School Leaders, Not Politicians, Should Be Making Decisions about How to Teach Our History

Everybody's gettin' bands, we just dance to different drums.

I like who I've become.

-Jay Z,“Sorry, Not Sorry”

Allow me to apologize in advance because as a school leader, I will continue to discuss how race impacts the lives of my staff, students, and the community that provides a context for our work. And I will continue to celebrate the lives of African American and Latino figures who have conveniently been omitted from Georgia’s curriculum. 

The question of whether critical race theory should be taught in our schools is not one that is best answered by politicians. It is a question that is best answered by members of the teaching profession and by school administrators who have a precise understanding of the communities they serve. 

In matters of race and public education, I am more inclined to listen to the guidance of Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, the developer of the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy. She compels us to “help students to accept and affirm their cultural identity while developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities that schools (and other institutions) perpetuate”

Upon hearing of the Georgia Board of Education’s decision to keep critical race theory out of K-12 classrooms, Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp was quoted as saying, “I applaud the members of the State Board of Education for making it clear this dangerous, anti-American ideology has no place in Georgia classrooms.” His statement illuminates how uninformed and disconnected our politicians are from the real issues facing our communities. 

Critical race theory is not anti-American, but banning it from being taught and discussed in classrooms is both anti-American and dangerous. Issues of race affect all aspects of our educational system including special education referrals, suspensions, staffing, gifted and talented referrals and Title I funding. We strategically identify groups that have been traditionally underserved by our schools and track their performance closely.

Last month, the Colonial Pipeline was shut down due to the work of hackers. Americans went into a frenzy purchasing the last remaining remnants of fuel from stations that still had reserves. Images of long lines flooded our timelines. The problem was not that there was a shortage of fuel in our nation, but that there was an issue with the pipeline. 

As a fourth-grader in a small rural Georgia town, I was the only African American student in a gifted class of 15 students. I was perplexed as to why all my neighborhood friends were in the classes down the hall with 25-30 students in the class. While we engaged in project-based learning, current events, and critical thinking, their classes were more structured and based on worksheets and copying from the board. There is no doubt that many of them were gifted as well. Here too, the problem was not in the supply, but in the pipeline.  Public education has had a longstanding pipeline issue as it relates to African American creativity, talent, and giftedness.

The likelihood of an African American child being placed in special education is much more likely than being identified as gifted and talented. This grim reality speaks to the ongoing need for educators, aspiring educators, and those who prepare preservice teachers to be acutely aware of critical race theory and how it operates in our public schools.

Sorry, Not Sorry: What the Textbooks Leave Out, We Fill In

In Georgia’s eighth grade social studies curriculum, we find language that essentially sanitizes the brutality inflicted upon Native people. The standard says, “Evaluate the impact of Spanish contact on American Indians, including the explorations of Hernando DeSoto and the establishment of Spanish missions along the barrier islands.” Terms such as “impact” and “establishment” soften the reality of the slaughter and enslavement of Native peoples.  

I’m reminded of the need for critical race theory when I have to be intentional about selecting books for my media center that reflect the culture and experiences of my scholars. I want my students to experience beautiful literature that celebrates their hair texture, skin tone, and heritage, and heroes that look like them.

 I want them to understand the hypocrisy of African American soldiers serving in World War I and World War II, yet coming home to be treated as second-class citizens. I want them to know that it took a presidential order by Harry Truman to desegregate our military after World War II. 

Surgical omissions from our social studies curriculum require a cadre of educators willing to stand and deliver truths told straight lest we repeat our mistakes of the past. Let me extend my preemptive apologies for explaining white privilege, implicit bias, and the need to fill gaps in an inadequate curriculum to my teachers and students. School leaders grounded in a commitment to social justice will continue to talk with members of the school community about their lives beyond the campus and how they have to navigate the structures of American society to survive. 

My Goal Is Not to Inoculate 

In the book “A People’s History of The United States,” Howard Zinn writes about the common themes of factories and schools during the industrial age: “In the meantime, the spread of public school education enabled the learning of the writing, reading and arithmetic for a whole generation of workers, skilled and semiskilled, who would be the literate labor force of the new industrial age. It was important that these people learn obedience to authority.” It seems like we are regressing to this mindset in America. 

My goal as an educator is not to inoculate them from the realities of our history, but to bring forth an awareness of who they are and how we got here. More importantly, I want to hand them the torch to continue moving forward to fight against police brutality, voter suppression, and the absence of culturally responsive leadership in our schools and government.

Ironically, as I look back on my time being the only African American in my fourth grade class, my current reality is that I am the only African American male in both of the doctoral courses I’m taking this summer. Again, there is a pipeline issue that is inherently tied to critical race theory and the work we must do to reform our schools as places that give all students equitable access to opportunities once they graduate.  

Derrick Bell writes, “Education leads to enlightenment. Enlightenment opens the way to empathy. Empathy foreshadows reform.” In their effort to remove critical race theory from our classrooms and our discussions with children, our politicians have inadvertently underscored why it is so critical that we continue this discussion.

Illustration by Dan Lish.
Andre Benito Mountain
Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area and founder of  Def-Education Consulting LLC. He is the author of “Principals Don’t Walk on Water” (2020),  “The Mountain Principles” (2018), and The Brilliance Beneath (2016). His most recent book is “Virtually Lost: Essays on Education in a Global ...

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