Who decides what topics are taught in schools?

by Yazmin Macias / Sep 13, 2022



 In this kid-friendly podcast, Worth Noting delves into hot topics in the world currently. Host Matthew Winner dives into each topic and brings information to the front. This episode dives into why kids should continue learning about Critical Race Theory. 

Matthew: It’s back-to-school season for many of the nation’s 73 million children, but in Texas, and in other parts of the country, what’s being taught in the classroom about our nation’s history is under question. So what’s being left out and why? The answer is Worth Noting. 


In late July, 2021, Texas became the next state in over 25 states in the US to introduce legislation or take “ other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism,” according to an Education Week analysis.


Who exactly makes decisions about what you can learn or, perhaps more accurately, what you do learn in school? Well, whether you attend a public school or a private or independent school, whether you learn virtually or you are homeschooled, your first guess might be that your teacher is the one who decides what you learn.  


Your teacher definitely decides how information is shared with you and other students. They choose thoughtful read-alouds. They select engaging websites and media clips to help you connect with what you’re learning. But the curriculum, the list of what specific things kids in your grade will learn over a given school year, that’s usually determined by your district or your state. And while your principal or school-based administrators help in making these decisions, usually your district or state’s board of education will approve curricula and determine what is being taught. 


This helps to make sure that all students across your district or state receive roughly the same education. All students learn, basically, the same things because the curriculum is the same for everyone, though the way a teacher delivers the instruction can definitely influence whether or not you connect with what you’re learning. Even if you’re homeschooled, you follow a curriculum that was recognized by your state.  


So when you hear about legislation being introduced by state officials, it means that your state government is making decisions about what is taught in schools in your state, but also how it is taught and who is allowed to teach it.


The topic many, many political officials are discussing in this legislation is critical race theory. Have you heard this phrase before? There are a lot of people throwing it around, but not everyone is using the term correctly. Rather, it’s become a phrase that’s used to mean a wide variety of things.   




But first, let’s break down the words and learn about the origin of Critical Race Theory. Critical means expressing an opposing or disapproving opinion or comment. Race refers, in this case, to a person’s ethnic identity. A theory is an idea that’s suggested to explain a situation. To put it plainly, critical race theory is a way of understanding how laws, government, education, and other social institutions have been influenced by racism throughout history. 


Let me take that one step further. Critical Race Theory examines how some groups of people, largely Black and Brown communities, have not been able to take full advantage of what society has to offer because the things that control our society, namely laws and government and other institutions, give advantages to some, mainly white people, and make access more difficult for others, mainly Black and Brown individuals.


Critical Race Theory was developed in the mid 1970s as a means of looking at the law more critically, arguing that the law is not neutral and is used to maintain a social power structure, keeping some ahead and leaving others behind, as explained in an article in Romper in July 2021. 


Critical Race Theory has become a buzzword to encompass much more than what the actual practice covers. The topics that most politicians and folks that oppose Critical Race Theory have issue with are those including learning about the history of slavery, systemic racism, and about diversity and inclusion efforts in local communities. These are not Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory is primarily taught in colleges and law schools. 


But for a school district or a group of politicians to take issue with kids learning about actual events in American history? That, to me, feels like a much greater issue than mislabeling a term.

The bill dropped by the Texas Senate in mid-July 2021 does, to me, a number of perplexing things. It drops most mentions of people of color and women from the state’s required curriculum. This means that it’s no longer required for students to study Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech or the works of United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez. It means that teachers no longer need to educate on Susan B. Anthony’s writings about the women’s suffragist movement or about Native American history. Period. 


This bill eliminates a requirement that students be taught the “history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong.”


There are a good number of wrong doings in American history. An excessive amount of pain and suffering and grief and subjugation and colonization that both built this nation and made it what it is, but also did so at the expense of the hands who built it, of the people who were here first, and, more generally, to the benefit and profit of people for whom society and these institutions like government, education, and health care provide advantage after advantage.


The criticism of teaching practices such as these is that it makes white children feel guilty for the color of their skin. That the decisions made in our nation’s history are past and that we should concentrate on our present. That calling out racist acts through our nation’s history threatens to diminish the accomplishments and individuals that contributed to the nation we live in today.


And so I ask you, listeners, is it more dangerous, more harmful, that we learn about the troubling history of our nation from all viewpoints as we seek to understand? Or better that we leave the past behind us and resist looking critically into our past so that people today do not feel bad about themselves or the potentially awful events that resulted in the wealth or success some individuals experience today?



The laws being passed threaten the security of teachers across the country. Many include clauses to terminate a teacher’s position if they go against what the board of education has decided should be taught to children. Many of the teachers that would do that, I suspect, are the ones you love most of all. The ones who see you for who you are. The ones who know that you deserve to know and understand where you stand in history, who came before you, whose stories have been silenced or forgotten, and how we can do better and do right by learning about where and when our nation didn’t. 


There are resources for teachers and parents and kids like those created or curated by the Center for Racial Justice in Education to help you talk about race, racism, and racialized violence in ways that are safe for you and age-appropriate for whomever is learning with you.


There are teachers like educator Elizabeth Kleinrock who hear their students asking that we teach the truth, and are listening. Ms. Kleinrock gathered the comments from her students and shared them in an article she wrote for other teachers for Learning for Justice. I’ll link that article in the show notes. I think you’ll love hearing from other students in grades 5 to 9.


You are never too young to learn about identity and injustice. In fact, you’ve already been learning since the age of about 2 or 3, believe it or not. There are a number of excellent scientific articles written about it!


Learning about racism throughout history, even if or especially when it involves America’s founding fathers or beloved historic figures is not an act of anti-whiteness. It’s an act of anti-racism. You were born into the skin you are in for a purpose. There is nothing anti- about learning about the harmful acts of the past in order to consider how we all can do better in the present for our future.


So here’s your homework. Ask those tough questions. Your teacher needs to hear them. All grownups need to hear them. We are listening. Learn about history and then ask “why”? Why didn’t I know about this before? Why don’t we learn perspectives from all voices? What can I do to more fully understand how history happened for everyone involved?


Learn. Learn together. And keep learning. Do not let legislation stand in the way of your pursuit of the truth.


I’m Matthew. And this is Worth Noting.