Do History Books Adequately Reflect People of Color? Most Educators Say Yes – Teaching Now

Most educators think that history textbooks do a pretty good job of portraying the experiences of people of color, according to a survey by the EdWeek Research Center.

The new results arrive as the country is wrestling with questions about the way racial inequity shapes key institutions, including policing and schools.

EdWeek surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,150 teachers, principals, and district leaders June 17 and 18 about the history textbooks they use in their schools. The survey asked them to characterize how well their textbooks reflect the experiences of people of color. Seven in 10 said their textbooks did that job “a lot” or to “some” extent. 

Educators of color were more likely than their white counterparts to say that their schools’ or districts’ textbooks didn’t sufficiently reflect people of color. 

The survey results surprised Rena Mateja Walker Burr, a Black rising 11th grader at Cleveland High School in Seattle. 

“That’s really crazy to me.” she said. “I would just ask them to take their most diverse class and open the textbook and see if every child could see someone that looks like them in that textbook. And if they can, are they painted in a positive light or a negative light?”

In her years in school, Walker Burr said, “the only light that I see my people painted in is that we were slaves and that we were oppressed, and that’s it. We have Martin Luther King Jr. along the way, and here’s Rosa Parks, and that’s that. They don’t even go back far enough to teach us that Black people were kings and queens.”

The survey results also surprised Jessica Lifshitz, a white 5th grade teacher in Northbrook, Ill. She and many other teachers are immersed in discussions about how they can teach in ways that combat racism. Twitter is abuzz with talk about how instruction, particularly in history and social studies, must change to better reflect the experiences of people of color. So Lifshitz thought she’d see much higher percentages of educators finding fault with their history texts.

“No matter what resources we’re using, the curriculum of history that we’re delivering is still so white-centric that it’s hard for me to understand how we could possibly say that our resources are accurately portraying the experiences of people of color,” she said.

Had she been asked whether her own district’s textbooks reflect people of color, she would have said “very little,” Lifshitz said. “It’s hard to see those [survey] numbers and feel comforted that we have good resources to teach history in our schools.”

Because of the way state standards are written, her 5th grade students start American history with the immigration of Europeans colonists, and touch on indigenous people or enslaved people from Africa only when they “intersect with” the story of European Americans, she said.

This summer, Lifshitz is working to revise the 5th grade unit on the Civil War, to highlight the institution of slavery and how it shaped the United States, using the “teaching hard history” framework created by Teaching Tolerance.

The EdWeek Research Center survey results also found that educators in elementary school were particularly likely to say that history textbooks fairly represented people of color. Seventy-two percent in K-5 said the texbooks did so “to some extent” or “a lot,” compared with two-thirds in middle and high school.

Image: iStock/Getty

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