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How illegitimate CRT concerns shaped Louisiana’s new social studies standards

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Aubri Juhasz
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WWNO
Louisiana's new social studies standards are set to take effect during the 2023-24 school year and will be used to create curriculum, train teachers and buy textbooks.

A committee assigned to draft the state’s social studies curriculum pens letter after words like diversity, LGBT get cut from standards

Critical race theory, or CRT, has never been a part of Louisiana’s K-12 social studies standards, nor were there plans to add the abstract academic concept during the state’s recent rewrite, according to members of its steering committee.

Despite these established facts, the task of removing “embedded” critical race theory from the committee’s final draft became state officials’ focus after hundreds of people submitted comments complaining the standards cast American history in an overly negative light and could be used to indoctrinate students.

In response, State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley and other officials rewrote the educator-drafted standards “to ensure none were CRT-based,” without acknowledging that critical race theory wasn’t in the document to begin with.

The state’s standards, which differ significantly from the committee’s in content, language and approach, were advanced to the state's board of education last month and approved unanimously despite committee pushback.

The approved standards are far more detailed and specific, which Brumley said sets clear and rigorous goals for students and teachers. As a result, additional content has been added concerning slavery, civil rights and Black history more generally.

“We did not shy away from any of the events in the course of our country or our state’s history, and we wanted to be really inclusive of our students knowing these things,” Brumley said.

While the state added explicit events like the murder of Emmett Till, the Tulsa Race Massacre and the Tuskegee Experiment, committee members said the state’s deletions are far more significant.

State officials removed the committee’s many references to “diverse groups,” the words “diversity,” “equity” and mentions of Latinos, refugees and people who identify as LGBT or disabled, according to New Orleans Public Radio’s review of the documents.

“Just the fact that they removed the word diversity and diverse is problematic, and it also just sort of underscores and underlines the point that diversity isn’t what came out of these standards — it’s what was removed from these standards,” said committee member Aaron Jura, a curriculum writer and former social studies teacher.

Another word removed by the state during its significant rewrite was “limitations,” which appeared in the committee’s version nine times, often in reference to restrictions placed by the government and society on different groups of people.

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Aubri Juhasz
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WWNO
Source: Steering committee's final draft dated Sept. 23, 2021, P. 38. Annotated by New Orleans Public Radio.

“I almost feel like you couldn’t talk about the things that we needed to improve in the United States, that we only could talk about the good parts of the United States,” said committee member Lynn Walters-Rauenhorst, who taught social studies in St. Tammany Parish for 16 years.

Nearly 400 people applied for a spot on the state’s steering committee, and 26 people were selected based on their expertise. The members volunteered to guide the process and helped write the new standards as part of multiple working groups.

“I think what has stuck in my craw is this idea that we were selected to do this,” Walters-Rauenhorst said. “We were the experts, and yet somehow we got cut out of the process.”

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Aubri Juhasz
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WWNO
A children's book on colonial Maryland inside a public school library in New Orleans.

‘We were not expecting that level of animosity’

Walters-Rauenhorst wanted the state to adopt inquiry-based standards, where the emphasis is on discussion-based learning and students are asked to think like historians. The state appeared to be onboard as well, according to its initial list of goals set in December 2020.

She agreed with the state’s four other priorities as well: creating a more coherent curriculum, strengthening lower grade standards to prepare students for high school, integrating the perspectives of people from different backgrounds and providing more opportunities for critical thinking.

The first obvious sign of trouble came late last June when the steering committee presented its first draft to the public in Baton Rouge, and dozens of people showed up to complain about critical race theory, or CRT.

Critical race theory, an academic framework that looks at how racism has shaped public policy and institutions, such as the legal system, was never a part of the committee’s proposed social studies standards and isn’t something that’s generally taught in K-12 schools.

But during the meeting, and in the months that followed, people in Louisiana and across the country repeatedly used the term as a catchall for anything they didn’t like having to do with the teaching of race or racism in schools.

“They want to create activists of our children. They want our children to do their political bidding,” one commenter said about the committee’s first draft. Another commenter called the standards “psychological child abuse.”

Walters-Rauenhorst said the meeting was disorienting and at times frightening.

“We were not expecting that level of animosity,” she said. “It all centered around critical race theory, and we were all shaking our heads. We were like, ‘What are they talking about?’”

Committee member Nikki Patterson, a former social studies teacher in Assumption Parish said she looks back on the June meeting as the beginning of the end.

“At that point in time it really resonated with me that we were no longer looking at those five guiding principles, but now we were trying to coddle adults and not teach students,” she said.

Committee members said multiple changes were made at the Department of Education’s request after the meeting, including removing words that had become falsely associated with critical race theory.

At the time, members said they were willing to make language changes at the department’s request if it meant preserving substance.

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Aubri Juhasz
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A high school American history textbook discusses civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s and 70s.

But then the cuts began. An overarching skill called “taking informed action,” meant to promote civic engagement and deemed controversial by the state, was also removed, according to Jura, the curriculum expert.

“We were trying to avoid the exact situation that we find ourselves in where the rest of it became controversial,” he said. “The ends did not justify the means, unfortunately.”

Later, for unclear reasons, the word “inquiry” disappeared from the steering committee’s draft, even though the standards were supposed to be inquiry-based.

Jura said he wasn’t part of the working group that removed “inquiry” and couldn’t confirm that’s actually what happened, but said he was aware that the word had become “especially negative in conservative circles” and among special interest groups.

After the committee approved its final draft in September, members said they expected it to be sent to the state’s board of education for approval. The standards were posted online for public comment, and that’s when the process went haywire.

More than 1,800 comments were received from roughly 400 people and organizations. Most opposed the standards, claiming they cast American history in an overly negative light or contained critical race theory, repeating comments from the June meeting.

When Walter-Rauenhorst and other committee members saw how significant the state’s revisions were, they drafted a letter in protest, claiming the standards no longer represented their work or fulfilled the goals given to them by the state.

Ultimately nine of the committee’s 26 voting members signed the letter.

Jura and Walters-Rauenhorst claim there are additional members who agreed with the letter but ultimately chose not to sign because of how hostile the process had become.

In an interview with New Orleans Public Radio, Brumley disagreed with committee members’ characterizations of events and said the department was doing its job by responding to public comments.

“If you look around the country at states trying to work through issues relative to social studies, you see that it's politically combustible,” Brumley said. “I am really pleased that we were able to move forward a set of quality social studies standards that were unanimously approved.”

Perhaps the most consequential change Walters-Rauenhorst said she noticed was that the standards were no longer inquiry-based, since the state had broadened them significantly, leaving teachers with no choice but to lecture instead.

“That confuses me because it feels like one of the things that we have been accused of is we're trying to indoctrinate students,” Walters-Rauenhorst said. “But if you're giving them the primary source documents and to form their own opinion, that's not indoctrination.”

When asked why the state abandoned its plan for inquiry-based instruction, Brumley said the department ultimately decided that pedagogy, or how to teach, should be left up to individual school districts and teachers.

Jura said he knows social studies standards have and will always be influenced by politics, but wishes Louisiana had delayed its review to give the current controversy time to die down.

He said for teachers who want to go beyond the state’s standards and cover things like the Chicano Movement or the Stonewall Riots, they’ll have to figure out how to do that on their own.

“It’s going to be up to teachers to do the heavy lifting, and they are going to have to do that without the resources, without the funding and without the expertise of folks who had the expertise and were doing this work,” he said.

The new standards are set to take effect during the 2023-24 school year and will be used to create curriculum, train teachers and buy textbooks. They’ll remain in effect for at least seven years but could last longer.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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