Published April 17, 2023
What is the top education story in the country? Measured by press coverage, Ron DeSantis’s pushback against woke education in Florida takes the prize. Yet in truth, DeSantis’s pushback is only the second-most important education story of our day. The deeper mystery is the rise of the movement he’s resisting.
Obfuscating denials that “critical race theory” is taught in K–12 mean that the woke takeover of our schools is still imperfectly recognized and understood. The frightening truth emerges if we do what the media avoid — preoccupied as they are with an education backlash from conservatives — and survey the advancement of education radicalism in the blue states, where its spread is largely unimpeded.
What is driving the relentless expansion of woke education in Democrat-run states? Can an America where our core story is no longer told survive? Important as the red-state pushback against woke education has been, a tour of our blue-state education nightmare will tell us much that we need to know about where America is headed. What happens when anti-woke pushback fails?
Rhode Island happens. The Ocean State has just put in place an outrageously politicized and shamefully deficient set of social studies standards, and it has done so in the most underhanded fashion.
Here is the central trick. If you take a quick, superficial look at the content sections of Rhode Island’s Social Studies Standards, things might seem relatively normal. Many of the usual topics in U.S. history, for example, are present in the standards. The trick is that every topic must be taught in line with the new “anchor standards,” which demand radical leftist advocacy.
So, for example, the anchor standard on “power” tells teachers to “argue how power can be distributed and used to create a more equitable society for communities and individuals based on their intersectional identities.” This anchor standard on “power” is then cross-referenced in the various content units, for example, in the U.S. history unit on “The New Right and the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.” In other words, the standards effectively command Rhode Island’s teachers to present Reagan’s presidency by showing how an identity-based, equity-focused leftist coalition might have reversed his policies.
Almost all of Rhode Island’s anchor standards are about “equity” (equality of result), and the use of “identity, power, and resistance” to achieve it. Not a single episode of history can be taught outside the dictates of the anchor standards, i.e., without leftist advocacy.
Here’s another example. On economics, Rhode Island’s anchor standards instruct teachers to “argue how different economic systems can create more equitable outcomes for individuals and communities, particularly for those traditionally marginalized from the economic system.” That standard is cross-referenced in the U.S. history unit on the “Second New Deal.” That unit, in turn, suggests the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) as an example. Since the Socialist Party of America organized the STFU, this union is often cited by American history textbooks to illustrate the political goals of America’s socialists during the Depression. STFU organized poor black and white sharecroppers and tenant farmers, but its work was largely stifled by violent opposition from Southern white landowners and sheriffs.
There’s nothing wrong with studying STFU, but the anchor standards make that impossible to do without also advocating for socialism. Currently fashionable leftist histories, moreover, argue that capitalism is inseparable from slavery and racism. In that spirit, the deck is stacked against the free market and in favor of socialism by having students weigh alternative economic systems using an example in which a market economy is intertwined with segregation and racism.
There might be an argument for a single such example if Rhode Island’s economics instruction was more extensive and varied. Unlike most states, however, Rhode Island has no dedicated economics instruction in its new social studies standards. What little economics exists in Rhode Island’s standards is bound up with historical examples that tilt toward progressive or socialist perspectives, all of which must be taught through the leftist lens of the anchor standards. Those anchor standards never instruct students to ask which economic system is more productive, or more conducive to individual freedom. The only question on the table is which economic approach yields greater equality of result. Equality of result, of course, is socialism’s core rationale. The dynamics of a market economy are never even taught. This is, literally, socialist indoctrination.
The process by which Rhode Island’s social studies standards were created and approved is at least as disturbing as the standards themselves. Essentially, the leftist bureaucrats who run Rhode Island’s Department of Education devised the standards by partnering with the state’s leftist community organizations. The process was designed to effectively lock out both the public and the legislature, although ill-advised legislation did facilitate this backdoor approach. This is a classic case of leftist education bureaucrats pulling the wool over the public’s eyes — something that happens in red states as well as blue. At no point in the process did Republicans in Rhode Island’s state legislature sniff out what was happening and push back.
You can read more about Rhode Island’s social studies travesty in this report by David Randall of the National Association of Scholars and co-published with the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity. Without knowledge of Randall’s account, however, how many Rhode Islanders will even notice the politicized anchor standards, or penetrate the obscure cross-referencing system that ties the anchor standards to the content standards? And how many will notice all that’s missing from the content standards? Rhode Island’s standards greatly minimize America’s tradition of liberty. Faith is barely mentioned. America’s history of technological progress is barely present; so too for the story of our national prosperity. The origins of liberal democracy in the West go untreated. In place of our Western heritage is a globalist version of world history. In short, the essence of the American story has disappeared.
When we shift from tiny Rhode Island to a huge one-party state such as Illinois, the pattern is confirmed. Back in early 2021, I wrote about Illinois’s ultra-radical proposed teaching standards, which mandate telling students that America is systemically oppressive and inequitable, urge teachers to undergo therapy to “mitigate” their white privilege, press teachers to turn students into leftist political activists (and to grade them on that activism, instead of on their test scores), and require teachers to affirm gender “fluidity.” At the time, the Illinois State Board of Education absurdly denied that the new teaching standards would affect the classroom. That nonsensical claim has been rendered moot by subsequent developments.
In late 2021, around the same time that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was pushing the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution backing CRT (they approved it), Illinois’s Social Science Standards were revised. These standards were explicitly about classroom content, not teacher training or licensure. And the revised social science standards advanced the very same radical political agenda as Illinois’s controversial new teaching standards. The Illinois social science standards also use the same trick as Rhode Island’s new social studies standards. In addition to “disciplinary” standards covering civics, economics, history, and such, there are strands of “inquiry standards.” Those inquiry standards control the way the disciplinary units are presented. And the inquiry standards, particularly the ones on “Communicating Conclusion and Taking Informed Action,” are thoroughly political. In effect, the inquiry standards force leftist politics onto all of Illinois’s civics and history content.
So, for example, the “Informed Action” inquiry strand says that Illinois students must “analyze existing structures, systems and methodologies to determine what types of interventions or informed action will lead to increased equity, inclusion, and community and civic good.” Another inquiry standard tells students to “take measurable action to effect changes that bring about equity and inclusion.” Yet another inquiry standard explains that such action should be taken “in or out of school.” Here we have a mandate for enforced political activism designed to advance DEI-based policies, both in and out of school. Thanks to the newly politicized inquiry standards, every topic in the Illinois social science curriculum is now an occasion for “action civics,” i.e., school-enforced political activism. And now, even the pretense of political neutrality is gone. Students are formally pressed to take political action in behalf of DEI.
New items have been added to the Illinois social science content standards as well. Civics must now “address inequalities” related to “sexual identity.” In economics, students must now compare capitalism, socialism, and communism with respect to their “impact on equitable outcomes.” As with Rhode Island, there is no call to compare different economic systems regarding their productivity, or scope for individual liberty. The questions effectively force students to choose socialism — and now they are pushed to undertake extracurricular political protest and lobbying on the topic as well.
These revisions to Illinois’s Social Science Standards appear to have evaded substantial public notice (even if the legal notifications were observed). Just about the only way you can learn about them is via an obscure link at the influential leftist civics website I wrote about several times in 2021. It appears that, even as leftist educators in Illinois were denying any impact from the controversial new teaching standards on . . . teaching, they were quietly making changes to state social science standards that confirmed their critics’ worst fears. Using similarly stealthy techniques, Rhode Island has now followed suit. While this quick review only begins to get at the radicalization of K–12 education in Illinois, let’s move on to another blue state: Minnesota.
Minnesota’s proposed new social studies standards manage to be even more politicized and extreme than the new social studies standards in Rhode Island and Illinois. Minnesota achieves this by coming out into the open. Instead of stealthily interweaving traditional-sounding content with politicized “anchor” or “inquiry” standards, Minnesota is proposing new standards that formally add “ethnic studies” as a topic, alongside such traditional subjects as civics, history, economics, and geography. It’s tough to get further left than the coalition of educators who back “liberated ethnic studies,” and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has given effective command of the standards-writing process to that group.
A report on the proposed new standards written for Minnesota’s Center of the American Experiment by the author of Land of Hope, the distinguished American historian Wilfred McClay, tells the sad story of Minnesota’s proposed standards. “It is hard to exaggerate the destructiveness of what is being attempted in Minnesota,” McClay says. The standards, he says, make “radical political activism,” not academic knowledge and the cultivation of civic identity, the goal of education. In effect, he concludes, “the standards require teachers to become political propagandists.”
The political ideology behind Minnesota’s proposed standards, says McClay, runs counter to America’s founding principles and amounts to “an implicit calling-into-question of the very legitimacy of the regime under which we live.” American history is presented, not as “an effort to realize our noble founding ideals ever more fully, but rather as an ugly and soulless competition” between the “dominant classes” and the “oppressed.”
In the process, says McClay, “students learn nothing about the key events and figures of the American Revolution and Civil War, America’s role in World Wars I and II, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, and the French and Russian Revolutions.” The core narrative of Western civilization is “entirely missing,” he notes, and “there is almost no attention to the foundational facts of American and European history.” Instead, he argues “it is oppression narratives as far as the eye can see.”
These points apply to the civics, history, economics, and geography sections of Minnesota’s proposed standards, not just the newly added ethnic studies strand. In effect, the addition of ethnic studies guts and radicalizes all the other strands.
Despite the open radicalism of this proposal, opponents are having a tough time fighting back. “Ethnic Studies” sounds benign. Have a look at the webpage posted by the Center of the American Experiment as a guide for opponents of a series of sweeping bills that would expand the hold of “liberated ethnic studies” beyond even the proposed state standards. If this cluster of bills becomes law, they will effectively eliminate local control, forcing every K–12 curriculum in the state — math and science likely included — to push “anti-racism,” defined as the “equitable” redistribution of “power and resources” among “racial groups.” (The House version of these bills will probably be debated on the floor this week.)
The Center of the American Experiment’s “bait and switch” webpage contrasts the modest claims made by sponsors of these bills with the radical content of the bills themselves. Minnesota’s wave of ethnic studies initiatives may be the frankest and most extreme attempt to radicalize K–12 in the country. Even here, however, the changes are being sold with soothing euphemisms and outright misrepresentations. And the media — state and national — have largely ignored it all.
The emerging Democrat line on DeSantis is that, as an education culture warrior, he is dangerously “divisive.” On the contrary, even a quick survey of blue-state education radicalism shows that the Left is the aggressor in this culture war. On education, it’s DeSantis or doom. In the absence of aggressive pushback, our schools are quickly and quietly being converted into far-left political training camps. It’s happening in the blue states right now. There, the core American narrative isn’t being tweaked or supplemented — it is simply gone.
The most extreme forms of leftist politicization are no longer confined to anecdotes — stories from a K–12 classroom or a teacher-training session here and there. Entire states are now imposing CRT, ethnic studies, DEI — the whole panoply of left-indoctrination strategies — on every classroom. In the absence of aggressive culture-war pushback, the Rhode Island/Illinois/Minnesota way is coming to your state. It may already be there without your knowing. Secrecy and subterfuge are the order of the day — unless you fight back.
To a degree, the secrecy is encouraging. It’s a backhanded admission that the public isn’t where the activists are. In other words, anti-woke pushback can work. Yet the timidity of the silent majority persists. No one wants to be called a bigot. That includes moderate Democrats, who can’t stand up to their own woke wing. On education, Democrats have allowed the extremists to take charge. Then again, a parent will hazard false accusations of bigotry for the sake of his child. How the balance of forces will shake out is tough to know at this point. Yet surely, it is foolish not to fight. Once we allow the schools to delegitimate our constitutional system, the country cannot endure. When America’s story goes, America goes with it. And right now, we are going, going . . . state by state by state.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.