Curriculum — the lessons, texts, and learning experiences that together comprise what children are expected to learn in a given class — is one of those areas of education that parents don’t always pay attention to. But whether it’s a chapter from an AP American History book or a 4th-grade word problem, all this educational content has the potential to affect our children, for better and for worse. The ideas, facts, and assumptions our children have been asked to learn always have been filtered through a point of view. Unfortunately, depending on the teacher, the school, or the state standards, these points of view can harbor bias and even outright racism. Ideally, your school will offer an anti-racist curriculum, which reflects an inclusive, accurate and unbiased approach to all subjects. But short of that, it’s important to know what to look for.
So how can a parent spot racism or prejudice in a curriculum? First, it’s important to consider all the aspects of the curriculum (textbooks, lesson plans, field trips, worksheets, projects) as well as all the subjects your child is studying. American history, social studies, and literature are the subjects where bias is most evident (and typically makes the headlines), but biology textbooks, math lessons, and art projects can also convey stereotypes, prejudices, and a lack of inclusivity. An anti-racist curriculum, on the other hand, is designed to support optimal learning for all students, no matter their backgrounds.
6 concrete things to look for when evaluating curriculum
Whose voices are centered?
If all of the authors and most of the main characters are white, that’s a problem. For example, in a literature class, if students are only reading the classics by authors like William Shakespeare, William Golding, and Charlotte Bronte but never Chinua Achebe, Sandra Cisneros, or Zora Neale Hurston what message are we subliminally telling students about whose stories matter?
Even if most texts are by white authors with a few token books or passages by nonwhite authors thrown in to check a box, that’s not much better. Research suggests culturally relevant texts have a positive impact on learning. It stands to reason that if your students can’t see themselves in the material, it may be hard for them to understand how it relates to them, and it could subconsciously send the message that it — and school — is not for them. Including certain kinds of authors doesn’t mean a curriculum is anti-racist. The point is to include stories that reflect the lived experiences of the students.
What is being sugarcoated and thereby misrepresented?
A lot of the most egregious racism in K12 curricula takes this form. By softening the gruesome reality of how Black, Indigenous or immigrant communities were treated, these lessons perpetuate damaging falsehoods. Look out for materials that water down the horrors of slavery as an institution or liken it to indentured servitude (which was voluntary and based on fixed-term contracts).
Similarly, anything that portrays Indigenous people and colonizing settlers as friends or glorifies Christopher Columbus and perpetuates stereotypes about Native peoples should raise immediate alarms. Remember when you were in elementary school and November surely meant lessons about the settlers and Natives dining together and celebrating the new land? Maybe half your class colored Pilgrim hats and the other half colored headbands with feathers and you all had Thanksgiving lunch together as friends on the same side? Super problematic.
Finally, lessons that suggest the Confederacy was about states’ rights without acknowledging that the primary right they were fighting to defend was slavery are examples of baseless narratives that still appear in the K-12 curriculum.
Are the lessons inclusive? (What is being left out?)
Sometimes racism comes in the form of omission. For instance, if a class on American history covers the industrial revolution but not the Great Migration and the role of Black emigrants from the South in literally building northern American cities, it’s worth asking: why are we leaving this out? How might this affect students’ understanding of how Black communities actively shaped our nation?
Similarly, if a science class features stories about white scientists but never mentions the scientific or technological contributions of people of color, how might such omissions send a message to Black and brown students that they are not going to be naturally talented in STEM subjects? A truly antiracist curriculum considers the subjects, facts, and ideas that have traditionally been left out of academic learning. This doesn’t mean watering down the rigor, but understanding how traditional academic knowledge can unwittingly leave certain groups out.
What kind of vocabulary or language is used? Does it reflect the perspectives of one group over another?
Anti-racist, inclusive curriculum considers the small ways that information can send messages. For instance, are all of the names in hypothetical examples or word problems Anglo-sounding? Do anecdotes reflect experiences that mirror white, middle-class values or norms, or do they feel like they reflect a broad range of experiences? If the material always uses names like Sarah and Annie but never names like Jamal or Sofía, ask yourself why some students are being written out.
Similarly, if materials ask students to research how their family immigrated to this country, that doesn’t consider the lived experiences of Native students whose families are indigenous to this land or Black students whose families were largely brought here against their wills.
Do characters portray certain groups as inherently bad or good? Do they reinforce negative stereotypes about certain groups?
This one should speak for itself. If it feels “off,” if you find yourself wondering “is it just me?” it is not just you. Often these negative stereotypes persist in our curriculum in the form of classics. Take Dr. Seuss, a popular children’s author whose books exhibit anti-Asian stereotypes. While 不是公开的种族主义, Theodor Seuss Geisel himself has a really decidedly racist past (he wrote minstrel shows in high school and performed in them in blackface, among other things). Elevating his works is antithetical to the ideas of diversity and inclusion.
The same goes for imagery that reinforces negative stereotypes about Indigenous Americans in books, or even that oversimplifies the Native American experience and tribal relationships. Having diverse textbook authors and reviewers is an important part of getting the history right – and even recognizing when something is portraying a group negatively or creating lesson plans that are manifestly dehumanizing.
Are students asked to play-act absurd scenarios or debate atrocious positions?
I cannot count the number of times I’ve read an article about a teacher who asked children to role-play slavery or argue the hypothetical virtues of slavery as an institution. Such scenarios are utterly unacceptable. And while most teachers steer clear of such extremes, some still teach similarly problematic lessons such as debating the pros and cons of colonialism. Often such exercises are not part of a formal curriculum but attempts to engage students beyond textbooks, lectures, and tests. In such cases, they are ripe for conversations with the teacher about their learning goals.
Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher about what they hoped for with a particular activity. Who stands to learn which potential lesson? And what might be the lesson’s unintended takeaways? Would they consider this unbiased curriculum? If one of the white students walks away thinking that colonial conquest has more pros than cons, is that acceptable?
Finally, as you consider the ramifications of what your child is being asked to learn, it’s worth noting that a good, anti-racist curriculum should not reduce the world into a battle of heroes and villains, winners and losers. People are much too complex for this. Take Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was rumored to have been a womanizer and was seen as seeking too much personal celebrity for the liking of some civil rights activists. We don’t do our children any favors by failing to help them see human history and its figures in a fuller context that helps them understand the world we live in today.