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The summer of 2020 will long be the topic for history writers and researchers for many reasons. The killing of George Floyd resulted in a focus on racism, racial equity, and social justice for America’s Black people. His death has been a catalyst for change as Americans of all colors seek to learn the historical truths about this country. Companies, organizations, and especially schools have come under even greater scrutiny. After years of school reform efforts that have had spotty and marginal success, we look to new guidance to make “No Child Left Behind” more than an empty slogan.
Gholdy Muhammad, associate professor of language and literacy at Georgia State University and the author of Cultivating Genius, built an “equity framework for literacy instruction” across all disciplines. It addresses areas in a historically responsive way. The “four pursuits” she identifies include skill development, intellectual development, identity development, and criticality.
It is essential to support all four parts of the framework. However, I will focus on why learning our own history is essential to the development of identity and criticality for all students. This is true especially for students of color whose history has been largely invisible. Muhammad’s framework articulates an even greater sense of urgency to provide the best curricular pathway for students. I propose that an Advanced Placement (AP) Black History class should be one of the capstone courses of the PreK-12 pathway.
In 2006-07, the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) rewrote the curriculum to better meet the learning needs of all students to achieve equitable learning outcomes. In addition to the other areas of curriculum work, district staff members—social science teacher Ken Smith and the supervisor for social science Anita Ravi—engaged and collaborated with Joe Trotter, the Giant Eagle Professor of History and Social Justice at Carnegie Mellon University. They built a high school Black history class that not only expanded students’ knowledge about the past, but also introduced the concept of historiography: the importance of who is telling the story and when they were telling it.
This curriculum work was part of a broader effort to create a pathway beyond PreK-12 for PPS students through “The Pittsburgh Promise,” a scholarship program established in 2006 by Mark Roosevelt, then-superintendent of schools. All PPS high school graduates who meet the requirements for attendance and grade point average are eligible to earn the Promise scholarship.
Encouraging more Black students to take Advanced Placement classes was one of the district’s goals. AP points the way to college. An AP Black History course could substantially augment this effort, welcoming them to realize that “AP is for you too!” The status of AP also could attract the interest of other students. PPS has had a frustratingly low enrollment rate for Black students in AP classes. Rather than accept these dismal data, students needed structural support for more equitable outcomes. A summer AP prep class was developed to prepare students for the rigor of Advanced Placement.
To explore establishing an AP designation for Black history, for this class or another, I verbally approached an official of the College Board. Our local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, described the response best: “College Board cool to AP course in African-American history.” I was told that the colleges themselves would not want to grant the credit. They preferred to teach an African American history class themselves.
I obtained letters of support from both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh to provide evidence that there was at least some interest, to no avail. The second objection raised by the College Board was that if Black history were included, it could result in interest in including a Latinx (then Latino) history class. Again, it was impossible to see how this addition would be anything but positive.
In 2020, the College Board has not yet included an AP Black History class. Looking at Muhammad’s equity framework, there is relationship to the issue of history, and I posit that this class is congruent with her Equity Framework. To develop their racial identity, children and youth need to learn about their history. This means more than slavery, Rosa Parks (allegedly too tired to give up her seat on the bus), and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, both the annual fare during Black History Month.
The importance of children seeing themselves, their families, and people who look like them as a part of the story, regarding both race and gender, cannot be overstated. A positive racial identity needs to be developed long before college. Historiography, the examination of “who told the story and why,” supports the development of what Muhammad refers to as “criticality,” enabling students to understand and use the powerful tool of telling their own stories.
The many threads of Black history remain mainly unseen. Those threads are nearly always on the underside of the tapestry of American history. We must pull the historical threads of Black history up from the underside of the tapestry of the history of the United States to its surface. Revealing the “hidden figures” of our history, not just in social studies, but in other areas of the curriculum and teacher pedagogy, sends the message that “this school is for you too.”
Just this year, I received incredible support from Andrea Foggy-Paxton, managing director of the Broad Foundation, who is interested in this project. Her efforts resulted in a preliminary meeting with two staff members of the College Board. After the meeting, College Board representatives told us the organization was “exploring the development of a specific, new AP course and exam, for college credit, AP African-American History. A new AP exam requires a willingness from colleges and universities to award credit and advanced placement for qualifying AP exam scores, and we are currently seeking their support for this new AP course and exam.”
Maya Angelou told us, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We can do better. We have both the will and the know-how. Creating this class in Pittsburgh was a labor of love. It is continually updated and can serve as a jumping-off point for the development of an AP Black History class.
Linda S. Lane (LSLteachone@gmail.com) is the former superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
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