Student activists want change — and they’re starting in the classroom

Throughout her three years at Westminster High School in Southern California, Liana Le recalled reading only a handful of books that featured nonwhite perspectives. But even when those books featured people of color — in the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, for example — the 16-year-old realized that the book was often written by a white author who failed to portray Black characters with depth, agency, and thoughtfulness.

“It made me realize how representation in literature is so important,” the rising senior told me. “Talking about the Black, Latino, or Asian community from a removed point of view and reading it from a white author isn’t enough. We must include and hear other voices.”

In early June, Le discovered Diversify Our Narrative, a campaign spearheaded by California college students with the aim of introducing more diverse, anti-racist texts in America’s public school system. She is one of roughly 1,700 students across 200 school districts in the US to have signed up as a community organizer; she was then given tools and resources, like email templates and social media tips, to start a local petition targeting her community and school board.

Currently, Le and 17 others are working to present their proposal at Huntington Beach’s school board meeting on August 11. “We’re figuring out what we want to implement in the school curriculum since it’s such a new initiative,” Le said, “but we’re trying to start small and slowly inch our way up, while also trying to fundraise for new books.” The Diversify Our Narrative campaign has a recommended reading list of nonfiction and fiction titles Le hopes to draw from, featuring books like The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, There There by Tommy Orange, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Le and her peers are not alone in their efforts. As the country examines the systemic racism embedded in our institutions amid months of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, high school students, alumni, and teachers across the country are petitioning their local governments and school boards to implement curriculum changes. This includes diversifying reading materials to include more writers of color, introducing ethnic studies programs, and expanding the scope of existing history classes. Many advocates have also drawn from their own classroom experiences to highlight other pressing issues beyond curriculum: the need for increased teacher diversity, initiatives to reduce the racial achievement gap in schools, and more lenient disciplinary policies when addressing students’ problematic behaviors.

In school districts from California to Texas to New Jersey, board leaders and administrators have been urged to acknowledge the systemic racism that persists in education. And while some have issued statements reaffirming their commitments to equity and inclusion, students realize that a curriculum overhaul could take time and, in some cases, receive political pushback.

Major curriculum change is tricky. Young activists want small changes while aiming for a larger overhaul.

Since the United States doesn’t have a national education system, states are largely responsible for setting certain educational goals and curricula for subjects like American history, math, and English. To make things easier, a majority of states since 2010 have adopted the Common Core standards, which were crafted by two national nonprofit groups to better measure students’ academic performance. Yet the Common Core appears to rely on classic, decades-old works — published primarily by white authors — to teach and assess students grades 6 to 12, according to the sample performance tests posted on its site.

At the high school level, some students also take a variety of Advanced Placement courses by the College Board, a not-for-profit organization that dominates the curriculum and testing market for most college-bound students. Since these classes tend to be structured quite rigidly to ensure students pass the end-of-year test, however, there’s little room for teachers to explore supplementary topics or readings. That’s a problem, critics say, especially when most of its history courses are heavily Eurocentric.

According to the Atlantic, the AP art history course, which was revised in 2016, still features about 65 percent of art within the Western tradition, with 35 percent hailing from “other artistic traditions.” When the College Board sought to revise its world history curriculum in 2018, it was criticized by students, professors, and the American Historical Association, who felt the proposed plan still placed too much emphasis on Western culture.

AP world history was developed in part to counter the Western focus of the AP’s other courses (US and European history), whose timelines began in 1450 CE and heavily emphasized the development of the European empires and colonization. The organization eventually addressed critics’ misgivings by changing the starting year of the world history class to 1200 CE and creating a second AP course that covers the previous 9,200 years of history.

The decision, however, didn’t necessarily resolve the debate as to what constitutes “world history,” or whether expanding the historical scope of the course would help students better understand human history.

As David M. Perry, a former professor of history, wrote in Pacific Standard, the AP’s world history focus shouldn’t be on dates or coverage over time. Rather, the class should be better organized, allowing teachers to select case studies and “choose a balanced array of diverse places and cultures on which to concentrate.”

Meanwhile, white authors and Eurocentric perspectives are still heavily overrepresented in most English and history courses across the country, too — regardless of student demographics. A 2018 analysis of New York City’s public school system of three popular elementary school resources found that authors of both fiction novels and curriculum materials are overwhelmingly white, despite the school system’s diverse student population (in the 2018-’19 academic year, NYC’s school system was 26 percent Black, 41 percent Hispanic, 16 percent Asian, and 15 percent white). NYU Steinhardt researchers in the report noted that studies show students are “more engaged in literature and history lessons, and more likely to have a positive perception of their ability to succeed in math and science” when they feel connected to learning content where their identities are reflected.

Relatedly, ethnic studies is another area where students are pushing to improve, or even initiate, curriculum. California, Vermont, and Oregon are among a handful of states that have set out to develop ethnic studies curriculums. In most states, however, these courses aren’t required — or even offered — in schools. But even in school systems with more students of color, many notice how ethnic studies courses are usually an afterthought or become the center of political controversy. In California’s proposed K-12 ethnic studies curriculum, materials focus on people of color, like Black Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, according to the New York Times. Yet educators making these decisions have to grapple with questions of inclusion (Jews, Armenians, and Koreans felt they were left out) and whether the majority of teachers (who are white) are capable of teaching a subject they might be unfamiliar with.

Overhauling an entire state’s school system, let alone the centuries-old institution that is American education, is overwhelming, to say the least. For many advocates, the answer is baby steps. “Altering curriculum that’s already set in place, like AP courses, is going to be difficult,” Le told me. “We think it’ll be easier to implement changes at the freshman or sophomore levels [of high school], where there’s only honors or general-level classes, and we can fundraise for novels.”

Shajei Haider, a 2012 graduate of South Brunswick High School in New Jersey, said that he and a coalition of alumni are urging the school to bring back a defunct African American literature course, as well as introduce culturally relevant Black history into its traditional courses. In traditional English courses, students have said they’ve been taught books with outdated views on race, where teachers don’t provide proper context or even directly address modern-day racism.

Haider believes short-term changes are possible while pushing for longer-term solutions. For example, “we’re asking for a graduation requirement for a social justice class on anything that addresses race, class, or gender that are already on our class catalog,” he said.

Online petitions, email templates, and board meetings: How students plan to stay involved

Fighting for a more just and better education is a natural starting point for many young activists — especially for progressive-minded students who can trace the impact of required readings and classroom activities in their own development. Parents, educators, and older community members have long dominated school board discourses, but younger advocates believe they, too, have the organizing skills and persistence to achieve their goals.

Bethlehem Wolde, a rising senior and a member of Catonsville High School’s Black Student Union, participated in a panel on July 10 organized by Baltimore County’s public school system to discuss the need for more teacher diversity, bias training, and changes in curriculum. “I have a younger sister and younger cousins,” she told me. “I don’t want them to experience microaggressions or be the only Black student in a high-level class. I want them to be in a better learning environment, to learn more about Black history and be aware of systemic disparities.”

For that to be possible, Wolde believes students of color need to have a seat at the table, which is why she has been active in organizing protests and speaking to educators and school leaders over the past several weeks. Many other campaigns have started petitions or email templates to list out basic demands, urging students to actively reach out to their school boards, community leaders, and teachers.

Like Le and Haider pointed out, trying to institute massive, district-wide change will take some time, so many advocates are starting with what seems doable for the coming school year, whether it’s pushing for changes to existing classes or making the case for additional ones in their schools. This also means getting teachers on board. The Diversify Our Narrative campaign, for example, calls for teachers to have greater autonomy in selecting texts that “accurately [portray] the cultural and racial diversity” of society.

This mindset also extends to ethnic studies. Educators in Washington have started a campaign for ethnic studies in the state, offering their own learning series for interested teachers. In Connecticut, Students for Educational Justice have established training programs focused on youth organizing for in-state students grades 8 to 12 and recent graduates. In places where there’s already support for an ethnic studies framework, youth activists are hopeful that changes can be made by the fall.

“Ethnic studies is already encouraged by California’s education department,” said Dan Ma, a UC Berkeley junior and alumni of Westminster High School. For a course to be established, a teacher must submit a proposal to the school and the district for approval.

Nearby high schools already work with Cal State Long Beach, a local university, to offer dual enrollment for certain cultural courses, or unique programs on Vietnamese history and environmental literature.

“With dual enrollment, a student can travel to a different high school or college campus where a professor would teach the class, or alternatively, there’s an on-site class where the professor comes to your campus,” he told me. “Regardless, there’s so much power and energy going into this right now, so it should be possible to offer these classes district-wide over the next few years.”

But anti-racist advocates and educators don’t want these cultural histories to be simply siloed under the umbrella of ethnic studies. “If we want to address racism in society at large, we have to address it in policing, and housing, and health care — but we also need to address it in the third-grade music classroom, in the seventh-grade social studies classroom,” Daniel HoSang, an associate professor of ethnicity, race, and migration and American studies at Yale, told the Connecticut Mirror.

HoSang also co-founded the Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective (ARTLC), a network for Connecticut teachers seeking to diversify and expand their curriculum across many disciplines. The program has helped educators rework their AP US history courses to center Indigenous peoples, teach international relations from a colonized group’s perspective, and create an art unit on Confederate monuments and their public reception, the Mirror reported.

Ultimately, for some student organizers, the movement to change curriculum is only the beginning in tackling systemic racism in schools. Haider and his fellow South Brunswick alumni are also calling attention to school policies that can hurt students of color, such as zero-tolerance discipline, heavy policing, and academic tracking. “What we want to do is take the restorative approach to rehabilitate the student to ensure they become better,” he told me. “Studies show that suspensions can pave the way to the school-to-prison pipeline, and it’s basically an ineffective punishment since it doesn’t help the students.”

While advocates have to be persistent and patient, taking action, especially in such a heated moment of racial reckoning, does pay off. When 660 students and graduates penned an open letter in June asking the school board in Middletown, New Jersey, to address inequities in education, the superintendent responded. The school board said it plans to partner with Monmouth and Rutgers University to work on the inequities while considering ways to highlight the cultural contributions made by Native and Black Americans into its curriculum. It also plans to develop a district-wide equity council with students, parents, and staff.

But regardless of what school administrators have pledged to do, many alumni and current students say they’re sticking around to make sure work is done — by continuing to show up to board meetings, circulate online petitions, call state representatives, and reach out to educators.

“A lot of people think that teenagers or students don’t have the authority or power to do anything,” Le said, “but there are so many different campaigns and initiatives started by young people to try and change the high school curriculum. I can’t vote yet, but this is one area I can confidently advocate for.”

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