The news that principals at several high schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, withheld valuable academic awards from top-performing students — around the time the school system hired a consultant that promised “equal outcomes for every student, without exception” — has shocked the nation. How could schools have gone from encouraging academic standouts to seemingly trying to squash them? And what are the consequences for our best and brightest and our nation?
This latest scandal effectively dispenses with a misconception that has confused the debate over politicized schools for three years: The most important way you’ll see Critical Race Theory (CRT) manifest in your school system isn’t through discussions of race at all. It’s through lowered academic standards and the rejection of the idea that excellence even exists.
Leftist activists present CRT — or as its proponents in K-12 call it, “equity” — as being about teaching about slavery (as if every American school doesn’t already do that). But I spent two years researching a book on these activists’ takeover of American schools, and it quickly became clear that the real, underlying story was much more important, if less politically flashy: schools’ abject failure to actually help kids learn, and the dishonest tactics they’ll use to keep you from realizing it.
One of the more striking charts I saw was from 2015. On one axis it showed the horrific state of academic accomplishment in New York City schools: In most schools, the majority of students failed the state math exam, known as the Regents. The other axis was based on the letter grades that students got in math class. Here the story looked much different: Almost everyone got passing grades — even when they failed the standardized exam covering the same material.
There was essentially no correlation between getting a passing letter grade and passing the objective test. At the Science School for Exploration and Discovery in the Bronx, 94% passed their math classes in 2017-18, but only 2% passed their math exams.
In other words, letter grades were meaningless. Worse, they were arguably fraud. Educators were misleading parents. Ninety percent of parents think their kids are at or above grade level, yet according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, only 11% of U.S. 12th graders are proficient in history and 22% in science.
Those inflated grades aren’t a favor to little Johnny. They’re the desperate lies a suspect tells to the detective when he knows he’s about to be busted.
For decades, educators pacified parents and taxpayers by lying to them in this manner. A teachers union front group called FairTest demonized standardized tests as “high-stakes.” They claimed that they stifled creativity by making teachers “teach to the test.”
In reality, state exams often have no repercussions for students and are solely used as a metric to see whether schools and their staff are performing. As for “teaching to the test,” the tests ask whether students know how to, for example, do math. So shouldn’t teachers get around to teaching them how to do math at some point?
During the Obama years, concealing actual academic performance through lowered standards meant that the president could tout an increase in the high school graduate rate every year, even as SAT scores declined.
But a decade or two into the con, these excuses and smokescreens were wearing thin. Enter CRT, which is just a new wrapper on the same thing.
CRT claims there is no such thing as objectivity — and nothing is more objective than standardized exams. It takes it even further, saying that grades are racist, too. That’s implemented by a litany of policies, such as a move from letter grades to “standards-based assessments” — scored on a scale of one to five, where anyone with the equivalent of 80% or higher gets the top possible mark—or decrees that students who don’t turn in work will get a 50% instead of a zero.
Racial-equity education consultants say wanting the right answer and valuing the written word are attributes of “whiteness.” Some even say homework is racist. Suddenly that 36% proficiency rate in reading sounds less like the horrific victimization of children, and more like social justice.
The justification for CRT is not the horrific reality that many students can barely read or count—it’s that there’s a disparity, meaning some can and some can’t. That means you don’t need to teach anyone to read to fix the problem; you just need to suppress the top performers, stop measuring with granularity, then declare victory.
That works for teachers — if their goal is not to solve the issue of kids not being able to read or count, but simply to avoid being caught.
The award withheld by Fairfax County — the National Merit Scholarship commendation — is given to those who placed in the top 3% of the nation. In a world where everyone is equal — even if they are not — the idea that there is a top 3% at all is intolerable.
Worse, the award is based on a classic objective test, the PSAT. Objective tests are the Achilles heel of the K-12 industry and its leftist allies–truth-tellers that threaten to expose the entire scam. In the eyes of many educators, they can’t be legitimized.
The issue with solving a problem by simply ceasing to measure it and then giving unearned gold stars is that it merely kicks the can down the road, racking up a debt that will eventually have to be paid by someone, whether it’s future teachers, colleges, employers, or government social services.
One of the schools that withheld awards was Thomas Jefferson School For Science And Technology in Fairfax, Virginia, a notoriously rigorous magnet school. Following the all-Democrat school board’s focus on “equity” and concerns that too many students who scored well enough to gain admission to the school were Asian, it abolished its entrance exam in favor of a “merit lottery” and “holistic” admissions criteria.
It turns out that all that mumbo-jumbo simply means that the math school is letting in kids who are not as good at math. Now the school, which once boasted the highest math scores in the country, is forced to offer remedial math classes. What happens if the PSAT shows that “holistic” admissions is just code for lowering standards? Well, just hide the PSAT figures.
The bad news is that the real plague of CRT is much worse, and much harder to deal with, than just a few lesson plans from the 1619 Project.
The good news is that that this creates a roadmap for a bipartisan or nonpartisan coalition of parents to demand reforms. When parents and taxpayers who typically vote Democrat understand that leftist-seeming rhetoric is simply an industry’s selfish smokescreen, they won’t be afraid to join the parents who are demanding a stop to it.
The primary focus is simple: Show up to school board meetings and vocally shut down any and every initiative that doesn’t directly relate to increasing test scores in writing, math, and science, as measured by objective exams. And demand to see hard evidence that it will do so.
Second, reject all rhetoric about “disparities” out of hand. The problem isn’t that some students do better than others. It is the job of effective schools to have as many students as possible who perform better at the end of the year than they did at the beginning. (This is easy to measure, but teachers unions oppose it.) That thwarts the temptation to reduce “disparities” by crippling high performers.
Until schools earn back the trust they squandered over decades, we have no reason to think their obsession with fads like “social emotional learning,” “culturally responsive-sustaining education,” and “holistic” assessments are anything but an excuse to hide their failures by moving away from performance measures we can actually rely on.
Luke Rosiak is a Daily Wire investigative reporter who broke the story that Loudoun County Public Schools concealed a rape. His book is Race to the Bottom: Uncovering the Secret Forces Destroying American Public Education.