Social Studies

Latino History Is U.S. History. High School Textbooks Neglect It

By Sarah Schwartz — May 16, 2023 8 min read
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It is well-documented that U.S. history textbooks have provided a limited picture of the role race and ethnicity play in the American past and present.

Figuring out how to remedy that, though, has long proved contentious. In the past few years, questions about whose stories to highlight, and how to tell them, have fueled Republican-led efforts to restrict how teachers can discuss race and gender in the classroom and animated debates over state social studies standards.

One new report tries to provide some guidance—specifically for Latino history.

The evaluation finds a lack of Latino representation in U.S. history textbooks. What’s more, it argues that the omissions aren’t only troublesome; they are depriving young students of integral knowledge all young children need and deserve to know.

“Representation is important,” said Viviana López Green, the senior director for the Racial Equity Initiative at Unidos US, which conducted the study with the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Education Policy. “But this is not the core of this research. This is about filling a gap of foundational knowledge.”

It’s often assumed that a focus on diversity in curriculum materials decreases rigor, said José Gregory, an Advanced Placement U.S. History Teacher at Marist School in Atlanta, and an author on the report. But that’s a false dichotomy, he said.

“History needs to be accurate first and foremost. It needs to be rigorous,” said Gregory. “By no means are we trying to dilute the quality of what’s being done in American history. In fact the opposite, we’re trying to enhance that.”

Balancing representation and knowledge

The report evaluated six different high school U.S. history textbooks. In all, the reviewers found a lack of in-depth coverage of significant topics, events, and people—and a wide variation in whether textbooks presented Latinos in the U.S. solely as victims of oppression or also as people with agency in their own stories.

“Most of the textbooks, they talk from a perspective of lacking,” said López Green. They don’t showcase the contributions that Latinos have made to U.S. society, and they don’t show the ways that they have been historical actors and advocates, she said. “That is the missing piece.”

The report’s authors argue that this is a problem in part because a quarter of the U.S. school-age population is Latino, and these students deserve to see themselves in the materials they use, they write.

But there’s a second thrust behind the report rooted in work that the Johns Hopkins Institute has done to codify the foundational knowledge children should learn in school: The notion that students are missing out on critical knowledge if the texts they read don’t reflect a fuller view of U.S. history.

The Institute has developed a “Knowledge Map” designed to analyze English/language arts curricula, to determine how fully they teach students about “the world and the human condition.”

The project is motivated by the idea that reading and English classes should systematically build students’ knowledge about the world, rather than focus solely on isolated skills practice. Some research studies have shown that this kind of curriculum, rich in content, is linked to improvements in students’ reading scores. But with the Knowledge Map, the Institute also proposes that there is a common body of knowledge that all students should know.

With the new report, the Institute and Unidos US make the argument that this common body of knowledge, in social studies, needs to include the histories of Latinos. Without them, “the story is not complete,” López Green said.

Little coverage of content areas, mixed results on balance

For the review, the Institute and Unidos US selected five traditional U.S. history textbooks and one AP U.S. history textbook that are commonly used in seven states. A team that included Gregory as well as representatives from the Institute and Unidos US evaluated the textbooks on five categories:

For the first category, content, Unidos US developed a list of 10 “seminal content” areas, each with its own list of subtopics.

For example, the overarching area of Latino legal cases would include individual cases like the landmark civil rights case Hernández v. State of Texas, but also organizations like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), and concepts like de facto vs. de jure segregation.

The report evaluates textbooks for coverage of 222 individual subtopics, a wide range that spans centuries of political, legal, and cultural history. Not every textbook is going to cover all of these, López Green said. Rather, the list of topics offers a guide—a way to evaluate where materials are stronger, and where they’re weaker.

The reviewers found that the textbooks addressed in depth only 13 percent of all of the knowledge subtopics across content areas. The content area that received the most coverage was U.S. purchases and foreign policy in Latin America from 1819, a finding that Ashley Berner, the Institute’s director, said wasn’t surprising. This topic is often regarded as “mainstream U.S. history,” she said, and the textbooks usually told it through the lens of presidential actions.

The analysis found large variation in how textbooks balanced discussions of inequality and agency. Most textbooks included information about Latino activism in coverage of the civil rights movement, but in other content areas—Spanish colonization or the Panama Canal, for example—the textbook authors didn’t do as much to frame Latinos as historical actors.

The reviewers also noted a lack of coverage of Latino firsts: notable politicians, authors, athletes, and artists.

These findings—that textbooks generally reference Latinos in the context of foreign policy, and often portray Latinos as passive recipients of U.S. government action rather than as actors themselves—align with some teachers’ experiences as they have tried to source materials for history courses.

“Anytime you have Latino or Mexican American representation, it’s usually ... about America at war or taking land, framing it in such a way that Latinos are the antagonists,” said Juan Carmona, a U.S. history and Mexican American studies teacher at Donna High School in Donna, Texas. Carmona was not involved with the report.

The Institute and Unidos US did not name the textbooks they evaluated. “We didn’t want this to be a bludgeoning hammer effect. We wanted this to be an invitation,” Berner said, for publishers to appraise their products with a critical eye, and for district leaders and parents alike to start forming the kinds of questions they would ask of their materials.

But the AP U.S. History textbook came out ahead on some key metrics, scoring the highest on language—use of strong verbs and complex sentence structure—and its exploration of universal questions.

Other textbooks could rise to this level, too, Berner said.

“For an equity purpose, we very much believe that the quality, the language, the sentence structure, the deeper questions are what helps history come alive in the classroom,” she said. “For us at Johns Hopkins, it was confirmation that, once again, Americans are under-challenging kids.”

The role of politics in evaluating history curricula

The report comes as debates about how to tell the American story are front and center in many states.

Since 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict how teachers can discuss race or gender in the classroom. Eighteen states have imposed these bans.

At the same time, other states have expanded the scope of classroom instruction. Connecticut, for example, required in 2020 that all high schools offer courses on Black and Latino studies.

Battles over how to teach about race and racism in America’s past have raged as several states have revised their social studies standards in this landscape over the past few years.

In some states, these fights go back years. In 2010, Arizona banned Mexican American studies—a ban that a federal court later ruled violated students’ constitutional rights. In Texas, in 2016, educators mobilized after a Mexican American studies textbook that described Mexicans as “lazy” and employed other stereotypes was submitted to the state for approval. The state board of education eventually rejected the textbook.

Berner said that the report aims to put forth a “nonpartisan proposition” by focusing on facts and the inclusion of accurate information, rather than the tenor of the textbooks’ overarching narrative.

“We’re not asking for extra exemptions, or extra attention, we’re just asking for an integrated approach in American history,” Berner said.

That fact-based approach stands in contrast to the more qualitative studies other researchers have undertaken.

In a 2020 paper, researchers at the University of Miami examined how three different 11th grade U.S. history textbooks used in Florida described Latinos. Their linguistic analysis found that textbook authors portrayed Latinos in “passive and subservient” roles.

Edgar Díaz, one of the authors of the University of Miami study, and a 7th grade humanities teacher at Gabriella Charter Schools in Los Angeles, praised the new paper for focusing on topics that are covered and omitted.

Still, he said, it’s also important to use more qualitative measures, examining how textbooks shape students’ perceptions of different people. “I don’t think you can strive away from politics in history,” Díaz said. “And that’s OK.”

For Gregory, the Atlanta U.S. history teacher who contributed to the report, there’s a practicality inherent in focusing on quantitative data and accuracy, he said. His primary criterion for evaluating content is historical relevance—does this information help teachers tell a full and true story? That question can help educators identify omissions more easily, Gregory said, than more abstract judgments about tone.

“It’s kind of difficult to cover the Mexican American War when all of the documents come from white Americans,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2023 edition of Education Week as Latino History Is U.S. History. High School Textbooks Neglect It


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