“Critical theory” is a straightforward but important area of study that is often misunderstood and maligned. And yet, it’s pretty simple: It studies how reforms are necessary when a government agency or function (the courts or criminal justice process and the like), or an academic discipline (for example, law or history), contribute in major ways to the very problem that they are intended to solve.
Here’s an example. Critical law theory emerged as a specific sub-field more than 50 years ago in the United States when feminist scholars documented how women who reported their rape to the police were further victimized by the legal process. The result was revisions to the criminal code to eliminate those barriers and to create a new understanding of “sexual assault.” In short, the goal was to prosecute the perpetrator and not blame or further traumatize the victim. Nothing controversial in that.
Currently, the discipline of history is questioning whether commonly accepted accounts of the past may actually be contributing to the persistence of racism, requiring reconsideration from the perspective of the present. Designating lynching locations in the South as National Historical Sites is an example of re-focusing that history.
When the specific focus of critical theory is about racial issues, it is a sub-area of study known as “critical race theory,” whether it is about a civic process, such as how the justice system functions, or within the structure of academic disciplines such as history. Simply put, racism is structural, not just personal.
Many states, including Florida, have passed laws restricting the teaching of critical race theory in their colleges and universities. The legislative purpose of these laws is to restrict the teaching of critical race theory and other topics that lawmakers have labeled as “divisive concepts.” When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the “Stop Woke” Act, he had his picture taken behind a sign that read “Freedom From Indoctrination.”
But “critical theory” — whether it’s critical law theory or critical race theory or something else — isn’t intended to indoctrinate. It simply investigates why systems fail at the very problem they’re supposed to solve.
An example close to home
For example, in the United States today, one of the most prominent racial areas of national concern is the large number of failing, largely minority, urban schools. The Pinellas County school system provides a classic case study of such failing schools resulting in discipline and achievement gaps between Black and white students.
In 2015 the Tampa Bay Times identified five elementary schools in predominately Black neighborhoods of St. Petersburg that went from successful, partially desegregated schools in 2006, to racially segregated, failing schools a decade later. As a result of the Times investigative reporting, Pinellas County schools undertook a 10-year, wide-ranging reform effort called “Bridging the Gap.” While the outcome assessments are ongoing, the annual reports have been positive.
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How does critical race theory help to study this problem? From the perspective of critical race theory, a common misperception of our schools is that there is a hierarchically organized set of independent elements that proceed in a circular sequential order: A causes B, B causes C, and C causes A. For example:
When students do not behave, teachers cannot teach. When teachers cannot teach students do not learn. When students do not learn, the schools fail. When schools fail students do not behave.
When a school system becomes segregated — as in urban, largely minority, failing public schools, illustrated by the five Pinellas schools — then these vicious circles are about minority students and their parents, and the situation becomes a racial issue. In this case, the behavior and achievement of the Black students becomes the focus of attention.
However, vicious circles have neither definite starting nor end points. One starting point focuses on the students and their parents, and implicitly blames them. A second starting point implicitly blames the teachers. And a third implicitly blames the schools.
When none of the three are prepared to accept responsibility for the failure of the other two, no solution is obvious, and the problem appears intractable.
How to break the circle? That is the problem to be solved. Should we train the teachers in classroom management or give them diversity training? Should we discipline or use positive behavioral modification procedures with the students? Should we modify institutional and situational factors that result in largely minority schools? Which of the elements is broken and who should be held responsible to break the chain?
Critical race theory provides an alternative perspective on how to approach these issues. Specifically, that the success of any school is a function of the teacher/student relationship, that the success of the teacher is a function of the school/student relationship, and that the success of the student is a function of the school/teacher relationship.
Simply put, no one of the three sets of relationships can succeed without the other two sets of relationships also being successful. Each is dependent on the other two. They are interactive and not organized hierarchically. They are simultaneous, not sequential.
To empirically evaluate the critical race theory perspective, we have used three public databases for the 2013-14 academic year (the semi-annual Civil Rights Data Collection series, the Pinellas County Schools’ website, and the Florida Department of Education accountability reports). This is the last set of public data before the investigative reporting by Tampa Bay Times resulted in the reform efforts now in progress by the Pinellas School District.
In these five schools, from 2006 through 2015, the level of segregation increased from 51% to 80% Black, and the schools declined from a state-issued letter grade of B- to F. Teachers had transferred out of the schools, or resigned from the system, resulting in new, inexperienced teachers at the beginning of each school year.
By 2015, 59.9% of the students failed to meet grade-level academic standards, and the schools received a failing grade of F. When students did not learn, there was lack of parental support; only 11.1% of the teachers felt they received positive parental support. When there was a lack of parental support, there was a high rate of teacher turnover, resulting in 45% of new, inexperienced teachers.
Schools with new, inexperienced teachers had more classroom management problems, resulting in 390 formal disciplinary actions. When classroom management was an issue, only 14.4% of the students were seen as well behaved. When students misbehaved, there were many referrals (2,165) for staff and administrative support. When there was no school history of administrative support, only 57.2% of the teachers looked forward to coming to school each day. When teachers did not want to come to work, morale was low, with only 44% reporting positive morale. Schools with low morale had a failing grade of F. In failing schools, only 8.3% of the teachers felt parents were involved.
Three sets of dysfunctional relationships. Every negative element made every other element worse. It was a vicious circle, spiraling downward ever faster.
For the comparison, we selected five of the most successful elementary schools, which had remained integrated over the same period, 2006 through 2015, but had a stable white majority (70% to 66%).
In these schools, 84.8% of the students met high academic standards, and the schools received a Grade of A. When students learned, 100% of the teachers experienced strong positive parental support. When there was parental support, there was a low rate of teacher turnover with only 5% of new, inexperienced teachers. Schools with experienced teachers had no serious problems which resulted in formal disciplinary actions. When classroom management was not an issue, 100% of the teachers felt their students were well behaved. When students were well behaved, there were only 8 referrals requiring staff and administrative support.
In the schools with a history of a stable experienced staff working together as a team, 96.8% of the teachers looked forward to coming to school each day. When teachers wanted to come to work 86% reported having positive morale. Schools with high morale were successful (earning the schools an A grade). In the successful schools, 100% of the teachers felt the parents were involved.
At the end of this successful continuum, there was a clear, positive, mutually reinforcing climate. Happy teachers, with cooperative students and parents, had a high-performing school. A school with happy and stable staff had manageable classrooms. And a successful school with cooperative parents had stable and happy teachers.
The links are interconnected
Traditionally, educational research has focused separately on schools (for example, comparative achievement, quality of facilities), teachers (for example, retention rates, credentials, personal characteristics) and students (for example, preparedness, achievement gap, head start) as if they were independent issues, each with their own independent solutions.
From the perspective of critical race theory, one cannot blame the teachers, the students, or the failing schools themselves. None alone can fix the problem. Instead, one must blame the process that binds the three together in a specific way, at a specific time and place, as illustrated by our case study of 10 elementary schools in Pinellas County.
Critical race theory is the necessary perspective for informing “Bridging the Gap” of its specific obligations to the five failing schools in Pinellas County. It is a well-established area of scholarship that identifies how the specific issues at a particular time and place are actually contributing to the problems for which they are the intended solution. In no way is this being “woke,” as critics would dismissively claim.
A broader and more sophisticated understanding of both our physical and social worlds is the engine of change we recognize as human progress. Change always has been and always will be disruptive to someone’s comfort level. Clearly, this has been the case for critical race theory with some elected officials who would prefer not to have their current political agendas disrupted in this way.
We did not need to be “protected” from knowing about five failing schools in St. Petersburg or the location of historical lynching sites in Florida. A healthy and thriving democracy depends on this type of uncensored scholarship. It is something that needs to be cherished, supported, and protected.
Critical race theory is not an indoctrination of individuals, it is the foundation for creating improvements and lasting change toward eliminating racism in the United States. It is the political censorship of critical race theory that is a dangerous form of indoctrination.
Edward Renner is a retired university professor who has been a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois, where he was a tenured full professor. He has served as an adjunct instructor at the University of South Florida. LaSonya Moore is an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.