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Main Line Madness

Schools in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, adopt critical pedagogy—and face a parental backlash. September 1, 2021
Education
The Social Order

Lower Merion Township’s beauty and wealth belie its proximity to the impoverished neighborhoods of West Philadelphia, which borders the township just east on Route 30. Being the first suburb on the Main Line, Lower Merion is home to many of the region’s wealthy residents. With a median income of nearly $140,000 per year has come an extraordinarily well-funded, high-achieving public school district.

The 83-percent-white township is also unabashedly progressive. The town has about 2.8 times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. The school board is run exclusively by Democrats. Local church lawns are filled with colorful T-shirts emblazoned with the names of black people killed by police. And shoppers at Suburban Square, a high-end local shopping center, are enveloped in the pride flags that decorate shops and sidewalks every few steps in the month of June.

But despite the town’s progressive vibe, a battle over local schools’ embrace of critical pedagogy is burgeoning. To try and understand this cultural conflict in a place where “wokeness” is part of the atmosphere, I spoke with public and private school parents and a person with experience on the school board, and I attended a meeting of local residents and Republican Party officials. All involved requested anonymity.

When local Republicans hosted a meeting in late June at a home not far from Lower Merion High School, about two dozen people stood in the living room, Rolls-Royces and Honda Civics alike parked along the ornate stone curb. Following a brief overview of local budget issues and political polling came the main issue of the evening: the school district’s left turn. Such terms as “race essentialism” and “transgenderism” were tossed around. Still, agreement on the origins and shape of the ideology that these people found themselves contending with remained elusive.

Finally, the last speaker picked up a children’s book that had been sitting on the coffee table: Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness. Its final page is “a contract binding you to whiteness,” telling white children that they’ve been permitted to “get stolen land, stolen riches, special favors” and to “mess endlessly with the lives of your friends, neighbors, loved ones, and all fellow humans of COLOR for the purpose of profit $.” The book then asks the child to sign on a red line, below which a note says: “Land, riches, and favors may be revoked at any time, for any reason.”

The book, the speaker explained, was taught to fourth- and fifth-graders. The attendees were taken aback.

Yet it became clear that despite universal agreement that something terrible was happening to local kids, this group of parents and residents—including an academic, a reverend, activists, lawyers, and party officials—remained divided, even dazed. Many had only recently heard of “critical race theory.” The proposed courses of action ranged from robust confrontation to “finding the good and removing the bad.”

But one small group of parents, some of whom attended the meeting of Republicans, have taken an organized approach—and cite incidents that pushed them in such a direction. A parent of an elementary student in the Lower Merion School District described one such incident that allegedly happened last fall. “We heard him sitting in the other room and he just kept saying ‘peach,’ ‘peach’,” the parent said. “I walked over to his desk, and they seemed to be on a Zoom class where there were circles with different colors on the screen, and the kids were announcing to the entire class what color they were. I just thought that was completely inappropriate, no matter what color my child is.” The parent showed me his note from the incident, which was partially drawn from Not My Idea.

A Lower Merion middle-school parent of devout Jewish faith detailed another event that allegedly happened this June. “When the kids got to school, they were given a questionnaire,” the parent said, and told to answer what race they associate with and what their sexual orientation is. The parent, discussing the same incident, recalls hearing that a student later made an announcement over the school PA system about the “goodness of being gay, transgender, or queer.” Incidents like these have created a sense of urgency among some parents, who have started to request curricula from the district and are discussing the path forward with peers.

But the school district is deeply invested in educating children through the lens of racial and gender identity, and its response to questions about its agenda has been defiant. On June 14, a man stood up during a largely empty Lower Merion school board meeting to ask “if critical race theory is part of the curriculum.” The school board’s vice president, Melissa Gilbert, responded, “I just want to say, I’m a professor at Temple University. I’m a critical race theorist as well as a feminist theorist. . . . While critical race theory as legal theory, and what subsequently came after that, is not being taught in our school per se as critical race theory, I do think we have an anti-racist curriculum . . . we certainly do not want to be teaching a racist curriculum.”

The man seemed frustrated and reiterated his question. “What I’m asking is, is it a required course in order to graduate here?” Gilbert said no, and her answer was echoed by director of school and community relations Amy Buckman in response to a request for comment. “CRT is neither academically nor developmentally appropriate or understandable for young learners,” Buckman said. “LMSD’s curriculum does teach cultural proficiency and strives to be culturally responsive.” The school district declined to comment on any of the specific incidents alleged in this article, calling them “hearsay.”

Gilbert and Buckman may be correct that the legal-academic writings of Derrick Bell or Gary Peller aren’t being taught in elementary schools, but their answers are an evasion. Consider that at the same school board meeting, the district’s new diversity, equity and inclusion policy was enacted—a document shot through with extreme concepts that began in twentieth-century academia and have trickled into the school district in recent years. A closer look at the history of Lower Merion schools shows the parents’ concerns to be well-founded.

According to a person with administration experience in the Lower Merion school district, the racial achievement gap had been an issue of discussion and concern for decades. The board was constantly troubled with the question of why, in a place with so much money, an achievement gap still remained.

At first, efforts to reduce the gap sought to improve academic achievement. In the 1990s, the district started a Committee to Address Race in Education. In 2004, it began working with the Delaware Valley Consortium for Excellence & Equity, a project run out of the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. While both programs distinguished students by race, each attempted to fix the problem by instilling “higher cognitive expectations for all students.”

That began to change around 2011, two years after Gilbert was elected to the school board. One bullet point in the district’s 2010 strategic plan began to overwhelm all others: “Conducted training on issues of student identity.” “Around 2011, they started cultural proficiency training for teachers,” said the person with district administration experience. By 2013, “Cultural Proficiency Action Plans” for elementary, middle, and high school were created—antecedents to today’s material. Teachers began meeting “once a month to discuss various topics related to socio-cultural identity,” an action plan reads; the high school plan instructed teachers to read the book Multiplication is for White People.

The goal of bringing lower-achieving students up to meet “higher cognitive expectations” was eventually shelved for racially distinguished expectations. A 2014 training called “Why Race and Culture Matter” discussed the work of University of California Riverside critical race theorist Tara J. Yosso, who argues that U.S. schooling merely attempts to “fill up” nonwhites with white culture and that education should conform to identity. Academic opportunities—like those for gifted Lower Merion math students to attend Villanova University—slowly disappeared, according to the person with district experience. And programs such as Welsh Valley Middle School’s “Points of View” program transformed from an effort to make interdisciplinary connections among subjects to teaching all subjects through “the lens of social justice.” This move earned one of the school’s social studies teachers an award from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, parents say, the district experienced a moral panic, and the infusion of education with identity politics accelerated. The administration created “affinity groups,” segregating students by race and other identities. High school elective courses have been themed by affinity. Books such as Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped have moved from an intra-faculty book club to “systemic integration” into the eighth-grade curriculum.

Teachers and administrators presided over the push. The district’s director of elementary education, Jennifer Gaudioso, helped to implement hyper-racial curricula with a goal of getting students to say, “I know that race is one important part of my identity, and talking about race is important.” She is also implementing a “Gender Expansive and Transgender Curriculum” with lessons for fifth- and sixth-graders.

The schools also took cues from political figures. Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf signed, and the state Department of Education implemented, an “equity and inclusion” policy, which Lower Merion’s policy resembles. The district’s equity policy uses resources provided by the Pennsylvania School Board Association, which now also provides an equity-themed podcast, webinars, and online forum for district discussions statewide. And lessons on “cultural competence” that underscore the fetishization of “difference” in terms of personal identity enjoy support from the National Education Association.

All this has culminated in Lower Merion teaching a contradictory hodgepodge of identity politics to young children. As relayed by a parent who reviewed and transcribed portions of the elementary-level cultural-competency curriculum (under the watchful eye of the assistant to the superintendent), proclamations such as the following are formulated for third-graders: “Race is an idea that is created by people to divide people into groups based upon physical and cultural differences. Racism is a part of our country’s history that we must learn to recognize so that we can stamp it out.” Lessons for students as young as kindergarten through sixth grade, on the other hand, teach that “we all have skin/race and our skin is all a different shade of brown,” and that “skin color is one way we are all different and special.” Kindergarteners present on the book Skin Again by Bell Hooks. Students throughout elementary school are made to profess the district’s version of empathy by talking about race and its personal and public importance.

Accompanying this top-down inculcation of identity politics is a mass reshaping of culture within the district. Teachers and students alike now police each other. One parent alleged that his son’s fourth-grade teacher asked each student to reveal whom their parents voted for after the 2016 election. “My son asked twice not to say, but the teacher forced him to.” When Trump sought to halt immigration from some Muslim-majority countries, the Lower Merion High School basketball team wore T-Shirts saying, in part, “I am a Muslim.” As one parent explained: “The regime of social pressure, that’s the new game.”

Three other parents alleged a recent incident in a history class in Lower Merion High School, having heard about it from their children. “The teacher, a white, female teacher, was discussing a new program on African American History,” one of the parents said. “A student interrupted and told her that she shouldn’t be discussing such the subject, a black person should.” The teacher, perhaps suddenly nervous about her value and authority due to her race, “broke down in tears,” the parent said.

A common theme emerged in my discussions with these parents. While each expressed a desire for their children to treat others with dignity, all felt that their sense of autonomy as parents had been violated, that their trust in public schools has been betrayed, and that their children are being used as pawns in a cultural revolution. Yet they feel surrounded by a web of organizations, from teachers’ unions to political parties, that are passively going along with—or actively supporting—that revolution.

Not wanting to jeopardize one’s social position can discourage action. The head of the local Republican committee, a parent pointed out, also serves as a trustee at the Baldwin School—an all-girls private school that has trumpeted its diversity, equity, and inclusion policy. “If you’re a lawyer with business in Philadelphia, you’re not going to fight for curriculum changes because you’d risk your business,” the parent said. “If you’re a trustee at a school that started teaching critical race theory and you’re more interested in that status, then you aren’t going to stir up trouble. And that same situation holds true all over Lower Merion.”

Surrounded by an unfavorable political environment and state education bureaucracy, parents have found that their only allies are one another. A local Chinese-American mom shared a survey of Chinese-American parents in Lower Merion, finding that most respondents did not support the Penn Wynne School’s Cultural Proficiency Plan and opposed the district’s holding events like BLM rallies without parents’ prior knowledge. She is now organizing local Chinese-American parents, hoping to explain to them what their kids are learning. Another group is sharing what it has learned about requesting curricula, questioning administrators, and potentially taking legal action.

Private school parents in similar environments have shared notes with these groups. “I grew up in a country that was very tribalized,” one private school parent said. “When my brother, who lives in New York City, called during the riots last year saying he was going to defend his store, I realized the time for sitting on the sidelines had ended and I volunteered to be on the DEI board at my kid’s school. . . . Just by being there and asking questions, it gave school leaders a bit more fortitude to say, ‘Hey that may be a bit too far,’” he said. “Then parents started hearing about us standing up and they started to say ‘thank you’ and even send their own letters to the school. Now, we feel like we are steering our way out of chaos and keeping the school from being sucked into what is truly insane.”

Parents across the country are engaging with their schools’ embrace of critical racial pedagogy, but in progressive locales like Lower Merion, pushback requires organization and cooperation among those who want the best for their kids. The move to insert divisive racial politics into American schools might inadvertently give Americans something to unite over.

The Jewish parent who had related the PA system incident concluded our conversation with another story. The parent’s child saw a student wearing a BLM shirt while being dropped off for school.

“Can I wear a t-shirt that says Jewish Lives Matter?” the child asked.

“No,” the parent replied.

When the child asked why, the parent replied, “Because I know what will happen.”

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