Researcher Says Philadelphia Gets it Right in Black History Lesson Policies as Other States Limit Them

The ongoing battle over education that emerged in response to the protests following the killing of George Floyd in 2020 has had a chilling effect on the discussion of race in classrooms.

Since January 2021, there have been bills introduced in 44 states to restrict or ban the teaching of critical race theory, with at least 18 states passing such laws. Currently, only 12 states (Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington) require K-12 public schools to teach Black history. In states like Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, and Rhode Island, legislation has been enacted to require Black history courses or electives, but these states also have laws that limit the curriculum.

The Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the University at Buffalo tracks which states have mandates for teaching Black history. According to LaGarrett King, the director of the center, it’s important for his team to hold teachers and school districts accountable by monitoring which states not only implement Black history curriculum but actually teach the lessons.

“Throughout history, whenever there is social or racial conflict, there is always a push for more Black history education in public schools,” King said, citing examples from the late 19th century, the lynching era, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and the Black Lives Matter movement. However, King notes that in nearly half of the states with Black history mandates (Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and South Carolina), these requirements seem to be symbolic, as new policies contradict the inclusion of Black history. For instance, Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E. law” restricts discussions of race and gender in schools and prohibits teachers from causing psychological distress based on race, color, sex, or national origin.

A critical aspect of teaching Black history is examining systemic power and oppression, as they are integral to the Black experience in the United States, according to King. He argues that if laws prohibit discussions of systemic racism, whiteness, or the permanence of racism in society, they undermine the essence of Black history. He questions the celebration of heroes in Black history and asks why these particular figures are considered heroes.

Earlier this year, Florida faced criticism after a right-wing organization funded a video by PragerU that depicted Frederick Douglass referring to slavery as a “compromise” between the Founding Fathers and Southern states. The video was intended to be shown in K-12 schools using state funds.

Although Delaware implemented a requirement for K-12 districts and charter schools to teach Black history this school year, many educators feel unprepared for these conversations, according to Deangello Eley, the assistant principal of Appoquinimink High School. Eley believes it will take around five years to fully implement Black history lessons.

However, there are places that are successfully integrating Black history into their school systems, according to King. He cites New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Buffalo as examples of districts working to protect and expand their coverage of Black history.

Philadelphia, where African American history is required for high school graduation, is viewed as exemplary in both policy and practice. The district prioritizes teacher training and resources, exposes students to lesser-known Black history lessons, and helps them apply these concepts to contemporary issues.

In 2005, Philadelphia became the first city in the U.S. to require every high school student to take an African American history class to graduate. The law also mandated the integration of African American history into all K-12 curricula.

Ismael Jimenez, the district’s first director of social studies curriculum in nine years, has led efforts to revamp the curriculum. Jimenez’s team is moving away from reliance on textbooks and building the curriculum from scratch. The curriculum starts with basic social studies concepts for kindergarteners and gradually introduces topics such as Marcus Garvey, enslavement, and prominent Black figures throughout world history. In middle school, the focus shifts to Black history outside the U.S., including civilizations in Asia and Africa, Spanish involvement in the slave trade, and the role of Europeans in North and Latin America.

To assess student knowledge, the district promotes authentic performance tasks rather than traditional assessments like essays and multiple-choice tests. Students engage in activities such as mock trials, writing inquiries to museums about African artifacts, and questioning biases and racism in maps.

The curriculum also addresses more recent history, such as redlining and the riots in Miami during the 1980s, to facilitate visual understanding and critical thinking. The district emphasizes the connection between whiteness and the middle-class identity in America, and in 10th grade, students complete the African-American history course required for graduation. The curriculum in later years covers world history, the transatlantic slave trade, and civics and economics, including topics like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and affirmative action.

Jimenez emphasizes the importance of engaging students in multi-perspective discussions and critical thinking involving marginalized voices to prevent indoctrination. Philadelphia’s curriculum aims to present diverse perspectives and encourage dialogue to explore the depths of historical events and concepts.

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