At a time when a growing number of states are passing restrictions on how to teach about race in K-12 schools, a slim majority of educators say they spend some or a lot of time teaching Black history, according to new survey results.
The EdWeek Research Center administered a national online survey to 863 educators, including 401 teachers, from March 29 through April 11.
Of surveyed teachers who said their job this year includes teaching students about aspects of history, 56 percent said they spent some or a lot of time this school year teaching students about Black history—either as a standalone subject or incorporated into other subjects.
Of those who said they teach aspects of history, but haven’t spent a lot of time teaching their students about Black history this school year, one write-in response theme emerged:
“Not enough time.”
And, of all teachers surveyed, 65 percent said their state does not require students to learn Black history.
Educators and researchers alike point to a number of challenges state legislators and local educators must address to improve access to Black history in K-12 schools.
Only a few states mandate Black history instruction
Teachers look to state standards and requirements on instruction to know what the parameters are in developing lesson plans.
But only about a dozen states set up mandates and/or state oversight committees related to instruction on Black history, said LaGarrett J. King, the founding director of the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education housed within the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo.
And these committees connected to those mandates need to do a better job in promoting Black history that is mandated within the state, which can mean ensuring teachers are ready to include Black history in their classwork, and clarifying how teachers can, in fact, teach this topic.
For instance, King pointed to Florida state law, which requires instruction of African American history, so long as it is aligned to the state’s law restricting how topics of race can be taught in K-12 schools. Florida is one of 18 states so farthat have imposed bans and restrictions on the instruction of such topics either through legislation or other avenues.
These restrictions at state levels on how race can be discussed in the classroom need to be undone if true instruction of Black history is to take place in K-12 schools, said Rodney D. Pierce, a 7th grade social studies teacher in Nash County Public Schools in Nashville, N.C.
“As someone who wants to make teaching Black history a priority in their instruction, or in the content they can give students, it’s not surprising given the political minefield that surrounds the teaching of Black history being misconstrued as critical race theory, or something that’s going to make, namely, white students uncomfortable,” Pierce said.
Regardless of whether a state standard or rule exists that requires instruction of Black history, Pierce said it’s up to educators to push for this instruction themselves.
That could mean teachers reaching out to state leaders, urging them to enact state instructional requirements on Black history, and school administrative leadership supporting teachers in these efforts.
It can even mean teachers getting creative in incorporating more Black history into their classwork.
“If I teach about the American Revolution, I can talk about people like Peter Salem, who’s the hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill,” Pierce said.
Teachers will need training to get this right
Even if states require Black history instruction, states would still need to address the issue of teacher training on how to lead such discussions in the classroom.
Today’s teachers were students in an education system that didn’t teach them Black history and then teacher education programs or teacher alternative training programs didn’t offer proper knowledge for instruction of this topic, King said. If mandates on teaching Black history are to truly take effect, teachers need to be equipped with pedagogical content knowledge.
“There needs to be money to help school districts have professional development around these particular topics to ensure that their teachers are ready to teach those particular topics in the class,” King said.
“The teacher is the most important person in this process,” he added. “The curriculum is important, but the teacher is the most important because a teacher can take a bad curriculum and make the class better. But a good curriculum versus a bad teacher is not going to do anything.”
Districts can even rely on current staff already incorporating Black history into their lessons, and set them up as instructional coaches to facilitate collaborations across classrooms for this type of instruction, Pierce said.
There are solutions to the issue of time
While time constraints as an obstacle to teaching Black history aren’t necessarily new, both Pierce and King say there are immediate and long-term solutions available.
For Pierce, this can mean doing more research into how Black luminaries can be brought up in lessons across subject areas and grade levels.
For King, this can also mean a re-evaluation of how history is taught in K-12 schools.
“When teachers are talking about this notion of time, they’re also talking about how the history curriculum is set up, and this kind of content gap where we try to fit all this history into one year with X teacher, particularly within high school [teachers] probably can’t even get to modern day history,” King said. “In many ways, school needs to be about depth and not breadth.”
He suggests a more thematic approach to history akin to how ethnic studies is taught, where students inquire about critical aspects of history through the lens of multiple, diverse groups of people.
“We learn history, so we don’t repeat it. The problem is we continuously repeat it, because we’re not learning the true history,” King said.
“And if we learn about Black history, and other people’s historical narratives, then we’re getting at true history where if we really believe in that particular statement, we will not repeat it, because we understand people’s historical experiences.”