As States Limit Black History Lessons, Philly Gets it Right, Researcher Says
Just 12 states mandate a K-12 African-American history curriculum — and in some, anti-CRT laws & other challenges are making it harder to teach.
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The culture war in education that began in response to the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020 has had a chilling effect on how race is discussed in classrooms.
Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills and at least 18 have passed laws restricting or banning the teaching of supposed critical race theory. Just 12 states (Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington) have Black history mandates for K-12 public schools. In addition, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine and Rhode Island have legislated Black history courses or electives during the last two years. But several of the 12 states have new laws on the books that limit their curriculum.
The Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the University at Buffalo has been tracking which states have Black history mandates. The director of the center, LaGarrett King, said it’s important for him and his team to hold teachers and school districts accountable by tracking which states are not only implementing Black history curriculum but actually teaching the lessons.
“If we look at the history of Black history education, whenever there is some form of social or racial strife within society, there’s always this connection to increasing Black history in public schools,” King said. “You saw that right after the Civil War and after Reconstruction, during the late 19th century. You saw that as well during the lynching era in the early 20th century. You saw that in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, and more recently, you saw that during the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Even so, King says that in nearly half of the 12 states (Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina), the mandates just seem symbolic, using Florida as an example of a state that has a Black history requirement but new policies that contradict it. Its “Stop W.O.K.E. law” restricts how race and gender are discussed in public schools and prohibits teachers from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex or national origin.”
A prominent component of teaching Black history “is the concept of questioning systematic power and oppression, because that’s part of the Black experience in the United States,” King said. “And if you have laws that say, ‘Hey, you can’t talk about systemic racism, whiteness or concepts that say racism is permanent in our society,’ then I think you’re doing the actual concept of Black history wrong… If your Black history is simply about celebrating heroes, well, here’s the thing: Why are these particular people considered heroes?”
In August, the Florida legislature came under fire after a right-wing nonprofit organization called PragerU created a video depicting an animated Frederick Douglass referring to slavery as a “compromise” between the Founding Fathers and Southern states. The video was meant to be shown in K-12 schools and was paid for with state funds.
In Delaware, a requirement for K-12 districts and charter schools to teach Black history went into effect this school year, but educators may not be ready. Deangello Eley, assistant principal of Appoquinimink High School, told Delaware Online that many teachers are “concerned they don’t yet have the tools for these conversations.” Eley believes it will take closer to five years for Black history lessons to be fully implemented.
Some places, though, are doing it right, King said. He pointed to New Jersey and to cities such as Philadelphia and Buffalo as examples of school systems that are working to protect and expand their coverage of Black history.
Though Pennsylvania doesn’t have a K-12 Black history mandate, Philadelphia does, and King said he views it as exemplary both in policy and practice. One of Philadelphia’s biggest priorities is ensuring that teachers have adequate training and resources. The district also prioritizes exposing students to Black history lessons that aren’t typically covered in schools and making sure they can apply these concepts to modern issues.
In 2005, Philadelphia became the first city in the United States to require every high schooler to take an African American history class to graduate. Part of the law included integrating African-American history into all K-12 curricula.
Ismael Jimenez is the district’s first director of social studies curriculum in nine years. Since stepping into his role last year, he has led a team of three in developing best practices and guidelines for teachers. Though Philadelphia did away with its mandated annual teacher training in social studies a few years ago, Jimenez has instituted a special training just for African-American history teachers called the Africana Studies Lecture and Workshop Series. Teachers are paid to attend these workshops several weekends throughout the year. Scholars and community activists are invited. The district also works with educational departments at cultural heritage museums to offer additional professional development for teachers.
Jimenez and his team have been revitalizing the curriculum, which hasn’t been significantly updated in a decade. They aim to step away from relying on textbooks and are building the curriculum from the ground up themselves.
Kindergartners begin learning basic social studies concepts like what is a community. Starting in first grade, students are introduced to Black history topics such as the meaning of flags, Marcus Garvey and the creation and purpose of the Pan-African flag. Throughout second and third grade, students are taught about other prominent Black figures throughout world history. In fourth grade, topics include enslavement and the riches that it brought Europeans in the Americas. Those lessons continue through fifth grade.
For the first two years of middle school, the focus is Black history outside the U.S. Sixth graders learn about civilizations in Asia and Africa, such as the Kemet in ancient Egypt, and seventh graders study the role of the Spanish in slave trades in the Western world. Jimenez said the goal is to take the emphasis off Europeans in Western studies, spending only a quarter of the year on ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome and focusing instead on North America and Latin America for half of the year. In eighth grade, the curriculum returns to United States history and includes colonialism and the Civil War.
Students are encouraged to focus less on essay writing and multiple-choice tests and more on what the district calls authentic performance tasks to show their knowledge of course material in creative ways, such as conducting mock trials, writing letters to museums inquiring how they obtained certain African artifacts and contacting school districts and companies that make maps to ask about biases and racism in their creation.
“There’s a short video in ninth-grade American U.S. history talking about redlining, and there’s another one about talking about the riots in Miami in the 1980s,” Jimenez said. “These little clips allow students to kind of access [curriculum] visually.” Ninth graders also learn about the creation of the interstate highway system and suburbanization. “We go over how this identity of middle class was tied to whiteness at the exclusion of black people in America.”
In 10th grade, students complete the required African-American history course needed to graduate. The following school year, the curriculum centers on world history, with a large focus on the transatlantic slave trade. In 12th grade, students learn civics and economics, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, affirmative action and current politics.
“If we’re not engaging in these conversations related to multi-prospectivity and dialectical thinking involving marginalized and historically excluded voices into the conversation, then by default, the teacher is indoctrinating the students because the teacher isn’t allowing them the ability to challenge what they’re being taught,” Jimenez said.
“That’s one thing here that we’re going out of our way to try to make sure is not happening. We’re going to bring up these things that you’ve never heard of that we find interesting and other folks find interesting, but then we’re going to bring in the multiple perspectives related to interpreting it and have dialogue and structured activities around it to really go into the depths.”
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