Social Studies

Teachers of Color More Likely Than White Peers to Tackle ‘Controversial’ Civics Topics

‘I have to uncover some truths that have been hidden’
By Sarah Schwartz — January 05, 2021 7 min read
Irene Sanchez, an educator in the Azusa Unified school district, stands outside her home in Riverside, Calif.

Irene Sanchez knows that her social studies class might introduce civic ideas that her high schoolers haven’t ever studied before.

Sanchez, a Latino studies teacher in the Azusa Unified school district in California, discusses local laws with her students, with an emphasis on how they affect different Latino groups in the area. She shows students what their state looked like before colonization and modern-day borders and emphasizes that Los Angeles county is part of a global community.

“Because so much of our history and our culture has been excluded from the mainstream U.S. society and made our communities feel excluded, it’s kind of like our class has to cover those gaps,” said Sanchez, who is Chicana. “It’s my responsibility to show my students how they can also participate and have a capacity to make change.”

The key to getting them involved in civic life, she said, is having them see themselves in it.

This approach to civics education, one that puts a greater emphasis on the global community and doesn’t shy away from so-called “controversial” issues, is more common among teachers of color, like Sanchez, according to a new report on civics education from the RAND Corporation.

RAND researchers surveyed 820 social studies teachers in the United States, at all grade levels K-12, through their American Teacher Panel. In general, the report found that teachers wanted more support in the subject: Only one in five teachers said they felt very well-prepared to support students’ civic learning, and most said they needed better school- or district-provided instructional materials, including materials that were culturally relevant for their students.

But the report also outlined some key differences in responses for two groups of teachers: teachers of color, and all teachers who work with English-language learners. These two groups held different priorities, and identified different needs, compared to the other teachers in the survey.

Tackling Controversial Issues

Teachers of color placed a greater emphasis on teaching international relations, the environment, and immigration and emigration. They were also more likely than their white peers to say that it was essential for students to understand the Bill of Rights and the responsibilities of citizenship. Teachers of color more often discussed controversial issues in their classrooms, and they were less likely to indicate trust in institutions.

Both groups—teachers of color and teachers of who worked with a greater number of ELLs—were more likely than respondents as a whole to say that they needed more resources for teaching civics.

The results highlight the importance of a diverse teacher corps in civics, the report’s authors write. But the two groups of teachers’ responses regarding resources and opportunities also suggest that “some students are getting less access to curriculum and experiences that build the full range of competencies that they will need to succeed and thrive when they leave the K-12 system,” said Laura Hamilton, an adjunct behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and the first author on the report, in an interview with Education Week.

Averill Kelley, a former high school civics teacher and current doctoral student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, saw when he started teaching that Black and Latino students were not getting the same learning opportunities as their white peers.

In on-level courses, made up of mostly students of color, teachers wouldn’t assign presentations, speeches, or simulations—experiences that could have made civics seem more relevant and interesting, said Kelley, who is Black. “It would be like, ‘My students can’t write, and my students can’t behave well, so I can’t give them this fun project,’” he said of his conversations with other teachers.

Kelley, who had been active in Model Congress when he was in school, committed to giving his students those opportunities to research, figure out the issues that were important to them, and ask questions of those in power.

He also highlighted Black civic role models, beyond the traditional examples of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Kelley taught his students about people like Septima Clark, a teacher and organizer in the Civil Rights movement who developed a network of Citizenship Schools that prepared thousands of Black adults to pass the literacy tests required for voter registration under Jim Crow laws.

These lessons demonstrate that students’ ancestors and the people in their communities made change, Kelley said, and they also broaden students’ understanding of what civic engagement can look like.

It makes sense that teachers of color would emphasize these ideas, because they’re often teaching students of color, said Kristen E. Duncan, an assistant professor of secondary social studies education at Clemson University. Surveys from the Pew Research Center have found that at schools where more students are Black, Latino, Asian, or Indigenous, a larger share of teachers are, too.

“Teachers of color realize that, if I want to reach my students in ways that speak to my communities and ways of living, then I need materials that do that as well,” Duncan said.

‘Community-Centered’ Civics

Too often, civics is framed as “all about voting and jury duty,” said Duncan. “Are those rights and responsibilities of citizens in the U.S.? Absolutely. But communities of color are more likely to focus on community-centered framings of civics.”

Sanchez, the California teacher, takes a different approach to ideas and concepts that other teachers may have previously taught. For instance, she reteaches Manifest Destiny from an Indigenous perspective, and centers learning on Latinos’ stories, like in her lessons about the pandemic’s disparate impact on some Latino communities in Los Angeles county.

“I feel like, in many ways, that I have to uncover some truths that have been hidden,” Sanchez said.

The RAND survey shows that not all teachers share this perspective. When asked which civics concepts were “absolutely essential” for schools to teach, developing habits of community service and becoming activists who challenge the status quo were low on the list.

It’s possible, Hamilton said, that some teachers think these lessons are better left for families and communities to impart. “There is some controversy around how civics should be taught, and to what extent teachers should be encouraging kids to get involved in specific causes, because you run the risk of teachers imposing their political beliefs on students,” Hamilton said.

In an ideologically polarized landscape, even discussing basic civic and government processes can be fraught. Teachers are divided on whether issues that could be construed as “political” should even be discussed in the classroom—and if they are, whether it’s appropriate for teachers to make their perspectives known.

But teachers of color may be less able to avoid this controversy than their white peers, Duncan said. “Teachers of color are so much more likely to engage students in these topics, because this is not controversial to them. It’s life,” she said. “They need this information in order to navigate the systems and structure in which they live.”

Centering English Learners’ Civic Experiences

Broadening schools’ conception of the discipline can also help English-language learners see themselves and their families as civic actors, said Kristina Robertson, the English-learner program administrator at Roseville Area Schools in Minnesota.

The RAND survey found that as a group, teachers who taught more ELLs—including white teachers and teachers of color—were more likely to emphasize migration and drivers of inequality. This rings true to Robertson, who said that social studies curricula often fail to address English learners’ “language, culture, histories, and realities.” These students’ teachers want to fill that gap, said Robertson, who is white.

The Roseville district has piloted a social studies course that invites students to co-construct the curriculum. This past year, several Karen refugee students, of the ethnic group in Burma, chose to study the history and politics of refugee resettlement from Burma to the United States, Robertson said.

Jennifer George, an English-learner teacher in Roseville, said migration often comes up in her classes. But she also introduces civics topics that may not generally be part of the social studies curriculum, like financial literacy. Her students, who are mostly newcomers ages 16-21, need these skills for life in the United States, where the financial system may be different than the ones they left at home.

She struggles to find age-appropriate materials that cover money and budgeting, and makes most of them herself, “not because my district wouldn’t provide it, but because it doesn’t exist,” said George, who is white. Most of what’s available online is designed for adults, she said.

Exploring complex and potentially charged topics—like immigration—requires a supportive administration, “and not just on paper,” said Robertson. “You have to see evidence that your administration will back you up.”

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