Florida is always going to be Florida, but this time the state has really topped itself. On Wednesday, Florida’s Board of Education unanimously approved new rules for teaching Black history, which are concerning.
The guidelines, titled “Florida’s State Academic Standards – Social Studies, 2023,” offer “benchmark clarifications” to teachers and educators on specific topics for instruction. These clarifications have raised serious concern with the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, who called the rules “a big step backward.”
“These new standards are a disservice to Florida’s students and are a big step backward for a state that has required teaching African American history since 1994,” the union wrote in a press release.
Its president, Andrew Spar, added, “How can our students ever be equipped for the future if they don’t have a full, honest picture of where we’ve come from? Florida’s students deserve a world-class education that equips them to be successful adults who can help heal our nation’s divisions rather than deepen them.”
“Gov. [Ron] DeSantis is pursuing a political agenda guaranteed to set good people against one another, and in the process he’s cheating our kids,” Spar continued. “They deserve the full truth of American history, the good and the bad.”
Critics of the guidelines are right to be worried. The rules, which are broken up by grade level and course, include updates that do a disservice to students and even offer false perceptions of the realities faced by Black people in America.
Numerous clarifications have been added to the 6th-8th grade African American History Strand guidelines. The most egregious one requires teachers to describe the positive aspects of being a slave when discussing the “various duties and trades” performed by them. It notes, “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
In another section on “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans,” things get even more convoluted. The guidelines describe how to teach about the growth and destruction of Black communities during the Reconstruction after the Civil War. The tragic 1920 Ocoee Massacre, where dozens of Black Americans were killed when they went to vote, is noted as an example but seemed to place the blame on Black people.
State Sen. Geraldine Thompson spoke during a meeting about the guidelines on Wednesday in response. Thompson, who helped pass a law in 2020 that requires schools to teach lessons about the Ocoee Massacre, noted that the clarification “suggests that the massacre was sparked by violence from African Americans.” She added, “That’s blaming the victims.”
Other amendments include teaching elementary school children to “recognize Rosa Parks and Thomas Jefferson as individuals who represent the United States.” The Florida Education Association noted that this approach excludes deeper teaching of Black people’s “histories and struggles” in favor of quick identification.
Genesis Robinson, political director of Equal Ground, said this methodology ultimately dehumanizes notable Black individuals. “Black history is more than being able to identify well-known Black people,” he told The Washington Post.
These updated standards are the latest development in an ongoing debate in Florida over how Black history should be taught in school. Earlier this year, the education board rejected a new Advanced Placement high school course on African American studies because it lacked “educational value.”
In April, the Florida Board of Education voted to expand the provisions of HB 1223, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law banning teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida’s kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, to apply the law’s restrictions all the way up through 12th grade.
The amended rule “prohibits classroom instruction to students in pre-kindergarten through Grade 3 on sexual orientation or gender identity. For Grades 4 through 12, instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited unless such instruction is either expressly required by state academic standards […] or is part of a reproductive health course or health lesson for which a student’s parent has the option to have his or her student not attend.”