As a former educator, I’ve read the continuous back-and-forth debates about Common Core’s effect on students across the country. Yet as a Latina and a former teacher of predominantly Black, Latino, and Asian students, it’s disappointing to find that many of these discussions seem to leave out a critical question: how can we use these national standards to create culturally responsive curriculum for students of color?
A recent article in The Atlantic reported that by the start of this upcoming school year, Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American students will make up more than 50% of students in our public education system, making white students no longer the majority. The National Center for Education Statistics also predicted that in just three years “Latino students alone will make up nearly 28 percent of the nation’s student population.”
And these number do not only derive from states like Texas and California — states known for their diversity for years. Formerly homogenous states have also gained more diverse student bodies. For example, in Idaho last year, of the nearly 300,000 K-12 students, more than 22% were Latino and eight Idaho school districts are already majority “minority”. A 2010 Penn State Policy brief noted that though two-thirds of cities, suburbs, and small towns across the U.S. had white populations of 90% or more in the eighties, today only one third of cities and towns still have that demographic.
We will achieve little in discussions about national standards and Common Core testing if we do not acknowledge these numbers and what they mean: our students come from very different racial and cultural backgrounds than they ever have before and these differences will largely influence how they learn in a standard American classroom. As we significantly alter curriculum through the Common Core this year, it is crucial that administrators, reformers, and teachers think about how curriculum choices will engage students of these backgrounds, and motivate them to succeed in a system that was historically built with a different demographic in mind.
In the past, as a country, we have significantly lacked culturally inclusive curriculum, and often even failed at acknowledging the existence and history of diverse racial populations in the subjects we teach. According to a grading system by the Southern Poverty Law Center, fourteen states earned failing grades for their civil rights curriculum and requirements. Five states- Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Oregon and Wyoming- do not require or support teaching about the civil rights movement at all.
Even those districts and schools that have attempted culturally inclusive education often execute it poorly. Curriculum often only focuses on the negative history of people of color (slavery, unfair labor policies for farm laborers and railroad workers, etc.) instead of also emphasizing the positive contributions people of color have made towards American society (art and literary movements like the Harlem Renaissance, contributions to the American military, etc). If not, schools often limit their celebration of diversity to “multi-cultural days” or once-a-year history month celebrations of cultural heroes instead of consistently integrating multicultural perspectives in every aspect of their educational model.
Exploring course options in AP curriculums or universities around the country also reinforce this lack in multicultural curriculum. The Advanced Placement program includes classes on European, American, and World history, and yet no courses on the history of Africa, Latin America or Asia. A recent blog post by Kendra James on a prominent race issues blog argued that in many college literature or film studies programs (mine included), students aren’t required to take classes that focus on non-white or European writers and narratives and often have to go outside the department (as I did) to find these courses in the first place.
Fortunately, once educators acknowledge the critical need for culturally inclusive curriculum, they can easily use Common Core to work towards these goals. Several aspects of the Common Core standards allow teachers to easily integrate multicultural education, if they chose to. First, according to the Common Core website, the standards “intentionally do not include a required reading list” and “appropriately defer the majority of decisions about what and how to teach to states, districts, schools, and teachers.” This gives teachers the power to stray away from conventionally Eurocentric (not to mention: male-centric, Christian-centric, and heterosexual-centric) reading lists, and instead branch off into texts from authors of a wide range of backgrounds.
Secondly, the Common Core stresses that students support arguments with direct textual evidence, which makes it easier for students to approach questions equally. Before, English standards often placed too much emphasis on “making connections” and defending arguments with previous knowledge, experiences, or opinions, not realizing that students of disadvantaged backgrounds often have limited experiences that can connect with the kinds of texts presented. Under Common Core, even students with the financial or cultural privileges of having relevant outside experience can no longer use that knowledge to gain an advantage or an upper hand on testing. Instead, students will all approach a text on an equal playing field, having only the text to use to support their points.
The Common Core ELA’s emphasis on nonfiction and informational texts also creates the potential for including more social justice content that can appeal to students from diverse backgrounds. The Common Core believes that by elementary school, students should be reading a mix of 50 percent literature and 50 percent informational texts, and by high school, students’ reading will shift to be 30 percent literary and 70 percent informational.” No longer limited to classic literature- which historically has often portrayed a limited perspective- teachers can now use speeches, newspaper articles and essays to connect themes to local or global social issues. Through these texts, teachers can also focus on important issues of perspective and objectivity, asking students to critically think about who wrote the texts used, and whose voice is being heard, and whose isn’t.
It’s ineffective to discuss how Common Core Standards will change public education without also addressing how these standards will relate to the cultural backgrounds of public school students. Regardless of all the positive change Common Core has the potential to create, national standards won’t work if not also paired with a culturally relevant curriculum. The Common Core’s structure allows for this kind of curriculum to exist, if teachers are willing to take advantage of it. In no other point in America’s history has it been more necessary to try.
Amanda Machado () is an education writer and consultant based out of the Bay Area. Amanda earned her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing from Brown University. After university, Amanda joined Teach for America and taught 9th grade English at a KIPP high school. Now Amanda is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and is involved with global education initiatives like the South African EdTech Summit and the Global Glimpse program. Amanda has also shared some of her rigorous English content on the Edcite online platform.