States Still Grappling With Multicultural Curricula

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 01, 2005 5 min read

A debate over a New York state commission formed to study how slavery is portrayed in schools shows that after more than a decade of adding multicultural curricula, educators there are still at odds over how the distinctive experiences of racial and ethnic groups should be taught, and who should decide.

While some educators and observers in the Empire State welcome stepped-up attention to teaching students about American slavery and its ramifications, others say the subject already is sufficiently covered. Opponents also argue that state lawmakers and what critics view as special-interest groups are the wrong people to dictate curriculum.

The past five years have brought a number of similar cases in which legislatures have enacted laws that affect state standards or curricula in response to racial or ethnic minorities’ contention that aspects of their history weren’t adequately taught. Earlier this year, Illinois created a commission to study how slavery is taught in its schools, as did New Jersey in 2002.

But establishing such panels or legislating changes in curricula is often just the beginning of a long process.

For example, a 1998 law requiring the Massachusetts education department to provide materials to schools on genocide and human rights violations is the focus of a federal lawsuit filed last week by two public high school teachers, a student and his father, and the Washington-based Assembly of Turkish American Associations.

Filed Oct. 27 in U.S. District Court in Boston, the suit against the department argues that the law should not use “genocide” to refer to the killing of Armenians by Turks during World War I, and accuses the education agency of violating their free-speech rights by keeping Turkish-Americans’ perspective on World War I history out of educational materials.

David P. Driscoll, the Massachusetts commissioner of education, said last week that the legislature enacted the law, and that Turkish-Americans should be appealing to the legislature, not suing his agency, to get it changed.

“I know it’s not much ado about nothing, in that people feel strongly about these issues,” he said. “In terms of administrative procedures, we’re just following the law.”

The New York law creating the commission there is also kindling such debate anew.

“It does ratchet up government control of education, as opposed to having academicians determine these matters,” said Candace de Russy, a trustee of the State University of New York. “I’m not against such panels, but I believe they should be composed of reputable scholars.”

Amistad Commissions

Expanding the Curriculum

States continue to take up legislation and policies that encourage or require pre-K-12 curricula dealing with racial, ethnic, and multicultural themes, such as slavery and genocide.

The Tennessee board of education unanimously adopts a new, uniform curriculum for African-American history, an increasingly popular elective course in the state’s high schools.

New York establishes the Amistad Commission to coordinate educational and other programs on slavery and African-American history.

Illinois creates an Amistad Commission to survey the extent of education on slavery, and to talk with textbook publishers, coordinate programs, and work with the state board of education to develop curricula on slavery topics.

New Mexico requires multicultural content for a percentage of instructional material approved by the state board of education.

New Jersey forms an Amistad Commission to coordinate educational and other programs on slavery and African-American history in public and non-public schools.

Rhode Island requires the state education agency to develop curricular materials on genocide and human rights violations, the slave trade, the great hunger in Ireland, the Holocaust, and other subjects.

SOURCE: Education Commission of the States

New York Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, signed the law establishing the Amistad Commission on Aug. 2.

Amistad is the name of a ship on which enslaved Africans were transported in 1839. A group of Africans overthrew the ship’s crew and gained their freedom after successfully pressing their case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The panels in Illinois and New Jersey are also named after the Amistad.

New York’s commission, whose 19 members haven’t been named, is authorized to ensure that students are taught about the impact of the “physical and psychological terrorism” of slavery on people of African descent and slavery’s ramifications for African-Americans in this country after it was outlawed.

New York law already prescribes that schools teach “human rights issues, with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide, slavery (including the freedom trail and underground railroad), the Holocaust, and the mass starvation in Ireland from 1845 to 1850.”

But Jamal E. Watson, the executive editor of The New York Amsterdam News, one of the nation’s oldest black-published newspapers, said that when he visited New York City schools to talk about African-American history, he found that students didn’t know enough about slavery, or related issues such as Jim Crow laws, which institutionalized discrimination against blacks in the post-Reconstruction South.

He backed the formation of the Amistad Commission. “I’m disturbed about how many students don’t know this history, and how many teachers are ill equipped to talk about slavery,” Mr. Watson said.

Alan Singer, a professor of secondary education at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., also supports the commission, even though he believes it’s another example of the legislature responding to a constituency with political power.

He cited requirements that the Holocaust, slavery, and the Irish famine be taught in schools. “You might say, ‘What about New York’s involvement in Native American history? The Native Americans were driven off their lands,’ ” Mr. Singer said. “Native Americans don’t have a significant voting population in New York, but the Irish do.”

Ms. de Russy believes slavery has been adequately taught in New York’s schools, and that by requiring that Amistad Commission members have merely an interest in the history of slavery, the state is “handing this and similar issues over to unqualified commissioners with far-reaching powers.”

Accountability Conflict

Curriculum experts say the flurry of laws and state policies passed since 2000 responding to the racial or ethnic groups is not new. But some suggest that the national movement for higher standards and greater accountability in education has made such groups more aware of how they can influence standards and curricula.

“One of the impacts of standards is that it does create a de facto public forum that wasn’t as visible to a lot of people before then,” said Douglas E. Harris, the co-director of the Center for Curriculum Renewal, a consulting group for standards-based curriculum design based in Swanton, Vt.

He characterizes the increasing involvement of minority groups in the process as “a good thing” that improves standards. It’s part of the democratic process, he added, that even after standards are approved, some groups might still go to the legislature seeking further changes.

Jay Doolan, New Jersey’s acting assistant commissioner of educational programs and assessments, said that the five commissions established by legislation or executive order to make recommendations about academic standards in his state, including its Amistad Commission, have improved the process there.

“All of these commissions have been extremely helpful to make sure our standards, which leads to curriculum at the district level, include important information, primarily about the contribution of all of these groups as well as the importance of historical information,” he said.

Some legislative efforts to pass laws to change school curricula to highlight the experience of a minority group have failed.

On Oct. 2, for instance, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, vetoed for the second year in a row a bill that would have encouraged schools to teach about the role Filipinos played in World War II. He explained his vetoes in a statement, saying that “the state should refrain from being overly prescriptive.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as States Still Grappling With Multicultural Curricula


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