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Facing increased scrutiny, N.H. social studies teachers say support and standards are scarce

Casey McDermott
Social studies makes up only a small fraction of classroom time for New Hampshire elementary schoolers, but it features heavily in political debates about what's being taught in schools.

Schools in New Hampshire are honoring Black History this month, as they do every February. But as teachers face increased scrutiny on classroom discussions, the question of how to teach the role of race in American history is far from resolved. And many social studies teachers say the lack of consensus on what to teach this month is part of a broader fissure over the value of social studies and civics classes in New Hampshire.

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Last week, the New Hampshire Department of Education staked out one position on that divide, unveiling a partnership with the Woodson Center, a conservative Black-led organization in Washington D.C. The center is developing a curriculum designed to counter what it calls a “defeatist” ideology of Black history taught in schools and celebrate successful Black figures.

The Department of Education spent $18,400 on a series of videos made by the Woodson Center. They feature stories about educator Booker T. Washington, inventor Elijah McCoy, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Infantry Regiment and midwife and philanthropist Biddy Mason, who was born enslaved.

The videos accompany lesson plans developed by the Woodson Center through the 1776 Unites initiative. That initiative was launched in 2021 as a direct rebuttal to the 1619 Project, led by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The 1619 Project, which also developed a curriculum for schools, reframed the nation’s origins and struggle of Black Americans through the lens of slavery, and is named for the year when the first enslaved Africans were sold to colonists in what is now the United States.

Ian Rowe, who narrates the videos produced for the New Hampshire Department of Education, said the material is meant to “celebrate Black excellence, reject victimhood culture, and showcase African Americans past and present who have prospered by embracing America's founding ideals of free enterprise, family, hard work, entrepreneurship, and faith."

New Hampshire is the first state to partner with the Woodson Center on its curriculum. The group says officials in Tennessee and Florida have also expressed interest.
Sarah Gibson
New Hampshire is the first state to partner with the Woodson Center on its curriculum. The group says officials in Tennessee and Florida have also expressed interest.

Some educators criticize videos, say historian input needed

Elizabeth Dubrulle, who directs educational programs at the New Hampshire Historical Society, questioned why the New Hampshire Department of Education was wading into the debate over how to accurately present Black history by partnering with 1776 Unites.

“I’m not sure the New Hampshire DOE is qualified to make that kind of historical video. They’re not historians, so I would question why they’re spending time and money doing that,” Dubrulle said on a panel over the weekend, which included a social studies teacher and Nikita Stewart, a New York Times editor of the 1619 Project. The event was organized by the Black Heritage Trail, which focuses on Black history in New Hampshire.

Several social studies teachers told NHPR the videos produced by the department fell short, for instance, by failing to mention explicitly Jim Crow laws and racial violence in the South in the piece about Booker T. Washington.

Neither the Black Heritage Trail nor educators developing local social studies curriculum say the state Department of Education has reached out to them for insight on how to present Black history material to students.

New Hampshire Education Commissioner Edelblut said in an interview that he chose to work with the Woodson Center because the stories were “uplifting and encouraging” and that the videos weren’t meant to replace curriculum.

“We’re happy to work with anyone that can tell a good, uplifting story that is beneficial to our students in New Hampshire,” he said.

When asked whether structural racism should be taught in New Hampshire classrooms, Edelblut declined to answer, but implied that the videos were a model for the kind of tone teachers should set.

“We talk about the institutions that cause discrimination and harm and oppression against individuals, and we portray those individuals and how they overcame those institutions of discrimination and in spite of that, were able to succeed. And so whatever presentation takes place in the classrooms, I hope that the end of the story is the ability to overcome difficult circumstances and succeed,” said Edleblut.

Social Studies teachers point to a larger decline in civics and history education

Social studies teachers say much of the debate over classroom content misses a bigger problem: the subjects of civics and American history are woefully unsupported by school leaders, lawmakers, and state officials.

Social studies and civics classes are not prioritized by school leaders and lawmakers, teachers say, and in many schools, the focus on preparing for math and English standardized tests has left social studies as an afterthought. State standards for the subject are outdated and receive failing grades from national organizations.

Nevertheless, social studies teachers find themselves increasingly under scrutiny.

In Concord, lawmakers are considering whether to ban lessons that cast the United States in a “negative light,” and to increase parental oversight over curriculum. In Campton and elsewhere, school boards are getting requests to collect and share all social studies lessons plans with the public. And in all districts, teachers are trying to navigate a new state law, supported by Edelblut, that prohibits certain kinds of lessons about racism and other forms of oppression.

Dubrulle, of the New Hampshire Historical Society, said the current political debate is disconnected from the realities for most students in the state.

“Liberals are convinced that everybody’s teaching this white-washed version of American history. Conservatives are convinced that everyone’s indoctrinating their kids to become socialists. And the terrible irony is: [students] aren’t learning social studies at all,” she said.

Despite laws requiring Social Studies and civics classes, classroom time is limited

Current state law lays out basic requirements for social studies for elementary, middle, and high schools, and a new law, signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in August, requires all high schoolers to pass a 128-question civics naturalization exam in order to graduate, starting in 2023.

But Dubrulle said most districts fall short on providing a rigorous social studies education. Most follow a law requiring instruction in history, government and the state and U.S. constitutions by eighth grade. As a result, few elementary schools are dedicating any class time to social studies, instead focusing on the standardized test subjects of math and English.

Kelsie Brook Eckert, a former social studies teacher who runs the New Hampshire Council for Social Studies and teaches education students at Plymouth State University, said that even in high schools, the subject is often an afterthought.

As student enrollment declines or school budgets are cut, social studies are often one of the first things to go. And in some districts, Eckert says teachers of other subjects are asked to cover social studies with no training in how to present American history or help students navigate difficult conversations about injustice and racism.

“If you have people that are not trained in hosting those kinds of discussions in class, that’s really problematic,” she said.

Teachers want state to update its Social Studies standards

Exactly what topics these teachers should cover is also unclear.

Teachers are currently relying on a state social studies framework from 2006 that offers guidance on how to teach the areas of civics, economics, geography, and history, but some say it’s insufficient.

A 2021 review of social studies and civics education by the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, gave New Hampshire an F on its social studies framework and highlighted the state for “weak” and “vague” standards.

Many expected the frameworks to be updated around 2016. But the State Board of Education has yet to develop a new draft, in spite of receiving recommendations for revisions from a volunteer panel of educators and historians.

When asked about the delay, Edelblut said the COVID-19 pandemic had paused the process. He said the timeline was up to the State Board of Education and did not fall under the state law requiring minimum standards to be updated every ten years.

He also said the department recognized the importance of updating social studies standards but that the current ones were “more than adequate and more than appropriate to be able to make sure that our students are getting a good understanding of social studies topics.”

Several educators noted that the department’s lack of prioritization for social studies predates Sununu and Edelblut and was also true under Democratic leadership.

Eckert said, in the meantime, teachers are using the outdated state standards, which specify what topics to cover, combined with more recently updated national social studies standards.

But she said the lack of clear guidance has social studies teachers confused about what topics to prioritize, particularly amidst a climate of distrust.

“If you’re going to slap the wrists of educators with policies and expectations,” she says, “You need to be providing them with what you actually want them to do.”

Erin Baokkom, a social studies teacher at Portsmouth Middle School, says much of the curricula on Black history focuses on the South and Southern Civil Rights Movement.
Sarah Gibson
Erin Baokkom, a social studies teacher at Portsmouth Middle School, says much of the curricula on Black history focuses on the South and Southern Civil Rights Movement.

New Hampshire teachers turn to local examples for Black History

Much of the public debate in New Hampshire over how to talk about American history, Black history, and the legacy of slavery is happening among white parents, teachers, and lawmakers.

According to U.S. Census data, New Hampshire is 88 percent white and less than 2 percent Black. New Hampshire’s public school student population is 83 percent white, according to state data, though this percent varies by district. And those in the field say the vast majority of the state’s teachers — of social studies and all subjects — are white.

Finding lessons about Black Granite Staters can be a challenge for teachers, too. Erin Bakkom, a social studies teacher at Portsmouth Middle School, says much of the curricula on Black history focuses on the South and Southern Civil Rights Movement.

With the help of the Black Heritage Trail in Portsmouth, Bakkom is teaching students about how a Black couple integrated the Wentworth-by-the-Sea hotel on the New Hampshire coast when it was still segregated in the 1960's.

“I think it helps them turn a lens of: ‘Okay, how does this look within my own community and how do these stories fit in place about how people here in New England were treated?” she explained at the panel organized with Dubrulle in Portsmouth.

Dubrulle pointed to several learning centers, including the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the Library of Congress, which have produced material on Black history that celebrates Black heroes, is researched by historians, and is unlikely to expose teachers to baseless allegations of indoctrination.

Kelsie Brook Eckert said social studies teachers may be some of the few adults able to help students navigate polarized conversations about race, politics, and oppression.

“Social studies teachers, because of the nature of our topic and training and background, are versed in the complexity of many of the concepts that are whittled down to sound bytes in our public discourse,” she said.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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