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When LaGarrett King was growing up in Louisiana, his textbooks and teachers taught him about Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. But he often found himself wondering: Where are the other Black faces and voices and stories?
Why weren't his teachers and books explaining the complexities of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision? The failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War? The lingering effects of enslaving humans, which were obvious all around him?
At home, his African American family often discussed those topics and more, but in his public school, staffed almost entirely by white people, they just didn't come up. No one was talking about the institutional racism, mortgage redlining or civil rights violations that made it harder for Black citizens to vote and reshape society around them.
"Black people have always favored education, but what education they actually get, that's a different story," says King.
Thirty years later, King, who founded and directs the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri, says most of the history majors he's teaching still lack a baseline knowledge of the events and people that shaped Black history in the United States.
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"They're really hurt that this history wasn't taught to them in school," King says. "If future citizens are only learning about half of the population, well, that's how we end up in the place we are in. If they knew this history, hopefully they would improve our society because we don't want to repeat it."
King is part of a new generation of Black educators who are demanding more from public school across the country, schools that have for generations largely reflected the priorities of white-dominated boards of education and state legislatures, implemented through curricula and textbooks they controlled.
Now, a shift is underway as more Black and Latino parents push for inclusive and diverse educational materials. An accompanying backlash by conservatives decries the concept of critical race theory, which examines the United States through the lens of people who continue to face systemic racism.
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Across the country, school boards, statewide boards of education and legislators are more closely examining their textbooks and curricula, traditionally developed by and for white people. Nationally, white kids now make up about 47% of public school students. Hispanic kids make up 27% and Black kids make up 15%.
Textbooks don't just come from Texas anymore
For decades, Texas' statewide standards and millions of public school students meant textbook publishers catered specifically to the Lone Star State's conservative-dominated curriculum-setting process, then sold those same books to districts in smaller states that lacked the purchasing power to demand their own custom modifications.
About a decade ago, the Common Core curriculum standards began bringing new consistency to what kids were learning, although not every state adopted them (and many states later dropped them, at least officially).
And while Common Core focuses only on language and math and lacks any focus on history, the de facto national standards played a key role in loosening the grip Texas once had in determining what kids across the country learned.
Today, on-demand printing and the development of statewide curriculums in states such as Florida and California have freed other states to influence their own textbook purchases. Still, what kids learn remains largely tied to the past.
"There is a sort of circularity to the argument: 'History is written by the winners and people should know history, so they should learn about the winners,'" said David Griffith of the Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank. "A certain amount of debate and negotiation is inevitable. It is simply a fact that our history is not as diverse as our current reality, and reasonable people are going to disagree about who should or should not be in."
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In Texas, Board of Education Chairman Keven Ellis said he and his colleagues are proud that students are now offered electives in both Mexican American history and African American history. Ellis said educational leaders need to strike a careful balance between teaching kids a historically accurate accounting of the past while leaving space for their own critical thinking.
Texas offers a statewide curriculum that districts can adopt, although they can make their own if it meets certain standards. The process begins with educators and other experts who recommend certain areas of study, and then gets refined via public input.
Politicians have the final say. Gov. Greg Abbot this spring called a special legislative session to discuss, among other topics, a ban on teaching aspects of critical race theory in Texas' public schools. That ban took effect Sept. 1.
"We don't want to create a mindset for our students, where they have a certain agenda that's given to them. We want to make sure they're given facts to evaluate," Ellis said. Still, he said, U.S. history has caused "scars and open wounds," along with so much good.
"We should educate our children about our history of these scars, and in some cases the open wounds that remain," he said.
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Do kids see themselves in their classes?
For Silvia Nogueron-Liu, the debate over critical race theory is eerily reminiscent of the battles in Arizona during the late 2000s over Tucson's Mexican American studies program. A Republican-dominated legislature outlawed the program on the grounds that it was teaching "racial resentment," prompting administrators to collect textbooks lawmakers considered inappropriate for kids.
The Tucson program had been teaching students in the primarily poor Latino district using texts and historical figures that reflected what they saw in the mirror, said Nogueron-Liu, who was born in Mexico and earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction at Arizona State University amid the Tucson curriculum debate.
Every child, Nogueron-Liu said, comes to school with an understanding of their own culture – just like King, the professor, did 30 years ago. It's important for them to be able to anchor new information into the context of their personal history.
Seeing themselves in textbooks is the best way to start that process, she said. The tension comes when governments decide what narrative kids should learn, then reinforce those narratives via textbooks and curriculum.
"When we're learning about history in kindergarten and in first grade and we don't see ourselves reflected in what we are learning, how are we making those connections?" said Nogueron-Liu, now a professor of literacy studies at the University of Colorado. "Children can understand injustice. They can understand inequality."
What teachers actually teach
Today, most states have statewide history standards that guide what children learn and teachers teach. Those standards are typically set by state boards of education and then flow down to the school district, school and then classroom level.
"Textbooks certainly play a role in what teachers teach and students learn," said Morgan Scott Polikoff, an education professor at the University of Southern California. "The way the system is supposed to work, the standards are supposed to be the determinant of what's taught."
The reality, however, is teachers play a significant role in deciding what to emphasize or gloss over, Polikoff said. Some conservative states have started banning the teaching of specific words and phrases, and Polikoff said most teachers were already teaching a "whitewashed" version of U.S. history.
Still, he said, "I strongly suspect that regardless of the materials, on average, teachers tend to teach toward the middle. There are going to be some iconoclast conservative teachers and some outspoken liberal teachers, but teachers in general tend to teach toward the middle."
Surveys of thousands of teachers by the RAND Corp. support that conclusion, said Darleen Opfer, who runs the think tank's education and labor division. About 30% of teachers nationally are using the Engage New York standards developed by the state's education department.
But drill down, Opfer said, and you'll find that half the country's educators also are using the Teachers Pay Teachers website. There, teachers can upload lesson plans they've developed themselves and buy lessons to use in their classrooms.
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"Even if you had a textbook written for Texas that was adopted all over the country, teachers weren't using it consistently," Opfer said. "When we ask teachers why they deviated from a textbook or a curriculum, they give lots of reasons for why, and they're essentially trying to differentiate their instruction or they're trying to make it more culturally appropriate.
"Right now, because of the climate, we're seeing teachers err on the side of not covering things that might be controversial."
King, the history professor, says the choices of textbooks and curriculum are inherently political. "Education has always been political," he said. He welcomes the conversation about exactly what gets included in textbooks – and what gets left out.
"We use history to tell our students who we are as a people. We need to reexamine questions like: 'What is the purpose of history?' Is it nostalgia?" he said.
"It's not about patriotism or loving America or hating America. History is simply helping understand humanity."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: History curriculum, critical race theory: Why POC aren't in textbooks