By Ariama Long
Aneth Naranjo, 23, is originally from Ecuador. She migrated to the city when she was 7 years old. Once she was settled in Brooklyn, she ended up attending primarily white schools near Manhattan Beach. She said it was next to impossible to find books about her culture in the classroom or school library for a long time, so she didn’t think about her indigenous heritage growing up. Most of her teachers made her feel like she wasn’t a part of the classroom.
“It was really a shock of different cultures. I think that not knowing the language and not knowing how things worked and the lack of adequate resources meant I would often feel isolated in school settings,” said Naranjo.
Research shows that major publishing companies that produce content and books on English Language Arts curricula in public schools across the country lack racial diversity, and that the vast majority of authors were white with a handful of Native American, Latino and Black authors.
The NYU Metropolitan Center Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools (Metro Center) analyzed the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw Hill and Savvas Learning Company (formerly known as Pearson) publishing companies. Each has their own prepared standardized curriculum: McGraw Hill’s “Wonders,” Savvas’ “myView” and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “Into Reading.” Using a culturally responsive scorecard, which Naranjo participated in, NYU in partnership with NYC Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) and a team of public school parents, students and educators analyzed three of the nation’s most widely used elementary school ELA curriculum.
Flor Khan, a lead researcher on the team, said that the push to study reading list diversity preceded the “boogeyman” that is Critical Race Theory (CRT), an examination of civil-rights and racial justice activists in classes that many have used as an excuse to whitewash curriculum. A backlash against CRT has seemingly given way to a rise in banned books from Black and LGBTQIA+ authors, even ones that mention the Holocaust, in some states in 2022.
CEJ’s first report, “Diversity City, White Curriculum,” was published in 2020 and looked specifically at New York City public school reading lists and curriculum. The report showed that there was a “massive overrepresentation” of white authors and characters in pre-K and K through 3-grade programs. Of the 1,205 books CEJ analyzed, 1,003 books were by white authors with white students representing 15% of the city’s student population at the time. Their numbers indicated that it was possible for about 200,000 Latinx, 130,000 Black, and 80,000 Asian children in the city’s public elementary schools to “graduate 5th grade almost never having read a book by an author of their cultural background.”
Khan and the team looked at content, authorship, book covers, language, curricula, narratives and reinforced stereotypes. The community research team at NYU found that the books and curriculum analyzed more recently were “culturally destructive” with “superficial visual representations to signify diversity, especially skin tone and bodily presentation, without including meaningful cultural context, practices or traditions.” They found that the language used often “demeaned and dehumanized” Black, Indigenous and characters of color, LGBTQIA+ students, and students with disabilities, while encouraging empathy and connection with white characters.
Khan noted books, such as “I Like Myself” by a white author with a white illustrator drawing and narrating a young Black girl’s story about identity and self-esteem, can be skewed. On one page, the girl with “cartoonish” hair and features interacts with a police officer that’s trying to scare her. Khan said that these “deficit” depictions don’t always uplift or empower cultural identities.
“A lot of these publishing houses are not going to go deep and hire BIPOC people to write stories,” said Khan. “They’re just going to go with representation as a band aid approach and be like the cover has a Black student on it and we can say we did our job.”
Naranjo struggled with feelings of “invisibility” and “survival” in her school experience as an immigrant, a feeling she said was transformed when she joined a Spanish club her freshman year of high school. “She was my first Latinx teacher. She was also my first Ecuadorian teacher,” said Naranjo. “Sometimes I wouldn’t really speak in her class, but just walking into her class I would feel a sense of safety and comfort that I wouldn’t feel in the rest of the school building. Just having that representation and knowing that someone understands where I’m coming from.”
Her Spanish teacher as well as several others in the club were from Ecuador, and she took pride in teaching about the country’s history of liberation. By the time of Naranjo’s junior year, she was more involved in social and educational justice causes, becoming a young activist.
“You don’t stop and think about how important it is if you’re someone who had your history always accessible to you,” said Naranjo. “Not being able to see yourself, see and learn about your history really impacts your own development. And I think people are developing as they go to school and learning beliefs, social behaviors and norms to take out into the world.”
Naranjo said that undocumented families and children being bussed up from the border during this migrant crisis in New York City are probably more vulnerable in schools than she was. She remembers her immigrant peers being referred to as “unmotivated” or “lazy” in school. Khan concurred, saying that representation in books and materials increases engagement and graduation rates because kids can then relate to lessons.
Natasha Capers of CEJ said that these children’s stories often otherize cultures that aren’t American or eurocentric. Capers feels like nationally curriculum companies are trying to “homogenize” education since the largest funders are from conservatives in Texas. Interestingly enough, said Capers, a school district within a city and state can exercise some control over what’s available in classrooms but teachers can ultimately do their own thing or develop their own curriculum at times.
“We believe that reading stories by a culturally and ethnically diverse set of authors is critical in helping all of us understand the struggles, triumphs and everyday lived experiences of our neighbors,” said Nicole Brownstein of the NYC Department of Education (DOE). “We have already begun to train our educators in how to integrate culturally responsive books and materials into their classrooms while diversifying school libraries and ensuring that students have books that reflect their identities.”
The DOE said that educators are empowered to select materials that best represent the diverse voices in their classrooms. Schools are not limited to purchasing books through major suppliers and have access to “Hidden Voices” curricular resources, which promotes LGBTQ and Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures this school year, said the DOE.
The DOE also said they have announced resources for Black Studies, Latinx, Middle Eastern and North African, and resources for people impacted by the Americans with Disabilities Act will be developed in the coming years.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News.