Nobody can really be surprised if school officials get uncomfortable when parents and others start asking questions about curriculum.
Nobody can really be surprised if school officials deflect rather than explain when someone brings up critical race theory.
School officials can fear they are going to get dragged into a shouting match. And we all know why. That’s the trajectory where some people want to take it: loud, combative, disapproval. Their mind is made up that what the schools are doing is wrong.
It puts people who want to learn more about what is being taught in the middle of a kind of intersection where any way you look it says “do not enter.” So we did some digging.
We tracked down instructional standards for the state. Within those, we looked at ethnic studies. The Oregon Legislature directed in 2017 with House Bill 2845 that ethnic studies instruction be created for K-12 students. In 2019, there was a follow-up bill, HB 2023.
What are the ethnic studies standards? Are there required texts? Nothing specific. It doesn’t say teachers must teach this book or follow this lesson plan. It does give direction.
The state Department of Education tries in its documents to tackle head on some of the criticisms about this new line of study. It asks: “Are the ethnic studies anti-American?” Here’s part of how it answers that question: “In recent years, ethnic studies courses or curriculum have become a flashpoint in political debates. Some detractors of ethnic studies programs have utilized passages from a specific reading or an example of a lesson to suggest that students are only being taught a negative view of the United States or white people. As a local control state, Oregon allows school districts to select materials that best support their students in achieving the learning required by the standards. Oregon is not requiring any text or curriculum for the teaching of any social science standards including ethnic studies.”
So the question becomes “what materials do or will schools use?” There is a list of recommendations provided by the state here: tinyurl.com/ORtexts. Browse it for yourself. We have read some of the books and, frankly, were pleased to see them on the list.
Among the offerings, there’s also a free PDF of a book: Racism in America. It has a compelling collection of excerpts from other books. And there is a “Racial Justice Text Tool.” It is meant to be a guide to help teachers decide if a text or book would be an appropriate teaching tool. It stresses allowing people of color to tell their own stories, decentering whiteness and challenging “the Eurocentric Narrative.”
Some people will look at the material and, for them, it will confirm the worst: that Oregon’s educational system is herding students into a critical race theory worldview that rewards some and punishes others based on race. In the hands of some teachers, maybe that is what would happen. To think that’s what will always happen or regularly happen is simplistic.
Rigorous lessons and time constraints have always meant teachers made difficult choices about what they do teach. If Oregon teachers are being asked to reassess what they do use as their teaching tools, yes, parents are right to wonder what they choose. But pushing teachers to reevaluate their choices forces them to confront how to teach better. And isn’t that very American?