Mandate for change
In 1967, thousands of Philadelphia high school students boldly walked out of school, taking their demand for African American curricular inclusion to the School Board. In 2005, almost four decades later, the District has made history by becoming the first in the nation to mandate an African American history course.
The District’s new African American studies course, which is to be taught as a “mandatory elective” in high schools, coupled with new measures to infuse African and African American studies across all grades, moves Philadelphia in the direction of teaching a critical approach to history. This means a history in which students have a voice; a history that examines who has power and who does not; a history in which there are arguments and alternatives; and a history that prepares students to be change agents.
The need for a critical, inclusive curriculum is not unique to Philadelphia. There has been something terribly wrong – and in fact damaging – about the history that has been taught in our schools.
Generations of schoolchildren have grown up taking history courses that teach them little or nothing about Africa. These same classes too often have taught students an inaccurate, narrow story of African Americans in the United States, one that revolves around slavery and a handful of heroes, excluding a broader, deeper narrative about the diverse experiences of African Americans.
Similarly, in science, math, literature, foreign languages, music, and art classes, content that is focused on Europeans and European Americans has predominated. Africans and African Americans are among the groups that are often invisible.
For decades, there have been cries of protest to overhaul this Eurocentric curriculum, but Philadelphia has tinkered around the edges of this problem rather than addressing it thoughtfully.
The decision to highlight African American history is a significant step forward that has galvanized support and generated positive momentum for change in the curriculum.
The response to the new course this fall has been heartening. Many students and staff have greeted the opportunity with eagerness and enthusiasm. A publisher has worked with the District to adapt a highly regarded college textbook for a high school audience. A core group of teachers is faithfully attending and engaging in professional development for the class. Other districts have contacted Philadelphia to learn more.
With so much at stake and with so many eyes on Philadelphia, it is important that the new course be done right. In order to sustain momentum and ensure that these efforts genuinely improve teaching and learning in our schools, effective pedagogy needs as much attention as we have given to the politics surrounding the course.
Proponents of the course hope it will transform the classroom environment – increase student self-awareness and engagement rather than simply teach more facts about African and African American history. We hope for the same. But this kind of instruction has been hard to achieve, particularly in Philadelphia’s struggling high schools.
An investment in new books has helped, but the problem is much bigger than who is included in textbooks. Many of the system’s teachers, while they may want to be sensitive to their students’ needs, have cultural and educational backgrounds shaped by the very biases that need to be addressed.
It was wise for the School District to draw upon experts in African and African American history to provide professional development that gives teachers strong knowledge of the content. Many teachers have never studied this history.
Effective professional development, however, must delve into not just course content but how to stimulate reflection, debate, and dialogue in the classroom. Worksheets and “chalk and talk” teaching methods won’t cut it if we want participatory classrooms that support a critical approach to history.
Educators must be encouraged to start from a standpoint of respect for their students. They must grapple with race and class prejudices that are often addressed in a cursory way. Teachers will need assistance in finding ways to draw on the knowledge, experience, and diverse learning styles of their students.
This course also provides an opportunity to bring parents into schools and get them engaged in discussing the material.
We applaud the SRC for approving the resolution calling for a mandatory African American history course. We take issue with critics, like Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel, who have been silent for decades during which African Americans were underrepresented in the curriculum. His complaints now about the emphasis on African Americans over other groups carry no weight.
We hope that mandating African American history is a big first step towards an inclusive curriculum for all, including the Latino and Asian students who comprise 20 percent of our School District’s population.
With a concerted effort from all partners in Philadelphia education – from parents and students to teachers, administrators and central office personnel – the new African American history course can be a catalyst for real change in our classrooms.