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Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, L_Dorothy_Vaughan_M_Lessie_Hunter_R_Vivian_Adair

September 15, 2022

Hidden Figures: Challenges Facing Factual Learning

Students and families deserve factual and balanced learning experiences. History should not be relegated to the cutting room floor of Hollywood nor should it be at the mercy of a select few whose political agenda is masking as an educational agenda.

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Prior to 2016, the great space race between America and the Soviet Union, John Glenn and Alan Shepard were more commonly known than the contributions of African American women working behind the scenes as human computers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. This untold, oft untaught story of three Black women who solidified a win in the space race while simultaneously combating sexism, racism, segregation, and misogynoir in the workplace and in their communities, may have remained untaught and untold were it not for the literary agency of Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, which was made into a film.

There was an election in 2016. Subsequent geopolitical, health, financial and social justice events, if accurately recorded, occurred and will be archived for future generations.

There was another election in 2020. Subsequent geopolitical, health, financial and social justice events, if accurately recorded, occurred, and will be archived for future generations.

Okaaay. What’s with the “if” thing in italics? Twice?

If leaders in 36 states have their way, women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson will stay hidden.

In a span of 30 months, coordinated, well-funded, highly resourced parent and political activist groups, have pushed legislation promulgating book bans, censorship and against critical race theory. Notably, Florida has altered its civic education standards while Texas’ Board of Education had to go back to the table after a very public pushback against calling slavery an “involuntary relocation.” While we are doing shoutouts on legislation, Black elected officials worked to pass legislation requiring high school teachers to provide instruction on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (sliding in a big nod to Watchmen and shero bow Regina King). Although the event had been an Oklahoma teaching requirement since 2000 and U.S. history subject matter beginning in 2004, it was optional for educators to provide instruction on the topic. How many of you had explicit instruction on the Japanese internment period or the activism of Yuri Kochiyama and her collaborations with Malcolm X? Both of these were brought back to the forefront of my memory after a recent rejection by a school district in Wisconsin.

Several significant newsworthy events have happened in the last few weeks (any attempt to list the top five may result in a barrage of checks, threats and other consequences, named and unnamed). I’ll limit them to education for the sake of expediency. Most children and young people have returned to school; America can quantify its teacher shortage more precisely; and the College Board launched the first ever African American studies Advanced Placement course.

How many of you had explicit instruction on the Japanese internment period or the activism of Yuri Kochiyama and her collaborations with Malcolm X?

The College Board manages many colleges’ preparatory and entrance programs in addition to the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. The African American studies AP course will be piloted at 60 unnamed high schools across the country this school year with plans to expand to 200 schools next year. Students in the pilot program will take an exam; however, this year they will not receive scores or college credit. The pilot program is devised to give colleges time to craft policies that will allow students to count the course on their transcripts.

AP courses introduce high school students to college-level content while still in high school. AP classes improve college applications by demonstrating students’ abilities to manage complex coursework. AP courses cover challenging content, are accelerated, and typically require more study time than other classes. They potentially boost a student’s grade point average because of the rigor and the weight assigned to a course; they are graded on a five-point scale versus a four-point scale. Yet not all student groups have equal access to AP classes. In a 2020 report, the Education Trust identified funding, assessment and grading bias, as well as teacher and counselor recommendation biases against Black and Latino/a students as widespread barriers that limit their access to AP course access and placements.

The African American AP course is a cross-disciplinary course that will incorporate 400 years of literature, politics, geography and history. According to Trevor Packer, senior vice president of AP and instruction at the College Board, “This class will introduce a new generation of students to the amazingly rich cultural, artistic and political contributions of African Americans.” The course has been a decade in the making, and one of its chief architects, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a renowned expert on African American history, quoted in a recent Time magazine interview says: “AP African American Studies is not CRT. It’s not the 1619 Project. It is a mainstream, rigorously vetted, academic approach to a vibrant field of study, one-half a century old in the American academy, and much older, of course, in historically Black colleges and universities.”

According to a recent report from PEN America, education gag orders have moved from 22 states introducing bills in 2021 to 36 other states introducing bills in 2022.

Generations of American students have matriculated in European history and AP European history classes until now. And if 36 state leaders and their boards of education have their way, what will be taught and who will teach it may change. According to a recent report from PEN America, education gag orders have moved from 22 states introducing bills in 2021 to 36 other states introducing bills in 2022.

The College Board’s new course comes at a time when any discourse on race and history in or out of the classroom is politically contentious and divisive at all levels of government. From local school boards, statehouses and Congress, educators, students and families are on the frontlines of ideological or cultural wars depending on your vantage point. How will the African American studies course thrive in this climate? How much of the content is already banned or likely to be challenged by a vocal minority?

Shetterly’s Hidden Figures has been challenged or banned in several states. Students and families deserve factual and balanced learning experiences. History should not be relegated to the cutting room floor of Hollywood nor should it be at the mercy of a select few whose political agenda is masking as an educational agenda.

If leaders in 36 states have their way, women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson will stay hidden.

Educators

  • Remember, you are the educator and leader in your classroom!
  • Know your state content standards.
  • Know the difference between school library standards and public library acquisition standards.
  • Be transparent and consistent.
  • If/when a book is challenged, work with your building team(s)—administrators, district leaders and/or designees.
  • Seek support and guidance from your local union or association.
  • Identify allies within your community.
  • Report intimidation, harassment and bullying.

Resources

Freedom to Teach Honestly

Featuring U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes; CEO of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel; Organizing Director of Red Wine & Blue, Julie Womack; and facilitated by AFT Secretary-Treasurer, Fedrick Ingram, this session is an open discussion on the importance of teaching honest history and affirming students’ identities, and how to teach honestly in such polarized times.

Dr. Thomas is a Senior Education Policy Analyst, providing research and programmatic support to the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union. Dr.

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