Chicago Public Schools' African American studies for all: an outdated approach

Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools announced a new curriculum that, according CPS officials quoted in the Chicago Tribune, “will allow teachers to incorporate African and African-American studies into core subjects throughout the year, bringing the district into compliance with the state requirement.”

Around 9:15 a.m. Thursday, the Chicago Teachers Union sent out a tweet quoting a DNAInfo news story that emphasized how charter schools are exempt from this policy.  Those opposed to charter schools will surely fuel the criticism against this exception.

The journalists reporting this situation and the voices rising in opposition of the charter-school exemption miss the true story.  Chicago Public School’s 2013 attempt to carry out this 1991 law (passed one year after I graduated from high school) proves to be a 1960s approach to diversity that, while well-intentioned, does not address the context of today’s world.

In 2006, I was hired at one of the city’s top selective-enrollment high schools to teach Latin American Literature as an elective.  With standards-aligned lessons, challenging writing instruction, and complex texts, my instruction and students’ engagement with the class helped me convince the school’s administrators to offer this class as a core English option—yes, students were able to take Latin American Literature as their official junior or senior English class.  It counted toward graduation.

The Illinois State Board of Education graduation requirements demand four years of English—no specific content required (see page 8).

The Chicago Public Schools graduation requirements also simply require four years of English.  Thankfully, gone are the days where every student has to take British Literature.

After I left that top CPS school, the new administration  decided to remove Latin American Lit as core-English option.  Once again, it was an elective.  A teacher and students engaged in a battle to maintain the class as a core-English option.  After students organized in protest, the school re-instated it.  Now, getting Latin American Lit or Latino Lit to be accepted as a core-English option at a neighborhood high school is a different type of battle.

In our 21st Century world, students need options.  We also need to recognize that policies developed in 1991 cannot simply be enacted in 2013 without close review.

Critics and reporters who emphasize the charter exemption of the law need to change their view.  The true problem with the “new” CPS policy is that it does not take into account the needs of today’s world.  The race conversation remains grounded in a black-white context as if there were only two sides.   Unfortunately, this is usually what loud voices in Chicago’s ed policy debate do; it’s either this or that.

CPS’s Chief Officer of Teaching and Learning Annette Gurley needs to recall her decision to carry out the 1991 law and, instead, devote her efforts to ensure that schools engage students with the complexity of 21st century issues:

  • race conversations beyond black and white,
  • women’s studies,
  • class and income issues,
  • the effect of technology on our lives,
  • LGBT issues,
  • gun control and violence (see how students and I talk about gun violence in my classroom),
  • the immigration debate,
  • current events that affect our students’ lives—whether they realize it or not.

We need to forget the 1991 requirement and prevent critics from focusing on the charter-school exemption.  Instead, we need to update education policies for this century if Chicago’s schools are to truly improve.

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