The Search for More Complex Racial and Ethnic Representation in Grade School Books
Children gain immense benefits from representationally diverse curricula that allow students to see themselves and others in complexity. Students are more engaged and increased engagement leads to improved academic outcomes like sharpened critical thinking skills, increases in standardized test scores, higher rates of course completion, graduation, and school attendance. Students reap non-academic benefits as well, including improved self-esteem, socioemotional well-being, empathy, and a greater appreciation for cultural differences.
Lack of Diversity in Books Harms Students
There has always been representation in curricula — and that representation is predominantly White. This lack of diversity and inclusion in books harms students across the U.S. — more than half of whom are students of color. Implicit biases are embedded across publishing, curriculum development, and teaching fields. The consequences are far-reaching, affecting student performance and willingness to pursue challenging academic pathways.
This nation is experiencing a literacy crisis and historic drops in student achievement, and better representation in our classroom books will help all students achieve. The fact is that students of color learn and perform better when they see themselves and their experiences authentically and non-stereotypically reflected in their school curricula. Seeing a diverse set of people in books also helps White students to develop a deeper understanding about their own racial and ethnic identity and the world around them, which is filled with people of varying ethnicities and cultures. We need more books with accurate portrayals of people of color, not fewer.
Goals of Our Study
Our study aims to add to the understanding of who is represented — the counts of authors and characters by race — by focusing on the how of representation. Our assessment of how people, groups, and topics are represented is based on degrees of complexity.
In a study of 300 children’s books, Ed Trust researchers identified large disparities in who gets included and who doesn’t. When people of color are included in curricula, they are often portrayed in limited ways. We also found that almost half of the people of color centered in these books were one-dimensional, portrayed negatively, or did not have agency. When books included groups and cultures of color, they often used stereotypes, disconnected culture from individual people, or portrayed those groups as less than or unequal to others. And, when historical and social topics were included, they were almost always sanitized, told through a singular perspective, or disconnected from the structural realities that help students make meaning of the reading.
We realize that publishers, state boards, districts, and educators have worked hard in recent years to increase representation in curricula, but there is still much more to be done. To prepare all students to function in a multicultural world, to build intellectual skills for addressing tomorrow’s problems, to push back against a growing censorship movement, and to advocate for authentic racial representation in books, Ed Trust offers six recommendations to move curricula development toward representational balance:
- Challenge dominant norms and singular perspectives
- Expand publisher and educator definitions of cultural relevance
- Ask a new set of questions about representation
- Consider how texts sit in conversation with one another
- Expand educator choice in curated materials
- Provide professional learning to all curriculum decision-makers, including authors and developers