Dr. Ottley’s Critical Race Theory Message to the Community

January 21, 2022

Dear Community Members,

The offices of Academics and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion have made strides to produce social and curricular experiences that are meaningful and praiseworthy. Among our achievements is an Equity policy, passed by the school board August 2020, which holds district officials accountable for creating and maintaining a culturally responsive environment that strives to eliminate district and community-wide inequities in governance practices, workforce practices, operational practices, and educational practices. Considering Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order (EO) No. 1 (2022) designed to end the incorporation of “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory and its progeny,” I would like to provide some thoughts on our educational equity practices.

The debate over teaching and learning in the education system in our Commonwealth is not alone in this current politicized climate. Before the new year, at least eight states passed laws restricting the teaching of “divisive concepts.” More than a dozen other states have proposed similar laws, which include prohibitions on, not just pedagogical practices and curriculum, but call for bans on certain books.

Since our country is a democracy, and Arlington Public Schools is a microcosm of our larger society, the polarizing impact of political ideology has and always will influence school policy. I hear arguments from both sides: one set of ideals maintains that discussions on race and sex are attempts at political indoctrination; topics such as CRT cause students to feel shame or guilt of their racial, sexual and gender identities. The other claims such laws or executive orders are bans on truth, and that they suppress the teaching of darker moments of American history while resulting in the exclusion of underrepresented voices.

CRT is an academic theory that is used to understand the role race has played in the development of legal, social, and political policies throughout the history of the United States, past and present. While it is primarily taught at the university level, the public has raised concerns over some of the theory’s core tenets, which include: (1) race is socially invented in order to privilege one racialized group over others; (2) racism is a natural part of everyday life and is thus institutional, as opposed to individual; and (3) racialized and other marginalized people possess a unique perspective into the nature of oppressive systems, structures, and institutions. Acting accordingly, the best way to understand racism is by listening to personal testimonies that may provide a counter narrative to how people experience society.

Gov. Youngkin writes in EO No. 1 that CRT “instruct[s] students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims.” In other words, the argument here is that CRT admonishes all white people for being oppressors while classifying all Black people as hopelessly oppressed victims. CRT does not attribute racism to white people as individuals or even to entire groups of people. To wit, CRT states that U.S. social institutions (e.g., the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system) are laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race. However, many Americans are not able to separate their individual identity as an American from the social institutions that govern us—these people perceive themselves as the system. While CRT has been useful for academics and social prognosticators in creating a more just United States, I assure you that the tenets described above are not taught in any of the schools in the Arlington Public School District.

Subsequently, students are alarmed by how little they have learned about inequality. They are upset at their schools, teachers, and even their parents. So, this is the conundrum: teachers in K-12 schools are not actually teaching CRT. But teachers are trying to respond to students asking them why people are protesting and why Black people are more likely to be killed by the police.

I write not to coax anyone in the community into a position. But I know that educators in Arlington Public Schools teach the standards written by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). VDOE’s “Standards of Learning for History and Social Science” were last updated in 2015. Its standards for history and social sciences do not include CRT. VDOE maintains a policy of revising its standards every seven years. Acting accordingly, the Virginia Board of Education voted one year ago to review and revise its standards by November 2022. We do not believe CRT will be written into the revised history and social science standards once completed at the end of this year. Even if they were, the Superintendent is responsible to make recommendations to the APS school board on whether to adopt the new state standards.

I want to say unequivocally, our job as educators is to educate all our children in a manner that is inclusive in school textbooks, images, and stories. Our educators have a responsibility to provide our youngest learners an experience that makes them excited about entering our schools daily. This means, we must provide students with the resources where they see characters like themselves who are valued in the world. We must offer students a culturally sensitive curriculum that teaches empathetic views into someone else’s experience. And as our students travel vertically through the school system, our educators must help them become engaged citizens that think critically about the world. All this means, students entering and exiting APS should learn about the rich diversity of our country so that when they return to our community, they work to create a more perfect Arlington.

Since EO No. 1 is a reality, my team is currently exploring two paradigms that involve dialoguing with community, staff, and students. First, we examine our history and acknowledge that the education system has been here plenty of times before. The most recent debate wherein control over education was this prevalent in the media occurred during the 1970s. The topic was “moral education.” It occurred after the Watergate scandal and a generation after school desegregation following Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. Implications of both challenges (value-sorting and diversifying student bodies) stirred debate over the role of educators to teach about moral behavior, prejudice, and discrimination. Some schools grappled with school busing across district boundaries in order to achieve a racially balanced school population. Other, already desegregated, schools were challenged to consider changes to the curriculum to align with student demographics. Schools in many places were challenged to use classrooms to discuss “moral literacy.”

Naturally, the question of whether using a multicultural lens to talk about values became a matter of contention between dueling ideologies. Parents asked: to what extent did that curricular approach indoctrinate America’s children and youth? One can discern, then, that lawmakers, educators, parents, and students of the ‘70s were entrenched in discussions over many of the same topics that center debate in this current moment. Records show that during such disputes over education, whether they transpired during the 1920s, 1950s, 1970s, or in this current moment, there have always been calls for curricular restrictions and bans on books. It must be said, no effort to restrict critical knowledge or to ban books in history has been judged kindly. Banning a book cannot be done with objectivity. For these reasons, my office is not looking to repeat what was done in the past; rather, we wish to collaborate with students, staff, parents, and community members to study the current issue, past and present, so that we may create a path forward that will stave off problems in the future.

Second, my office is also responsible for helping the APS community, especially its staff and students, adjust to EO No. 1. We are planning a community forum featuring distinguished educators and, I hope, lawmakers, to talk through the current state of education. This forum will take place in March 2022. A specific date has not yet been selected. This may be the first in a series of discussions because we are willing to talk about history, not shy away from it. More details to come.

Respectfully,

Jason Ottley, Ph.D.
Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer