Learning Standards for Black Children

Innovative ways principals are getting students to read more and better.

Topics: Equity and Diversity

Created by culturally homogeneous teams of experts and publishers, the learning standards that have long governed schools and classrooms are often far removed from the culturally diverse realities of real children in real classrooms. Standards dictate high stakes, and bias-tinted state assessments haven’t traditionally captured the full potential—or genius—of every student.

Common Core and other standards are incomplete because they were written only to improve and advance skills. The problem with skills-only standards is that they ignore sociopolitical learning goals such as equity, intellectualism, and student self-identity. What’s more, they rarely respect or acknowledge the historical traditions of learning among communities of color—and more specifically, those experienced by Black children.

For example, many states’ social studies learning standards don’t mention the words “race” or “racism” when we live in a country where Black people are killed for being Black. Our CCSS standards are decontextualized, and, in this way, they are separate from the critical issues we face as a society—and in our nation’s classrooms.

CCSS, like many state learning standards, weren’t written with the needs of children of color in mind. They weren’t written to express the educational histories, identities, and liberation of people of color.

In response, I developed a set of transformative standards for teaching and learning across disciplines that address the needs of all students. They are derived from studying the educational practices and theories of Black people in the United States from the 19th century on, who championed their own four “pursuits”—standards—for learning.

While skills-based “standards” suggest a mastery/​no-mastery dichotomy and a very narrow lens through which to view students’ learning, “pursuits” instead indicate a continuing and evolving goal. The goal of a pursuit is self-​determination, self-reliance, and self-empowerment.

The four pursuits of Black communities have historically included:

Identity. Teaching students to know, validate, affirm, and celebrate their identities and cultures. This includes teaching students about cultures and people who are different from them.

Skills. Teaching students the proficiencies to master across each content area. This is what we currently observe in CCSS.

Intellectualism. Teaching students new knowledge about history, people, places, things, and concepts. This knowledge is contextualized with skills, and students are charged to put it into action.

Criticality. Teaching students to understand historical and current-day power, (in)equities, anti-racism, and anti-oppression.

This last pursuit—criticality—should not be optional in a country whose success is founded in terror against Africans and indigenous peoples. That terror is still present today in explicit and implicit ways, and criticality helps students become critical observers of knowledge who can question what they read and hear.

Students need to understand the truths of marginalization, exploitation, and representation to grow into adults who don’t contribute to the hurt and harm of other humans. We also don’t want youths to grow into adults who are silent, indifferent, unresponsive, or apathetic toward others’ harm or pain. Criticality is a learning pursuit that cultivates the humane human.

If there were a fifth pursuit, it might be joy, another historical feature of Black education. Together, the pursuits teach the whole child and cultivate the genius of teachers and youth. We desperately need genius and joy in schools today.

Gholdy Muhammad is an associate professor of language and literacy at Georgia State University and the author of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.

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