Social Studies From Our Research Center

Survey of Mostly-White Educators Finds 1 in 5 Think Textbooks Accurately Reflect People of Color

By Catherine Gewertz — June 29, 2020 | Updated: July 02, 2020 4 min read
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Updated: This blog post has been substantially modified since it was originally published. See this editor’s note explaining why.

When asked how much the textbooks they use “accurately and fully reflect the experiences of people of color,” one in five educators said “a lot,” according to an EdWeek Research Center survey.

That’s despite much evidence that curricula have long minimized or ignored the historical contributions of people of color, and that potentially harmful activities like slavery simulations continue to be used in some classrooms.

EdWeek surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,150 teachers, principals, and district leaders June 17 and 18 about the textbooks they use in their schools. The survey asked them to characterize the extent to which those books reflect the experiences of people of color.

Twenty-two percent of respondents said “a lot.” Nearly half—49 percent—said their textbooks accurately and fully reflect the experiences of people of color to “some” extent. 

Educators of color were more likely than their white counterparts to answer “none” or “a little” when asked whether their schools’ or districts’ textbooks accurately and fully reflect the experiences of people of color.

Eighty-three percent of people who took the survey identified themselves as white. This is in line with National Center for Education Statistics data, which indicate that about 80 percent of teachers and principals nationwide are white. And about 90 percent of superintendents are white, according to the most recent data from AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Because participation in the survey reflected the demographics of educators nationwide, the EdWeek Research Center did not receive enough responses from people who are not white to provide valid breakdowns by any race other than white and educators of color.

The new results arrive as the country is wrestling with questions about the way racism shapes key institutions, including policing and schools. They highlight longstanding problems with the way Black, brown, and indigenous people are reflected across the subject areas in K-12, from history books to novels and poetry and in lessons on important thinkers in math and science.

The survey feedback stands in stark contrast to studies that have indicted instruction for ignoring the perspectives and contributions of people of color. Many educators have called attention to the ways “curriculum violence”—including lessons that ask students to simulate or reenact slavery—can traumatize students of color.

The survey results also raise the question of perspective in a K-12 system dominated by white adults, even as the majority of the school population are students of color. How well do white teachers see racial inequity in the textbooks they use?

The phrasing of the survey question could also have clouded the responses. When asked to what extent textbooks accurately and fairly reflect the experiences of people of color, respondents may have selected “some” to mean the texts are better in some subjects than others, or to mean that textbooks in general do that job to “some” extent overall.

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Rena Mateja Walker Burr, a Black rising 11th grader at Cleveland High School in Seattle, said she was surprised that “so many people said they didn’t see anything wrong” with the representation of people of color in their textbooks. In her experience, she said, those books do not fully or accurately represent people that look like her.

In her years in school, Walker Burr said, “the only light that I see my people painted in is that we were slaves and that we were oppressed, and that’s it. We have Martin Luther King Jr. along the way, and here’s Rosa Parks, and that’s that. They don’t even go back far enough to teach us that Black people were kings and queens.”

The survey results were likely shaped by the fact that so many teachers are white, Walker Burr said.

“It’s easier for a white educator to think, ‘Oh, I think everyone is represented,’ because as a white person, your history and your race is always represented,” she said.

Jessica Lifshitz, a white 5th grade teacher in Northbrook, Ill., is one of many teachers immersed in discussions about how they can teach in ways that combat racism. Twitter is abuzz with talk about how instruction, particularly in history and social studies, must change to better reflect the experiences of people of color.

To Lifshitz, the survey results illustrate the need for training for teachers.

“To me, these numbers do not reflect any truth about our textbooks,” she said. “Instead, they reflect a lack of opportunity and skills for teachers to think critically about our curriculum.”

“No matter what resources we’re using, the curriculum of history that we’re delivering is still so white-centric that it’s hard for me to understand how we could possibly say that our resources are accurately portraying the experiences of people of color,” she said.

Because of the way state standards are written, her 5th grade students start American history with the immigration of Europeans colonists, and touch on indigenous people or enslaved people from Africa only when they “intersect with” the story of European Americans, she said.

This summer, Lifshitz is working to revise the 5th grade unit on the Civil War, to highlight the institution of slavery and how it shaped the United States, using the “teaching hard history” framework created by Teaching Tolerance.

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.