The evidence paints a clear picture: students who attend diverse public schools learn more, exhibit less racial prejudice, and report higher overall self-confidence. But to fully realize the potential of these benefits, schools must ensure diversity exists on every level by ensuring diverse enrollment, integrating classrooms, and crucially, implementing curricula which reflects the history and culture of students of all backgrounds—advocates for equitable education reform must be invested in diversifying not only classrooms, but lesson plans, too. Unfortunately, a recent change to the Advanced Placement World History curriculum shows that the fight for diversity in curricula remains an uphill battle.
As researchers Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo note in their report How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students, support for school integration “must go beyond creating schools with diverse enrollments to curricular and accountability approaches that allow educators to tap into the multiple educational benefits of diversity.” What does this recent curriculum change say about diversity in American education today, and what can be done to respond?
AP World History’s Eurocentric Makeover
This May, The College Board unveiled a plan to narrow the scope of its World History Advanced Placement Exam, having its subject matter now range from c. 1450 to the present. The new test removes over 9,000 years of history, eliminating lessons ranging from the birth of Confucianism to the expansion of the West African Kingdoms. This revision represents a step backwards for diversity in school curriculum and towards an even more Eurocentric view of world history in American education. The College Board, a nonprofit organization which administers a variety of tests, including Advanced Placement (AP) exams and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), argued that the change would focus the course, as its current scope is far too broad to be covered in a year’s time. It proposed, instead, teaching what would have traditionally been the first half of AP World History in a separate, “pre-AP” course, reasoning that such a similar course would be taught at the college level in this manner. However, pre-AP courses cost schools money (up to $6,500 per course), meaning that this new revision would rob many students, especially students of color in underfunded schools, of the opportunity to take an AP World History class that covers the so-called “periods 1-3” in world history.
Supporters of the move argue that the course was simply too sprawling in its current formation. Still, the revision was heavily criticized by many teachers, students, and education experts, who argued that beginning the course with period 4 (around the year 1450 A.D.) would give students a view only on a period of history dominated by Western expansion and imperialism. At a Salt Lake City forum held by Trevor Packer, the head of the AP World History program, AP World History teacher Amanda DoAmaral pointed out: “It’s so cool for students to learn [the third period] because it’s the one time in history that Europe wasn’t the big dog—it was in the Dark Ages while the rest of the world was innovating.”
DoAmaral was far from the only person criticizing the measure and emphasizing importance of students learning about the pre-colonial world. William Conway, an AP World History teacher in Janesville, Wisconsin, also admonished Parker at the meeting: “If we start the story at 1450, we lose so much of the richness of that story. [People of color] are still there in these periods. But the role they play is secondary. It’s colonized. … It’s the story of what Europeans do to them.” Students, too, were drawn to the issue. One particular student-organized petition on Change.org asking The College Board to rescind their decision has garnered over 11,000 signatures as of July 9. In an open letter to Packer, Mary Beth Borton and James Grossman, president and executive director of the American Historical Association, respectively, urged Packer to revise the test, citing concern over moving history as a discipline in a “Western-centric” direction.
The College Board has clearly felt the mounting criticism. In response, they are backtracking and exploring “ways to shift the start date several centuries earlier, while still ensuring that students and teachers no longer have to race through the course.” However, at the writing of this piece, the College Board has not taken any steps to reverse their initial decision.
A Bigger Problem: State and Local History Standards
Part of what has made the Board’s decision so disheartening is that it emerges in an educational landscape where Eurocentrism in history and social studies is already the norm. It’s worth noting that The College Board offers AP World History, AP United States History, and AP European History, but offers no courses that specifically educates students on the non-white world. The changes made to the AP World History curriculum will only exacerbate the lack of diverse history curricula in state and federal standards that we currently see.
State standards for world history remain shockingly thin, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Eurocentric. Most states do not test specifically for historical knowledge or understanding, but rather incorporate history into their standards for English language arts (ELA). This leaves less classroom instruction time for history of any kind. Even when history is taught, it’s often from a skewed perspective. As pointed out by world historians Richard Drayton and David Motadel in the Journal of Global History, “the field remains driven covertly by Western priorities… returning us often by non-Western routes to the idols of the old ‘Rise of the West’ historiography.” These two trends are evident in the standards for the Common Core, a standard for college and career readiness voluntarily adopted by forty-one states and the District of Columbia. Only one subsect of the ELA program is dedicated to “Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects,” requiring “certain critical content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s founding documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare.” Not only are these standards vague, but also orient the few specific suggestions they give solely toward Western literature.
A comprehensive study of individual state standards paints an equally disappointing picture. After studying the history curricula of all fifty states and the District of Columbia, researcher Walter Russell Mead of the Fordham Institute found that “states generally fail to address the non-Western world in sufficient detail.” One need not look any further than Massachusetts, where state standards were revised this January for the first time in fifteen years. Despite attempts to incorporate previously silenced voices into their curriculum, only ten of the fifty suggested history readings in the new curriculum were produced by non-white writers. This set of ten is tasked with covering American writers of color as well as the voices from Black and brown people around the world.
Of course, state standards are intended to be the floor, not the ceiling, of what students learn. However, they do provide the structure for curriculum, and ultimately are a considerable part of shaping what students learn. The choices being made about what history students learn are not trivial, but rather, core to the mission of educating students in diverse and supportive environments.
“…diversity in curricula is about more than just teaching a full view of history; it is proven to empower students of color.”
The Benefits of Diverse Curricula—and the Problem with its Scarcity
The importance of diverse history curricula is far from abstract. To teach history accurately, one must teach about the variety of ethnicities and cultures which make up our world. Eurocentrism is harmful first and foremost because it false. However, diversity in curricula is about more than just teaching a full view of history; it is proven to empower students of color.
Stanford University researchers looked at data from a pilot program in San Francisco where students considered at high risk for dropping out were enrolled in one of the state’s ethnic studies programs. The results were striking: attendance rose by 21 percentage points, while grade-point averages rose by 1.4 points. Students enrolled in in ethnic-studies courses earned 23 more credits toward graduation, on average, than those who did not. The largest improvements in test scores were found among boys and Hispanic students in math and science.
In a comprehensive study of the benefits students of color accrue from multicultural education, Celestial Zaldana of Claremont McKenna University found overwhelming evidence for the positive social and emotional effects of diverse curricula. Reading texts written by members of the ethnic groups that are underrepresented in school curricula improves the self esteem of students of that ethnic group, and caused all students to have a greater appreciation for cultural difference.
Despite the proven benefits of a diverse history education, many students still receive Eurocentric instruction. Studies have shown that most students lack a basic understanding of such things as slavery, rudimentary world geography, or the history of indigenous peoples. In a 2015 study, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) found that the majority of teachers considered Black history to be influential in understanding the complexity of U.S. history. Many teachers even claimed that that they, in teaching history, try to “infuse elements of Black history in every historical era, sometimes going beyond state and local standards.” However, when the study looked at how time was actually being used in U.S history classrooms, it revealed a slightly different reality: on average, only one to two lessons, or 8 to 9 percent of total class time, are devoted to Black history.
“…whose history is essential, and what are we teaching students when we tell them that theirs is not?”
Responding to the Revisions
Those who care about racial justice in education can and should make their voices heard. One particular opportunity is in the window after the amendment of state history curricula where public comments are allowed. Like much of education policy, states make their own choices about when and how to revise their standards and it is unfortunately incumbent on those who care to seek out the information about their states revision process. Despite their rarity, these inflection points are critical for ensuring that public advocates make their voices heard. While the full effect of public comments for state curricula are hard to measure, there is reason to believe that sustained advocacy on behalf of diversity in history education can make a real impact. Recent changes to Illinois’ history curriculum prove that while difficult, change is not impossible. Diversity in schools cannot stop at the doors of the school, or even the classroom. That students with vastly different backgrounds are still being taught that only one history is worth knowing reveals what has always been a deeper question in American education: whose history is essential, and what are we teaching students when we tell them that theirs is not? In the fight for racial equity in the classroom, we must stress the importance of students learning from a curriculum which reinforces that their own histories, and, by extension, their own identities, matter.