Florida Board of Education approves controversial set of standards for teaching black history

TALLAHASSEE — The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved new academic standards for teaching African American history after numerous teachers from across Florida objected to the changes and asked the board to shelve the proposal.

Meanwhile, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. has refuted claims by groups such as the Florida Educational Association Teachers’ Union and the NAACP Florida State Conference that the standards “omit or rewrite key historical facts about black experiences” and ignore the state’s tuition law.

Diaz defended the standards, commending the working group involved in curriculum development and the Department of Education’s African American History Task Force.

“As we age, we move on to some more complex topics, right down to the beginning of the slave trade, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement, and everything that has happened throughout our history,” Diaz said.

The new standards are designed to cover lessons from kindergarten to high school.

For example, kindergarten standards aim to educate students about important historical figures.

“Know African American inventors and explorers (like Lonnie Johnson [inventor]Mae S. Jamison, George Washington Carver),” Kindergarten Standards require.

One part of the high school standards directs students to describe “the contribution of Africans to society, science, poetry, politics, oratory, literature, music, dance, Christianity, and research in the United States from 1776 to 1865.”

But during a sometimes tense meeting Wednesday in Orlando, critics, including teachers and Democratic state lawmakers, asked the board to bring in the standards so changes could be made.

“These new standards represent only half the story and half the truth. When we name the politicians who worked to end slavery, but leave those who worked to make slavery legal, kids are forced to fill in the blanks for themselves,” said Carol Cleaver, Escambia County science teacher.

Rep. Anna Escamani, of Orlando, pointed to a portion of high school standards that require instruction to include “how slaves develop skills that in some cases can be applied to their personal gain.”

“I am very concerned about these standards, especially … the notion that enslaved people benefit from enslavement. This is an inaccurate and intimidating standard for us to set in our educational curriculum,” Escamani said.

Rep. Rita Harris, D-Orlando, pointed to the same part of the standards and called it “such an insult.”

Senator Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, mentioned that she was a teacher and college administrator when she criticized the proposal.

“If I were still a professor, I would be doing something that I rarely do — I would have to give it an I (for) incompleteness,” Thompson said.

Thompson cited a portion of high school standards requiring instruction that “includes acts of violence committed against and against African Americans, but is not limited to the 1906 Atlanta race riot, the 1919 Washington, D.C. race riot, the 1920 Okoee massacre, the 1921 Tulsa massacre, and the 1923 Rosewood massacre.”

Thompson’s Senate District includes Okoee, where blacks were killed on Election Day in 1920 by a mob of white residents. The violence occurred after African American Moses Norman was denied the right to vote.

Thompson objected to language in the standards that the violence is committed by “African Americans”.

“If you look at history now, it suggests that the massacre was caused by violence from African Americans. This is victim blaming. When in fact it was other people who came into the black community and killed people, burned down houses, schools and cabins,” Thompson said.

But Paul Burns, provost of the Department of Education’s K-12 Public Schools Division, disputed the criticism.

“For the people in the media and in the teachers union who are watching, we want you to pay close attention because you are spreading a really false story,” Burns said.

Updates to the African American history curriculum were required due to a controversial 2022 law that Gov. Ron DeSantis called the “Stop Harming Our Children and Employees Act” or “The Stop WOKE Act.”

The law specifically required that the instructions include “the vital contributions of African Americans to the building and strengthening of American society and celebrate the inspiring stories of African Americans who have succeeded even in the most difficult of circumstances.”

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