As a field, we have been reticent in getting to brass tacks on race in the curriculum. Both where policies are moving towards racial equity and seeking to shut those efforts down, the current rhetorical debate will have a negative effect on teachers. Lack of clarity and resources will leave teachers unsure of how to move forward.

Critical Race Theory as a Red Herring
A red herring fallacy is “something used to mislead, distract or divert attention from the real issue by instead focusing on an issue having only surface level relevance to the first.” 1

The press have thoroughly explained the origins of CRT as a framework, as well as its current role and relationship to K12 education (mainly, that there isn’t one). It’s difficult to find evidence that CRT is taught below the graduate level. No one seems to be confused about these facts, including those advancing anti-CRT legislation. In March, Christopher Rufo stated that:

“The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

There doesn’t seem to be real concern about the content being presented to children. Where broad claims are made about the curriculum, there’s little evidence to support them. If the goal is to decodify a term for political ends, teachers and students will pay the price. Most educators understand that the traditional curriculum is insufficient, and that their students benefit from seeing themselves in the curriculum. Educators working to close gaps are describing the ‘chilling effect’ that recent political efforts are having. Because the discourse is muddy and the legislation is so mismatched to K12 realities, teachers are understandably confused about how to move forward.

Where racially affirming academic programs are making progress, many questions remain unanswered. California and Minnesota have both established frameworks and guidelines for ethnic studies. But lacking a curriculum or clear articulation of what will be taught, educators are open to scrutiny and opposition. Below, I have identified areas where schools can support educators who center equity in the classroom, and thus re-focus attention on the needs of students.

Anti-CRT legislation and opposition to racially affirming programs thrive on ideological debate. I am not a policy wonk. But I have been in a number of school board meetings where the content of the curriculum is hotly debated. Temperatures fall when boards are presented with actual teaching materials. “This is the curriculum. Students will read these specific texts, in order to engage in discourse framed this way, in order to complete this task. Which parts of these materials are most concerning?” While I don’t advocate for community review of lesson plans, sometimes the concrete examples can bring focus back to the substance of this issue—what teachers and students are doing together.

While we must be clear that CRT is not being taught in the K12 curriculum, we can acknowledge that there is just cause for confusion. Educators are informed by scholarship on racial inequity, and these do impact practice. The seminal scholar (Gloria Ladson-Billings) on CRT in education also coined the term “culturally relevant pedagogy,” which remains a guidepost in educational research and practice. This connection does not mean that the practices are the same, nor does it mean there is reason for parents and communities to be concerned about the curriculum. We owe educators clear language around what research and frameworks do inform our practices. Authors like Bryan Brown and Lorena Germán give voice to how research can impact daily practice, and do so with purpose. If opposing forces have set out to decodify our language, educators need to claim and speak to our content with conviction.

Moving Forward
Both of the topics above suggest that organizations (funders, non-profits, school districts) need to allocate resources to building curriculum that centers their students' identities and experiences. This process produces the clarity and the materials our students and teachers need, which should be our shared focus.


1 "Red Herring." Texas State University. May 15, 2019.

About the Author: Evan C. Gutierrez serves as the Vice President for Curriculum & Instruction for Newsela. He is the author of A New Canon: Designing Culturally Sustaining Humanities Curriculum (Harvard Education Press, 2021).