Curriculum

Many States Are Limiting How Schools Can Teach About Race. Most Voters Disagree

By Ileana Najarro — October 30, 2023 4 min read
The "statue" of Michelle Obama, played by Kaylee Gray, talks to students during Black History Month's wax museum at Chestnut Grove Elementary School in Decatur, Ala., on Feb. 27, 2020. Instead of the usual assembly, Chestnut Grove students played the roles of famous black and white people who contributed to the civil rights movement and black people who have made significant contributions to history.
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A strong majority of voters want Black studies curriculum and the history of racism and slavery and its legacy taught in K-12 public schools, according to new polling data from the Black Education Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Results from a nationally representative phone poll of 1,000 registered voters found that 85 percent of respondents agreed that public school students should learn about the history of racism and slavery in the United States and how it continues to affect us today. (When the question was asked again at the end of the poll, it was 82 percent who agreed.)

The poll was conducted by brilliant corners Research & Strategies in August this year for BERC, and featured a diverse pool of participants by gender, race and ethnicity, age, and geographic location. Thirty percent identified themselves as Democrats, 26 percent as Republican, and 44 percent as independent or other. Thirty percent said their approach to political issues was more liberal and 40 percent said it was more conservative.

Since 2021, at least 18 states have imposed bans or restrictions on teaching topics of race and gender. Within the last year, Florida has particularly drawn national attention after Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, banned the College Board’s AP African American Studies course and supported new Black history standards that include a clarification to teach “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

In light of such education legislation and policy, the Black Education Research Center wanted to see how a representative sample of American voters truly felt about public education, and its role in teaching about Black history.

The poll also asked about a new Black studies curriculum: “Some U.S. cities have approved a new Black studies curriculum for K through 12 public schools. [Specifically, BERC is developing an interdisciplinary K-12 Black studies curriculum for New York public schools.] This new Black studies curriculum teaches children about early African civilizations, the Black experience in America, and the contributions and accomplishments of African Americans. Knowing this, do you support or oppose the decision to add a Black studies unit to the K through 12 public school curriculum?

Seventy-three percent said they support such a decision.

“People really want us to teach the truth, especially the truth in history,” said Sonya Douglass, professor of education leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, and founding director of BERC.

What teaching true Black history entails

When defining true Black history, Brittany Jones, an assistant professor of learning and instruction at the University at Buffalo, said K-12 teachers need to go beyond the binary of stories of Black suffering and narratives of notable Black leaders. The focus should be on the middle.

“Truthful Black history centers and amplifies the humanity of Black people. It’s a history that explores the full range of Black emotions and feelings,” Jones said.

“Black history illuminates the ways that everyday Black people were able to resist and thrive in a society that only wanted Black people to exist as chattel,” she added. “It emphasizes how the goal of everyday Black resistance was to create better possibilities for Black futures, and the futures of other historically marginalized groups.”

She sees value in K-12 schools both incorporating Black history across content areas in all grades, as well as dedicated coursework such as the College Board’s new AP African American Studies course which is currently in its second pilot year across more than 700 schools.

Though not all states require in-depth Black history instruction, some have come under fire for their efforts.

Florida state education leaders drew public ire when approving changes to the state’s Black history instructional standards that state leaders including DeSantis defended as true history. Critics called it a watered down version of history.

Of particular concern was the limited coverage of ancient Africa in the new standards, and how slavery was depicted in the edits.

Why the poll results matter

Douglass, of BERC, said the results highlight that the public still has faith in how public education can help support a democratic society, including playing the role of teaching the next generation about the country’s full history.

About 78 percent of poll respondents agree with the idea that teaching critical thinking skills requires that teachers challenge students with alternative points of view, even those that aren’t popular and might make some uncomfortable. (That percentage went up to 79 when the question was asked again at the end of the poll).

When it came to how the public viewed the professionalism of teachers, voters were more split. About 51 percent at the start of the poll said teachers are professionals who can be trusted to decide what information to teach children and that individual parents shouldn’t be able to dictate a school’s curriculum. Forty-six disagreed. (Those numbers shifted to 58 percent and 39 percent respectively when asked again at the end of the poll.)

“I feel like most parents, grandparents, teachers, educators, those who work in schools or have children in schools just want peace,” Douglass said. “They just want to know that children are getting what they need, that they’re safe, and that they’re learning, and that they do have access to the truth.”

While she recognizes the challenges teachers face in navigating restrictive legislation in the last few years, Douglass is hopeful for support for teachers doing their job.

“If we want to move our country into a thriving democratic society, then we need to be able to increase our capacity to hold different ideas and beliefs, and then engage in conversations around what we want the country to be,” she said.

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