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Misguided Attacks Shouldn't Derail Tennessee's Curriculum Momentum
A parent group has seriously misread texts in a content-rich elementary curriculum
A parent group in Tennessee is claiming a curriculum called Wit & Wisdom violates a state law against promoting racial division. But the curriculum aims to promote racial harmony—and does a better job educating kids than most alternatives.
Like several other states, Tennessee recently passed legislation characterized as banning “critical race theory” from public school classrooms. The statute prohibits teaching 14 different concepts, including “promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class or people.”
On June 30th, a chapter of a national group called Moms for Liberty lodged a complaint with the state education commissioner about Wit & Wisdom, a curriculum used in more than 30 districts across the state. The complaint singles out a second-grade unit on “Civil Rights Heroes” and four texts in particular.
They include two books about Ruby Bridges, who as a child integrated a whites-only elementary school in New Orleans; one about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the March on Washington; and one about a 1947 lawsuit in California brought by a Mexican-American family that led to school desegregation in that state.
The 11-page complaint tries to detail the ways in which the books violate the Tennessee law, but the accusations rest on a peculiar reading of the texts. Focusing on Ruby Bridges Goes to School, which Bridges wrote herself, Moms for Liberty points to photos of angry white people holding signs favoring segregation and claims the book doesn’t mention that race relations have improved. But the text makes clear that these events took place in the past and things have changed. “A long time ago,” the first sentence reads, “some people thought that black people and white people should not be friends.” At the end, Bridges writes, “Now black and white children can go to the same schools. … I tell people that black and white people can be friends. And most important, I tell children to be kind to each other.”
The complaint alleges that the books present an unrelentingly dark portrait of a United States in which all white people are evil. But Ruby’s white first-grade teacher—who teaches her alone after parents pull their children out of school—is presented as a hero. “I loved Mrs. Henry,” Bridges writes, “and Mrs. Henry loved me.” Far from resenting her absent white classmates, Ruby yearns for them to return. When they eventually do, we see photos of Ruby and her classmates close together and smiling.
Another targeted book is Separate Is Never Equal, about the California desegregation lawsuit. The book contains statements that Mexican children are inferior to white children in various ways, Moms for Liberty points out, including “personal hygiene” and “scholastic ability.” “The racist statements regarding Mexican children are never denounced as false in subsequent pages,” the group charges. But the same page that contains these statements, apparently taken from the trial transcript, depicts the young protagonist—Sylvia Mendez—thinking, “What he was saying was not true! It was degrading.” Shortly thereafter the book quotes an “education specialist” saying that segregation “tends to give an aura of inferiority” and should therefore be outlawed.
Moms for Liberty’s accusations against parts of the Wit & Wisdom teachers’ manual are equally puzzling. According to the complaint, the manual advises teachers not to “expect an individual or group to serve as ‘spokesperson’ for his or her race, gender, or any other group.” This, Moms for Liberty argues, “implies segregation of the classroom into” such groups. But the advice is to treat students as individuals rather than representatives of a group.
As I’ve noted before, developments have arisen in classrooms across the country that are troubling and that have also been swept under the unhelpful term “critical race theory.” A book called Not My Idea, which has a little girl denouncing her parents as hypocrites because they claim not to see color, made even some progressive parents in one district uncomfortable when it was sent home with kindergartners. New kindergarten academic standards in Oregon call for children to focus on their own identity groups and those of their classmates. Those kinds of well-intentioned measures can lead students to view race or skin color as being all-important—and to believe that American society is inevitably stacked against anyone who isn’t white.
Moms for Liberty claims the books about Ruby Bridges and Sylvia Mendez have had similar effects on two children whose parents filed letters accompanying the group’s complaint. One second-grader who is Asian and white is now “ashamed of his white half.” Another believes that “because he is not white, he is not going to be treated equally.” If kids are left with those impressions from books like these, the solution is to clear up their misunderstandings rather than ban the books—or the entire curriculum, as Moms for Liberty advocates. (Members of the group have also spoken out against other texts in the curriculum.)
There’s a big difference between a book that argues race is paramount and one that raises that argument only to show it’s untrue. The guidelines recently promulgated by Tennessee’s department of education to implement the law specifically say it does not ban “impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race” or several other factors. It’s hard to see how instruction about “oppression” could be “impartial” (the word “oppressive” is defined in the regulations as “cruel and unfair”), but the language seems to protect the books Moms for Liberty objects to.
History can make you sad, but that’s okay
Another strain running through the complaint is the idea that second-graders are too young to be exposed to unpleasant aspects of history, even in the rather mild forms presented in the books. After reading about students who were refused service in a diner, one child is reported to have said, “This story is so sad.” The other kept telling his parents about Harriet Tubman and Ruby Bridges “with a sad face.”
It’s understandable if parents want to protect their children from sadness, but it’s impossible to teach history accurately without mentioning events that could evoke it. A few years ago, I followed a second-grade class using a different curriculum that dealt with historical topics. The kids were sad to learn about slavery, but they weren’t traumatized. When the curriculum—Core Knowledge Language Arts—covered the Trail of Tears, it had the teacher explain, “It’s important to remember the sadder parts of history to prevent them from happening again.”
You could argue—as many have—that information about historical topics, pleasant or unpleasant, should wait until children are older. But if students encounter history for the first time in upper grades, it can be hard for them to absorb it and engage with it at the level the curriculum expects. Teachers have told me it’s not uncommon for high school students to confuse, for example, the Civil War and the civil rights movement. If they’ve learned about these events earlier, that’s much less likely to happen.
Yet another complaint from Moms for Liberty is that the curriculum “is repetitive and moves too slowly to hold the attention of students in K-1.” Obviously, that wouldn’t be a violation of the Tennessee law, but it’s an objection that reflects a different kind of misunderstanding. The standard approach to literacy in elementary grades is to move quickly from one random topic to another, because the goal isn’t to build kids’ substantive knowledge. Instead, it’s to teach them comprehension “skills,” like “making inferences.” Not only are those skills largely illusory, that approach ends up further privileging children who are already privileged—those who have been able to acquire academic knowledge and vocabulary at home. A handful of new curricula like Wit & Wisdom go deeply into fewer topics. Moms for Liberty may feel that approach doesn’t hold kids’ attention, but teachers who use these curricula have told me they engage students powerfully and level the playing field for children from less educated families.
Tennessee, to its credit, has been a leader in the adoption of such curricula, with promising results so far. It would be a terrible disservice to American children if complaints like the one from Moms for Liberty—or claims from the left that these same curricula aren’t “woke” enough—were allowed to derail this trend, which is growing across the country. Given that the Tennessee law imposes penalties of up to $5 million for teaching prohibited concepts, the chilling effect could be powerful even without charges like those in the Moms for Liberty complaint.
The group’s objections don’t withstand scrutiny. But even if Tennessee authorities were somehow to find they have merit, the best course of action would be to remove the targeted books from the state’s classrooms rather than to ban the entire curriculum and deprive students of its benefits.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com