Earlier this month, in these pages, Philadelphia writer Ernest Owens argued that we should cancel Black History Month and instead “recognize black history — and its people — all year round.” I take Mr. Owens’ point, and while I don’t believe that we should cease to embrace February as a month dedicated to honoring and celebrating the many accomplishments of African Americans, I do agree that “schools must diversify their curriculums to acknowledge the existence of black people routinely,” not merely during one month of the year.
As superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, I am proud to say that we are doing just that. We’re working to ensure that our students are exposed to rich, challenging instruction that honors their diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Our city’s schools serve a wonderfully diverse student population: as of this year, nearly half our students are African American, roughly one fifth are Hispanic, 14 percent are white, nearly 9 percent are Asian American, and several thousand identify as having multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds. This diversity is not unique to Philadelphia; indeed, America’s public schools are more diverse than ever, especially in large cities, where students of color represent the vast majority of the student population. I believe this growing diversity is a strength, that the varied backgrounds and experiences of our students can contribute to richer and more meaningful learning experiences. To get there, however, we must first ensure that our curriculum and instruction are the best they can be, and that we as educators hold all students to the highest expectations. A challenging, high-quality curriculum can honor the diversity of all students’ backgrounds; rigor and cultural relevance need not be mutually exclusive.
As an education leader committed to putting the needs of students first, I’ve always tried to understand students’ experiences and hear their perspectives on how we can better support their learning. That’s why I put together the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council. In one of our meetings last fall, students said they wanted more cultural understanding from teachers as well as more culturally relevant books and materials. They told me that for students to be set up for success, they must feel that the adults in schools care about their well-being, circumstances, and community. The students said it’s important for them to have teachers who share their cultural background or who have had similar life experiences, and that they want a chance to see themselves represented in what they’re learning.
Research supports these students’ voices. We know, for example, that greater diversity in the teaching workforce can significantly improve learning for students of all demographic backgrounds. That’s why we’re actively recruiting, developing, and supporting male teachers of color through the Black Male Educators Coalition (BMEC). In a district where nearly half the students are African American, only about 4 percent of all teachers are black men — and over the last 10 years, this number has been dropping. Through our partnership with BMEC, we aim to reverse this trend and triple the number of black male educators in Philadelphia by 2025.
In addition, emerging research indicates that students who perceive their classrooms and schools as promoting cultural competence have an increased sense of belonging and take a greater interest in school. A new report by Chiefs for Change, a diverse, bipartisan network of education leaders of which I am a member, highlights the importance of taking an approach to teaching and learning that is both culturally relevant and academically rigorous.
We believe that cultural relevance should be used to promote student engagement, not lower the bar on rigor. In Philadelphia, we are committed to expanding access to high-quality, culturally relevant instructional materials while also diversifying the teacher workforce charged with bringing those materials to life. We’ve made African American history a required course in 10th grade, are considering ways to integrate the content into other grade levels, and are exploring the creation of courses focused on Latinx American and Asian American history. For students, the opportunity to be both culturally understood and academically challenged is critical to being engaged, supported, respected — and ultimately successful — in school.
I am grateful to the incredible student leaders of Philadelphia for partnering with me to give all students better opportunities. I strive to honor their diverse backgrounds in the way our schools approach teaching and learning. So while February may be a month to remember the history, culture, and important achievements of African Americans, we can do more to integrate the cultures and backgrounds of all our diverse students into a rigorous, knowledge-rich educational experience. We’re doing it here in Philadelphia. I urge education leaders across the country to do the same.
William R. Hite is the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia and a member of Chiefs for Change, a diverse, bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs.