How the political debate on teaching race in schools is impacting students and educators

Black History Month has been celebrated in some form for nearly a century. But this year it comes as students are getting caught up in political scrutiny and alongside a coordinated effort to limit the teaching of race and racism. Geoff Bennett reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's look now at how political debate is also impacting students and educators when it comes to teaching Black history.

    Black History Month has been celebrated in some form for nearly a century.

    But, as Geoff Bennett explains, this year, it comes as schools are getting caught up in political scrutiny.

  • Audience:

    Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!

  • Geoff Bennett:

    This year, Black History Month is unfolding alongside a coordinated effort across the country to limit the teaching of race and racism, an effort that purports to prevent the instruction of Critical Race Theory, or CRT for short, which has evolved into a full-scale political assault.

    CRT is a college-level legal theory says that American racism is structural and woven into American society. CRT is not taught in K-12 schools, but it's nonetheless become the latest flash point in the country's culture wars, from school boards to statehouses.

    Since the start of last year, more than half of all states have introduced bills banning the teaching of CRT in public schools. It is political backlash from conservatives, who are casting frank conversations about race as divisive or anti-white.

    The "NewsHour" spoke to four high school students about their experiences learning about Black history amid the new restrictions and political pressure.

  • Tara Grey, Student:

    I'm Tara Grey. I'm 16.

  • Elya Vigilant, Student,:

    Elya Vigilant (ph). I'm 15 years old.

  • Jocelyn Pritchard, Student:

    Jocelyn Pritchard, I'm 17 years old.

  • Miles Coppage, Student:

    Miles Coppage. I'm 17.

  • Tara Grey:

    I just wish that, like, in terms of Black history and CRT, that people would stop viewing it as just a right or left or like a political argument, instead of just acknowledging it as history.

  • Jocelyn Pritchard:

    : What I do know about it is mostly just from headlines from social media about how kids should be taught, the way that we frame things in our view regarding Black perspectives and how Black people have been treated throughout history.

  • Miles Coppage:

    So, it hasn't exactly been discussed in my school. The knowledge that I have about it is from kind of outside research and learning about it in the news. And what I do know about it is that it's the study of how race and the law intersected over the years in the United States.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    They also shared their thoughts about their Black History Month curriculum.

  • Elya Vigilant:

    I don't feel like Black history is taught enough. It's taught well and short and, like, kind of sweet and, like, put together and then, like, packaged to you. I feel that it needs to be more extensive and more broad, and especially explained, like, a lot more.

  • Jocelyn Pritchard:

    I think schools in Florida kind of touch over the basics of slavery, and we talk about Martin Luther King Jr. And when you're little, you're taught, like, the "I Have a Dream" speech.

    But I feel like, the way I have been taught, it's been mostly framed from kind of like a white perspective, per se. I feel like we don't get to hear enough from Black voices.

  • Miles Coppage:

    So we do have U.S. history. Obviously, a lot of high schools probably learn that, and we have a few sections in there about Black history and about slavery and the Civil War and the civil rights movement.

    But, besides that, there's not really, like, a Black history class. Like, we have a Black literature class. I would say I have really learned a lot about Black history through talking to people like my father and my grandfather and doing outside research.

  • Tara Grey:

    I have learned that Black History Month is very important, because it is a part of, like, American history and just history in general. And black history shouldn't just be ignored or overlooked, because learning about history is important, so that we can move forward, instead of just repeating old mistakes, and so that we can kind of understand how it still affects us today.

  • Miles Coppage:

    I would say it's vital to the soul of America for schools to teach black history, because black history is America's history, as well as other backgrounds and other ethnicities are America's history, as America is a melting pot of all different peoples.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    We spoke with educators too.

    Rann Miller is head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Promise Charter School in Camden, New Jersey. And Dr. Eric Mackey serves as the Alabama state superintendent of education. He says he's received calls from parents complaining that Black History Month programs constitute Critical Race Theory.

    I started by asking him what those conversations have been like.

    Eric Mackey, Alabama State Superintendent of Education: We have had just a few of those calls. We certainly do not teach Critical Race Theory in K-12 schools in Alabama. It's not in our curriculum. It's not in our textbooks. It's just not there.

    We have had a few calls from parents, though, who thought that having a Black history program might be equivalent to Critical Race Theory.

    We absolutely are committed to teaching all of history, including black history. And, in this state. we have done a really good job in the last two decades of really improving our curriculum, our instruction, our standards, so that we include a much broader lens of history. And we're very proud of that work and we're very — we intend to move forward, and not to go back in the teaching of a full and complete spectrum of history.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And, Rann Miller, you work in Camden, New Jersey, as we mentioned.

    It's a school district, a charter school that is comprised of mostly Black and Latino children, but the faculty there is 70 percent white. So how do you advise the teaching staff, how do you advise them to approach Black History Month, especially in this politically charged moment?

  • Rann Miller, Promise Charter School:

    So we don't have some of the challenges that other districts may have with regards to parents upset about what students are being taught, based on our demographics.

    Our faculty, they're very aware of our population, and they're very sensitive to the fact that history needs to be taught properly. Generally, how I advise, as well as other folks in the administration, is, we talk about really using black history, particularly February, as an anniversary point.

    So, it's not a point where we focus on touching on these topics this month, but we look at it as an anniversary to celebrate what it is that a student should be learning throughout the year.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    I want to ask you about an op-ed you wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer recently, where you said that our current political climate of distrust and disdain for truth has seeped into the public education space.

    How is that manifesting? How's that showing up where you work?

  • Rann Miller:

    What I meant in that particular piece is that we're getting away from the idea of education.

    Education is really a place where students can explore. In my classroom, I encourage that my students explore, that they explore through research, that it's not about me teaching them what to think or what to say or what things are, but, rather, put the information out for students to grow and for students to come to understand what's happening in our world in relation to the history that has gone forth.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Dr. Mackey, to Mr. Miller's point, teaching Black history to Black and Latino students comes with its own issues, but we're really having this discussion, generally, because it's white parents who are raising objections and because conservative media is obsessed with this sort of Critical Race Theory issue and conflating Critical Race Theory with Black History Month.

    Alabama, as you well know, was the site of many key events in the American civil rights movement. It strikes me that it's not just Black students; it's really white students who are done a disservice if Black history is taught in a sanitized way.

  • Eric Mackey:

    We have spent the last couple of days decades trying to make sure that all that's brought — brought back into the classroom.

    And the response has been overwhelmingly positive, positive from our state board and our legislative leadership and positive from, again, Black and white parents, because they want to see this more inclusive, full version of history being taught.

    And so just a generation or two ago, we were living this history. And I think that's why our population, Black and white, has embraced it and said, we have to teach the whole story of what's happened in America, but particularly for us in this state.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Such a great point.

    Rann Miller, as we wrap up this conversation, what do we in the media miss when we have these conversations about Black history, racial issues, how they're taught in the schools, how they manifest in schools?

    I think there's a disconnect between what you experience, what you both experience as educators, and the way it's reflected and projected in the press.

  • Rann Miller:

    There's so much that we have to do with respect to teaching history.

    And here's what I will say. I think that it's important to teach accomplishments. It's important to teach all of the achievements that are done by different peoples, Black people during Black History Month, and Native Americans during Native American History Month, of the sorts.

    And it's important to do this throughout the year. I think where a lot of people miss the mark, not just media, but also educators, is that we focus on that, and we don't make the connection between why it is that we are where we are as a nation.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Well, thank you so much for your for your insights.

    Dr. Eric Mackey is the Alabama state superintendent of education. And Rann Miller heads diversity, equity and inclusion for a charter school district in Camden, New Jersey.

    Thank you both for your time.

  • Rann Miller:

    Thank you.

  • Eric Mackey:

    Thank you.

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