Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645

A North Carolina social studies teacher makes the case for teaching the truth about history on national television

A North Carolina social studies teacher appeared on MSNBC’s REIDOUT on Wednesday to discuss accusations that he’s biased for teaching the realities of slavery.

Rodney Pierce teaches at Red Oak Middle School in Battleboro, where he incorporates the history of local lynchings, slavery and Confederate monuments into lessons.

Pierce, who worked on the state’s new social studies standards, has been accused of being politically biased and obsessed with slavery by some parents.

“If you do not teach the history of slavery in the United States, then you are not teaching the history of the United States,” Pierce told host Jonathan Capehart.

Rodney Pierce

Pierce and Capehart stressed that the educator’s views were his and not the views of Nash County Public Schools, the district where Pierce works.

Pierce’s appearance on the nightly news program to discuss the Republican-led, national backlash against Critical Race Theory comes as North Carolina lawmakers consider House Bill 324 to restrict what students can learn about the nation’s racial past.

As a result of parent’s complaints, Pierce said he had to show how his lessons are relative to the social studies standards and accompanying “unpacking” documents teachers may use to craft lesson plans.

“Once that connection is made, and the administrators understand that the connection is made and that what is being taught is covered by that, they’re supportive of it, and parents usually understand at that point,” Pierce said.

Kristie Puckett-Williams, a civil rights activist and the Smart Justice manager for the ACLU of North Carolina, told lawmakers last week  that measures such as HB 324 will have a “chilling effect” on educators’ ability to teach important parts of American history.

The former social studies teacher of the year was recently featured in the progressive news magazine Mother Jones. He discussed the parents’ accusations in an article titled “The Moral Panic Over Critical Race Theory is Coming for a North Carolina Teacher of the Year.”

As Policy Watch reported last month, Critical Race Theory is an academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. CRT emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.

Fears about Critical Race Theory have spread nationwide in recent months. Many political observers believe the issue could tip the 2022 midterm elections in favor of Republicans, many of whom are still mourning the loss of the White House.

State Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham, vowed last week to keep critical race theory out North Carolina’s K-12 classrooms.

“I oppose it, and I will combat it with everything that I have, because I believe the doctrine undoes the framework that produced the most successful ongoing experiment in self-government in the history of mankind,” Berger said last week.

Educators say the discipline is not taught in schools.

Senate leader Phil Berger vows to keep critical race theory out of schools

Phil Berger

State Senate leader Phil Berger attacked critical race theory Wednesday, pledging to fight against the controversial doctrine he contends has taken root in some North Carolina Schools.

Most educators say critical race theory is not being taught in K-12 schools.

“I oppose it, and I will combat it with everything that I have, because I believe the doctrine undoes the framework that produced the most successful ongoing experiment in self-government in the history of mankind,” Berger said during a late morning press conference.

Berger’s remarks came a few hours before the Senate was scheduled to take up House Bill 324, which would restrict what public schools can teach students about America’s racial past.

“Children must learn about our state’s racial past and all of its ugliness, including the cruelty of slavery to the 1898 Wilmington massacre to Jim Crow,” Berger said.  “But students must not be forced to adopt an ideology that is separate and distinct from history; an ideology that attacks “the very foundations of the liberal order,” and that promotes “present discrimination” — so long as it’s against the right people — as “antiracist.”

As Policy Watch reported last month, Critical Race Theory is an academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. CRT emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.

Critics say they fear it will be used to teach young, impressionable students that America and white people are inherently and irredeemably racist. They often share stories about young white children who, after learning hard truths about American racism, return from school stung by the revelation that, historically, the nation has been imperfect in its treatment of Blacks and other people of color.

Meanwhile, proponents say it’s important that children learn hard truths about the nation’s racial past, warts and all.

Paul Scott

Durham activist Paul Scott is watching HB 324 closely.

Scott shared a letter he wrote to Berger on Tuesday, calling the senator’s stance against anti-racism education a “literary lynching” of Black children.

“Now, more than ever, our children need to know the truth about American history,” Scott wrote. “You and others seem to be determined to push America back to the era of white’s only water fountains and restrooms.”

Scott helped to convince Durham Public Schools and the Durham City Council to adopt resolutions that support teaching critical race theory.

Berger complained that the Durham city council authorized a racial equity task force that’s “steeped” in critical race ideology.

“It tells us that the current education system is working as it was designed: to indoctrinate all students with the internalized belief that the white race is superior,” Berger said. “If government officials really believe that, one needn’t think too hard about what kind of steps they’re taking to fix that problem.”

Berger was also critical of anti-racism education efforts in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools where he said the district tells students that it’s “no longer enough to be passively ‘not racist’ and that they must be antiracists.

“Today’s antiracist literature, embraced by some school districts in North Carolina, preaches that discrimination by race is “not inherently racist [and]…The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination,” Berger said.

The Senate leader said he will introduce a Constitutional amendment that reinforces the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He said it will be pattern after similar amendments in the constitutions of California and Michigan.

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of our country’s greatest advancements toward realizing the promise of America’s founding principles, prohibits discrimination against a person “because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” Berger said.

He said then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama, was right in 2004 when he said there is only one America.  Obama was elected president in 2008, and again in 2012.

“To those who heard those words, America’s first black president was saying there is no white or black or Latino or Asian America — there is only one America, undefined by color,” Berger said. 

Earlier this week, Berger shared two articles about Critical Race Theory on his website, Senator Berger Press Shop, that he described as “well-reasoned” and “well-researched” that offered countervailing perspective to the one pushed by critical race theory proponents.

One article was written by Kevin Drum, who formerly wrote for Mother Jones and the other by Andrew Sullivan, a former writer for New York Magazine.

Put away the scissors. Rule change allows hair beads during high school softball games

Nicole Pyles wearing jersey No. 6.

Wearing hair beads during high school softball games is no longer against the rules.

The National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) Board of Directors recently approved a recommendation by the organization’s Softball Rules Committee to strike the restriction from the rule book.

News of the rule change comes nearly two months after Durham Hillside High School softball player Nicole Pyles cut off beads and braids to remain in a game against rival Jordan High School.

Umpires told Pyles to remove the beads attached to the end of her braids or leave the game.

Under the NFHS Rule 3-2-5, which covers uniforms and player equipment for students participating in softball, “Plastic visors, bandannas and hair-beads are prohibited.”

The NC High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) is a member of the NFHS, which is the organization that helps provide uniform playing rules for high school athletics across the nation.

“The NFHS, in its effort to be a learning organization and one that is founded on the basis of inclusion is striving to work with our young participants in our efforts to celebrate the beautiful diversity that continues to increase,” said Karissa Niehoff, executive director of NFHS. “We are excited about that and want to support that. And while we will always strive to keep kids safe and keep games being played the way they were designed to be played, we do want to recognize the importance of a young person’s identity.

Another new rule allows softball players to wear head coverings during games for religious reasons without prior approval from state high school associations.

Participants in volleyball, basketball, soccer, field hockey and spirit  also can wear religious headwear without prior approval from their respective state association. In swimming and diving, competitors who have religious reasons to wear suits that provide full body coverage can do so without obtaining prior state association authorization.

Pyles’ decision to cut off her braids to remain in the game garnered national attention and sparked debate about the cultural fairness of such rules.

“Without being disrespectful, I asked the umpire, ‘You officiated games where I was wearing these braids and beads, so what is the issue?’” Nicole said in a statement. “My braids were not covering my number. I felt like the world was staring at me. Why me? Why anybody for that fact? It was embarrassing and disrespectful.”

Click here to see a video of Nicole discussing the incident. 

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) called for Durham Public Schools and the NCHSAA to adopt policies to eradicate all forms of discrimination in schools and athletic events.

Pyles and her parents also asked DPS and the NCHSAA to adopt new policies to prohibit Black hair discrimination in schools.

“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else, especially someone who looks like me,” said Pyles, who is Black.

Durham Public Schools called Rule 3-2-5  “culturally biased.”

“Durham Public Schools recognizes that the National Federation of State High School Associations has a specific rule (rule 3-2-5) against hair-beads, however DPS believes this rule is culturally biased,” DPS said in May.

Critics of the rule noted that the incident with Pyles occurred in Durham where in January, the City Council became the first in the state to pass an ordinance banning hair discrimination within the workplace. The ordinance, “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act” or CROWN Act, does not cover students in educational settings.

NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker could not be immediately reached for comment late Monday.

In May, Tucker said coaches are responsible for ensuring athletes abide by playing rules.

“We empathize with the student athlete and her experience,” Tucker said. “It is truly unfortunate, as we believe this situation should never have occurred. The NCHSAA expectation is that coaches will know the playing rules and ensure that their players are also aware of them prior to participating in any athletic contest.”

Vaccinated students, teachers can shed masks, according to new federal guidance

Vaccinated students and teachers don’t need to wear masks inside school buildings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

The CDC recommends, however, that students and drivers continue to wear masks on school buses. Social distancing of at least three feet and mask wearing in classrooms are recommended for unvaccinated students and staff to reduce transmission risks.

“Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” the CDC said. “Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.”

State health officials report that people who were not fully vaccinated accounted for 99.2% of COVID-19 cases, 98.7% of COVID-19 related hospitalizations and 98.9% of COVID-19 deaths between May 6 and June 29.

The CDC’s announcement comes as North Carolina’s year-round students and teachers begin to return to classrooms for in-person instruction this week.

Masks are currently required in North Carolina’s schools. The state is one of 10 that require masks in schools, according to Forbes .

The new CDC guidance mostly impacts students and teachers in middle schools and high schools. Students 12-years-old and older are eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines. Most students in elementary schools aren’t old enough for the vaccines.

State health officials announced Thursday that the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) is working on revisions to its StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12), which outlines steps school districts must take to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

The revised guidance could be released as soon as the week of July 19, Susan Perry-Manning, deputy secretary of NCHHS, said during this week’s State Board of Education meeting.

Perry-Manning said the new “thinned down” Toolkit will have fewer recommendations and provide for more “local flexibility.”

Community rates of transmission and the availability of vaccines will play a major role in revising the Toolkit, Perry-Manning said.

“There was a time when we had very restricted access to vaccines but that’s now longer the case,” she said. “We know now that they are very effective for people 12 years and older, and that includes with the Delta variant.”

The new CDC guidance and a recent report from the ABC Science Collaborative that said wearing a mask continues to be the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools will be considered during the Toolkit revisions, Perry-Manning said.

The Science Collaborative is a partnership of Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. It was created to help school districts develop best practices to address the coronavirus pandemic.

“We do want to let go of interventions that have not been found to be as effective and really focus on those things that are most effective,” Perry-Manning said.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are considering a bill to to give school boards the exclusive authority to determine whether students must wear face masks in the upcoming school year on Wednesday.

As Policy Watch previously reported, Senate Bill 173, called the “Free the Smiles Act,” would strip Gov. Roy Cooper of the authority to issue state-wide mask mandates for schools, leaving him with the ability to do so only for individual schools during a state of emergency.

The House has approved the bill, but it was rejected by the Senate. A compromise bill is expected.

State Board of Education approves final social studies ‘unpacking’ documents but eyes more changes

Middle school and high school “unpacking” documents for the state’s new social studies standards were narrowly approved Thursday on a 6-5 vote along party lines.

The board’s Democratic majority voted in favor of the documents teachers and districts will use to craft lesson plans and curriculums as the new social studies standards come online this academic year.

State board members made few comments about the grades 6-12 documents, which stood in contrast to the spirited debate last month when the K-5 “unpacking documents” were approved or when the board adopted the social studies standards in February. Both votes were 7-5, along party lines with Democrats voting in the affirmative.

Instead, on Thursday, the board focused on a recent report by the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that gave North Carolina a D-grade for its new civics standards and an F for its U.S. History standards.

“North Carolina’s new civics and U.S. History standards are inadequate,” the Fordham report said. “Nebulous verbiage and an aversion to specifics make them functionally contentless in many places, and organization is poor throughout. A complete revision is recommended before implementation.”

The state routinely receives low marks from the Fordham Institute, said David Stegall, state superintendent of innovation.

The problem, he explained, is that the state’s standards are conceptual to give districts and schools flexibility to determine content and curriculum to meet teacher and student needs. The institute’s evaluators value standards that provide specific topics students must learn.

The institute recommends, for example, that the standards “articulate what students should know instead of asking them to “exemplify,” “critique,” “distinguish,” “differentiate,” “compare,” “assess,” or “classify.”

Stegall said conceptual standards allow students to engage in critical thinking.

“Conceptual standards allow teachers to make deeper connections with the real world in multiple points in history that are related rather than have students memorize specific names and dates,” Stegall said.

Catherine Truitt

Nevertheless, the criticism coming from the Fordham Institute shouldn’t be disregarded, said State Superintendent Catherine Truitt.

“It’s shortsighted of us, quite frankly, to dismiss the report out of hand simply because North Carolina always gets downgraded by the Fordham Institute,” Truitt said.

Truitt pushed back on Stegall’s explanation for the low marks. She said the state receives them because it does not understand what local control means when it comes to what a standard should look like.

“A standard is a statement of essential knowledge of what a student is supposed to learn, and our standards do not contain any statement of essential knowledge that is to be learned,” Truitt said.

The state is also penalized for arranging its standards thematically instead of chronologically, Truitt said.

“Anyone who has ever been frustrated by the fact that the majority of young adults in the United States do not know when World War II occurred, it is because in the 70s …we have not been teaching history chronologically, at least our standards have not encouraged teachers to do so,” Truitt said.

The superintendent and SBE Chairman Eric Davis have discussed an alternative to the template used by NCDPI and teachers contracted to develop the standards.

The template used now has been around for a decade, Truitt said.

“What I am positing is that the template is flawed, and that a better template that provides a better framework will be better for teachers and therefore for students,” Truitt said.

Truitt will share information about a new template with the board over the next month. The board could be asked to adopt a new template in August.

Davis said a new template could provide a roadmap that could enhance the new social studies standards.

Whether a new template deserves further consideration is “subject to the boards’ judgement and approval,” Davis said.

The new social studies standards have been a source of controversy for months because critics believe they incorporate elements of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which examines social, cultural and legal issues as they relate to race and racism.

Critics complain that CRT is divisive and paints whites as “irredeemable” racists.

Meanwhile, those who support CRT say it’s important that children learn “hard, uncomfortable truths” about America’s racial history, which includes slavery, Jim Crow Law and the brutal lynching of Blacks at the hands of white mobs.

Jill Camnitz, chair of the state board’s Student Learning and Achievement Committee, noted the spirited debates the new standards have sparked.

“I personally have confidence that our district and teachers will use the standards and supporting documents to provide a classroom experience that gives our students a deep understanding of our history, inspiration to continue to work on perfecting our union and an ability to deal with the richness of experience and viewpoint that are found in every classroom in North Carolina,” Camnitz said.

Last month, SBE member Olivia Oxendine questioned how the elementary school documents could omit Sandra Day O’Connor from a list of women who contributed to change and innovation in the United States.

“I know we cannot think of every person in history, every event in history, every major theme in history but I cannot for the life of me understand how in this particular standard within the unpacking documents, how we missed Sandra Day O’Connor,” Oxendine said.