Corrected: This article has been corrected to include an accurate reference to the American History and Civics Education Academies program.
The Biden administration wants a grant program for history and civics education to prioritize instruction that accounts for bias, discriminatory policies in America, and the value of diverse student perspectives.
In describing the basis for the new grant priority for American History and Civics Education programs, the administration cites the scholar and anti-racism activist Ibram X. Kendi, as well as the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine project that highlights slavery and its legacy as a central element in America’s story.
“It is critical that the teaching of American history and civics creates learning experiences that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students,” the April 19 notice in the Federal Register states.
The department is also proposing to make information literacy a priority for the civics and history grant program.
The proposed grant priorities deal with a very small, longstanding program at the U.S. Department of Education that supports innovative teaching approaches and professional development in the field—altogether, American History and Civics grants receive $5.3 million in federal funding this fiscal year, out of a roughly $74 billion budget for the department. And the priorities, if they’re adopted, won’t constitute a sweeping directive of any kind for history and civics teachers. But it’s a high-profile development in a polarized debate over what K-12 students should be taught about the country’s past and present.
In addition, it underscores a huge divide between the Trump and Biden administration on this contentious issue in public schools.
American history classes are at the center of a political feud
Disagreements about how or whether educators should address the concepts of systemic racism, inequities in American society, and related issues grew more prominent last year, when President Donald Trump created the 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education” and to push back on what Trump and his supporters called radical ideas that subverted core American values.
The former president also declared that public schools in general were indoctrinating students with left-wing propaganda that he equated with child abuse. That allegation provoked a swift and strong backlash from history educators, who said that Trump’s attacks, and not what what students were being taught, were misleading and flawed. However, some historians have criticized important elements of the 1619 Project.
Republicans’ activity on this front in 2020 wasn’t confined to Trump: Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced a bill last year to prohibit federal money from being used to teach a curriculum based on the 1619 Project created by the Pulitzer Center. (Despite the interest Washington has taken in this topic over the past year, states and local school districts control the content of curriculum, and the U.S. Department of Education is barred from dictating or sanctioning curriculum.)
The 1776 Commission produced a report shortly before President Joe Biden took office that challenged identity politics and largely echoed rhetoric on the subject from Trump and others. Biden scrubbed the 1776 Commission and its report from the White House website shortly after his inauguration. In an executive order, Biden said advancing racial equity would be a top priority for his administration across federal government agencies.
But Biden’s rhetoric and actions aside, the evolving argument about what students learn in history classes has continued this year. And there’s evidence that it’s growing more intense.
Lawmakers in eight states are considering legislation that may restrict teachers’ ability to discuss racism, sexism, and bias in their classrooms. Topics such as fundamental racism in America, inherent oppressiveness of individuals because of their race, and other issues would be off-limits under the proposed bills. In general, these bills would cut back on the teaching of “divisive concepts.”
This year, three states have also considered banning the 1619 Project from schools.
Unlike the moves by Trump and Cotton, actions by state officials have the potential to be far more consequential for schools, given their statutory authority over curriculum.
The movement extends beyond government leaders. In March, Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump student group with chapters in K-12 and higher education, announced that it will develop a history curriculum that would highlight the benefits of free enterprise and push back on what it called left-wing bias in schools. And separately, critics of the 1619 Project and Kendi have recently formed groups like Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism and Parents Defending Education that in general resist what they say is a harmful agenda in education driven by racial identity and division.
The attention and activity concerning this issue isn’t confined to one side: In February, for example, the Pulitzer Center announced its a grant program for teachers to implement its curriculum that draws on the 1619 Project.
Proposals would support diverse perspectives
The new federal grant priority would be for “Projects That Incorporate Racially, Ethnically, Culturally, and Linguistically Diverse Perspectives into Teaching and Learning.”
As background for the proposed grant priority, the department cites the 1619 Project’s connection to the “growing acknowledgement of the importance of including, in the teaching and learning of our country’s history, both the consequences of slavery, and the significant contributions of Black Americans to our society.”
And the proposal also says that “schools across the country are working to incorporate anti-racist practices into teaching and learning.” It goes on to quote Kendi, the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, as stating that an anti-racist idea “is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.” It also cites Biden’s executive order on advancing racial equity, as well as the idea of “identity-safe” learning environments that stress students’ various identities as assets and not barriers to learning.
Under this grant priority, applicants would describe how their proposed project would incorporate teaching and learning practices that:
- “take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history.”
- “incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives and perspectives on the experience of individuals with disabilities.”
- “encourage students to critically analyze the diverse perspectives of historical and contemporary media and its impacts.”
- “support the creation of learning environments that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, and experiences of all students.”
- “contribute to inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments.”
This grant priority is one of two proposed on April 19 by the Biden administration for American History and Civics grants. A second proposed priority would focus on “Promoting Information Literacy Skills.”
That proposed priority says such skills are crucial, given where many Americans (especially young people) get their news and the threat of misinformation.
Under this priority, applicants for the grants would describe how their proposal would help students evaluate sources and evidence “using standards of proof” and help them understand “their own biases when reviewing information.”
As authorized by federal law, the American History and Civics Education support “academies” for teachers and high school students, as well as “national activities” that focus on civics and government classes for low-income and underserved students.
The public has 30 days to comment on the two grant priorities.