How math book rejections will harm students, and who’s going to fix it
Florida’s use of critical race theory as a reason to reject math textbooks points straight back to the George Floyd protests of 2020 for some educators. Emerging from the turbulence of that summer was also a hope that the calls for social justice by people of all backgrounds would help the country—and its education system—leave a racist past behind, says Matthew Kincaid, founder and CEO of Overcoming Racism, a national nonprofit that provides K-12 professional development on race and equity.
“I thought it might one day be OK to be Black in America, that kids would grow up in a version of the U.S. where the cloud of racism is not hanging over their heads for their entire lives,” Kincaid says. “Unfortunately, when you look at the policies being passed, [they] have been the opposite of that.”
Last month, the Florida Department of Education barred 54 math textbooks for “references to critical race theory (CRT), inclusions of Common Core and the unsolicited addition of social-emotional learning (SEL) in mathematics.” That occurred a week or so after the state’s Parents Bill of Rights—also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—became law, preventing teachers in K-3 from discussing LGBTQ topics in class. These measures will effectively erase Black, brown and LGBTQ children, and perhaps others, from the state’s curriculum, Kincaid says.
At the same time, new critical race theory laws in more than a dozen states are misleading parents by targetting a law school topic that is not taught in K-12 schools. “These actions aren’t aligned with any basis in reality,” he says.”Book bans are red herrings in terms of limiting how we talk about race and racism.”
The laws are also creating so much confusion for educators that they may decide not to even talk about race or, for example, assign an essay on Rosa Parks or the Holocaust. “Kids are being used as political pawns in this newest culture war,” he says. “This is about dividing us and stoking fear. None of this is about the education of children.”
What actions can educators take?
Dismantling this wave of policy and legislation will require nothing short of a national social movement of teachers, administrators, parents, community members and advocacy groups. Stakeholders simply need to come together to demand inclusive education, says Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, dean of the School of Education at American University. “I really believe that educators have to stand up collectively,” Holcomb says. “For administrators, principals and other education leaders, this is a time to make bold, courageous moves and not cower to those who are determined to erase certain people from being a part of our society.”
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Kincaid compares educators’ roles in combatting restrictive laws to the brave work doctors, nurses and other medical professionals provided during COVID despite the dangers of getting infected themselves. Educators now have an obligation to children who, according to voluminous research, perform better when they receive a truthful, culturally affirming education. “We cannot afford to allow politicians who have no background or experience in education to tell us to do something that is bad for children,” he says. “Another sad thing no one talks about is that this does not just hurt children of color. We should see white parents up in arms that 41% of math books cannot be used solely to promote a political agenda.”
Holcomb, however, says she also recognizes that administrators may fear losing their jobs if they defy school board members who support restricting the curriculum. She acknowledges that many educators are exhausted after three school years interrupted by the pandemic. The proliferation of these anti-CRT laws and book-banning efforts is also driving some teachers out of the profession at a time when many districts are struggling to find new staff.
But even though the shortages are particularly severe among teachers of color, there are also signs of hope, Holcomb says. The recent controversies have brought new attention to the challenges with which public schools are contending. At American University, for example, the number of students interested in education has been increasing since the protests of 2020. Some plan to be teachers while others are more likely to work in the nonprofit or policy-making sectors. “When we ask them why, a lot of it has to do with the state of our country and racial justice and injustice,” she says. “We’re seeing an increase in the number of teachers of color coming to the forefront and leading in these areas.”