I was dismayed to learn that in my home state of Florida, the state board of education unanimously approved new social studies standards for K-12 students, which have sparked criticism for containing inaccurate and problematic portrayals of American history — especially the experiences of Black Americans.

These new standards require Florida teachers to instruct that people who were enslaved developed skills that could be applied for their “personal benefit.” Also included in the lessons are how heinous events like the 1921 Tulsa Massacre — during which white supremacists looted and burned to the ground one of the wealthiest Black communities in the U.S. and killed at least 300 Black residents — was somehow instigated by African Americans. This contortion of U.S. history is a slap in the face to every African American in the country.

Under these subpar standards, students will learn about their own state and the integration of the University of Florida, but not about the resolution passed by the Florida legislature in 1957, which opposed school integration and declared the Brown v. Board decision “null and void.” And while there are detailed standards for teaching students about White political leaders who fought on behalf of African Americans and how White people who supported Reconstruction policies after the Civil War were targeted, there is no mention — beyond brief parentheticals about opposition in the South and the KKK — to the white supremacists who to this day still undermine racial justice efforts.

Unfortunately, the history that these standards ask teachers to tell is not a new one. American history and current events have long been sanitized and whitewashed in schools across the country. Many states don’t require students to learn Black history, and since 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken steps to censor the ways in which race can be discussed in schools. As it stands, too many students have been taught a false and dangerous narrative: where racism is a thing of the past, Jim Crow laws and lynchings were just pebbles on the smooth path to racial equality, and — as the Florida standards say — “economic freedom generates broad-based opportunity and prosperity in the United States.”

Moreover, many state standards — including these new ones in Florida — often require only the lowest levels of cognitive rigor. They ask students to “recognize” and “identify” historical figures like Rosa Parks and President Barack Obama, but not to construct, apply, analyze, or make connections between racial injustices of the past and present — something that even our youngest learners are absolutely capable of with support.

Our soon-to-be released report, The Search for More Complex Racial and Ethnic Representation in Grade School Books shows that historical and social topics in the texts K-8 students read are often sanitized or disconnected from student realities. The truth is, there’s already racial and ethnic under-representation in the books that children are asked to read in school — and yet book bans and dishonest history standards continue to be implemented across the country, thus removing diversity and balanced representation. We can’t erase our history or rewrite it. Our students deserve more — and our democracy depends on it. Now is the time to teach students an accurate and honest history of our country; hold them to high expectations to read, write, and think critically about even the darkest parts of our past; and empower them with the knowledge and tools they need to build a better future.

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