By Rachel Canter
When I was a first year teacher, I asked my students a basic question about American history—“Why do we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday every year?”—as a way of introducing Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Without exception, the answer I got from every class was that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “freed the slaves.”
How, I wondered in shock, had my students made it to the seventh grade without a basic grasp of the timeline of American history?
The answer is simple: for too many Mississippi—and American—schools, teaching history is our very last priority.
We do not have to look far to find evidence that history gets short shrift. Less than half of Mississippi high schoolers scored proficient on the U.S. History test last year—a test that itself only covers half of American History, from 1877 to the present. This wasn’t a pandemic aberration. Over the five years prior, the number of students scoring at least proficient barely cracked 50%, despite the U.S. History test being based on less rigorous standards during all of those prior years. Furthermore, approximately one in four students a year scored in the lowest category (and now lowest two of five categories).
Nationwide, our best information about what American students learn of American History is from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report card. Every four years, the NAEP U.S. History assessment measures what a representative sample of American 8th graders know about history. The results are somehow more dispiriting. In 2018, the date of the most recently administered test, the average American student scored low in the “basic” range of understanding, with 2018 scores actually declining over previous years. Even students who scored at the 75th percentile of all test-takers still did not reach the “proficient” bar.
In the midst of this reality, political and media elites are now arguing about whether children are being taught particular content about race and history in school. I am talking, of course, about the critical race theory “debate.” I use quotations because, like too many recent national arguments, nothing about the conversation is enlightening, especially in learning what “critical race theory” actually is or if anyone is actually taught it in school. Instead, it is a “debate” designed to make people feel angry, frustrated, or fearful, regardless of what they believe is true. And on top of it all is this sad fact, in the words of one of my board members: “It’s funny they think we teach history.”
Over the last several months, I have agonized about what to say about this mess of a conversation. I know our voice has power, and speaking on issues manufactured to distract and divide gives them credence that they might otherwise not have. There has further been the issue of what exactly to say. Arguing about the definition of “critical race theory” or looking for needle-in-the-haystack examples of what is or is not happening in schools is exactly the kind of time waster we try to avoid when there are so many important things happening in the education world, like say, schooling during a pandemic. But after a lot of listening, it is obvious that this “debate” brings up some real emotions for people, regardless of whether we think the actual argument taking place is one worth having.
I want to name what is really going on here, and I believe it is that people can feel the norms of our society changing. Every human wants to be treated fairly, and America, in particular, has made fairness an expectation not only in the sense of equal justice under the law but also as part of our social compact. For many, many years, many Americans had neither equal justice under the law nor basic respect from others in their daily lives, based solely on characteristics like race or gender. Even today, too many people find this American promise of fairness elusive in ways both big and small. Yet as our culture tries to catch up to our better angels, no one is quite sure how it will turn out or what it will mean for all of us—and I do mean all of us. Will we get to a place where America is truly more fair and free? Or will we take several steps backward in the upheaval, with those most vulnerable once again losing the most? The fear of losing whatever place in society we each feel we hold can be even more powerful than the hope of finding someplace better for everyone. In a time of heightened global uncertainty and anxiety, it is no wonder that the world feels ready to explode.
I am not at all concerned with the feelings of people whose anger and fear stems from racism, but for everyone else, we decided we need to articulate some principles for assessing any curriculum-related legislation that may be introduced in the 2022 session. These principles—see them here—are based on our organizational values, which we use to inform every aspect of our work. Typically, we do not announce principles for legislation that we are not promoting, but we are taking this extraordinary step because we believe there are very real risks of passing bad policy that will harm children and their access to a quality education. As we enter the next legislative season, I want to be clear: Mississippi First will oppose any legislation that will either contradict the principles we have outlined or make it practically impossible for schools to legally abide by them.
All those years ago, I made sure my students knew not only why we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also the broader history of the Civil Rights Movement that led up to the March on Washington. Although many people remember Dr. King’s line about judging our children by the “content of their character,” Dr. King also prophesied that day that “the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” We have work to do in Mississippi to establish justice, as the Constitution says, and we cannot afford to waste time on distractions. We will do our part to make Mississippi better for all children, and we hope you will join us.