#RacistReady: Reading About Robert E. Lee’s “Struggle”
Donald Trump caused an uproar over the summer when he declared, “There were fine people on both sides,” of the Charlottesville clash that left Heather Heyer dead, and many other injured. Apparently Curriculum Associates feels similarly about the Civil War, because today my students had to read a passage about Robert E. Lee that left me feeling angry and sick.
Curriculum Associates publishes a digital learning platform called i-Ready that is popular, because it provides personalized learning to kids. They also publish “Ready” test prep materials and assessments that mirror state assessments. Because I teach at a Renewal school, my kids have to take two Ready assessments a year to track their progress in advance of the state exams.
Today was the third day of our ELA Ready Assessment #2 and my students had to read two passages about Robert E. Lee. One of them provided some decent historical context. It described Robert E. Lee as a vicious slave owner in contrast to his enduring heroic reputation. The other one focused on Lee’s “struggle” to choose between loyalty to his family and the Union.
Lee didn’t support secession. He believed that states did not have the right to leave the Union, and he worried that war would come if they did. Lee also did not like the idea that a war would be fought over slavery. He claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed in the United States, and he once wrote that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” At the same time, he was very much against an immediate end to it. He favored what he later called a “gradual emancipation,” one that would take place over time.
Lee and his family owned slaves, and by all accounts, he treated these people as property. Legally, he could have freed them, but he didn’t. His wife, Mary, however, did show genuine concern for the slaves at Arlington, the estate where they lived. She taught the female slaves there to read, write, and sew, so that they would be better prepared for freedom when the time came.
There is so much about this passage that frustrates me. First of all, inserting it into a test leaves students on their own to make sense of the “debate.” Without a proper historical background or understanding of bias in texts, kids could easily come away from reading this text thinking Robert E. Lee wasn’t so bad (he was loyal after all)!
I think my biggest issue with the passage is just… why? You’re a test maker. You provide tests primarily for schools that need test prep (i.e. schools serving Black and brown kids). You have to choose three passages for one of the tests. This is the passage you choose? Even if you put aside the offensiveness of this passage, aren’t there 1,000,000 better options out there? Was it really necessary during Black History Month for my 22 Black and brown students to read a sympathetic portrayal of a man who fought to preserve slavery?
This is a glaringly bad example of the racial bias embedded into tests, curriculum, and the U.S. education system in general. I intend to discuss this with my students tomorrow.
If there’s a silver lining to this mess, it’s that it perfectly illustrates the need for the New York City Department of Education to make a radical change in the way it addresses racial justice in schools. It’s current approach is essentially no approach at all.
That’s why last week, when NYC educators joined with teachers across the country to organize Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools, they made three demands:
- End zero tolerance and implement restorative justice.
- Hire more Black teachers in our schools.
- Mandate Black history/ethnic studies in grades k-12.
These are a much needed antidote to the poison that is Curriculum Associates racist tests. When Black and brown kids interact with a curriculum that celebrates Robert E. Lee, they might reasonably disengage or act out. In this case they need healing, not push out practices.
If Black and brown kids had more teachers who looked like them, who shared their history, who valued and affirmed their lives through their teaching and very presence, they would be more likely to succeed. I think it’s also fair to assume that Black teachers could do a lot better by Black kids (and white kids) than Curriculum Associates racist test (or any of the other teachers you get to meet when you Google “racist teacher”).
Lastly, Black history and ethnic studies would replace, or at the very least, counteract passages like today’s text about Robert E. Lee. If Black, Latinx, Asian, and white kids had the opportunity to learn Black history and ethnic studies curriculum, they would know the true history of the United States. They would know basic history like the fact that the White House was built by slaves. They would read about Oney Judge, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, George Moses, Ida B. Wells… instead of Robert E. Lee. They would know to be skeptical if they came across a passage about Robert E. Lee’s “struggle.”
We can do so much better as educators. The kids I teach deserve so much better. There’s so much work to do, but we can start by ditching racist tests like the one published by Curriculum Associates.