From Segregated, to Integrated, to Narrowed Knowledge

The landmark case Brown v. Board of Education set a new legal precedent in the United States that dismantled the “strange career” (Woodward, 2001 [1966]) of Jim Crow. The purpose of this law, from the standpoint of the social engineers of this Civil Rights Movement, was to change to the social, economic, and educational opportunities for African Americans and other racially marginalized groups in this nation (Guinier, 2004). In the context of schools, this new legal precedent sought to open new opportunities for schooling that would have a direct impact on the life chances of historically underserved communities. The philosophical idea of desegregation was to break down the barriers of legalized segregation in schools and integrate non-White students into White schools that had better facilities, a greater amount of school resources, and a wealth of structural opportunities to increase historically underserved communities’ chances to learn and thrive in a democratic society. In other words, Brown pursued a radical egalitarian (Dawson, 2001) approach that sought to have America live up to the highest ideals of democratic theory—which suggested that each individual live to their highest potential.

Citation: Brown, A.L., Vasquez Heilig, J. & Brown, K. D. (2013). From Segregated, to Integrated, to Narrowed Knowledge: Curriculum Revision for African Americans, From Pre-Brown to the Present. In J. K. Donnor and A. D. Dixson (Eds.), The resegregation of schools: Race and education in the twenty-first century. New York: Routledge.

Legal scholars (Bell, 1980; Dudziak, 1988; Guinier, 2004) and educational scholars (Grant, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 2004; Hess, 2005), however, have outlined the gaps between the intentions and the realities of Brown. Some have even considered whether Brown was a good idea for African Americans—particularly when looking at the case retrospectively (Brown, 2004; Guiner, 2004; Grant, 1995). A growing and significant body of literature about the resegregation of schools (Clotfeller, 2006; Eckes, 2003; Orfield & Eaton, 1997) has come out of these considerations of Brown. This body of work has convincingly shown that what was achieved through Brown in the dismantling of the de jure racial segregation in U.S. schools has all been lost to de facto racist policies and practices that have thwarted the overall impact of the case. The striking data to come from this work plainly illustrates the failures of Brown in helping to desegregate schools.

Although much of this work has shown the problematic ways in which school policies helped to create a racially segregated schooling context across the United States (Clotfeller, 2006; Eckes, 2003; Orfield & Eaton, 1997), some of this work has also looked at the context of schools before Brown and asked questions about the quality of schooling for Black children in segregated schooling context (Kelly, 2010; Siddle Walker, 1996). The retelling of the pre- and post-Brown narrative raises a question that W. E. B. DuBois posed in 1935 (b): “Does the Negro need separate schools?” Although the intent of this essay is not to explore the historical and contemporary implications of this question, we draw from this question as a historical guidepost for our analysis. We maintain that implicit in this question are additional questions about who should teach the African American child and what the African American child should be taught. In keeping with DuBois’ question, this essay will explore the contours of African American curricular critiques and revisions from the 1930s to the present.

It is not our intent in this paper to provide an exhaustive review or in-depth history of this topic, but to highlight some of the common tensions around curriculum in a pre- and post-Brown era and show how curriculum for African Americans followed a similar path of inclusion and exclusion as the historical trajectory of schools in a pre- and post-Brown era (Brown & Brown, 2010b). In this paper we highlight a similar narrative to the one told about school resegregation, with specific attention to what we call the resegregation of knowledge. By knowledge we are specifically talking about the school curriculum. In examining the pre-Brown and post-Brown discourse of school curriculum one can find a similar historical trajectory as outlined by the previous scholarship found in pre-Brown and post-Brown educational context for African Americans.

In this paper we first outline the early 20th century critiques and challenges to school curriculum from the perspective of African American scholars living within a segregated schooling context—what we call the era of “segregated knowledge.” Then we draw the readers’ attention to the post-Brown era that sought to make sense of curriculum within the efforts of integration—what we call the era of “multicultural and integrated knowledge.” We follow with a discussion about curriculum revisions and the neoliberal and neoconservative assault on Black curriculum inclusions in the 1990s and in the present. We conclude with an extensive discussion about the intersection of a narrowed curriculum with high-stakes testing and NCLB-inspired policies around teacher quality.

Curriculum, Segregated Knowledge, and the New Negro

The image-making process through caricatures or racial silence (Ladson-Billings, 2003) in the early 1900s helped to produce a “regime of truth” (Foucault, 1970) about African Americans that prompted a movement of scholars and activists to create new knowledge and educational materials that would directly challenge racist depictions. Moreover, during this period, the reconstruction of African American imagery was clearly a concern among most African Americans of this time. Here Arnold Rampersad (1925/1977) poignantly illustrates this point:

The significance of The New Negro cannot be grasped without some knowledge of the long history of the vilification of black American and African culture and racial ability in books built on this assumption of the irremediable inferiority of blacks. (p. xv)

Following a similar line of reasoning, a cadre of educators, journalists, artists, historians, and social scientists worked to first identify the problematic constructions that pervaded African American imagery and then created art, poetry, music, and sociological studies designed to directly challenge the dominant tropes of this period. Gates (1988) refers to this as the emergence of the trope of the “New Negro.” This body of work highlighted the challenges as well as possibilities of curriculum for African American curricular needs within a segregated educational context.

Although scholars often cite the 1960s as the beginning of the multicultural curricular movement, one could certainly make the claim the New Negro or Renaissance movement provided the conceptual and historical foundation to subsequent curricular shifts in the late 20th century. Gates (1988) states:

The “New Negro,” of course, was only a metaphor. The paradox of this claim is inherent in the trope itself, combining as it does a concern with time, antecedents, and heritage, on one hand, with the concern for a cleared space, the public face of race, on the other. The figure moreover, combines implicitly both an eighteenth-century vision of utopia with a nineteenth century idea of progress to form an end of the century dream of an unbroken, unhabituated, neological self—signified by the upper case in “Negro” and the belated adjective “New” (p.132)

Artists, novelists, playwrights, journalists, and sociologists all worked to provide a more complete and diverse portrait of African American life (Gates, 1988). Drawing from different genres, African American scholars illustrated how the cultural myths of plantation ideology (Fredrickson, 1971), scientific racism (Zuberi, 2001), antebellum literature (Blassinggame, 1979), and sociohistorical myths (DuBois, 1899/2007) could no longer stereotype the African American image. This effort was also present in the work of educators and scholars to reveal the problems with African American history, while also providing educational resources for communities and school-age children (Schomburg, 1925/1992; Woodson, 1933/2000).

After Reconstruction and throughout the early 20th century, scholars outlined numerous historical and conceptual issues with African American curriculum knowledge that included inaccurate, silenced, and stereotypical characterizations. (DuBois, 1935a; Woodson, 1928; Schomburg, 1925/1992). Some of the more explicit problems addressed the stereotypical casting of African Americans in perpetual bondage and servitude in the United States, as well as the glaring omission of the institutional histories, most notably slavery and Jim Crow, which were instrumental in shaping African Americans’ lives. W. E. B. DuBois (1935a) remarked: “One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over” (p. 722). For these African American scholars, educators, and activists, the history textbook was the central text for constructing myths about African Americans. It was presumed that traditional history textbooks omitted significant histories, removed White Americans’ complicity in African American oppression, as well as blamed African Americans for their social and educational circumstances (Dubois, 1935a; Reddick, 1934). Woodson and Wesley’s (1935) words illustrate this sentiment:

Practically all history teaching is propaganda; but there are significant differences between the methods as well as the contents of certain textbooks. Excessive emphasis on one type of facts and a corresponding suppression of others—the most frequent practice—conditions the child to preconceptions and false valuations which it takes much time to unlearn. The more slyly insinuated expression of contempt for some national racial groups is apt to create antipathies which cannot always later in life be traced to their sources and so, with others, are carried along as seemingly innate. (p. 439)

In the early 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convened a textbook committee that met at local branches to examine depictions of African Americans in history, literature, and civics textbooks (Zimmerman, 2002). The findings from these committee meetings resulted in the publication of a pamphlet entitled Anti-Negro Propaganda in School Textbooks. These concerns would persist through the 1940s when a delegation of African American leaders met with New York City school officials to express their deep concerns with history textbooks (Zimmerman, 2004). These men, including the publisher of the Amsterdam News and the bishop of the African Orthodox Church, severely critiqued history textbooks for portraying African Americans as “happy slaves” and in another instance applauding the Ku Klux Klan for keeping “foolish Negroes” out of government (Zimmerman, 2004). It was clear that through most of the early 20th century, African American scholars, educators, and activists understood that the official knowledge (Apple, 1993) of textbooks served as a powerful conceptual tool. For example, these critics of history textbooks recognized that school texts were influential apparatuses for reproducing the image of African American docility and unintelligence, particularly for the youth population. Therefore, scholars outright challenged these myths by: (a) illustrating the diverse cultural contexts of African Americans during slavery and after Reconstruction; (b) outlining the accomplishments and achievements of African Americans; and by (c) presenting the institutional and historical conditions that shaped African Americans’ lives (Brown, 2010).

During this period, several scholars of African American history worked to establish rigorous scholarship that challenged the dominant narratives about African Americans. Scholars first identified the problems with educational texts about African Americans and then offered new knowledge via the creation of textbooks, teacher journals, encyclopedias, teacher materials, and library archives (Brown, 2010). Specifically, W. E. B. DuBois (1935a), Arthur A. Schomburg (1925/1992) and Carter G. Woodson (1933/2000), respectively, expressed a deep concern about the presentation of African Americans within common historical and educational text. Certainly, other educators and activists expressed similar sentiments, but it was these particular scholars who critiqued the construction of African Americans, and created texts to challenge the trope of the “Old Negro” as a history-less, lazy, and unintelligent people.

From this emerged a new body of school knowledge about African American history. According to Mills’ notion of revisionist ontologies, the counternarrative textbooks and encyclopedias provided by African American scholars helped to repudiate and reinvent the “selves imposed by white supremacy” (Mills, 1998, p. 113). It was within this genre of textbook and encyclopedia writing that African American scholars such as Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. DuBois helped to develop an approach to curriculum writing that has remained foundational to ongoing critiques to the school curriculum. Implicit within this early discourse was the question Herbert Spencer (Apple, 1993) asked in the late 1800s, and what Michael Apple (1993) has asked in a contemporary context: Whose knowledge is of most worth?

The writing of textbooks, encyclopedias, and children books for African Americans during this era provided an interesting irony of curricular inclusion for African American students. The cultural logic used to support the legal segregation of African Americans from Whites was ironically picked up by White superintendents to allow Black history textbooks to exist in all Black schools (Zimmerman, 2002). The context of legal segregation also mobilized African Americans to pursue their own stories and narratives in public educational spaces via Woodson’s then-popular Black History Week events and his traveling educational programs that provided rich and transformative curricular knowledge about African Americans (King, Crowley, & Brown, 2010).

What is ironic about this era of segregated school knowledge was that it made possible the mobilization of critiques and revisions to the official curriculum that informed the foundation of African American curriculum in the present (Brown, 2010). The point here is that just as historians have examined what was wrong with segregated schooling, scholars have attempted to make sense of what was “good” (Kelly, 2010; Siddle Walker, 1996) during this period. With respect to curriculum it was the human capital that critiqued, challenged, revised, and created new knowledge that ultimately provided the theoretical foundation to the creation of multicultural curriculum throughout the 20th century.

In this sense, the context of segregated knowledge was exclusionary in that African Americans were portrayed within dominant text as sub-persons (Mills, 1998), while at the same time inclusionary in that African Americans began to define their own histories and identify new ideologies for challenging the existing canon (Watkins, 1993).

Multicultural and Integrated Knowledge

Grappling with the same issues of inclusion and representation of African Americans that early African American curriculum scholarship addressed, multicultural education scholars addressed similar issues, albeit within a different context. By the 1970s, educational discourse focused on inclusion and desegregation—even if only in theory. The context for understanding African American curriculum was to help African Americans students navigate a school setting that had both dismissed and/or disparaged their cultural and historical contributions to schools and society. The question of whose knowledge was worth knowing remained a relevant inquiry.

After Brown a number of studies in the 1960s examined the impact that racism and poverty had on the social and psychological development of African American students (Pettigrew, 1964; Riessman, 1962). Although liberal researchers examined the structural and psychological factors to African American achievement, much of this discourse relied on cultural deficit theories to explain the social and education experiences of African American students (Moynihan, 1965/1967; Riessman, 1962). Scholars argued that by understanding the cycle of norms, behaviors, and internal relations of the Black family structure, one could better understand the causes of academic achievement. This was the central thesis of several seminal education and sociological studies (Moynihan, 1965/1967; Pettigrew, 1964; Riessman, 1962). In 1965 Patrick Moynihan’s policy report, The Negro Family, also known as the “Moynihan Report,” elaborated on this idea. He asserted that the Black family had developed pathological family patterns, which had a direct impact on the education achievement of the Black child. By the early 1970s however, several scholars had challenged deficit theories arguing that teacher expectations and cultural misconceptions profoundly impacted the education experiences of African American students (Abrahams & Gay, 1972; Clark, 1972).

New theories for understanding the education context of African American students emerged (Banks & Grambs, 1972; Gouldner, 1978; Rist, 1973). This work challenged deficit theories, arguing that teachers’ perceptions and expectations of African American students had a powerful impact on academic outcomes (Abrams & Gay, 1972). Besides pointing to the limitations to previous studies, researchers drew attention to how schools and teachers held cultural misconceptions of African American children’s communication patterns. For example, Abrahams and Gay (1972) argued that pathological conceptions of Black English often led to cultural conflicts in the classroom.

Additionally during this time, several multicultural education scholars offered critical arguments about the relationship between teachers’ belief systems and their perceptions and expectations of African American students (Banks & Grambs, 1972; Grant, 1979). In this context, curriculum was viewed as not only a body of knowledge, but also an epistemological and cultural bridge to help African American students learn. Similar to previous scholarship, this body of work maintained that the curricular and pedagogical context of schools was informed by White norms. Zimmerman (2004) points out that textbook revision went hand in hand with the sociopsychology attached to Brown. He states:

Emphasizing legal separation of the races, Brown did not address issues of curriculum. But integrationists were quick to apply Brown’s premises to textbooks, warning that “segregated” schoolbooks, like segregated schools, would harm minority children. (Zimmerman, 2004, p. 60)

Indeed the context of being Black in an integrated school context catalyzed the ideas around multicultural curriculum through the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout this period significant emphasis was given to the sociopsychological well-being of the African American child and how the inclusion of African American characters in books and school materials could better facilitate the challenges for being culturally misunderstood within an integrated school setting (Zimmerman, 2004).

By the 1990s, however, new ways to make sense of the multicultural curriculum emerged that showed that although there was some presence of African American histories and experiences in school texts, these narratives were either additive or only marginally rendered in schools and textbooks. The belief among many scholars was that curriculum focused too heavily on the ideological beliefs of liberalism and the sociopsychological beliefs of self-concept, while only partially addressing the structural realities of African Americans (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; McCarthy, 1990a). The primary critique of this scholarship was that what multicultural education offered was not enough because issues of Whiteness and racism were rarely explored through the official curriculum, (2002; Swartz, 1992). By the late 1990s there were at least three different ways to critique multicultural curriculum about African Americans within an integrated and diverse context: African-centered, anti-essentialist, and the Critical Race Theory approach.

The African-centered approach (Asante, 1991) suggested that school curriculum focus squarely on the histories and cultural experiences of African Americans from ancient Africa to the present. This approach to curriculum critiqued the fact that integrated schools would never acknowledge the value of African American epistemic knowledge, nor infuse it in the official canon of integrated schools. The anti-essentialist approach (McCarthy, 1988, 1990a, 1990b) posed questions about how curriculum for African Americans was possible if the experiences and African Americans as a group were diverse and non-synchronous. The Critical Race Theory approach argued that curriculum inclusion like the symbology of Brown only provided surface and ahistorical inclusions of African Americans’ experiences and histories (Brown & Brown, 2010a).

What the multicultural and integrated knowledge era offered in terms of a critique to African American curriculum was framed by two competing contexts—each related to the spatial and temporal milieu of African Americans in a post-Civil Rights era. The first was one in which large numbers of African Americans were taught a Eurocentric curriculum by White teachers in racially integrated schools. This context lent itself to a specific critique of curriculum that conceptualized the needs of school knowledge within an integrated schooling context. The same opportunities that grew out of the Civil Rights era that enabled White institutions to offer Black studies departments and educate more African Americans also made possible for the infusion of new theories to surface about the relevance of a Black curriculum. This resulted in a plurality of discourses to emerge to trouble the context of African American curriculum within an integrated school context. What the first 50 years after Brown offered was a promise that was not fulfilled, where questions about curriculum were addressed in the context of school settings that were hostile or deficient in orientation toward African Americans’ capacities (Guiner, 2004). Similar to the contradiction of Brown providing new but only surface opportunities for African Americans, the concessions made to make African American histories and culture integrated in the mainstream resulted in Black histories to exist as a “footnote” within the larger master narrative (Swartz, 1992) of school curriculum.

In the meantime, however, although different conceptions to making sense of African American curriculum surfaced, neoliberal and neoconservative policies steadily moved toward the making and remaking of a Eurocentric curriculum—what we call the narrowed knowledge era.

 Narrowed Knowledge Era

In recent years a new era in curriculum has emerged that seeks to completely remove the voices and contributions of African Americans. Nowhere was this more visible than the social studies curriculum revisions recently proposed and passed in the state of Texas. In 2009, the largely conservative Texas School Board convened over the merits of what they called a “liberal bent” in the social studies curriculum (Shaw, 2009). The results of this public discussion resulted in a change and revision of the history standards. One of the most publicized proposals was to remove the words “slave” and “slavery” from the standards and change the language to the “triangular trade.” There was also some public discussion about the removal of Thurgood Marshall because he was “not an appropriate example as a historical figure of influence” (Shaw, 2009). Although most of the inane proposals were not submitted in the final social studies standards in Texas, much of the history of African Americans and other minority groups were made optional after the scheduled decadal revisions of the standards (Vasquez Heilig, Brown, & Brown, 2011).

Persisting national debates over what should and should not be included in standards is not just issue in Texas; the Southern Poverty Law Center recently conducted an extensive study about how civil rights is taught in schools across the nation. The study compared what historians and educators viewed as the core information to the civil right movement to state standards. Here’s what the study found:

  • A shocking number of states—35—received grades of “F.”
  • Sixteen states, where local officials set specific policies and requirements for their school districts, have no requirements at all for teaching about the movement.
  • Only three states received a grade of “A”—Alabama, New York, and Florida—and even these states have considerable room for improvement.
  • Generally speaking, the farther from the South—and the smaller the African American population—the less attention paid to the movement.

Although this era in curriculum harkens back to a pre-Brown curriculum era, where there was an almost complete marginalization of multicultural voices, there are additional intervening circumstances in the current educational policy era that further exacerbate the context of a narrowed curriculum, including escalating inequality in the distribution of high-quality teachers and high-stakes testing. Thus, unlike prior periods of curriculum revision that were directly related to problems with the curriculum, contemporary efforts to maintain a diverse curriculum are readily undermined by the all-pervasive codified logic of standards and accountability.

Research has indicated, “the quality of teachers and the quality of teaching are undoubtedly among the most important factors shaping the learning and growth of students” (Ingersoll, 2011, p. 1). The effectiveness of the teacher is the major determining factor of long-term student academic progress (Sanders & Horn, 1998). Teacher quality has a cumulative effect on student achievement (Darling-Hammond, 1999). As a result, when students are assigned several under-qualified teachers in a row, they are less likely to demonstrate grade-level proficiency than students who had three highly effective teachers in a row (Sanders & Rivers, 1996). However, schools with large numbers of African Americans and low-socioeconomic populations have difficulty recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers (Borman & Dowling, 2008). Because low-performing schools are often located in high-poverty neighborhoods, the working conditions and characteristics of those neighborhoods (population density, income level, violent crime rate) have impacted their potential teachers’ career decisions (Loeb, Darling-Hammond, & Luczak, 2005). As it might be expected, research shows that teachers often avoid taking jobs in schools serving low-performing minority and poor students (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2004). In turn, low-income African Americans students have limited opportunities to learn from high-quality teachers (Boyd et al., 2010).

The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 2002— also known as No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”)—specified that all teachers be “highly qualified.”[1] The high-quality teacher provision in the act should have protected African American students against the persistent assignment of low-quality teachers as it aims to remove numerous state-by-state loopholes that allowed emergency-certified teachers to pervade low-performing schools. Despite the language in NCLB seeking to increase the quality of teachers, the law concurrently requires states to have a program to recruit and retain highly qualified mid-career professionals (including highly qualified paraprofessionals), and recent graduates of an institution of higher education, as teachers in high-need schools, including recruiting teachers through alternative routes to certification.[2] As a result, NCLB mandates that states support and expand Alternative Certification Programs (ACP) to provide alternative routes to the classroom. Vasquez Heilig, Cole, and Springel (2011) analyzed National Center for Alternative Certification (NCAC) data and showed that NCLB increased alternative routes to the classroom, with about 133,000 teachers certified via alternative routes in the 17 years before NCLB, compared to 359,000 in the 7 years since its introduction.

Vasquez Heilig, Cole, and Springel (2011) discussed that the inequitable distribution of teachers and definition of quality supported by NCLB has not gone without legal challenge. In Renee v. Duncan (2009), the plaintiffs alleged the regulation violated NCLB’s stated standard of “highly qualified” teachers. They argued that the regulation essentially relabeled more than 10,000 novice teachers still in training in California and tens of thousands of such teachers nationwide as “highly qualified.” As noted, NCLB defines a highly qualified teacher has one that has obtained full state certification either through traditional or alternative routes or passed the state teacher licensing examination.[3] The teacher cannot have the certification or licensure requirements waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis. The regulation essentially watered down the NCLB requirements, thus lowering the threshold to mere enrollment in a program to qualify. Actual certification was no longer the determining factor—simple progress was enough to qualify. Congress acted in late 2010 and legislated a loose definition of high-quality teachers that allowed teachers who were making progress toward certification to remain designated as “highly-qualified”—creating a codified façade (Vasquez Heilig, Cole, & Springel, 2011).

An example how this “highly qualified” teacher and accountability discourse narrows curriculum in urban schools, often populated by African American students, is found in the case of Texas. As Texas-style accountability commenced, an ongoing debate in the literature considered how high-stakes TAAS testing was impacting classroom pedagogy and curriculum (Valencia & Bernal, 2000). How high schools’ narrowed curriculum and pedagogy in response to Texas’ high-stakes testing in the TAAS era was first extensively explored by McNeil and Valenzuela (2001). They identified Houston schools as “teaching to the TAAS” more than a decade ago. In the current NCLB-inspired testing era, these concerns still remain, but there is a dearth of literature on how it is impacting the curriculum for African Americans (Davis & Martin, 2008). Vasquez Heilig (2011) studied majority-minority urban and rural schools in Texas and found that teachers (11 of 33) and principals (6 of 7) in his study detailed aspects of “teaching to the test” and the impact of exit testing on the narrowing of the curriculum. A high school administrator in the study acknowledged that schools are paying attention to constraints created by the current educational policy system:

There’s no way around it, I mean you’d be a fool if you did not play that game, I guess you can call it … . You can easily end up being labeled unacceptable if you did not prepare the students to take the test … . Two weeks before the TAKS date we pull out the kids … . We let the teachers know you’re not going to see these kids for 4 days. For 4 days we do what we call the TAKS blitz.

Tensions associated with high-stakes testing were also on the minds of the students in the urban high school. When asked whether the TAKS appeared in the daily curriculum, students related that they had noticed that many of their courses had a heavy TAKS preparation focus. The students who faced the heaviest test-prep focused courses were those who had not passed TAKS during prior testing opportunities. Students relayed that they were tracked into courses where the amount of testing curriculum was increased. A high school student who had failed previous administrations of the TAKS related,

Every class I have, it’s based on the TAKS, you know? Like we do exercises that are in the TAKS … . Right now I’m taking the TAKS classes for the tests I need and basically he lectures the whole period [on TAKS] … . We don’t have homework.

Vasquez Heilig (2011) also uncovered a troubling example of science pedagogy utilized by a novice teacher. Student informants in high school related that their chemistry class was saturated with teaching to the exit tests. They reported that their chemistry class entailed 100 percent TAKS test preparation—no textbooks, labs, experiments, or other traditional means of science curriculum. The entire chemistry course was solely designed to drill students for science exit testing by utilizing multiple-choice worksheets. Teachers were asked about the teaching of science via test-prep worksheets because the idea seemed somewhat implausible—until the Tierra chemistry teacher was randomly chosen to participate in a focus group. As a new teacher on probation, she expressed that she was being measure based on test performance. For her it was rational to “teach to the test” because it was the standard by which she would be judged. She characterized the worksheets in the course as being entirely geared for the TAKS: “Mine is not going through a 15-minute bell-ringer, then going on to teaching chemistry. No, no me it’s everything, so mine are actual [TAKS] lessons … . I don’t just teach my course, now I teach towards the TAKS.”

In summary, research has identified lower performing schools, usually populated by low-income and students of color, as spending an inordinate amount of time devoted to test taking strategies due to high-stakes assessment mandates (McNeil & Valenzuela, 2001). McNeil, Coppola, Radigan, & Vasquez Heilig (2008) emphasized that in this new era of NCLB-inspired accountability, teachers in low-performing schools serving large numbers of African Americans are driven to drill students daily in reading, writing, and mathematics, essentially teaching only to the tests. The result is what Berliner (2009) calls an “educational apartheid”—African Americans and certain classes of students are often systematically denied exposure to material and subjects not covered by the tests.


A logical question that arises, is how widespread are activities such as these that “teach to the test” and narrow the curriculum? Are these activities isolated to the Texas context where high-stakes exams were entrenched in the 1980s and accountability formulas followed in the 1990s? Is the chemistry teacher in Texas who utilizes 100 percent of the daily class activity around TAKS preparation only an outlier relative to the national scope? Recently, a national study of 1,001 3rd- to 12th-grade public school teachers gathered data about teacher behavior and classroom practice in the current era of high-stakes testing and accountability. The study found that among teachers who say “crowding out” is taking place in their schools, virtually all (93 percent) teachers surveyed believed that the curriculum was narrowing in their schools and was largely driven by state tests (Common Core, 2011).

The current high-stakes testing and accountability era has created a new context that marginalizes knowledge and resegregates schools by codifying low-levels of teacher quality and creating a high-stakes testing environment that creates a press to narrow the curriculum. In the pre-Brown era the cultural logic of that time was that African Americans were inferior, with this ideology reflected in how mainstream curriculum portrayed African Americans. Then in the post-Brown era curriculum was discussed in the context of multicultural integration and inclusion. However, this often resulted in curriculum that scholars alternately critiqued as essentializing and additive, rather than complex and transformative to the dominant official knowledge valued in schools. The standards, high-stakes testing, and accountability era is not unique relative to these past contexts due to the ongoing, yet historically nuanced and contextual ways in which knowledge has been persistently marginalized. However, in the most recent era, what we call the narrowed knowledge era, despite readily apparent marginalization of historically served groups, these new forms of systemic school reform are instead swathed in themes of equity (Vasquez Heilig, Young, & Williams, 2012). What is unique about this era is that the standards, high-stakes testing, and accountability ratings have cloaked massive inequity in the quality of teachers and the related pressure to narrow the curriculum—focusing the public’s attention instead on outputs such as test scores and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), while shrouding persistent inequities in inputs.


So what does this history and present milieu of curriculum mean in relation to the context of resegregated schools for African Americans? What the history of curriculum and African Americans illustrates is a dominant trope of marginalized knowledge (King, 2004). However, as this chapter illustrated, this marginalization was situated within the racialized time and space of which curriculum questions were addressed. Looking at the master narrative of African Americans and curriculum as a whole within a pre- and post-Brown era reveals the continuities and discontinuities with respect to the historical context of the ongoing knowledge debate about African American imagery. The continuities seem obvious, in that the conditions of African Americans have remained marginalized whether they were informed by a racial ideology of inferiority, or drew from social-psychological theories of self-concept or neoliberal policies designed to remove and diminish the placement of African American multicultural histories and experiences. In the end the results were the same—African Americans were problematically rendered. Indeed, future studies need to better understand the context of racial representations as more than just the politics of identity, and as a social artifact for how the memory of race has traversed and morphed historically in schools and society. 

Anthony Brown, Julian Vasquez Heilig, and Keffrelyn Brown


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[1] See 20 U.S.C. § 6319 (2006).

[2] See 20 U.S.C. § 6681(1) (2006).

[3] 20 U.S.C. § 7801(23) (2006).


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