Sariah Mason, a Jefferson County public schools student, was frustrated with her history courses that “barely taught African history.”
“When we did learn about Africa, it would mostly be negative aspects about it, about diseases and starving children, and a bad climate. They weren’t talking about the history before slavery,” said Sariah, 16. “I wanted to fix it.”
Her teacher Matt Kaufmann, Kentucky’s High School Teacher of the Year, told her to email Kentucky legislators and ask for help in changing the curriculum.
The result was that State Rep. Attica Scott pre-filed a bill for the 2020 General Assembly that says African history and Native American history would be required in Kentucky world history and civilization courses.
But the legislation that originated with students is not being embraced by the Commissioner of Education. Wayne Lewis said that “while the bill attempts to give space to diverse groups in history instruction, the draft version of the Kentucky Academic Studies for Social Studies” already does “much of what this bill wants to achieve.”
Whether to use ethnic studies curriculum has been debated in other states including Oregon, Arizona and California, an article published on a Stanford University website said. “A high school ethnic studies course examining the roles of race, nationality and culture on identity and experience boosted attendance and academic performance of students at risk of dropping out,” the article said.
Under the bill pre-filed by Scott, beginning with the 2021-2022 school year, any world history or world civilization course offered by a public middle or high school — excluding advanced placement — would include instruction on African history and Native American history relevant to the time period covered by the course.
“I know how important it is for all students to have this kind of education that goes beyond African American history beginning at slavery or native history beginning at colonization because its boosts self-esteem, it boosts educational attainment and it provides for a more holistic world view,” said Scott, D-Louisville.
The course would include, but would not be limited to, eight civilizations: The Kingdoms of Kush, Kongo, Punt, Carthage, Ghana, Asante, Zulu, Berber, Mutapa, and Zimbabwe; and The Mali, Songhai, Benin, Ethiopian, Aksumite, and Egyptian Empires.
The Native American instruction required would include but not be limited to instruction on the history and culture of the Navajo, Cherokee, Sioux, Chippewa, Choctaw, Apache, Pueblo, Iroquois, Creek, and Blackfeet tribes.
Sariah, one of Kaufmann’s English students at Moore Traditional High School, asked Scott in a letter to sponsor a bill that alleviates the “identity crisis so many in the black community are facing.”
“This is a mental health issue. This is a civil rights issue. This is a doing right by kids of color issue,” Sariah wrote to Scott.
Josue Velasquez, another Moore student, said “the only thing they really teach… is slavery and nothing really beyond that.”
“They don’t talk about Kenya or other countries,” he said.
Under Scott’s legislation, the Kentucky Department of Education would have to collaborate with the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville and the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission to develop courses. The Kentucky Board of Education would work with those groups to develop academic standards.
Aukram Burton, Executive Director of the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville, said he talked to Scott as she was drafting her bill. He said requiring African and Native American history was a place to start.
“We live in a country that was built by many ethnicities,” said Burton. “I think we need to start somewhere and then build from that. I think we will generate more respect among each other because we begin to understand our different stories.”
“We need to begin to learn everybody’s story,” he said.
Helen Danser of McKee, chairwoman of the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission, said Friday she expected her group would be discussing the legislation at a July meeting.
“On the surface, this looks like something …the commission would be very interested” in , Danser said.
Under Scott’s legislation, United States history courses would also include instruction on Native American culture and history prior to the founding of the United States.
Kaufmann, the teacher, said in addition to requiring Native American culture instruction, he would favor including Hispanic history instruction as well. “I think we have a white-washed version of history which gives way too much power to a patriarchy and we need more voices to really give us a more well-rounded, more honest version of history,” he said.
Scott’s legislation calls for the local school-based decision making council of each high school to determine the curriculum for the African and Native American history instruction and to make sure it is aligned with the state’s academic standards.
While it is not the norm for the legislature to dictate specific course content, it has happened before. Kentucky in 2018 passed a law requiring schools to include instruction on the Holocaust and genocide.
“While the bill proposed by Representative Scott is coming from the right place, the draft document of the Kentucky Academic Standards for Social Studies not only ensures the teaching of diverse groups at the middle and high school level, but ensures that students in Kentucky learn about diverse groups from kindergarten until graduation,” Lewis said.
Kentucky law gives school-based decision making councils the authority to adopt curriculum, Lewis said. He said Scott’s proposal “would be ripe for SBDM consideration.”
There are dozens of proposed social studies standards for students in middle and high school. The standards are what students must know and do — but do not address how learning experiences are to be designed, what resources should be used, or what specific curricular content should be taught. Lewis pointed to several standards that he said accomplish the same thing as the proposed legislation, including one that called for students to, “analyze the rise and fall of major states and empires in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas between 1300-1500.”
The proposed social studies standards have been both praised by educators and criticized by people who thought some key events and figures in history were omitted. They are still under review by state lawmakers.
Does Scott’s bill have a chance for passage?
“African American’s and Native American’s history is important, and their contributions and roles are threaded within the curriculum, just as any other race, group or individual’s actions are threaded within,” said the chairwoman of the House Education Committee, Regina Huff.
Huff said she thinks the current course offerings already have balance, but she didn’t know if education committee members “would feel that what is proposed would warrant different standards or a curriculum overhaul. “