Public education authorities and teachers’ unions aren’t all wrong when they argue that critical race theory, referring to graduate-level legal theory, is not “taught” in K–12 schools. But with that calculated half-truth, they obscure something more troubling. Teachers in many states are being trained to suffuse critical theory throughout the entirety of the traditional curriculum, pursuing what academics call “the other CRT”: culturally responsive teaching. In fact, a majority of state education departments have adopted some form of the pedagogy.
This other CRT hasn’t faced much pushback—until now. Families, teachers, and administrators in three western Pennsylvania school districts are suing the state Department of Education over its “culturally-relevant and sustaining education” (CR-SE) guidelines, arguing not only that it illegally skirted public scrutiny but also that the competencies listed in the guidelines violate state and federal civil rights guarantees.
According to their complaint, the guidelines dictate what teachers must believe and how they must behave. For instance, one competency requires teachers to acknowledge “that biases exist in the educational system” and to become internal activists who “disrupt harmful institutional practices.” Another requires that teachers “believe and acknowledge that microaggressions are real” and then commit to ridding their classrooms of them, notwithstanding the dubious research behind the concept. And yet another tells teachers to be aware of their “own conscious/unconscious biases,” implying that all must accept their guilt.
“How do you measure whether someone believes or doesn’t believe?,” said Thomas Breth, special counsel for the Thomas More Society and attorney for the plaintiffs. “Must they sign an oath and have it notarized? And how does one objectively determine a microaggression? For school districts, if they don’t comply and make students comply, they could lose their basic education subsidies. We’re dealing with very serious issues and very serious consequences.”
Donna-Marie Cole-Malott, co-director of the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium (PEDC), which helped draft the guidelines, contends that the plaintiffs are “misunderstanding what they are reading.” The guidelines offer resources to educators, she says, to help them “create an environment of respect, to create more welcoming and confirming spaces.” And proponents claim the pedagogy will bring “equity” to public education by training teachers to use the “cultural nuances” of each student’s background to make curriculum more understandable.
Cole-Malott also said, echoing claims by the State Board of Education, that culturally responsive teaching will help improve the state’s educator shortfall. She pointed to research by the left-leaning non-profit Research for Action showing that there are 1,200 fewer black teachers in Philadelphia than two decades ago and blaming the problem on “the cumulative impact of racism—systemic and interpersonal, as well as racial microaggressions.”
But it’s not readily apparent that demanding that students question “economic, political, and social power structures,” in the words of one competency, will aid in teacher recruitment. Nor is it clear that “culture” issues explain an across-the-board, 66 percent decline in newly issued Pennsylvania teaching certificates over the past 11 years.
A deep dive into the intellectual foundations of culturally relevant pedagogy show that the Pennsylvania plaintiffs are right to be concerned about the guidelines. The term “culturally relevant pedagogy” was coined by pedagogical theorist and University of Wisconsin–Madison emerita professor Gloria Ladson-Billings in 1995, when she published two influential articles: “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” and “Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education.” The latter aimed to adopt critical race theory from the legal sphere to education. The article is an unrelenting broadside against capitalism, objectivity, and merit, which Ladson-Billings argues underpin American public education’s real goal of reinforcing “whiteness as property.” Even the civil rights reforms of the 1960s and the pluralistic multiculturalism employed in today’s schools are “mired in liberal ideology that offers no radical change in the current order.” Her theory of culturally relevant pedagogy emerged from this radical basis. In “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” she proposed that “particular kinds” of teachers must be recruited into the field—ones who “meet the cultural critique criteria” and must therefore “be engaged in a critical pedagogy.”
It took decades, but state departments of education eventually took up Ladson-Billings’s mission. In New York, for example, the Board of Regents directed the state education department to convene a panel of experts in 2018 to draft a Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework. The department credits David Kirkland of New York University’s Metro Center, a critical theorist, for drafting the “springboard” document, and several like-minded radicals from academia were members of the expert committee that contributed to the final report. Unsurprisingly, the Metro Center’s professional development training for New York teachers says that its culturally responsive education series is “based on Critical Race Theory.” And far from merely making essential curriculum understandable to students of various cultural backgrounds, districts like Buffalo Public Schools are using the pedagogy to create “social justice warrior” teachers who “liberate and emancipate” students “from predominantly eurocentric learning structures,” according to a webinar by Fatima Morrell, the district’s chief of Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Initiatives.
New York’s framework is tame compared with Pennsylvania’s guidelines, which include speech and belief requirements: “The guidance and competencies created by the Wolf Administration go well beyond the intent of what the State Board of Education approved,” said Pennsylvania state senator Scott Martin, who chaired the chamber’s education committee until this year. “There was no communication from the administration about how these policies would be distorted and implemented, and there was never even a hint that this process would be misused to implement radical teaching strategies in our schools.”
Pennsylvania took the first step to adopt the pedagogy in 2020, when the State Board of Education proposed altering the regulation governing teacher certification and training to include the phrase “Culturally Relevant and Sustaining Education” (CR-SE). The state’s bipartisan regulatory review board gave its support, and the General Assembly’s House and Senate education committees, both Republican-controlled at the time, received the final regulation in January 2022 and made no protest at the time. However, the regulation those committees received included none of the details that would subsequently be featured in the controversial guidelines, except for a PowerPoint Slide with a relatively innocuous and brief list of competencies.
Like New York, the Pennsylvania Department of Education had tasked a group of outside academics with drafting the more expansive and idealistic competencies. That group was led by Cole-Malott’s PEDC, which also credits the U.S. Department of Education’s regional Comprehensive Center as a co-developer. This group completed its draft in April 2021, nine months prior to the legislature’s receiving the regulatory documents that were largely free of any potentially controversial details.
It wasn’t until the guidelines were issued to local districts in November, during the waning days of Wolf’s administration, that they became public knowledge, sparking the lawsuit. “This is the government saying, you will believe this, you will state that you believe this or there will be consequences,” said Breth. “I’m against that whether its conservative, liberal, progressive, non-progressive.”
Intermingled with the sly radicalism in Pennsylvania’s guidelines, however, is a sense of desperation about improving the state’s failing public schools. Students in Philadelphia, for example, consistently trail their national peers in reading and math despite the district’s spending more than $7,000 per-student above the national average. But training teachers to see their students and peers as unwitting micro-aggressors, their schools as hotbeds of bias, and the broader society as made up of interwoven systems of oppression won’t help anyone.
Finding ways to make academics more approachable to all students is a worthy goal. So is recruiting teachers of every race. Pennsylvania’s culturally relevant guidelines, unfortunately, stray far from that path.