Curriculum adjustments that account for the minority experience in America has been a focus of history courses in Falls Church City schools, especially after a summer where students protested against racial injustice and questioned how they should remember the founding fathers. The school system’s mission to include those aspects alongside, rather than at the expense of, others already in its studies is how it tries to avoid the conflict felt in other areas of the country.
The goal laid out last September, according to Falls Church City schools Chief Academic Officer William Bates, was to develop a process for curriculum reframing in City schools as a component of the school system’s equity work. In other words, Bates said, Falls Church schools began asking how it could consider diverse perspectives when planning lessons and activities for students, with less emphasis on making dramatic changes to the core materials they must teach as prescribed by the Virginia Department of Education.
This directive took on new importance during a summer of nationwide protests that the City of Falls Church joined in. George Mason High School students organized one of the first marches to take place in City limits following George Floyd’s killing by a police officer in Minneapolis. A simmering call to change the name of George Mason High, and then later Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, had turned to a boil as well, prodding the schools to contextualize these figures outside of their major accomplishments at the very least.
Exposing students to an array of historical perspectives is something that Mason history teachers approached as their duty to their students. Eric Duchaj and Josh Singer, who also work with the school system on its equity initiatives, said that having conversations with other teachers about how they teach world, government and U.S. history courses are a regular feature of their team meetings.
“Part of being a really good teacher in an area of history is constantly reimagining and revisiting what you do in the classroom to meet the moment and meet the interest of the students,” Singer said. “Absolutely what’s coming out of the community from our students and things like the social justice committee and what we see in the news influences that.”
One example of Mason’s teachers modifying how they address a topic is the Columbian Exchange — the triangular trade routes that brought sugar, tobacco and cotton to Europe; rum, textile and often guns to Africa and newly captured slaves to the Americas that started after Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
Singer explained how positives, such as the development of the New World wouldn’t have been possible without bartering between these four continents. At the same time, he added, it fostered negatives, such as explosion of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the destruction of the indigenous peoples in the Americas. It’s neither about trying to paint Columbus as a hero or villain, Singer continued, but providing students with all kinds of information so they can understand historical events from all angles.
The International Baccalaureate program, which Falls Church schools has integrated in K – 12, will also be featuring more equity in its lessons once it updates its curriculum in 2024.
“We are working to ensure that the revised course will continue to reflect developments in the wider teaching and research of history,” said Dr. David Weiss, the head of IB World Schools, “Particularly in respect to the experiences of people who…have been marginalised or discriminated against because of their ethnicity, gender, political beliefs, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and because of the actions of colonizing or enslaving powers, institutions or individuals.”
Efforts to make curricula more equitable in other parts of the country can be a fraught process, especially at the state level.
Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, told the News-Press that curricula battles in California and Texas get contentious when both sides believe their ideological rivals have an agenda. So, as McCluskey said, one side feels that revisions to U.S. history syllabi are putting too much attention on minority accomplishments. Meanwhile, the other side feels that it’s not giving enough recognition to minority populations’ influence in American history.
The fight over how to frame U.S. history has also played out at the national level.
The New York Times’ 1619 Project was published with the intent of being used in history classes. That’s despite the fact that its central thesis — the U.S. was founded to preserve the institution of slavery — was debunked by historians, which was summarized best by the Times’ own opinion columnist Bret Stephens. The original thesis has since been covertly edited out of the project, but it was still hair-raising enough to inspire President Donald Trump to sign an executive order to start a 1776 commission and promote “patriotic education,” per Forbes.
McCluskey pointed out that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed his own executive order to establish the Virginia African American History Education Commission, which was tasked with examining how the state teaches Black history in the K – 12 range. He also mentioned some of those who have criticized the order’s intentions, most notably that it will teach “critical race theory” to its youngest students, or the idea that the law and legal institutions are inherently racist in order to benefit White people, as explained in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
It’s easy to see how debates over U.S. history can be acrimonious in that context, but from McCluskey’s view, he doesn’t think there is anything sinister in either side of the argument’s perspectives. They just have different priorities for what an American history education should look like.
That’s also the reason why teachers like Duchaj and Singer are making sure their equity doesn’t trend in one direction.
As Duchaj put it, equity doesn’t exclusively apply to what’s being taught. It’s also about making sure everybody feels welcome in the class. He gave an example that in government classes most students identify as Democrats, but there are still students who lean Republican, and Duchaj said it’s about making sure those voices are heard.
“What we’re doing is part of good historical work,” Singer said. “We’re encouraging the students to look at primary sources. We’re encouraging them to look at historical thought and to draw their own conclusions. I don’t think there’s an agenda in what we’re trying to do here other than what we’ve always been trying to do, which is push kids to engage with this material at the highest level.”