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How social-emotional learning became a target for Ron DeSantis and conservatives

Florida officials recently rejected a slew of math textbooks, claiming they included "prohibited topics." NYT journalist Dana Goldstein theorizes the objections related to social-emotional learning. The goal of social-emotional learning is to provide kids with a set of skills that they can draw on when they face challenges later in life, Goldstein explains. But some conservatives see it as something that opens the door to larger discussions about race, gender and sexuality.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The schools have become a battleground for culture war issues, from fights over masks to the content of math textbooks. The best example now is Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has signed into law the Parental Rights in Education Bill, known by its critics as the "Don't Say Gay" law because it limits the way sexual orientation and gender identity are spoken of in the classroom. Last week, DeSantis signed the Stop WOKE ACT, which prohibits instruction that could prompt students to feel discomfort about a historical event because of their race, sex or national origin.

Florida has also rejected 42 of 143 math textbooks because they incorporated prohibited topics or unsolicited strategies, including what's described as critical race theory. Florida officials have given little evidence to back up these claims. My guest, Dana Goldstein, got access to 21 of the rejected math textbooks and analyzed their contents. She's a national correspondent for The New York Times, covering how education policies impact families, students and teachers. She's been reporting on education since 2007.

Dana Goldstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So you've been covering education since 2007. Are you seeing something new in terms of how culture, war issues are being fought in the schools and in school boards and boards of education?

DANA GOLDSTEIN: You know, it's interesting. In some ways, it's new, particularly the focus on transgender issues, for example. But in some ways, this is all really old. And I'm the author of a history book about fights and debates about education since the 19th century till today. And one of the themes I draw out in my book is that there are always these moral panics over what goes on in schools, and we are definitely in a moment like that right now.

GROSS: So before we get to the math textbooks in Florida that you analyzed that were rejected, let's start with some background with the new Florida laws, the parental rights and education bill known by its critics as the "Don't Say Gay" law. There's like a reference to LGBTQ issues. That's just like one part of what you can't do in the classroom. What does that part say?

GOLDSTEIN: So it says that if you're in grades K through 3, you should not be talking about gender and sexuality issues at all as part of classroom instruction or discussion. And then for grades 4 through 12, it says that that discussion about those issues must be, quote, "developmentally appropriate." One of the most notable things about the law is how subjective that concept of developmentally appropriate is. You know, what one parent thinks is appropriate for a 13-year-old is not going to be what another parent thinks is appropriate or what the teacher might think is appropriate. And the enforcement mechanism of the law is to allow any parent to sue a school district if they believe that the law has been violated. And that is going to put, you know, potentially a big fear into teachers and administrators about discussing these subjects at all in classrooms, knowing that it could trigger lawsuits brought by those conservative parents who have sort of the most restrictive view of what may be appropriate.

GROSS: And even if it's just like a nuisance lawsuit, that's time and money and endless aggravation.

GOLDSTEIN: Correct. And, you know, we've already spoken to teachers in Florida who've been told to sort of limit the way they discuss these issues, the terminology they use, the types of books that may be in their classroom. The law will go into effect in July. So teachers are already thinking, do I need to prune anything out of my lesson plans or change anything over the summer to prepare for this coming school year?

GROSS: Can teachers be sued? Are teachers themselves vulnerable to these suits?

GOLDSTEIN: I don't think so. The way the bill is written, it mentions school districts, but you can imagine the pressure a teacher would be under in their employment situation if their lesson plan or their classroom discussion was the subject of one of these lawsuits. And we've already seen across the country a few teachers in some notorious cases, you know, losing their jobs or being put under an enormous amount of community and public scrutiny because of different lessons that they've presented.

GROSS: There's one more thing about the LGBTQ aspect of the parental rights and education bill. It's kind of like some parental rights in education. I mean, what parental rights do the gay parents have or the trans parents have?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, that's a good point. I mean, many critics of the law pointed out to me that this specifically seems to empower parents with very conservative views on these subjects. They are the ones who are most likely to be suing here.

GROSS: So what are some of the other things in the parental rights and education bill that are restricted?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. So this was one of the biggest surprises to me when I actually went into the details of the bill. Quite a lot of it is an attack on counselling services or social-emotional services that may be provided by schools. And it requires schools to do this new bureaucratic thing, which is to create a list of all of the mental health or physical health services that are available on campus and provide that to parents and let them opt out of any element of it.

And it also requires schools to immediately notify parents if students come to them for mental or physical health services. Again, it's very broadly and vaguely written, so we can get into what this might mean. The intention of those that wrote the bill would be to allow parents to object to schools affirming children's gender identities. So, for example, if a child who is assigned female at birth goes to a counsellor and says, you know, I'm not sure I want to use she/her pronouns anymore, I want to maybe dress a little bit differently, the national standards of the counselling profession in the United States is to affirm that these are normal questions to have for that child. And if the child would prefer different pronouns, to use different pronouns and to explore, you know, having the child dress in a way that feels right to that child.

Now, what those that wrote this bill would like to see happen is that immediately upon a kid raising any issue like this, parents would be immediately brought into the discussion, and it would be parents who would be allowed to drive what the response would be. So if mom or dad feel that, no, the message here is you're a girl, you're born a girl, you will always be our girl, and we are not affirming this questioning for you, that that would be what the counselor would do and what the school would do. That is the intention here. But there is nothing in the bill limiting this parental control over counseling to gender issues. And I think that's really important to point out.

A child who goes to a counselor to talk about abuse in the home and to talk about a parental divorce, to talk about substance abuse issues, they would also be subjected to this sort of immediately going to the parents. The only carve-out here would be if the school suspected that the child would be subjected to abuse by bringing the parents into the discussion. But schools do not always know if a child is in an extreme situation like that. So this is a sort of broad bill that would take away counselors, educators, teachers, professional discretion in terms of when to bring families into the conversation about anything difficult that a child would approach them to talk about.

GROSS: And isn't that kind of counseling supposed to be a safe place for the students where they can speak openly and honestly about their fears and concerns, things that they might not be able to tell their parents?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. And certainly counselors would love to see themselves as, you know, potentially one of the most supportive adults in a kid's life. That's not always the case, but in many, you know, schools and some families, it may be that the counselor is the most trusted adult for a child. And counselors are very worried that kids will not come to them with problems they're having and challenges they're facing if they know that parents would immediately be brought into the discussion.

I do want to point out that the Florida counselors I interviewed often really want to bring parents in the discussion. It's not that counselors are trying to freeze parents out broadly. That's not generally the case. Counselors told me that when to bring in parents and how to involve parents, especially with adolescents, can be one of the toughest issues they face. And very often, their conversations with kids are about getting them to the point where they feel comfortable bringing their mom or dad into the conversation, sometimes with the counselor as a mediator. So counselors in Florida really wanted to emphasize in my reporting that they're not trying to freeze parents out, but they do feel that they need some professional discretion in terms of how they do that, the timeline for doing that in any individual case and, ultimately, whether in some cases it's not the best idea.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter Dana Goldstein, and she's been covering education for The Times and before that for other publications since 2007. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dana Goldstein. She is a national reporter for "The New York Times," where her focus is education. We're talking about how the schools have become a battleground for the culture wars, with Florida being one of the best illustrations.

Let's get to the Stop WOKE Act, which Governor DeSantis just signed into law. And this is an acronym for stop the wrongs to our kids and employees. So wrongs to our kids and employees is WOKE. So DeSantis says he wants to take on both corporate wokeness - that's where the employees comes in - and critical race theory, and that applies to the schools and to workplaces. So describe this anti-WOKE act.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. So this is an act that's supposed to prevent both students and employees of private companies from feeling discomfort or personal guilt because of historical wrongs that have to do with race, gender or national origin. And what it says is that that type of instruction or diversity training in workplaces cannot occur.

GROSS: So give us some examples of what can't happen under this law.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, sure. So discussions of white privilege, you know, the idea that all white people, even those that may suffer from other forms of discrimination in their own lives, carry some privilege due to their skin color. That would certainly seem to be off-limits by the way this bill has been written. Diversity trainings, which are popular in corporate workplaces and also popular at many schools, would not be allowed here. You know, groups where, for example, employees or students may be split into groups by their own race or ethnicity to discuss issues of race would be one that would probably be targeted here.

GROSS: You know, if you're going to teach things like slavery and the civil rights movement and how hard it was for women to just get the right to vote, you know, things along those lines, there are going to be a lot of people who feel uncomfortable because they might feel like their ancestors were complicit in this negative part of American history. But it's a fact for many people. Do you know what I mean? And what's so horrible about facing the reality of American history and potentially of your ancestors' involvement in it?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, I have thought about this a lot because learning history can be very difficult, very emotional and can bring up very hard discussions and personal feelings. And so it seems very difficult for a teacher to broach some of these topics in their classroom while guaranteeing that students would not feel those feelings. I will say that the bill does include language guaranteeing the right to bring up those subjects that you just mentioned, such as slavery or segregation or, you know, discrimination against women throughout history. But I think what it really is taking a target on is tying those historical topics to the present day and, specifically, the framework that we are still living with the historical impacts of those discrimination, and we can still see that discrimination around us in various ways. That's the through line that is really targeted here.

GROSS: Which I imagine is a problem for a lot of teachers because the way to make history relevant is to connect it to your life today, to see...


GROSS: ...The through line. And if you cut the cord on that through line, then history is just a thing of the past that has no connection to the present.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, that's absolutely right. I mean, take the issue of segregation, for example. I mean, you'd have to be blind in America of 2022 to think that school segregation is over or housing segregation, in which we have neighborhoods that are predominantly Black or predominantly white or predominately Latino, is not here. I mean, obviously, we are still living with the results of our history. And so it does seem to be that the purpose here is to sort of not talk about that, to sort of pull a shroud over the fact that history is not just in the past but something that we live with today.

GROSS: So we've talked about Florida's two new laws pertaining to education - the Parental Rights and Education Act, which is also known as the Don't Say Gay Law, and the Stop WOKE Act. Let's talk about how this applies now to textbooks. Florida is one of the states that chooses its own textbooks, and Florida rejected 42 of 143 math textbooks because they incorporated, quote, "prohibited topics or unsolicited strategies." And that seems to include what's described as critical race theory. So how much evidence did Florida officials give of, you know, these textbooks having reasons to be rejected?

GOLDSTEIN: Very little at first. It was interesting. I was sitting at my desk about 3 or 4 p.m. on the Friday before Passover and Easter, getting ready to join my family for a holiday dinner. And I got this very unusual press release from the state of Florida sort of boasting about their rejection of these math textbooks and saying that it was because of prohibitive topics such as critical race theory and social-emotional learning. But they gave no examples of what was objectionable within these books. You know, later they posted a few blurry pictures on their website of a few textbook pages without citations to what these books were or what page numbers or anything. So right away, my colleague Stephanie Saul and I decided we would try to get our hands on these textbook pages and just look at them ourselves and try to figure out what was in them. And we were able to review 21 of these math textbooks.

GROSS: So did you find evidence of what, say, Ron DeSantis would describe as critical race theory which isn't technically critical race theory?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. It was interesting. There was so very little about race in these math textbooks, which is not surprising. But there was a lot of content on the other subject that he said was prohibited, which was social-emotional learning. So we should definitely talk about what that is and what this content was, because that appears to be, in fact, the major reason why the books were rejected.

GROSS: That was a new term to me. What is it?

GOLDSTEIN: Social-emotional learning is an idea that emerged in the early '90s. And basically, it comes out of universities, psychological research. And it suggests that there are certain personality traits such as perseverance and responsible decision-making and cooperation with peers that help us be successful in school and in life. And kids who have those traits do better academically and that school should, in fact, try to help kids develop those traits.

GROSS: So how did you see social-emotional learning reflected in the math textbooks that you got access to?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. There was a variety of different ways in which it was broached. Some of them were quite awkward. You know, there was one fifth-grade math textbook from McGraw-Hill that had sort of a simple fractions question. And then right underneath, it said, how do you understand your feelings? So just a sort of prompt to think about your feelings underneath a math problem and no real tie between them. But in other ways, in other books, it was more seamlessly integrated.

For example, in one high school book, it asked students to rate from one to four how much they had struggled with a concept, a math concept. And this could really help teachers, you know, determine who needs more help and just get students thinking about how challenging it was and whether they need to ask for help. There were some reminders with like little cartoon children that would peek over the sides of these pages and illustrations to ask a friend how they solved the problem, you know, cooperate with a friend to figure out there are different ways to come up with the right answer in math. And then there were just sort of lots of references to this idea of grit, this idea of perseverance, and reminders to children that math is hard and they should keep going to find the answer.

One of the most interesting strategies was to write a math biography. So kids were asked at the beginning of the school year in one of these elementary math textbooks to write a little story about how they felt about math over the years. And was it hard for them? Was it something they liked to do? And also to reflect on how math might help them in the future. And the teacher was also prompted to share her own math biography with the students as kind of an example. You know, how do you use math in your everyday life or in your job?

And I thought that was really interesting. Just reflecting back on my own journey with math, it was something that I did struggle with as a kid. And as a journalist, I find lots of uses for it, statistics and looking at research and stuff like that. And, you know, I think math teaching has come a long way over the past few decades. And there are more attempts to get kids thinking about what are its applications in the real world.

GROSS: And is this emphasis in some math textbooks because some students have like a mental block about math and just kind of freeze up when presented with math?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. I mean, there's a lot of research showing that math anxiety is very real and that girls and kids of color feel it more than white males do. And another way that this is addressed was one of the few places where we did see race in the books. One high school math textbook had these mini biographies of mathematicians, and all but one of them were of mathematicians through history who were women or non-white. Obviously, you know, probably the majority of mathematicians through history were white men. So that was clearly a very purposeful decision, I think, to show kids that might have more anxiety about math that, hey, this could be a career for you. And although that is in no sense critical race theory, as you know, theorists would understand the term, I have seen throughout the country that any time that sort of white male achievement is underplayed in the curriculum, it can become a target of this movement.

GROSS: Well, there's so much more to talk about. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dana Goldstein. She's a reporter for The New York Times, where her focus is education and how education policy impacts parents and students. We're going to talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Dana Goldstein, a national reporter for The New York Times, where her focus is education. We're talking about how the schools have become a battleground for the culture wars, with Florida being one of the best illustrations. Governor DeSantis has signed into law the Parental Rights in Education Law, which is known by its critics as the Don't Say Gay Law. He also signed the Stop WOKE Act. Florida rejected many of the math textbooks on the grounds that it had social emotional learning or references to critical race theory.

How did this social-emotional learning become a flashpoint for right-wing activists, including for Chris Rufo, who is the conservative activist who, probably more than any other person, made critical race theory a rallying cry on the right. And for Rufo - I'm quoting one of your colleagues in The New York Times about his role on critical race theory. And then, you know, he also has attacked teaching anything related to LGBTQ issues in the school. He was one of the leaders on the attack against Disney for Disney's opposition to the so-called Don't Say Gay Law. So how did Rufo end up taking on social-emotional learning?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. So Chris Rufo is the fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, who has been instrumental in sort of putting out the idea that any discussion of racial inequity is, in fact, quote, "critical race theory," unquote, sort of introducing that terminology to conservative media and then, you know, pushing these laws that a third of states have passed, limiting how race, gender and sexuality are taught about. You know, it's very interesting that from the critical race theory conversation, he then moved on to the LGBTQ set of issues and creating a real movement there to limit how those are talked about, which we addressed with the Parental Rights In Education law or the so-called Don't Say Gay Bill in Florida. And now there's this new thing coming from him and a lot of the folks that he's in contact with about social-emotional learning. They are saying or arguing that attempts to talk with kids about their feelings about learning or about what else is going on in their life through social-emotional learning strategies is sort of a door that opens and allows teachers to then get into talking with kids about their identities, about race, about gender, about sexuality.

Now, there's not a lot of evidence that social-emotional learning is, in fact, used in that way. There are a lot of people in the professional education world who see social-emotional skills-building as one way to help kids who face other types of discrimination in their life. We talked about math, for example. We talked about how girls and kids of color struggle more with feeling confident about math. So there are links that are real between these different ideas. You know, there's a discussion among educators about how we help kids build a skill set like perseverance if they face, you know, really big challenges in their life, like racism. You know, if you are faced with, you know, being followed by a police officer down the street because you're a young Black male, how do you persevere through the negative feelings that that might bring up to focus the next morning on algebra or calculus? You know, these are things that educators do talk about.

I've been in touch with Chris Rufo. He referred me to documents that he found from various education nonprofits where they talk about, you know, linking these ideas. But I think it would be worth it for me to read to you what Chris Rufo said to me about social-emotional learning because I think it will show the way in which he has sort of very purposefully exploded this into a very politically charged and alarming place.

GROSS: Yeah, and this is from an email interview that you conducted with him.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, I asked him to speak with me on the phone, and he did not want to do that, but he did agree to email back and forth with me. And we were able to actually go back and forth quite a bit with one another. So Mr. Rufo stated to me that while social-emotional learning, quote, "sounds positive and uncontroversial in theory, in practice SEL serves as a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogy, such as critical race theory and gender deconstructionism." He continued to say that, "the intention of SEL is to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of repression, whiteness or internalized racism and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology."

GROSS: Yeah. So he's making social-emotional learning sound like a radical left-wing agenda or at least the doorway into radicalizing children.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. And I think one thing that really jumped out at me here was his notion that it would, quote-unquote, "soften" children to, you know, talk about their feelings and to, you know, encounter this social-emotional learning content at school. You know, a few people responded to my reporting on this, saying, like, this sounds really misogynist. Like, it's almost like, you know, it's too touchy-feely or too feminine for kids to talk about their feelings. But there's also an even more nefarious reading of this - you know, this idea of progressives or teachers as, quote-unquote, "groomers," which is circulating very widely in right-wing social media right now, the idea that somehow, by talking about these different subjects in school, teachers are sort of actively almost converting kids to gayness or to transgenderism. It almost sounds like - the way they talk about it almost sounds like, you know, teachers are preparing kids to be sexually abused. And it's reminiscent of many decades of homophobic bigotry. And you can just see the echoes of this language sort of ricocheting right now.

GROSS: So the left has its own critique on social-emotional learning. What's the left critique?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, so the left critique is that ideas like perseverance or grit are sort of ideas that celebrate kids who are already privileged enough to have developed those things. So, for example, you may have more energy to persevere at math if you have a great breakfast in the morning provided by your upper-middle-class parents, and you may have more grit to get through those challenging concepts learning a foreign language at school if you don't have to worry about, you know, violence in your neighborhood in the evening. So that's one critique. And another is just that we should make sure to talk in school about those other challenges that kids face. You know, we can't just tell them to persevere and cooperate without acknowledging all that they bring into the classroom, you know, from their own home identities that can make it difficult.

GROSS: You know, I've read a lot about fights between parents and political fights at school boards over what should be taught, how it should be taught, what books should be taught. What about the voice of the teachers? How vocal have teachers been weighing in on these issues?

GOLDSTEIN: Some have been very vocal, but I will say that in some of the more conservative communities where these fights have been really heated over the past year or so, teachers are really scared to speak out. I mean, it's not uncommon for me to come across a teacher who is commenting anonymously on some of these controversies but who hesitates to, you know, speak out with their name attached. But you do see teachers who are brave, who go to the microphone at board meetings and who do speak to the press about why they disagree with these attempts to control what they do in the classroom. I mean, I think there's no doubt that it's a scary time to broach subjects from American history, subjects from contemporary American life or that are in the news in the classroom. I very often talk to teachers who hesitate to talk with their students about something like the January 6, you know, insurrection in the halls of Congress or talk about, you know, who won the 2020 presidential election because they know that it's just a supercharged issue in their communities.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter Dana Goldstein, and she's been covering education for the Times and before that for other publications since 2007. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dana Goldstein. She is a national reporter for The New York Times, where her focus is education. We're talking about how the schools have become a battleground for the culture wars, with Florida being one of the best illustrations.

I learned from your reporting that the U.S. is one of the few developed nations that doesn't have a nationally standardized curriculum. Does that mean most countries have national textbooks?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, I think in other countries - I don't specifically know the answer to whether they have national textbooks, but they certainly do have national standards of what should be taught in classrooms. And so you don't see these sort of extremely localized and state-level supercharged debates that we have here.

GROSS: So how many states in the U.S. do choose their own texts?

GOLDSTEIN: It's fewer than half that at the state level reject or accept textbooks for use. But Florida is one of the three big states that does do a process like this of accepting or rejecting textbooks at the state level; the other two are California and Texas. These three states really have a huge influence on what kids will see in textbooks because publishers, the big publishers like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Pearson, which is now called Savvas Learning, and McGraw Hill, they really want these states to approve their books so that they get out to more kids and more districts buy the books.

GROSS: So I think it was a couple of years ago that you compared textbooks being used in California with textbooks being used in Texas. So can you choose an example of a difference between how a subject was taught in the textbooks of those two states?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, just to talk about LGBTQ issues for a moment, you know, the Texas textbooks do reference them in a few places, mostly in regard to contemporary debates over something like marriage equality. That is totally different than what you will see in California, which passed a law in 2011 that actually required schools to teach the contributions of LGBTQ Americans throughout history. In response to that 2011 law, the big publishing companies created thousands of words of new historical material on LGBTQ issues all throughout American history. So if you pick up a California book, you will learn about nonbinary gender identities among Native American tribes in the 19th century. You will learn about same-sex families living as enslaved people. None of this would be covered in a Texas textbook. You know, perhaps most controversially, in California, you will learn about early gender reassignment surgeries in the 1950s. It's, you know, simply inconceivable that the state of Texas would ask publishers to include something like that in books.

GROSS: So are the publishers in Texas and in California different publishers or are they publishing different versions of the same books?

GOLDSTEIN: The latter, and that is what was so interesting about that investigation I did in 2019 and 2020. You know, the book looks the same, the cover's the same, the title's the same, the author's the same. But you turn the pages, and you find these small differences, you know, a paragraph here or there, but they can really give a really different view.

GROSS: The language is different in the books, too, right?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, at times. I mean, for example, another one I like to point to is the story of post-war suburbanization in the United States. In the Texas books, it's really sort of a positive story. And it talks about people, you know, going to the suburbs to get away from crime and congestion in the city. And it really idealizes this time of prosperity and the baby boom and television bringing us all together as Americans. You know, California really questions that dominant narrative a lot more. They talk about housing discrimination, the fact that it wasn't equally available to everybody to go move to the suburbs because of redlining, restrictive deeds that controlled what race a family could rent an apartment or a house. They talk about how some of the white people who fled cities were actually just trying to get away from having Black neighbors, and they were seeking to segregate themselves. So these are totally different ways of thinking about America in the 1950s.

GROSS: I know when I was in high school and we were learning about the Civil War and then Reconstruction, the period in which legislation was passed to, you know, include Black people or at least partially include Black people. And, you know, Black people were getting elected to local legislatures. What I was taught was that Reconstruction was all about outsiders coming to the South to exploit the South's resources and the South - the rebuilding that was going on in the South. I learned about scallywags and carpetbaggers. And I'm wondering the different versions of Reconstruction that you're seeing taught now.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I learned that, too. And I'm 37, so it was a bit of a time ago, but not that long ago. You know, Reconstruction was a place where the Texas and California books were different. You know, there was just more discussion in the more liberal California textbooks about Reconstruction, you know, specifically as a white backlash and a time when whites in the South organized to roll back, you know, positive changes for African Americans. And the Texas books have some of that. It doesn't go into as great depth. They don't focus as much on white resistance. And they have this sort of additional language that talks about reconstruction and the different policies associated with it like opening schools as expensive and requiring higher taxes. And they point to that as one of the reasons why whites resisted Reconstruction.

GROSS: So since the big three, in terms of the states that choose the textbooks on the state level, those big three are Florida, California and Texas. And publishers want to sell to those states, so sometimes textbook publishers will gear their materials to what those - what will sell in those states. How is that affecting what's being published in general in textbooks? Like, which of those states are having the biggest impacts? If it's Florida, Texas and California, Florida and Texas are both very conservative when it comes to the textbooks, and California is much more liberal.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. That's true. And what you see is this sort of polarization of the material that kids encounter in school is very similar to our broader political polarization. So, for example, you know, New York and Illinois and Oregon and Vermont are states that over recent years have passed regulations and laws to sort of bring more diverse stories into the history curriculum. They're much more likely to have curriculum materials that will look similar to California's. Whereas, you know, throughout the South and, you know, states like Utah or Wyoming, they're much more likely to want to draw from the types of material that's written for Texas or Florida.

GROSS: You know, it sometimes feels like Democrats and Republicans are living in two different realities. Do you feel now that children are being taught two different realities and two different histories?

GOLDSTEIN: I think that there are some themes in American history that, you know, every social studies teacher is going to focus on a lot. You know, the idea of the United States as a nation of immigrants would be one, you know, big, obvious one. You know, slavery, when I first looked at these textbooks, I expected that to be a place where the books would diverge along partisan lines. And that actually turned out not to be the case. I found that in general, the way slavery is described in today's textbooks and curriculum materials is a far more real, far more brutal than the way I recall it being taught to me in the '80s and '90s, that there was sort of much more about the sickness and death of the Middle Passage. There was even language about the sexual violence and rape within slavery that women faced.

So I think that in some ways we have moved forward as a country in terms of teaching kids a more real history. And I do think that that does encompass even those conservative places and communities and states in the country. This movement that has evolved over the past year, I do think it threatens to roll back some of that progress by putting such a microscope on what teachers are doing in their classrooms and what these curriculum materials say, and really creating just so much, you know, smoke and fire around these subjects. It does call into question for me, you know, whether the classroom is just sort of another front in this sort of deeply divided and partisan political reality that we're all living through.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dana Goldstein. And she reports on education for The New York Times, where she's a national correspondent. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dana Goldstein, a national reporter for The New York Times who covers education. And we're talking about how the schools have become a battleground for the culture wars.

I think teachers have, you know, traditionally wanted parents to take an active interest in their children's education, to help them with their homework, to encourage them, you know, to do well, to make sure they go to school. But the kind of culture wars we're seeing in the schools now and in school boards and in governments pertaining to education is a lot of it is about giving parents more rights, more of a say in what their children are taught, what the teachers are allowed to say, what they're required to know about, you know, what school counselors, guidance counselors are required to tell the parents. So is this encouraging, instead of like just parental involvement in their students' education, clashes between teachers and parents or even, like, fights between teachers and parents?

GOLDSTEIN: So throughout American history, there has been a lot of debate about whether parents should control the school system and what is taught there or whether they are just one voice among many. I mean, when you think about the role of the public school system, it is to create citizens and workers that will be effective for the whole country. So while parents are a really important voice, they are not, you know, the only constituency that has a stake. With these current, very sometimes nasty fights over these culture war issues in schools, I do think that many teachers are experiencing this as an important distraction as to what is really on their minds, which is a recovery from the pandemic.

And I did want to bring that up, that at a time when many kids, last a year and a half or, you know, sometimes more of an in-person five-day-a-week school, instead of sort of coming back with a huge focus on getting kids up to par emotionally, academically and sort of bringing parents in as a support for kids who have lived through a lot the past two years, instead we're seeing this huge focus in many communities on these culture war issues. And many teachers have reached out to me as a reporter to say, wow, this just feels so removed from my day-to-day work. Like, so many first- and second-graders are struggling to learn to read because they were mostly looking at screens for the past two years. And so many adolescents are socially isolated and feeling anxious and depressed because of the way in which school shutdowns and the pandemic health restrictions kept them more in their rooms and isolated.

So these are in tension with one another, you know, school systems that are really dealing with just an outpouring of angry parents demanding - you know, a focus on LGBTQ issues right now or on critical race theory are putting energy that they could spend helping kids recover from the pandemic into diffusing these other fights.

GROSS: So I want to ask you something about your personal education history. I know you were part of a bussing plan when you were in school. I'm not sure how old you were or what the arrangement was. So can you tell us about that?

GOLDSTEIN: Sure. I grew up in a town in the Hudson Valley called Ossining, N.Y., and it had decided to do away with neighborhood schools and bus all children through town throughout their educational journey. So, for example, one school that used to be a neighborhood elementary was for kindergarten and first, another one was for second and third, and another was from fourth to fifth. So in this way, our very diverse town was able to desegregate racially its elementary schools. And participating in that program was absolutely wonderful for me. I really enjoyed coming into contact with a broader peer group and having friends of different races in classes and then continuing on with them to middle and high school. And it was only when I then went to college and was older that I realized that growing up in the '90s in such an integrated school system was quite unusual for my peers because those were the very years that courts across the country were, in fact, releasing communities from desegregation orders. And so many of my upper-middle-class white peers had essentially gone to really overwhelmingly white public schools.

GROSS: Can you say a little bit more about how your understanding of education history is helping you understand what's happening now? Because you wrote a book back in 2014 about the history of American education. So you know a lot about that.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, I'm so glad that I have studied the history of the school system deeply because it allows me to see what's new and what isn't. You know, for example, there was a broad effort to attack gay teachers in California, you know, decades ago. So I'm thinking about that when I see now that we have something like the bill in Florida that is taking aim at how LGBTQ issues are talked about in school. There's just so many echoes throughout history. I see that, you know, people talk about critical race theory today as communism or Marxism, and it reminds me of, you know, the efforts in the, you know, 1950s and during World War I to root out, quote-unquote, "red" influence in the school system. You know, at that time, tens of thousands of teachers were driven from their jobs in witch hunts. So I just see these echoes all the time.

GROSS: Dana Goldstein, thank you so much for talking with us.

GOLDSTEIN: Thank you, Terry. It was so great to be back.

GROSS: Dana Goldstein is a national reporter for The New York Times focusing on education.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interviews with Michelle Yeoh, star of the new film "Everything Everywhere All At Once," or Jessi Klein, who was the head writer on "Inside Amy Schumer" and has a new collection of essays about early motherhood in midlife - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. I hope you'll also check out our new FRESH AIR newsletter with behind-the-scenes notes from our producers, staff picks and more. You can subscribe at And on some browsers, you really need the www - so that's


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer this week is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE HORNSBY'S "BACKHAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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