Cultural literacy or cultural destruction? A case study of Mystic Valley Regional Charter School

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On September 27th 2021, the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School (MVRCS), located in Malden, Massachusetts, filed a lawsuit in Suffolk County Superior Court against the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. It alleged that DESE’s new evaluation criteria—specifically the “culturally responsive teaching” requirement—amounts to an “unlawful censoring of [MVRCS’s] educational mission and repudiation of its charter.” In an October 19th meeting with BESE, representatives from MVRCS presented their case, hoping to be granted a waiver from the new culturally responsive teaching requirement. (The Commissioner, Jeffrey C. Riley, previously had sent a memo denying MVRCS’s request for a waiver because, he said, the new teaching requirement did not conflict with MVRCS’ charter.) At the heart of the issue, the MVRCS representatives explained, is not a disagreement over the goal of fostering a welcoming educational environment for students of all cultural backgrounds. Rather, it is that MVRCS’s educational philosophy requires an approach to this goal that is fundamentally at odds with DESE’s new educational criteria. MVRCS is unorthodox by the standards of most American schools. For its K-8 science, history, and geography classes, MVRCS utilizes the Core Knowledge Curriculum developed by the education scholar E.D. Hirsch Jr., who argues that all American children must be taught the same content-specific knowledge in order for them to develop the “cultural literacy” required to become civically responsible citizens. MVRCS’s mission statement explains that a central part of an MVRCS education is the incorporation of “the fundamental ideals of our American culture, which are embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.” It is by instilling in students these foundational American virtues that MVRCS believes it can most effectively promote a welcoming educational environment and immunize students against prejudicial beliefs. But DESE’s culturally responsive teaching standards, like many such initiatives throughout the country, represent more than an ostensibly uncontroversial campaign against racism and other forms of prejudice. DESE defines “cultural proficiency” (as well as “cultural responsiveness,” “culturally sustaining,” and other similar terms) according to the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings. Ladson-Billings, who in the mid-1990s was one of the first scholars to argue for the use of Critical Race Theory in schools, associates three categories of student outcomes with this type of teaching: academic achievement, cultural competence, and socio-political awareness. The language used to define academic achievement and cultural competence is not particularly concerning, at least on the surface. Socio-political awareness, however, mandates that “educators understand the social, economic, and political factors that influence their and students’ experiences, and view education as a pathway to liberation from systems of oppression.”

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