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The Importance of Diversity in the K-12 Curriculum

Parents and communities rely on schools to teach children the basics. However, over the past few decades, classrooms have become more diverse.  As a result, educators have faced pressure to incorporate lessons in diversity into the standard curriculum. Because many schools use Black History Month as an opportunity to highlight diversity, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the importance of diversity in the K-12 curriculum.

The Current State of Diversity in the K-12 Curriculum

Advocates of diversity in the K-12 curriculum have secured some victories. Several states have adopted standards requiring schools to teach students how people of color, women, people with disabilities and who identify as part of the LGBT communities have contributed to U.S. history. Moreover, according to research from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), 90 percent of teachers reported feeling comfortable with teaching slavery. So, at least on the surface, the days limiting history classes focusing solely on white men are in the past.

Let me encourage us to think a bit more broadly, though, beyond reported comfort levels. I have a ten-year old son. We recently moved to a new state and he has not shared anything with me about how Black folks are represented in U.S. history—not during Black History Month or at any other point in the school year.

His previous school taught him about slavery. But rather than being integrated into the story of the birth of the United States, it was disconnected from other history lessons. I remember one day last year talking with him about the lessons he was learning at school and he said, “It makes me embarrassed to talk about being Black. The other kids think the only thing we have is slavery, like we aren’t anything more than past slaves.” Ironically, it a totally different module on U.S. history, my little Black boy was expected to dress like a European immigrant to simulate coming through Ellis Island, which was being taught as the passage way for citizenship.

So, I assume that diversity has yet to fully integrated into the history curriculum. Though some states mandate a diverse history curriculum, the vast majority do not. Moreover, despite their teachers’ enthusiasm, the SPLC survey found that shockingly few high school students could recall basic facts about slavery and the Civil War. Also, some schools meet their “diversity” requirements by mentioning a few well-known facts or individuals during a single heritage month or celebration. As a result, the history of non-white, non-male persons is relegated to “outsider” status in the curriculum.

Finally, teachers rely on publishers to create books that accurately reflect the contributions of all U.S. communities. Publishers, however, often produce books that continue myths or minimize the suffering of marginalized groups. A textbook published in 2015 referred to slaves as “workers.” Around the same time, Texas pondered adopting textbooks that minimized the conditions present in segregated schools. Additionally, researchers found that just nine percent of students reported learning about LGBT+ persons or issues in class. Similarly, experts note that women – particularly women of color – are often left out of history books.

In short, while schools have taken steps to diversify the history curriculum, much work remains to create an accurate and diverse portrait of U.S. history.

Why Diversity in the K-12 Curriculum Matters

To be sure, diversifying the K-12 history curriculum helps schools provide their students with a broader, more accurate view of U.S. history. However, the benefits of these lessons extend far beyond the classroom. Research indicates that more representative lessons help – or harm – students in other areas of their lives.

A recent paper from the National Education Association (NEA) reviewed existing studies on how learning about non-white, non-male cultures impacted different groups of students. The results were consistent and clear. When students of color were properly taught their history, their academic achievement and self-esteem soared. Some studies found that after exposure, students emerged with a renewed commitment to help their communities.

Though diversity in the K-12 curriculum helps students of color, surprisingly, white students may benefit more. When white students learn about racism and the histories of non-white communities – particularly in multi-racial settings – their attitudes shift. As teachers go beyond simply listing a few prominent members of outside groups, white students become more committed to fair treatment for all.

Moreover, students enjoy history more when everyone is included. The NEA found that students of all races enjoyed their readings and assignments more when they focused on people from marginalized groups.

Clearly, diversity in the K-12 history curriculum matters for all students.

Increasing Diversity in the K-12 Curriculum

Though the research indicates that most history lessons could benefit from increased diversity, the good news is that situation can be changed. Interested persons – students, parents, educators, community members, and others – can take steps to improve the quality of the history lessons children receive.

At the state level, politicians should advocate for better history education standards. They should push for a curriculum that reflects the contributions that all citizens have made throughout U.S. history. Moreover, they should vow to purchase history textbooks and materials that accurately reflect those contributions. They must also budget carefully to ensure that teachers have the funds to properly teach history.

Educators can also play a role. Teachers and administrators should demand textbooks and educational resources that represent—and are created by people from a variety lived experience. Administrators can also require that all teachers be properly trained in equity, diversity, and inclusion to ensure that they can lead difficult discussions. Teachers should also prepare to supplement existing curriculum, and administrators should support them in those endeavors.

Parents and students can also act. Parents should discuss history lessons and review history materials at home to ensure accuracy. Parents should also push school administrators to teach diversity throughout the year, not just in one designated month. High school and middle school students can organize together and demand an accurate curriculum.

Early education prepares children for the world. As our nation’s demographics change, the need for diversity in the K-12 curriculum will only increase. School administrators and others who wish to create schools where all children can excel should consider enrolling in The Essentials of Cultural Competence and The Inclusive Manager’s Communication Toolkit.   These courses will help administrators become better managers and help all team members better understand equity, diversity, inclusion, and related concepts.

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