Students Need Critical Thinking, and That Means a Diverse and Inclusive Education

by Zeynep Kilik, The Opportunity Agenda

From critical race theory (CRT) to LGBTQ discussions, many of life’s complex topics are under attack in classrooms across the nation. Parents, politicians, and partisan commentators alike have amplified their voices on these issues. Public discussion has exacerbated since 2021, with current laws causing a heightened sense of fear, not only from progressive interest groups, but also throughout marginalized communities directly affected by hateful and exclusionary rhetoric. Although many of these restrictions have been brought on by dubiously considering children’s “best interests,” I can’t help but wonder what the implications are for students who are most directly affected by these decisions. CRT, gender/sexuality studies, and book bans have all contributed to the silencing and othering of marginalized identities. I also can’t help but wonder what the long-term implications of these policies are for all students— the future generations of communicators and activists?

In late 2021, President Biden’s Build Back Better Act (BBB Act) included several provisions for Pre-K-12 school systems, educators, and students. One of the BBB Act’s first investments includes “$112.7 million through September 2025 for Grow Your Own (GYO) educator programs that seek to recruit and prepare teachers and school leaders from the community, including high school students, paraeducators, and parents. Grow Your Own programs are a popular strategy for addressing subject-area teacher shortages and increasing the racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity of the teacher workforce.”

However, in 2023’s debt-ceiling battle, Ed Week reported that “[t]he federal government might be unable to distribute billions of dollars for high-need students, special education services, and English-language instruction. Because school districts—many of which have already set their budgets for the coming year—count on those funds, teacher layoffs, academic program cuts, and administrative chaos could ensue.”

This brings to mind a second issue of concern for today’s students: losing teachers that promote critical thinking and a rigorous curriculum. NPR details the plight of an educator who lost his position as principal at a Texas high school, following the slew of laws aimed at targeting CRT and sexuality-focused lesson plans. Furthermore, harassment against teachers is driving many teachers out of the profession, leading to further vacancies in teaching positions.

Diverse stories and lessons are needed in the classroom to maintain feelings of inclusion. A 2018 Human Rights Commission and University of Connecticut study showed that “less than a quarter of transgender and gender-expansive youth feel like they can definitely be themselves at home.” One cannot help but wonder how the recent attacks on education have affected this sense of safety for young folks. The Center for American Progress reports, “These findings suggest that providing an education that includes a diverse history and curricula helps to inform democratic engagement at an early age.”

Our reporting at TOA outlines several key points to take away from the ongoing attacks on inclusive education. Overall, TOA and our partner organizations affirm that a diverse and inclusive education allow for a greater breadth of knowledge and understanding to be shared among students of all ages. It is also one of the few ways we can raise conscientious, socially active participants in our democracy. We must protest efforts to ban books, to slander CRT, and to villainize teachers who discuss LGBTQ history in the classroom. The quality of our students’ education depends on it.

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