Few parents of school-age children would recognize the name Lucy Calkins, but her English Language Arts curriculum, Units of Study, is used in thousands of classrooms across the United States. Calkins’s curriculum is “built on critical theories,” including critical race theory (CRT), which Democrats and the media have repeatedly denied is taught in K-12 schools.
Those denials are true in a narrow sense: K-12 students aren’t reading the primary documents of CRT any more than they’re reading the works of John Dewey or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But the works of writers like Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, Angela Davis, and others directly inform Calkins’s Units of Study, which focuses on identity-based power dynamics, victimhood, white supremacy, microaggressions, and the like.
It’s hard to determine precisely how many schools use Calkins’s Units of Study. One professor of education acknowledged that publishers “aren’t very forthcoming” with this “very basic data.” The curriculum’s publisher claims that it is used in “tens of thousands of schools around the world,” and a poll from EducationWeek estimates that 16 percent of U.S. elementary school teachers use it, including, one education journalist estimates, at least 55 districts in Massachusetts. It isn’t a stretch to say that thousands of teachers rely on its lesson plans, assessments, and other materials.
One unit in particular stands out for its embrace of principles inspired by critical race theory. The opening pages of Critical Literacy: Unlocking Contemporary Fiction, meant for students in seventh through ninth grade, explain that the unit will engage with “the politics of race, class, and gender.” One activity asks students to break down “hegemonic masculinity” in the books they’re reading. Another builds “identity lenses”’ through which students can analyze various texts, including “critical race theories” and “gender theories.” References to identity pervade nearly every page of the unit. Accompanying materials declare that the curriculum is “dedicated” to teaching “critical literacies” that will “help readers investigate power.”
This unit underscores a problem far larger than a few lesson plans. It exposes a radical approach to education that pervades our schools and upends all of our former notions of what education should be, replacing the goal of fostering inquisitive, capable minds with ideologically trained readers, who already know what a text has to say. Headline-making stories of racialized “affinity groups” and “privilege walks” are only the most visible elements of this pedagogy. Other seemingly innocuous practices are also rooted in a philosophy that treats the immutable characteristics of students as their most central attributes.
Critical race theory flows from the more general philosophy of education called “critical pedagogy,” which, in brief, seeks to leverage every math class, English lesson, history unit, elective, and scientific concept as a means to inculcate a political goal: the overthrow of Enlightenment-based, classically liberal principles—including the scientific method, objective reasoning, evidence-based argument, and so on.
“Critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order,” writes Richard Delgado, an early scholar of CRT, “including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” Though its proponents defend CRT as merely teaching “accurate” racial history, the discipline’s aim is to use race and history as a lens through which to judge—to condemn—Western values. Each branch of critical pedagogy proceeds accordingly, using gender, say, in the same way.
Graduate schools of education often encourage their teachers to adopt a similar approach. Calkin’s Units of Study also employs this method, analyzing the same poem through various “lenses”—critical race, radical feminist, deconstructionist, Marxist, postcolonial, and others. Reading in this way amounts to little more than radical proselytization through literature.
This approach to instruction extends far beyond the confines of English language arts in the K-12 classroom. For example, Seattle Public Schools has implemented a new curriculum that seeks to “humanize” mathematics, centering study on questions of power, identity, oppression, and liberation. Its thematic questions ask students not how to solve algebraic equations, but to answer questions like “how can we use math to measure the effects of our activism?”
While oppression and liberation may be topics worth learning about in a sociology class, primary students need mathematical skills, wisdom derived from struggling with great books on their own terms, and a treasury of historical facts if they are to go into the world and do anything about the injustices they find there. Placards, criticism, and demonstrations are easy; the building of a just society requires hard-won insight, knowledge, wisdom, and skill.
An experience common to many early-career teachers is the realization that they never actually learned how to do their job in teacher prep. Time spent learning critical pedagogy instead of the nuts and bolts of running a classroom represents a giant opportunity cost. Having gone through these programs ourselves, we can attest to the lack of training in areas like writing instruction, the science of reading, basic grammar, rhetoric, and argument—subjects once at the heart of teacher training.
The results of the pedagogy exemplified by curricula like Units of Study are damning. In a 2018 study, education nonprofit EdReports.org found that Units of Study did not “meet the expectations for text quality and complexity and alignment to the expectations of standards.” Pulling no punches, the report said that “unit materials are devoid of a consistent, systematic, and explicit plan for instruction in and practice of grade-level foundational skills.” Education professor Timothy Shanahan suggests that “there’s not a single study that supports the use of the above methods,” and in one comprehensive review, concluded that they are “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public school children.”
Considering that the focus of curricula like Units of Study is on indoctrination rather than reading, these findings are not surprising. In a nation where a mere 35 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders performed at or above proficiency in reading, young people are suffering the consequences of these methods. In place of foundational academic skills, we’re giving them radical messages about identity. And rather than training students to love what is beautiful and true, our modern progressive theorists are training them only to deconstruct it.