This story was reported by the staff of The Princeton Summer Journal. The project was led by Ryleigh Mae Emmert, Synai Ferrell, Roxana Martínez, Mmachukwu Osisioma, and Lewis Stahl.
Thomas Stone High School is located about twenty-five miles south-east of Washington, D.C., in Charles County, Md. Roughly 1,100 students are enrolled there, most of them African-American. After nationwide Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the spring of 2020, following a spate of high-profile police killings of African-Americans, students and faculty at Thomas Stone wondered how the school would address themes of racial injustice. “I have had three teachers talk about race in my whole experience at Thomas Stone: one world history teacher, one chorus teacher, and one English teacher,” said Tah’Kiyah Coleman, 17, a 12th grader at Thomas Stone, in an interview with the Princeton Summer Journal. “I do think they sugarcoat things to make it seem that they are not as racially unjust as they are,” she added. Coleman was addressing a question countless others would pose around the country: Would schools continue teaching the same curriculums, or make changes inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement?
At Thomas Stone, it turned out, nothing much changed. “We were in the virtual environment and were cautioned about teaching certain things, because students were at home and parent/guardians could hear what was being discussed and could take them out of context,” Niyati Green, an English teacher at Thomas Stone, told the PSJ. “I was not discouraged, but was warned that this virtual platform was not the best time to push the envelope .” Ultimately, Thomas Stone’s principal confirmed, no school-wide curriculum changes were implemented, though an “educational equity” task force was created in October 2020 to provide students with “essential academic, social, emotional and economic resources.”
This summer, the PSJ sent survey questions to 42 high schools or school districts across the country to form a picture of how American schools are addressing race in history, literature, and other subjects. The institutions surveyed ranged from a large public school in Brooklyn, N.Y. to a charter school in Houston, Texas, to a small high school in rural western Tennessee. Representatives from 17 schools or districts replied. The schools that refused to answer may have done so out of caution, as race in the classroom has recently become a third-rail in American politics. In response to the uprisings of 2020, countless schools around the country began to assign recent texts about the history and legacy of American racism, such as The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Anti-Racist.” In response, according to the education site Chalk-beat, 28 mostly conservative-leaning states have proposed or passed legislation this year seeking to restrict the teaching of Critical Race Theory, a contested school of thought that centers the teaching of structural or systemic racism.
Among the schools surveyed by the PSJ, however, change was the exception: Just four reported that courses had been added or altered to address topics central to the Black Lives Matter movement. In Philadelphia, a charter school added a course called “Intro to Criminal Justice.” In Phoenix, a large school district offered three new courses exploring African-American, Mexican-American, and Native American perspectives. In the northern California city of Brentwood, an African-American history class was added. In a Brownsville, Texas charter school, an eighth grade social studies class was altered to incorporate themes of social justice.
There are varying reasons other schools did not make changes to classroom instruction. Several majority-minority charter schools argued they had been founded on a mission of inclusivity and didn’t require significant changes. Traditional public schools in Massachusetts and Maine had diversified their syllabi in the years running up to 2020. A school in Tennessee, meanwhile, responded that it has been hamstrung from making changes by the recent statewide ban on Critical Race Theory. Respondents from other school districts cited bureaucracy or budgetary limitations.
Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s public schools superintendent, was one of the respondents who felt his school district was ahead of the curve on race-conscious learning, before the protests of 2020. “Our district has always been very intentional in teaching history from multiple perspectives” and elevating “the voices of those who have been most marginalized and oppressed,” he told the PSJ. Antonio Cano, the principal of La Joya High School, located in south Texas, said there had been no curriculum changes at his school, but added, “I am sure if students were to start a conversation relating to race, protests, or Critical Race Theory, our teachers will make time to acknowledge their questions and have a discussion within the class.” (This summer, Texas passed a bill seeking to ban elements of Critical Race Theory in public schools.)
At Bioscience High School in Phoenix, Ariz., teachers have recently begun diversifying the curriculum by assigning reading materials such as “Just Mercy,” lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of fighting wrongful convictions and cruel prison sentences, or Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” about the author’s upbringing in apartheid South Africa. Holly Batsell, the school’s principal, worries that Arizona’s own recent bill restricting certain teachings around race—which fines school districts $5,000 per violation—will impede their efforts. But it is unclear if such books would run afoul of the state’s new laws, which do not address which reading materials may be assigned. More narrowly, the bill attempts to ban the teaching that any one person, by virtue of their race, ethnicity, or sex, is “inherently superior” or “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive,” among other provisions. (So-called anti-CRT laws are likely to face legal challenges.)
Teachers or administrators at the vast majority of the schools surveyed seemed comfortable with race-conscious pedagogy. But it was generally individual teachers, rather than districts, who had the flexibility to introduce new reading materials in the classroom. “As we returned to school after the summer of 2020, at least in my high school, to my dismay, there was little mention of race whatsoever,” said Dave Brooks, an AP Language and Composition teacher at Lewiston High School in Maine, where the majority of students are caucuasian.
Still, Brooks didn’t shy away from assigning texts about the uglier facets of U.S. his-tory, something he said students responded well to. “The idea that white students are so fragile that they can’t bear the uncomfortable feelings that surface when they find out the truth about redlining, mass incarceration, Christopher Columbus, or anti-Black stereotypes in the media is not only ridiculous, but dangerous,” he said. “Instead, they often express gratitude for discussing things honestly and openly.”
The PSJ’s questions about Critical Race Theory generated mixed responses. Perhaps because there is disagreement about what the once-obscure academic term means, even some progressive educators seemed hesitant to be associated with it. Joseph Peters, who teaches AP History at Midwood High School in New York City, seemed to regard the term as an epithet more than anything else. “Critical Race Theory is a label that people are using in bad faith to try and push a sanitized view of American history,” he told the PSJ. “But American history is messy. It hasn’t been one long march towards progress and prosperity for all Americans.” However schools wind up addressing race in America, it is hard to argue that even the most well-intentioned schools won’t continue to reflect—even symbolically — the country’s complex legacies of injustice.
Thomas Stone, the namesake of the high school in Maryland, is best known as a signer of the Declaration of Independence , and a member of Mary-land’s Senate. He also presided over a plantation, on which he kept roughly 25 enslaved people in servitude. “In my high school career, most of what I read was from the European male view, and I saw how they viewed their place and existence in the world,” said Green, the English Teacher at Thomas Stone. “That was the only perspective I got. It is important to teach various perspectives with Eurocentric views, but also marginalized views.”