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In-depth black history is not on the test

Will the standards-based reform movement leave the study of African-American culture—and others—dangling behind?


Slim to none were their chances. After all, educating young black minds in the rural South in the early 20th century was hardly a priority—certainly not for the lily-white state establishments that dominated the educational landscape in places like North Carolina. Though black pupils crowded into makeshift segregated schoolhouses eager to learn, their resources and conditions were far inferior to their white counterparts. In 1915, North Carolina spent an average of $2.30 on its black students, more than $5 less than the state's white students and $18 less than the national average. Black communities commonly lacked high schools, textbooks and qualified teachers.

For Booker T. Washington, this was unacceptable. The famous educator and leader of Tuskeegee Institute envisioned the creation of black schools throughout the South to teach the young, improve farming techniques and serve as social centers of the community. In 1917, upon receiving seed money from Illinois philanthropist Julian Rosenwald, Washington set up a matching-grant program where a local community received construction assistance from the Rosenwald Fund as long as it raised a substantial portion of these costs on its own. Given their vested interest in the project, Southern black communities raised and donated a total of almost $5 million—an incredible feat, considering many were sharecroppers—to school construction between 1917 and 1932, the last year of the fund. By then, more than 5,300 Rosenwald-assisted institutions peppered 15 Southern states, with North Carolina establishing a high of 813.

"Each location was a reflection of the major sacrifices these communities made for these schools to be there," says Nyoni Collins, executive director of the Sankofa Center. Based in Wake Forest, the center is dedicated to increasing the documentation of African-American community history by African Americans. While wealthier black landowners donated land to the effort, less wealthy sharecroppers commonly joined together to plant extra acres of cotton or sell livestock for the cause. "There was always fund-raising going on," says Collins, stressing that the cooperative nature and historical significance of such efforts "should not be lost."

Unfortunately, with today's heavy-handed emphasis on standards-based reform, some believe the chances for including such history in our public high school curricula are slim to none.

"It's very damaging to the study of black history, " says Daniella Cook, an education activist, former high school history teacher, and current UNC graduate student in education. Cook believes a productive and interdisciplinary study of history is effectively "locked out" because of teachers' justifiable preoccupation with testing requirements. For example, she says, "take a song like Billie Holiday's version of Strange Fruit." The 1938 tune, which spoke to the horrors of lynching, was "political, social and historical" and should be "dealt with from all of these important contextual angles." But, adds Cook, such cross-disciplinary conversations "are hard to have when you're worried about testing."

Under the state's ABCs of Education, public high school students take end-of-course tests in 11 subjects, including U.S. history, as well as a comprehensive exam in the 10th grade. School performance ratings are based on test scores. High-performing schools receive special designations and monetary bonuses for staff, while low-performing institutions are publicly labeled as such, subject to teacher and administrator dismissals and, on occasion, takeover by the state. Though there is currently a moratorium on the history exam, it is scheduled for reinstatement in the 2005-2006 school year.

Not everyone perceives testing as a problem.

"I don't think these requirements should impede it (the teaching of black history) at all," says Esther Dunnegan, a social studies consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Dunnegan suggests the state has "simply been more specific in guiding what teachers should cover" as they relate to tested material and the North Carolina Social Studies Standard Course of Study, the curriculum guide for history teachers. These requirements, she continues, are in place so teachers can "stay on task and not spend too much time on one subject."

Bob Brogden, a history teacher at East Chapel Hill High, also feels time is a problem. But he has a different emphasis. "They're forcing teachers to teach a 'fly-by' of history," says Brogden, noting the scope of the material is "10 miles wide and an inch deep. We never have time to go into detail."

Given the scope of such testing and curriculum requirements, some wonder if the opportunity for the substantive study of black history in North Carolina's public schools will become—history.

"The teaching process is definitely made harder by standardization," says Rukiya Dillahunt, lead teacher at Phillips High in Raleigh. "All of these requirements are beginning to eliminate any real multiculturalism and creativity in education."

It's not like the history of the Rosenwald schools was getting a lot of attention prior to the recent push for standards based-reform. But, at least public school curricula were flexible enough to accommodate enthusiastic teachers who were interested in such topics. The foundations of this curricular flexibility lie in the Civil Rights era and its associated demands for a more representative and multicultural form of education. Throughout the '70s, proponents of black history, ethnic studies and women's studies opened up curricula to previously marginalized voices and perspectives, challenging traditional, dominant interpretations of history.

Although the impact of this multicultural approach on public education was significant, it didn't always play out in a substantive fashion. Instead of incorporating the authentic voices, social movements and struggles of marginalized groups into their courses, many educators established a more superficial approach where ethnic foods and festivals were celebrated—a practice that Cook labels "taco Tuesdays and watermelon Wednesdays."

Such tokenism also was exploited by educational reformers looking to scapegoat multiculturalism as one reason for the loss of American educational, social and military prestige in the late '70s. This sentiment was captured by the 1983 Reagan Administration's backing of A Nation at Risk, a presidential commission report on American education. The heavily promoted document declared there was a crisis in education in need of reform by experts who—unlike educators and parents—understood the changing economy and its demand for a more-literate, better-trained workforce. The proposed cure was a more corporate approach that employed standardized testing as a way of measuring student achievement and increasing the accountability of all involved.

This evolved into the standardized curriculums, assessments and "high-stakes" practices—using tests to make critical decisions about a student's worthiness for promotion or graduation—that dominate the field today, both nationally and locally.

When so much is focused on test performance, says Mary Stone Hanley, a UNC professor and specialist in multicultural education, "why take on the huge task of working towards a multicultural education?" She points out that "multicultural education is a multi-faceted project that includes not only content of instruction, but also instructional methods, how we perceive the world of knowledge, a critique of the educational system, and what we do about issues of racism, sexism, social class and prejudice."

State education officials say the current approach does allow for those issues. "One of the strengths of the standard course of study is that it encompasses history that just doesn't pertain to one group," says DPI's Dunnegan, citing the inclusion of such topics as ancient African civilizations in the course of study. "We're not just teaching one ethnic group's story," she says. Such multicultural practices, continues Dunnegan, are "imbedded in our approach." She notes there are electives offered in black history, as well.

But others disagree. With the ABCs and the Pathways, there's not a lot of room for electives," says Dillahunt. There are four areas of study—or "pathways," as some are loosely referring to them—available to high school students in North Carolina. Each pathway has graduation requirements of its own, with college/university prep being the most demanding. Students in this demanding pathway, says Dillahunt, "would not see the need to take an elective in African-American history or literature."

While Henley, like Dunnegan, believes the state's standard course of study is conducive to a multicultural education, she reiterates the counterproductive role of the current testing program. "Teaching to a test limits a teacher's focus and choices," says Hanley, noting that students can regurgitate information without "internalizing what is necessary for the goals of a multicultural education. Teaching multiculturally in a superficial way will not prepare students for a life in a pluralistic democracy on an increasingly smaller planet."

For Nyoni Collins of the Sankota Center, incorporating a study of the Rosenwald schools into the public curriculum is more than mere concept. Last year, the center collaborated with the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh to offer teachers an on-line, for-credit course on these historic schools to include in their lessons. The response was far from enthusiastic. While acknowledging this lack of interest could have been due to a number of factors, Collins suspects testing is a key one. "If teachers are so swamped with regulations posed by testing, it would be hard for them to take advantage of opportunities like this."

But what ultimately makes the best argument against such test-driven parochialism is the make-up of the Rosenwald schools themselves. "Even in the smaller schools, they had a stage built in," says Collins, noting the community's emphasis on oral recitation, performance and debate. Students engaged one another and recited poems and motivational works by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen as their parents gathered to spur them on. In public schools today, says Collins, "the curriculum is so print-oriented, it often leaves out the wonderful tradition of recitation." Given the value of the oral tradition in African and African-American communities, she continues, "this was something the Rosenwald teachers knew was very important to our success."

For Daniella Cook, such rich history is as important to the success of today's public school children.

"You've got to provide kids with the context for understanding the knowledge we want them to learn," insists Cook, noting the obvious benefits for all children engaging an increasingly diverse society.

"I think the danger in marginalizing black history and promoting a narrow focus on standardized testing is that we're going to have kids who grow up, realize a different reality and come back and ask, 'Why didn't you tell me?"

For educators and for society as a whole, adds Cook, "I think that's a very damning statement our kids can make about us."

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