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How We Learn About Black Lives in Schools Needs to Change in Texas

Students only get a glimpse of black people in history, other than when the textbooks talk about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. It’s time for a change.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Students across Texas are preparing for state assessment tests that require them to demonstrate their knowledge of various school subjects including American history. But one part of American history that few students will be able to display more than cursory knowledge about is black history. Why? Because our textbooks look as if they were written generations ago.

Students only get a glimpse of black people in history, other than when the textbooks talk about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. But even these glimpses offer poor context.

It’s time for a change.

Consider the following passages from two sections of an American history textbook that is used across Texas:
The state’s response to abolition was to strengthen the slave codes and moments like “Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 sent a wave of hysteria sweeping over the snowy cotton fields and planters in growing numbers slept with pistols by their pillows.”

The discussion of Nat Turner’s rebellion focuses primarily on the impact on white Americans. It is not the story of a courageous black man or a social movement of politically conscious workers.

Also consider this quote:

The Pious Christian moderation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came under heavy fire from this second wave of younger Black leaders who privately mocked the dignified Dr. King … Malcolm X trumpeted Black separatism and inveighed against the “blue-eyed White devils” … With frightening frequency, violence or the threat of violence raised its head in the Black community. The Black Panther Party openly brandished weapons in the streets … 

These glimpses present limited notions of black identity. Martin Luther King Jr. is an integrationist and peace keeping activist, while Malcolm X is a militant and a violent figure. Neither of these descriptions fully captures either individual.

Now consider the policy language around recognition of black people in American history from the Texas Education Agency:

Students should be able to:

• compare the effects of political, economic and social factors on slaves and free blacks
• identify the causes of the Civil War, states’ rights and slavery
• identify the effects of slavery and Reconstruction
• identify selected racial, ethnic and religious groups that settled in the United States and explain their reasons for immigration
• identify ways conflicts between people from various racial, ethnic and religious groups were solved

Texas textbooks do not even live up to these basic requirements.

So why is there such a disconnect between what students should learn about black lives and what they actually are learning?

The adoption of Texas curriculum standards is a complicated and recursive process that involves the Texas Education Agency, the State Board of Education, an expert review committee and other committees made up of educators, parents, business leaders and employers.

At no point are the recommendations of the experts or the other review committees binding or prioritized over the desires of the State Board of Education. Textbooks are written based on these skewed standards, and the adoption of these textbooks is another complicated process run through the politicized State Board of Education.

There are policies that would combat the problem. Ethnic studies scholars should review all materials prior to adoption. This was proposed but struck down recently by the State Board of Education. Major publishing houses should not be granted adoption deals without their materials being first approved by experts, including ethnic studies scholars.

Students, teachers and ethnic studies scholars should have a representative present when the State Board votes to reform or maintain a particular adopted textbook. Finally, standards need to be written by education and subject area experts, not elected officials with political biases.

This is only a start. But it’s a start that needs to happen. The stories of black lives in Texas textbooks do not demonstrate historical understanding nor do they serve our students. More in depth knowledge of Black History will not only speak truth to the historical struggles of Black people, but will also enable all students to think critically about equality and race in the future.

Naomi Reed is a postdoctoral fellow and Karen Moran Jackson is a research associate at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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