Beau Bayless; Kimberly Hampton; and Keaton Jones
For decades schools have been a central part of communities, and they have been the testing grounds for cultural shifts. In 2021, integration policies are a renewed hot topic, explicitly focusing this past year in school settings, policies centered around mask-wearing mandates, and the use of LGBTQ+ pride flags for political speech. This paper focused on the debate around critical race theory or CRT, a framework aimed at finding and examining examples of structural racism.
In recent months, the media and news networks have discussed CRT, but many people still seem unaware of exactly what CRT is. CRT has a rich history that began in the United States as an intellectual movement based on civil rights laws and court cases. Scholars such as Khiara Bridges define CRT as an “intellectual movement” or “analytical toolset for interrogating the relationship between law and racial inequality.” The premise for using CRT as a framework is that the United States law system compounds some racial issues within their communities, states, and country. CRT’s main objective is to shed light on these laws and unpack how they impede citizens’ rights and possible solutions. (Bridges, 2019)
Utah is one state where CRT has become the focus of a fiery debate. Parents and legislators suggest it has no place in the Utah school system. In June 2021, the Utah Senate passed S.R. 901, a resolution on CRT that “identified risks of critical race theory in public education.” Additionally, many parents in Utah have expressed deep concerns about teaching CRT in Utah Schools and have attended school board meetings to explain their views (Tanner, 2021). The definitions of CRT have been somewhat varied by individual parents and legislators. The purpose of this research study is to examine teachers’ perceptions of CRT and how, if at all, the debate around CRT has affected the schools they teach.
This research study took an interpretivist approach to hear teachers’ thoughts on the CRT debate, looking specifically at teachers in Utah teaching grades 9-12. The objective was to learn how the CRT debate has affected classrooms and the school curriculum. Additionally, if the debate hasn’t impacted them, are the teachers worried about future legislative actions. Open-ended questions are critical because the researchers wanted to avoid biasing answers. A small case study approach allowed interviewers to conduct, complete, and analyze three semi-structured interviews. The interviews provided insight into teachers’ thoughts, namely how teachers understand CRT, their feelings on the debate around CRT, and their thoughts regarding their responsibilities in teaching CRT and other areas.
Key findings of this analysis showed a somewhat fluid definition of CRT and no solid connection for using the phrase CRT in teachers’ own teaching. Instead, teachers described a dedication to teaching critical thinking and the importance of diversity and equity. Teachers explained understanding the fears and concerns of parents. They felt that the debate around CRT was based on a misunderstanding and other stakeholders intentionally blowing the debate out of proportion. Finally, teachers described some concerns around possible outcomes of the CRT debate, particularly in possible new requirements for teachers.
Literature Review and Background
Critical Race Theory
Perhaps the most important background required for this paper is an understanding of what CRT is. Norma M. Ricucci (2021) described CRT as the following:
Critical race theory is a framework that adopts a race-conscious approach to uncover and better understand institutional and structural racism in our society to promote and achieve social justice. The premise of CRT is that our legal, political, and economic institutions are inherently racist, and that race is a socially constructed concept that enables and justifies the ability of Whites to promote their own economic, social, and political interests at the expense of people of color.
Ricucci (2021) further explains that CRT is a research framework that has been used in a variety of disciplines and is used to shape the research of those disciplines. In this definition, it is essential to understand that CRT is a research approach or tool, not a curriculum. Research that uses CRT seeks to understand existing institutions and structures’ racial impact and biases.
As mentioned earlier, critical race theory arose from the study and discussion of civil rights law. Derrick Bell is often cited as one of the earliest developers of CRT (Delgado & Stefancic, 1998). Bell was the first black professor at Harvard Law School and wrote regarding stalling civil rights progress in litigation and the development of more nuanced racism (Delgado & Stefancic, 1998). Richard Delgado is cited as another early scholar using critical race theory and wrote about white scholars neglecting to mention scholars of color when discussing civil rights among their other works (Delgado & Stefancic, 1998).
Despite the rich history behind CRT and the many scholars behind the theory, such as Bell, Utah politicians seem unaware of precisely what CRT is. Politicians such as republican State Senator Lincoln Filmore have said they cannot find clear definitions of CRT (Lowell, 2021). As mentioned above, the senate’s language also shows a concern from Utah politicians that CRT teaches that one race is superior to another. Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, another Republican, was cited as mentioned, “It might be that white above Black or Black above white, or purples above red. If you read some of the critical race theory, it’s hard to know what they think” (Hutson, 2021). Another republican Utah State Senator, Todd Weiler, was cited as saying, “A lot of parents — they’re afraid. They’re afraid that critical race theory may be used in schools to shame their children” (Hutson, 2021).
In short, Utah politicians do not appear to be using definitions of CRT from scholars such as the two cited definitions in this paper from Bridges or Riccuci. Instead, politicians have suggested that CRT is a theory used to teach that one race is superior to another or to shame white children. While the way Utah politicians understand CRT may change in the future, this study was conducted and written in an environment of unclear definitions and opposition from politicians. This background prompted questions regarding specific definitions from interviewees and questions regarding their thoughts on politicians’ perspectives.
Teachers and Policymakers
Education policy has many stakeholders, including teachers, parents, and politicians. It can be difficult, if not downright impossible to craft policy that somewhat appropriately represents all stakeholders. Politicians can create policy without teachers. Brandi Hinnant-Crawford (2016) carried out research looking at how teachers believed they could influence education policy. In this study, Hinnant-Crawford reported that teachers felt they had “no role in creation, full role in implementation” and “disconnect and distrust” regarding policymakers. Particularly noting that teachers felt policymakers were ill-informed and needed “firsthand experience in the classroom to make good policies about schools.”
This paper focused on looking at teacher perspectives in light of this study and hearing personal experiences from other teachers, including their thoughts on policy and policymakers. It included asking interviewees questions regarding whether their definition of CRT matched policymakers’ and asking their feelings on policymakers making determinations around CRT. There was some assumption that teachers might disagree with some proposed policies from legislators, and questions reflected that assumption.
Furthermore, the Utah Education Policy Center publishes The Educator Career and Pathway Survey or ECAPS. ECAPS looks at several factors such as salary, administrative support, or influence on school policies that influence teachers’ decisions to enter and leave the teaching workforce (Rorrer et al. 2020). Of particular note, the impact of school policies and practices was a relatively low area of satisfaction. Supposing that teachers desire to improve that area of satisfaction, there was an assumption made that teachers may be interested in having a more significant influence in policies pertaining to CRT. Given the apparent dissatisfaction with how policymakers create policies and practices within schools, interviews for this paper included questions about potential policies and who teachers believed should be responsible for creating such policies.
Perspectives of Teachers and Parents
Looking at recent reporting, such as the article from Tanner (2021) mentioned above, it would appear that there may be a divide in perspectives between teachers and parents regarding politically debated topics such as CRT. Looking for research comparing parent and teacher perspectives seemed relevant to this paper. The difference in parent and teacher perspectives in other areas has been documented and discussed as an additional point in research, such as a paper from Siegle et al. (2020), which examined the differences between parent and teacher perceptions of the attitudes of gifted students. Another example might be a paper from Cavendish and Connor (2017), which compared interview responses from teachers, parents, and students.
While there may be research comparing teacher and parent perspectives on hot button issues such as CRT or other issues, as of the writing of this paper, it seems to be an area with little to no research, particularly research focusing on this comparison. While this paper contains some discussion of how teachers perceive their definition of CRT compared to parents, future research comparing interviews of teachers with those of parents may help expand this topic.
The overall research design for this study consisted of an interpretivist case study consisting of several semi-structured interviews. This study hoped to gain insight on how teachers understood CRT and the debate around CRT. So while the interviewers used the same set of questions, interviewers were not focused on any particular claim or argument. Additionally, given the politicized nature of the CRT debate, interviewees were told that all responses would remain anonymous. Any identifying information was removed, except each teacher’s subject area.
|What made you want to be a teacher?|
|What is your definition of Critical Race Theory?|
|How do you think this compares to the academic definition?|
|What information have you received from your school district or school regarding CRT?|
|What do you hear parents, students, and others saying about CRT?|
|How do you think their definition would compare to yours?|
|What is your understanding of the “CRT Debate”|
|Who do you think should decide on a curriculum like this?|
|What effect do you feel like you have on your curriculum?|
|What thoughts do you have on the legislature discussing this on a state scale?|
As Gerring (2006) notes, case studies can be challenging to explain and may have different definitions for different researchers. Here, this paper uses a case study to describe a focused analysis on a small number of cases coming from a larger population without necessarily being representative of that population. In this case, this paper looks at the responses of three Utah teachers regarding the debate around CRT from a larger population of all Utah teachers.
After interviews were completed, the collected data was coded for themes using an inductive constant comparison analysis described by Leech and Onwuegbuzie (2007). In this analysis, six themes emerged and are discussed later in this paper.
Sampling was largely convenience-based, with researchers drawing on their circles for teachers to interview. Additionally, sampling was purposive in that teachers took steps to ensure that at least one teacher interviewed taught a subject likely to be impacted by CRT and at least one teacher taught a subject that seemed fairly removed from the CRT debate. All teachers interviewed were secondary school teachers in Utah who teach in more urban school districts to preserve comparability.
When considering what demographics to include, interviewees considered age, race, political affiliation, and subject taught. Ultimately, it was concluded that the subject taught had the most significant potential impact on teacher responses regarding their thoughts on the CRT debate. While other characteristics, especially race, might also have an impact, these other demographics were not influential in deciding what teachers to interview.
Initially, researchers planned to conduct 5-6 interviews, based partially on the recommendation from Leech and Onwuegbuzie (2005) and their recommendation for 3-5 interviews for a case study. Ultimately, some outside circumstances prevented final scheduling for two potential interviews. This resulted in three interviews being completed while still remaining within the recommendation being used. These three teachers represented a teacher with a subject highly influenced by the CRT debate in English and Literature, a teacher with a subject largely unaffected by the CRT debate in Math, and a teacher with some perspective from both sides having taught Math and English and currently teaching Computer Science.
|Interview Participant||Subject Taught||Grade Taught|
|Teacher 1||English and Literature||10-12th grade|
|Teacher 2||Computer Science, formerly Math and English||9th grade|
|Teacher 3||Math||10-12th grade|
Data Collection and Analysis
Data were collected through semi-structured interviews, with a list of questions being shared before the interview. These interviews were recorded and transcribed with any identifying information being removed from the transcriptions. The list of questions used by researchers and given to interviewees were outlined previously in this section.
While these questions may reveal some potentially targeted questions, such as the question regarding the state legislature, the teachers interviewed were encouraged to use these questions simply as a guide to the interview, with not every interview discussing every question in detail. Interviewers worked to create an environment in which teachers could share their overall thoughts on CRT and the debate around CRT and each interview was allowed to take its course to create an organic conversation.
After interviews were transcribed, the data was analyzed using a constant comparison analysis. The themes identified from the first interview were used when coding the next interview, modifying the themes as necessary, and moving between the other interviews until eventually, one set of themes emerged. These themes were explored inductively, allowing the themes of one interview to impact the others rather than creating a list of themes and using exclusively that list on each interview. The themes that emerged were not ordered or used for any quantitative analysis. Descriptions from Leech and Onwuegbuzie (2007) served as a basis for this analysis method.
In analysis, six common themes emerged and follow in no particular order: Considerations of Outside Stakeholders, CRT Definition, Unsurety or Misunderstanding, Student Outcomes, and Level of Concern regarding CRT Debate. Teacher responses in these six themes are briefly described and a discussion of these findings in a larger context can be found in the next section of this paper. As noted earlier, Teacher 1 teaches a subject potentially more affected by debate around CRT. That said, Teachers 2 and 3 related some discussion to their peers in social studies departments and overall no meaningful differences emerged in overall answers.
Consideration of Outside Stakeholders
When discussing outside stakeholders, in particular parents, politicians, and the media, all three teachers seemed to regard each group in similar ways. When discussing parents, teachers interviewed mentioned some fear and misunderstanding regarding CRT from parents, all mentioning that they understood how that fear might drive parents toward concern. All three teachers also mentioned the need for parents to help their students understand uncomfortable concepts. Teachers suggested that while parents should have some input into the curriculum, they should not be single-handedly making decisions for all students.
Mentions of the media suggested that the media had blown the debate around CRT out of proportion. One teacher explained, “So where there is no contention, they must create some, and that’s how the media outlets get viewership” insinuating that the debate around CRT was partially manufactured. Another teacher explained that while there was some cause for concern from teachers about the debate, the media had made the debate and concerns around it bigger than they were. This said, teachers mentioned the media less often than politicians or parents.
All three teachers seemed to feel that while politicians should have some determination in making education policy, they should not have full control. This was explained particularly in light of some concerns about politicians going too far with potential requirements. One teacher mentioned hearing a proposal for social studies teachers to submit lesson plans a month in advance. They said “It is absolutely ridiculous because number one, that totally takes out teachers teaching to student needs….we have to have fluidity in teaching and that completely takes it out.” Teachers also expressed that too few legislators had experience teaching for them to decide curriculum. One interview also noted that some politicians had intentionally politicized the CRT debate for political gain and explained that CRT is “being used by politicians as a wedge issue to try to drive voters away from politicians.”
Each teacher was asked for a definition of CRT and while two of the teachers suggested they only had loose definitions, all three teachers had similar responses. One teacher described CRT as “analyzing the power structures and how those impact racial justice and impact equity and equality.” Another teacher described CRT by saying that CRT “examines and looks at the inequality and policy and where the disparities lie between minorities and majority.” The final teacher explained CRT as “critically analyzing your race and the role it plays in your life.”
While these definitions do vary somewhat, it is interesting that while teachers felt they had loose definitions, all three were relatively concrete and shared extensive similarities, including an understanding of the word critical as focusing on analyzing racial impacts. All three teachers expressed they had not heard the phrase CRT often, if ever, in the past, and suggested that they expected that the definition they gave would not strongly resemble the definition from many Utah parents. All three of these teachers mentioned having taken classes focused on diversity and equity and having done introspection on those while explaining their definition of CRT.
Misunderstanding Between Stakeholders
All three teachers suggested that much of the CRT debate is based on a misunderstanding from parents and politicians regarding what CRT is and what teaching towards equitable outcomes should look like. As mentioned when discussing parents, all three teachers suggested understanding why parents might be concerned and mentioned experiences with children in their own families when relating to the concerns of student parents. All three teachers suggested that most parents were not against teaching diverse perspectives and working towards equity. Teacher 1 indicated that many parents would or did support the way literature was used to teach diversity and structural racism. One teacher suggested that the misunderstanding from politicians might be more intentional than that of parents as politicians stood to possibly get some political gain. When asked how parent definitions compared to their own, one teacher explained, “Their definition stems around labels, not change. So I can absolutely understand these parents being like, well, if my children start thinking that they’re racist, then they’re going to think that I’m racist.” This teacher then explained that while they understood why parents would be afraid of labels, they felt there was a way labels could be used correctly.
All three teachers focused on student outcomes, both positive outcomes of learning and the potential adverse effects that parents worried about. One teacher mentioned hearing parents’ concern that CRT would “make white students feel shame,” but they recognized that although parents had this concern, students already reported “they felt saddened, but glad they had learned about that.” from the lessons previously taught regarding racial inequality.
All three teachers shared that part of their job was to help students understand inequality and work towards equality. That responsibility is shared with parents; their concerns are valued and addressed. One teacher stated, “what parent wouldn’t want their child to be a better human being than they are?”
The questions in the interview guide sparked a positive conversation with each teacher regarding their thoughts on teaching diversity and the importance of fostering diversity. The interview with Teacher 1 focused extensively on using literature as a tool to help students look outside their worldview and teach about structural and historical racism. The interview with Teacher 2 talked a lot about gender inequality and sexism as those were topics pressing in Computer Science, and related a lot of what parents needed to teach about sexism to what parents needed to teach about racism, and suggested that a lot of parents could understand that it was important for their students to learn about discrimination and how to avoid and solve it. The interview with Teacher 3 mentioned classes on teaching ESL students and how to incorporate their backgrounds and cultures while understanding potential biases.
Teacher 2 talked a lot about organic teaching. They reflected, “I always try to find organic moments that match who I am as a teacher, where I can introduce some of these ideas and thoughts and discuss those.” Reading their students’ needs had them focusing heavily on concerns regarding gender equality and sexism, and racism in schools which included students using racial slurs. To mitigate racism and focus on equity, they explained helping minority students from different backgrounds to feel both included and recognized. Another teacher also noted the importance of helping create equitable outcomes for students from various socioeconomic backgrounds.
Level of Concern regarding CRT Debate
All three teachers mentioned some potential concerns regarding the possible outcomes of the CRT debate. Teacher 1 mentioned several books they worried they would not be allowed to teach that discussed racism or similar themes. Teacher 2 and Teacher 3 mentioned that history and social studies teachers that they knew were concerned about their curriculum for things such as the Civil War and potential requirements for published lessons with little room for flexibility. None of the three teachers interviewed seemed overly concerned in their day-to-day teaching. When asked if teachers should be alarmed about laws prohibiting teaching certain books being passed, Teacher 1 said “I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, but I’m kind of not that concerned… I mean history is history.” All three teachers mentioned some concern that if the CRT debate did continue and if legislation were to be passed regarding CRT they might have fewer opportunities to teach their students about diversity and expand their world views. Which were goals all three teachers strongly shared.
In general, the teachers interviewed suggested that CRT to them was a way to look and critically examine racial inequalities. That said, none of the teachers suggested that they taught using CRT or seemed particularly attached to the phrase, instead focusing on their dedication towards diversity and equity and teaching their students those same views. While there was a small bit of animosity towards the parents, media, and politicians that were intentionally misunderstanding CRT or those trying to make sweeping decisions for all students, overall the three teachers interviewed seemed to try to understand and alleviate parent concerns. Finally, while there seemed to be concerns over potential legislation, none of the three teachers interviewed seemed very concerned about the CRT debate overall and felt the debate was based on misunderstanding and talked about more than necessary.
The findings observed from the teacher interviews both confirm some aspects of the relevant literature and also makes known the absence of and need for further research. In defining Critical Race Theory (CRT), each teacher touched upon various segments of both definitions noted previously. Conclusion: There are multiple academic or media-devised definitions that may account for the differing interpretations between teachers. The misinterpretation of Critical Race Theory and its definition is the key cause of the debate itself. Perhaps, the sources people rely on for information regarding CRT likely contribute to the vast array of definitions.
A shared sentiment between teachers and the literature was the overall lack of trust that teachers have for policymakers to make effective policies regarding what can and should be taught about CRT. When asked who should decide curriculum around CRT, one teacher said, “I don’t think it should be the legislature,” and suggested a board of primarily teachers with some parent input should be deciding curriculum. The disconnect between teachers and policymakers occurs because teachers are not represented; their voices are not heard when policies are created. This conclusion confirms that the three teachers interviewed share similar opinions regarding how policymakers view their role in the policy process.
Each of the three teachers interviewed spent a portion of their interview discussing why they thought parents might have concerns regarding CRT and expressed some understanding as to why a parent may be concerned. The teachers suggested a misunderstanding between what CRT was and how racism would be taught within the classroom(s). One teacher explained that parents “think their children are going to be shamed, or opportunity is going to be taken away from them.” Many of the desirable outcomes of such racially aware teaching were shared by teachers and parents, such as expanding worldviews and making students feel welcome.
As mentioned above, further research might take a similar interview approach with parents for more additional data. Still, interviews with teachers suggest that understanding the differences between the perceptions of parents and teachers might play an important role when looking at hot button issues in schools. While there may have been some deductive reasoning in assumptions, such as teachers would have strong feelings on CRT or that some teachers may be unsatisfied with policymakers. This research study shapes itself around responses, not to seek proof or disprove these assumptions.
This research study came with its own unique limitations. An unavoidable one was the time constraint in which the study had to be completed, which played a role in the number of interviews carried out. Additionally, the convenience-based approach and sample size came with locational and diversity-related limitations, as well as potential issues associated with interviewees having some sort of previous connection to interviewers. These limitations may include interviewer bias, assumptions the interviewee has about the interviewer, and assuming specific answers are more desirable. The small number of interviews used in this case study makes it a poor candidate for generalization, particularly given the locational and diversity-related limitations of a convenience-based sampling. Having only one round of interviews also prevented any changes to the list of questions used in the interviews, which pushed each interview in a somewhat similar direction. Future research might build off this paper by looking for a larger sample size and perhaps consider a parallel study with parent interviews as mentioned above.
High School teachers can provide an interesting perspective on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and how it defines and shapes students in Utah today. An interpretive approach method allowed for more leeway to obtain information not guided and controlled by strict questionnaires. The open-ended questions uncovered six common themes, which include; considerations of outside stakeholders, the inclusion of parents who should be assisting their child in understanding uncomfortable concepts, definitions to help define and analyze racial impacts, misunderstanding within the Utah community, diverse perspectives, how CRT strengthens the need to address other concerns such as gender equality, sexism, racism (including students using racial slurs and helping minority students from different backgrounds). There’s a varied level of concern about CRT Debate between each teacher and how teachers desire to make a difference in each student’s life, sometimes leading by example.
These themes can and should be explored in more depth by extending the research by expanding the initial scope of the small sample size in the original study. CRT is heavily misunderstood within the Utah community, but the initial interviews suggest there is a discrepancy without further exploration. There is a concern around the CRT debate and how it currently affects high school students and the future education of other students. We and the teachers interviewed in this study believe most parents want their children to grow up to be understanding and kind to everyone, which is reflected in equity and inclusion. These are essential skills to have.
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