Florida’s New African American History Standards: What’s Behind the Backlash

By Ileana Najarro — July 25, 2023 9 min read
Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the Celebrate Freedom Foundation Hangar in West Columbia, S.C. July 18, 2023. For DeSantis, Tuesday was supposed to mark a major moment to help reset his stagnant Republican presidential campaign. But yet again, the moment was overshadowed by Donald Trump. The former president was the overwhelming focus for much of the day as DeSantis spoke out at a press conference and sat for a highly anticipated interview designed to reassure anxious donors and primary voters that he's still well-positioned to defeat Trump.
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The Florida state board of education approved new African American history standards for grades K-12 that are drawing national criticism for the framing of certain topics, including descriptions of slavery, and the exclusion of others.

One of the most widely criticized standards requires teachers to teach middle school students that under enslavement, some African Americans gained skills that later benefitted them.

The new standards—approved earlier this month—are meant to be in place for the coming school year, according to a spokesperson for the state department of education. Teachers have the option to attend a virtual training on August 7 where the standards will be reviewed. (Florida schools typically start by August 10, according to the state’s largest teachers’ union.)

“Florida is focused on teaching true and accurate African American history,” said Manny Diaz, Florida’s commissioner of education, in a tweet defending the new standards.

Researchers, educators, and political leaders say Florida may be a test case for how other states determine how to teach African American history at a time when at least 18 states, including Florida, have restrictions in place on how to teach about race in K-12 schools.

“I do believe this is not only about the state of Florida; there is a national agenda afoot,” said Vice President Kamala Harris at a speech in Jacksonville, Fla. on July 21 in reaction to the new standards.

Here’s more information on how the new African American history standards came to be, how they compare to the state’s pre-existing standards, the controversy around them, and what this means for teachers in Florida and elsewhere.

What happened to Florida’s African American history standards

Since 1994, Florida state law has required instruction of African American history in public schools. Since then, scholars have drafted standards and instructional guides for K-12 teachers.

In 2020, the state legislature passed a law also requiring the commissioner of education’s African American History Task Force to include instruction on the Ocoee Election Day massacre in November 1920, when a mob of white men killed an unknown number of African Americans attempting to vote in Ocoee, Fla., and ran others out of town, burning down houses.

What Florida law requires on African American history instruction

See what Florida law says about African American history instruction in K-12 schools.

See what Florida law says about African American history instruction in K-12 schools:

The history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the history and contributions of Americans of the African diaspora to society. Students shall develop an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping on individual freedoms, and examine what it means to be a responsible and respectful person, for the purpose of encouraging tolerance of diversity in a pluralistic society and for nurturing and protecting democratic values and institutions. Instruction shall include the roles and contributions of individuals from all walks of life and their endeavors to learn and thrive throughout history as artists, scientists, educators, businesspeople, influential thinkers, members of the faith community, and political and governmental leaders and the courageous steps they took to fulfill the promise of democracy and unite the nation. Instructional materials shall include the vital contributions of African Americans to build and strengthen American society and celebrate the inspirational stories of African Americans who prospered, even in the most difficult circumstances. Instructional personnel may facilitate discussions and use curricula to address, in an age-appropriate manner, how the individual freedoms of persons have been infringed by slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination, as well as topics relating to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination and how recognition of these freedoms has overturned these unjust laws. However, classroom instruction and curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view inconsistent with the principles enumerated in subsection (3) or the state academic standards. The department shall prepare and offer standards and curriculum for the instruction required by this paragraph and may seek input from the Commissioner of Education’s African American History Task Force.

The Commissioner of Education's African American History Task Force is directed to examine ways in which the history of the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Riots will be included in instruction on African-American history required pursuant to s. 1003.42(2)(h), Florida Statutes.

In 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 7 into law which restricts how topics of race can be discussed in K-12 classrooms. The law requiring African American history instruction was amended to include that “classroom instruction and curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view inconsistent with the principles [listed in HB 7].”

As a result, the Florida department of education this year created a workgroup to review the existing African American history standards and “ensure alignment with the enhancements from HB 7,” said Cassandra Palelis, a spokesperson.

In January, DeSantis banned schools from offering the pilot Advanced Placement African American Studies course from the College Board, claiming it ran afoul of HB 7.

On July 19, the state board of education approved new K-12 social studies standards on African American history which drew immediate backlash from educators and political leaders.

What’s in the new standards that the state supports

The new standards expand on pre-existing ones, adding several more for the elementary and middle school grades.

In the expansion, what students are asked to know and do shifted. For example, the earlier version asked students to evaluate the contributions of African American individuals. The new standards now ask students to simply identify African American individuals. And there are now gaps in terms of standards focusing on ancient African civilizations outside of the context of slavery.

Explore the new standards

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the historic Ritz Theatre in downtown Jacksonville, Fla., on July 21, 2023. Harris spoke out against the new standards adopted by the Florida State Board of Education in the teaching of Black history.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the historic Ritz Theatre in downtown Jacksonville, Fla., on July 21, 2023. Harris spoke out against the new standards adopted by the Florida state board of education in the teaching of Black history.
Fran Ruchalski/The Florida Times-Union via AP

State officials both at the board meeting and in subsequent statements have fully endorsed the standards.

“We are proud of the rigorous process that the department took to develop these standards. They incorporate all components of African American history: the good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Alex Lanfranconi, state department of education director of communications in a statement. “These standards will further cement Florida as a national leader in education, as we continue to provide true and accurate instruction in African American history.”

Several civil rights and advocacy organizations signed a letter leading up to the state board vote on the new standards asking for more time to revisit the standards, while state officials decried their critiques of the standards as a “false narrative.”

What critics say generally about the new standards

Critics of the new standards expressed concerns over various choices, from a “massive watering down” in elementary grade standards, to an incomplete curriculum for high school, said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union with just under 150,000 members, many of whom expressed concerns.

Spar also expressed concerns that middle school standards don’t make enough connections between the past and present and that Florida history as it relates to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, is limited in instruction in high school since the new standards don’t dive into Florida’s efforts to keep segregation in place.

Patrick Coggins, a professor of education at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., helped develop an interdisciplinary instructional guide for teaching African American history in the state in 2021.

One of his concerns with the new standards, which he said don’t reflect his instructional guide, was the limited coverage of ancient Africa. Topics such as the system of government in Egypt or how North Africans went to Spain and developed the first set of universities are not present, even as state law requires instruction on the “history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery,” Coggins said.

There are, however, standards that ask students to “identify Afro-Eurasian trade routes and methods prior to the development of the Atlantic slave trade” with the clarification of “instruction includes how slavery was utilized in Asian, European and African cultures,” and ask students to “examine the condition of slavery as it existed in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe prior to 1619.”

There are also missing facts in later history, Coggins said. While a high school standard does call for instruction on how WWII helped break down barriers of segregation, and the Tuskegee airmen, it does not specifically reference protests the Tuskegee airmen led at the Freeman Field Mutiny for integration in the military which later served as a foundation for the Brown court decision.

LaGarrett J. King, the founding director of the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo, would have liked to see more nuance.

King said the standards are written in such a way as to mimic instruction of U.S. history with more Black faces and without critical thought and analysis of concepts that are more typically a part of African American history and African American studies courses.

Key points of contention: slavery and violence

Within the general critiques of the new standards, two key points of contention emerged that drew much of the national attention to the state’s efforts.

One was a middle school standard and clarification on slavery:

Middle school standard AA.2.3

Examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, [and] transportation). With the clarification: Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.

In a statement posted online related to this standard, two of the standards authors said “the intent of this particular benchmark clarification is to show that some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefitted.”

The statement, posted July 20, a day after the state board approved the standards, goes on to list examples of individuals, nearly half of whom some scholars pointed out were either never enslaved nor gained skills through their enslavement, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

At her speech in Florida, Harris spoke directly to this middle school standard.

“Adults know what slavery really involved. It involved rape. It involved torture. It involved taking a baby from their mother. It involved some of the worst examples of depriving people of humanity in our world,” she said.

DeSantis, who was in Utah for his presidential campaign, said in response to a media question he wasn’t involved in writing the standards but defended them, including the middle school standard on slavery. “They’re probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed being a blacksmith into doing things later in life. These were scholars who put that together, it was not anything that was done politically.”

The other standard that drew strong backlash was one for high school on race riots and massacres:

High school standard AA.3.6

Describe the emergence, growth, destruction and rebuilding of black communities during Reconstruction and beyond. With the clarification: Instruction includes acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans but is not limited to 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, 1919 Washington, D.C. Race Riot, 1920 Ocoee Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Massacre and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre.

Critics, including Spar and Coggins, said the Ocoee massacre did not get enough attention in the standards, instead simply listing them along with other atrocities, and that the phrasing of acts of violence perpetrated by African Americans contributes to the overall whitewashing of Black history.

What this all means for educators

Some of this back and forth over the standards isn’t new.

For decades, even more progressive history textbooks used to “always use the institution of slavery as a civilizing mechanism. These Black people from the dark continent of Africa, needed to be enslaved so they could be civilized,” King in Buffalo said.

The Florida middle school standard on the personal benefit from slavery echoes those past attempts at teaching Black history, though they are factually wrong as they imply Black people were unskilled prior to enslavement, King added.

“Slavery wasn’t a job placement program,” he said.

The new standards’ framing around the continent of Africa—specifically with respect to slavery—is also not new, King said, arguing that it was the most political choice in the new standards.

“They’re trying to infer the institution of slavery as a global phenomenon. Therefore, the U.S. part in slavery really wasn’t that bad,” King said.

“It’s not like the entire program is wrong, or there’s not factual things in there,” he added. “It’s just the way in which those standards are written that makes the narrative incomplete.”

For now, Spar, with the teachers’ union, says teachers remain confused over how to proceed with the new standards.

“Teachers in Florida have a code of ethics they must follow. That code of ethics includes teaching the standards, and it includes being honest and ethical in all dealings,” Spar said,

“If you teach standards that you do not believe are ethical and honest in their dealings, are you then violating the code of ethics? And if you don’t teach those standards that way, are you then violating the code of ethics?” he added.

Spar anticipates more pushback as well as potential demand for the legislature to intervene and get the department of education to revisit the standards.


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