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A Side Effect of Anti-CRT Campaigns? Reduced Trust in Local Schools

The groundswell of calls for bans on the teaching of critical race theory had the effect of diminishing trust in local schools and teachers, new research shows.

Critical race theory, the decades-old academic concept that teaches that race is a social construct and that racism is embedded in American legal systems and policies, has been at the heart of the justification for thousands of book bans and curriculum restrictions in schools across the country over the past three years.

Alongside concerns over pandemic-era school closures and other health precautions, claims that children in public schools were learning critical race theory helped spawn a conservative parents’ rights movement, through which parent groups have called on school boards to reject books about racism, gender identity, and sexuality in school classrooms and libraries. Laws or other policies in 18 states have codified statewide bans on teaching of the concept, leading teachers to change the way they talk about race and racism in class.

With the political buzz surrounding the topic in mind, a group of researchers from Michigan State University and the University at Albany set out to find out how “ban-CRT narratives” have influenced public perceptions of schools.

The researchers found that members of the public were quick to believe claims that children in local schools were being taught critical race theory, and that belief ultimately hurt their perception of the local schools and teachers in their communities, according to the researchers’ paper, published Jan. 10 in the Policy Studies Journal.

“While the public had some opinion on how to best teach about race and racism in schools beforehand, they likely didn’t really have any opinion on critical race theory,” said Ariell Bertrand, an education policy Ph.D. student at Michigan State and one of the paper’s authors. “In this age where information can spread really quickly and like wildfire, we saw this newness of the narrative really spread across the country, and then [it] started to have a lot of on-the-ground effects for public schools.”

Because critical race theory is a framework developed by legal scholars that’s most commonly been written about in academic language and on the pages of expert journals, it’s unlikely many K-12 teachers have directly taught the concept to their students. But the researchers’ paper shows how easily claims without evidence caught on and had a damaging effect on people’s trust in their local schools, which members of the public have tended to hold in high regard even as they express dissatisfaction with American education writ large.

Exposure to claims about CRT diminished trust in schools

The researchers chose to examine narrative plots about critical race theory because politicians often rely on stories and storytelling, rather than data and hard facts, to influence policy. Critical race theory is an especially strong example to illustrate the impact of narrative because it has almost no data behind it. There’s little to no evidence K-12 schools teach critical race theory, nor is there any research on the influence of the framework on student attitudes and beliefs.

In the study, researchers identified 11 narrative plots politicians and pundits commonly shared about critical race theory, including that “CRT indoctrinates children,” “CRT teaches children to be racist,” “CRT teaches children to feel bad,” “CRT teaches one race is inferior or oppressed,” and “CRT teaches children to hate the United States.”

They then asked a sample of 1,500 Michigan adults—37 percent of whom were Republicans, 43 percent Democrats, and 20 percent of whom said they belonged to neither party—how often they had seen each narrative in Michigan State University’s State of the State Survey in September and October of 2021, when the ban-CRT narrative was first circulating. They also asked about their beliefs about critical race theory and schools after seeing the messages.

In general, survey respondents were 59 percentage points more likely to support a ban if they reported seeing a ban-CRT narrative before the survey than people who had not heard a ban-CRT plot, the research says.

Exposure to those messages also hurt respondents’ perceptions of local schools.

For each message about banning critical race theory a respondent reported seeing, they were two to three percentage points less likely to trust in their local teachers’ ability to discuss race and racism with students. In other words, people who had seen all 11 narratives included in the survey were 22 to 31 percentage points less likely than those who hadn’t to trust their local schools and teachers to discuss race and racism. Exposure to each message also led to a nearly four-percentage-point decrease in trust of teachers’ ability to supplement curricula and a 3-percentage-point decrease in support for schools’ ability to teach about fairness and equity.

The research illustrates the growing polarization around education

The messages about critical race theory influenced respondents’ thinking across the political spectrum, though to a varying degree depending on partisan preference, illustrating how a largely bipartisan consensus on education policy has faded.

Forty-four percent of respondents who identified as “a strong Democrat” supported a critical race theory ban after seeing the narratives, while 88 percent of those who identified as “a strong Republican” supported a ban.

“Republicans and Democrats were not that different if they reported not hearing very many or any of the narrative plots,” said Rebecca Jacobson, an education policy professor at Michigan State and one of the researchers behind the report. “But as they heard more, Republicans became much more polarized in terms of being very strongly supportive of a ban for CRT or being very skeptical that they should trust teachers. … So we’re beginning to see this divide, which is relatively new to education politics.”

The research is especially revealing about the power of misinformation to influence public opinions of local schools people, in general, have long trusted.

“There was little to no evidence that CRT was actually happening, yet these narratives were really powerful, even more powerful than we were expecting,” said Melissa Arnold Lyon, a public administration and policy professor at the University at Albany. “That tells us a lot about how people’s opinions on even sort of concrete things in their lives can be shaped by stories, even stories that are not actually relevant to their daily lives.”

School and district leaders can counter false narratives with openness

Ultimately, school and district leaders have the most power to change how the ban-CRT narrative and similar political story plots based on misinformation affect their classrooms, Jacobson said.

When politicians started calling for critical race theory bans, school boards that found themselves at the center of these debates often responded by denying or ignoring the rumors. Some implemented new rules for public comments at their meetings to limit disruptions.

“That makes sense when you’re under attack; you want to create some distance or create some space, but I think that’s the exact wrong move,” Jacobson said. “Instead, we need to find more ways to invite not just parents, but the public, into our schools so they can see, and hopefully really seeing is believing.”

Jacobson suggests that school board members, superintendents, and principals forge more active relationships with the public, through community events and regular communications about what is happening in schools. Schools may even want to hire public relations firms and other support to help them handle controversial issues without alienating their communities, she said.

“The old-fashioned superintendent letter of ‘this week in review’ isn’t enough anymore,” Jacobson said.

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