History Education in the Boston Public Schools

Posted: June 2, 2014 by meghandoran in Uncategorized

There’s been a bit of an uproar as of late surrounding some reorganization in the BPS, and a perception that history would be taking a back seat/ folded into English Language/Arts. Superintendent McDonough has responded strongly, even signing a petition that has been circulating. Forty years after school desegregation in Boston we believe every child in Boston should learn this history of all the communities in Boston, but for this to be possible, the Boston Public Schools needs a strong History department focused on providing content relevant to the young people in the city today.

The most common refrain we hear from young people around the city is “Why didn’t I know this? Why didn’t we learn about this in school?” It is our understanding that Facing History does have a curriculum around school desegregation, and some teachers do make an effort to include this history, but the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks require Little Rock’s school desegregation be taught, rather than Boston’s. If nothing else this perpetuates the belief that school desegregation and racism was/is a southern problem, rather than a northern one.

Why is it so important that young people have a strong sense of history, and learn Boston’s school desegregation story? For us, history is a critical sixth sense – a way of understanding and knowing the world around us. In a public hearing about the BPS budget where the consolidation of the English and History departments came up, Councilor’s Tito Jackson and Charles Yancey both brought up the importance of teaching history that is culturally relevant to young people in our city. This means we need both a global history and a local one – one that helps students understand how we are where we are today, how the past has shaped our current experiences.

What we’ve heard is that learning about Boston’s school desegregation crisis (including the events leading to and stemming from that crisis) helps young people to better understand the system and city they are in today. This came up most recently at an event organized by the Massachusetts Asian American Educators Association, in a talk by Lorrayne Shen, a community organizer who wrote a senior thesis on the Asian experience during desegregation in Boston:

I think if I heard this story when I was young it really would have changed my life. It’s really important to know about our history as Asian Americans, and know about our involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

We’ve heard this perspective again and again – from young people, from educators in training, from adults working in BPS – we need to know our history, and we don’t know it very well. We’re glad for the advocacy efforts around strengthening history education in the BPS, and we hope that some day soon we hear that BPS students are graduating with a strong sense of history and their place in it.

  1. Ann Barysh says:

    As a rule, people do not engage in something they do not understand or have had the opportunity to learn. For example, I was never particularily athletic so I make fun of those who live and die by sports. In parallel terms, those who have never learned history, political science or government are never going to learn how to ask questions that lead to important insights. Such folks will never register to vote, wonder why their local library has been closed or why their street bears a particular name. They will have no interest or feel a degree of shame that they do not know these things.

    History and her related sisters in the Social Sciences helps us to form those questions that will lead to personal command. If students learn early in life where that libraries need money to exist and how this money is collected, they will pay attention to local politics and government. If they learn that the street they live on is named after someone who looks like them, they will be proud of their place in history. It is not complicated but crucial.

    I fully support the importance of History in the schools, at all levels and all the time.

    (Can ya tell that I was a History teacher for many years?)

  2. Lee McGuire says:

    Hi Meghan – this is Lee McGuire in the BPS Communications Office. There have been a lot of rumors circulating about our History Department, as well as questions about Facing History and Ourselves. I hope this will clear it up.

    First, BPS is continuing its partnership with Facing History and the existing curriculum. This is not changing.

    Second, BPS is keeping our History and Social Studies Department and we’ll still have history teachers teaching history courses in our schools, just as today.

    What is changing is the way we are arranged in the central office to better support these teachers and these partnerships. Superintendent McDonough met with a number of students a few days ago who came to Court Street asking about this issue. They had a great conversation and I think everyone came away satisfied that the rumors are false – and the truth is that we value history instruction and these partnerships as much as ever before.

    You can learn more in the letter we sent to the National Coalition for History, which asked us about these rumors.

    Click to access Boston-Public-Schools-response-to-NCH-5-30-14.pdf

    Thanks for helping us set the record straight. Lee

  3. Joan Lancourt says:

    It’s hard not to think that the comment by Lorrayne Shen is exactly why the powers that be (aka the status quo – which always seeks to preserve itself) don’t include the Boston experience in the curriculum. If masses of students over the past 20 years had learned about the Boston experiences, there would be a great deal more push back on the BPS system. This seems like just one more example of ‘systemic’ racism. Thanks Mehgan for such a clear summary of the problem.

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