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Professor helps create Texas statewide African American studies curriculum

Janet Kiplinger Ciccone
May 26, 2020

African American Studies course now an elective for all Texas school districts

Professor Donna Ford played a key role in enhancing the relevance and rigor of a statewide African American studies curriculum that was recently approved by the Texas State Board of Education.

The landmark decision, unusual for the bipartisan board because it passed unanimously, makes the yearlong course available as an elective in all Texas high schools across the state, starting autumn 2020.

The approval came after less than a year of intense work by four advisory teams around the state. By comparison, the Mexican American Studies curriculum approved by the board in 2018 required a grueling four-year fight.

Ford, a Distinguished Professor of Education and Human Ecology and a faculty affiliate of the university’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, served as a guiding force throughout the process of enhancing the African American curriculum. She joined the San Antonio advisory team, the largest of the state’s four, and worked with the approximately 40 expert members to win state board approval.

Lawrence Scott, an assistant professor of educator and leadership preparation at Texas A&M University – San Antonio, assembled the advisory team and invited Ford to join.

He knew the value she would bring, because she was his online academic mentor via the Research, Advocacy, Collaboration and Empowerment (RACE) Mentoring Initiative. Ford co-founded the national network in 2013 so that senior academics can support junior faculty and graduate students of color, helping them survive and thrive in higher education.

“I don't think she realizes her influence, Scott said, “but she’s the reason I decided to take on (the advisory team). I knew she would be a strong voice in guiding the group.”

As a former social studies teacher and district-level curriculum specialist, Scott had long wanted a Texas statewide curriculum in African American Studies.

"This course allows students to see the contributions African Americans make to America,” he said. “We’re getting calls from school districts around the nation interested in doing this.”

Enhancing critical thinking skills, inspiring learning 

Ford focused her contributions on enhancing the rigor of the curriculum, which was modeled on a course by the Dallas Independent School District for Hispanic students. She applied her substantial experience with creating multiculturally responsive curricula and working with gifted and talented students.

In working with the San Antonio advisory team, she encouraged them to use the three highest levels from Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of critical thinking skills.

Four people sit behind a table for a panel discussion
Ford, center left, discusses the importance of hiring diverse teachers at the college's inaugural superintendents' forum in October 2019.

For example, for teaching objectives, “Instead of saying, ‘Students will list XYZ’ -- that’s at the lowest level of thinking,” Ford said. All they're doing is regurgitating information. I replaced verbs like ‘list’ with ‘Students will discuss as well as compare and contrast.’ ‘Students will analyze and evaluate.’ These strategies are important so that the curriculum challenges students.”

Ford also familiarized the team with James A. Banks’ Four Approaches to Multicultural Curriculum Reform.

Primary resources also were needed, especially those available online or in libraries to keep costs down.

"Ford was really instrumental in helping us find African American cultural books or literature for teachers,” Scott said. “We had to turn in a multipage resource list of books and references to the Texas State Board that teachers can use, because many districts can’t afford to purchase extra resources right now. Although not exhaustive, this resource list is comprehensive, as no one book contains everything, and if it did, it would probably be prohibitively expensive.”

The San Antonio team received kudos from the Texas State Board for refining the curriculum. The team worked with board trustees Aicha Davis, who initially proposed and piloted the African American studies course in the Dallas School District, and Marisa B. Perez-Diaz, who also had a hand in implementing the Mexican American course in the state. Texas currently is the only state in the nation offering both courses of study.

Next step: Training teachers to close student achievement gaps

To bring the curriculum to life, training will help districts prepare teachers. Ford will supervise part of it with a focus on helping teachers use her instructor-friendly Ford-Harris/Bloom-Banks matrix, which she created in 1999. It organizes aspects of the Bloom and Banks models to guide high-quality teaching– rigor and relevance. Scott estimates that training will begin in July.

An important goal in teacher preparation is to address the achievement gap. “As long as a curriculum lacks rigor and relevance, we're not going to reverse underachievement or close the achievement gap, which are different. With the achievement gap, the concern is that Black students are lagging behind White students on tests and grades,” Ford said.

Underachievement is not comparing a student to someone else, she said. It’s an indicator that says a student should be performing at a certain level but is not.

Ford compared what Texas has done to what the college’s Faculty Emerita Rudine Sims Bishop did for children’s literature. Bishop, considered the mother of multicultural children’s literature, was the first to focus on the need for children’s books to mirror multicultural people and children, so children engage because they see themselves positively reflected. The ultimate outcome is increased interest in reading, which improves literacy and achievement– for instance, grades and attention, Ford said.

As the Dallas Morning News wrote about the curriculum in an editorial, "And research supports the academic benefits of ethnic studies. There is a growing body of evidence that minority students benefit in increased attendance and a gain in grade-point averages."

"So now Black students will feel more valued as they sit in classes," Ford said. "They will learn about themselves in a rigorous and relevant way. If a teacher doesn't know Black history, there's a curriculum. And we will train you in how to implement it."

Scott and Ford agree that the curriculum has the potential to be motivating and inspiring to all students. "It can help them all see Black status in an accurate way, an affirming way, an empowering way,:" Ford said.

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