3 reasons to teach students about race and racism

Students of color were less likely than white students to see themselves represented in the curriculum
By: | June 23, 2021

Despite the uproar over critical race theory, a slim majority of students say they are learning about race and racism in class, a new report finds.

Just a little more than half (56%) of 2,400 high school students surveyed this spring reported having participated in classroom discussions about race, according to the “Where Do We Go Next?” report by America’s Promise Alliance and Research for Action.

On a related topic, however, students of color were less likely than white students to see themselves represented in the curriculum, according to the study, which did not ask about critical race theory specifically, says Sean Flanagan, senior director of research at America’s Promise Alliance.

Overall, the report found that students who learn about race and racism in school are more likely to hold egalitarian views and be active around racial issues:

  • About 3 in 5 students said their school curriculum represents non-white communities at least sometimes. But students of color were somewhat less likely to agree.
  • Students who regularly learned about race and racism were significantly more likely to express egalitarian beliefs—such as promoting equality among social groups—compared to young people with fewer such learning opportunities.
  • These students also reported higher levels of personal social action, such as reading and talking with friends and family about political and social issues.

“Students should see themselves represented in the curriculum and have the opportunity to discuss these topics,” Flanagan says. “And we shouldn’t leave this to chance—teachers need training on how to facilitate these conversations.”

Critical race theory tracker: Where it’s been banned

Laws that ban the teaching of critical race theory in a handful of states could wind up restricting other lessons about race and racism, adds Melissa Mellor, the Alliance’s senior director of communications. “We’re concerned some of that legislation could have a chilling or dampening effect on any attempt to address crucial topics in the classroom,” Mellor says.

Connections and college plans

The survey also examined how COVID-19 has upended high school students’ postsecondary plans. More than three-quarters said that the pandemic averted their post-high school plans at least a little bit, with about 20% reporting significant impacts, including changing where they planned to attend college.

Finances and family issues were the most common reasons students gave for changing plans.

However, students also reported feeling more prepared for college when they also had closer connections to teachers and classmates, learned about race and racism, and had been academically challenged.

Like many other reports, this survey also found that students, particularly those who learned remotely for most of the pandemic, felt disconnected from classmates, teachers and other adults and youth in the community.

Superintendents and their teams should consider placing new emphasis on social-emotional and other needs of high school students, says Liz Glaser, the Alliance’s director of strategic initiatives and partnerships and a leader of its GradNation campaign. “We’re in a moment of opportunity to prioritize high school students when they are showing they’re in need of a lot of support, mentally and academically,” Glaser says. “They are oftentimes deprioritized in favor of other age groups, but it’s time we really focus on them.”