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Montgomery Co. schools revise history curriculum in 4th, 5th grades

In Montgomery County schools' history curriculum, starting in the 2023-24 school year, early American history will be taught in the fourth grade and the U.S. Constitution will be taught in the fifth grade. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Montgomery County Public Schools’ new social studies framework will expose fourth- and fifth-graders to more American history — particularly Black history — at a younger age.

The new curriculum will incorporate anti-bias and anti-racist content and local history about Montgomery County, according to Tracy Oliver-Gary, the district’s social studies supervisor. It was presented to the county school board this week and received unanimous approval.

“The goal is that students should be able to see themselves in the curriculum,” Oliver-Gary said.

Montgomery County’s revisions to its history curriculum follow changes made by the state education board. The state board regularly reviews the curriculums it distributes to school districts, like its sex education framework. But Montgomery — Maryland’s largest school district, with roughly 159,000 students — is also changing its curriculum as a part of an anti-racist audit launched earlier this year.

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Students in upper grades in the school system have pushed for some of the revisions, arguing that students with underrepresented identities don’t see themselves in lessons they learn in the classroom.

“Ever since I can remember, I’ve always learned about White men,” Sia Badri, a rising senior at Wootton High School, told the board this week. “It always made me feel less than, like my life and my identity weren’t significant enough to be shown to my peers or the world.”

She also highlighted how much of the content she learned in the classroom about the civil rights movement has ignored the role Black women played.

“[Badri] raises an important issue of inclusiveness, which is an issue we are constantly striving to achieve,” Board President Brenda Wolff said. She added that she believed the board should look at its curriculums “in terms of inclusiveness in all areas.”

Nationally, education culture wars have led to parents, educators and school board members sparring over how schools teach history.

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Montgomery’s new fourth- and fifth-grade history framework was met with little dissent at the meeting this week. The school system is a part of a liberal and racially diverse county, and has traditionally sought to include more approaches to equity and inclusion in its school policies. Black alumnae from one of the school system’s high schools have also pushed for a curriculum revision that highlights the impact of racism.

Hana O’Looney, the student member of the board and a Japanese American student, pointed to her experience learning about internment camps in Advanced Placement U.S. History — a curriculum developed by the College Board. She said the most that internment camps were discussed were as a bullet point in a slide show, though an entire generation of Japanese Americans were affected.

“That’s a concern, and that has a real effect on how students view their own identity, and then move forward and progress in the world,” O’Looney said.

The school system has also made efforts to train educators who want to teach more about Black history. It has produced a voluntary four-part module for educators to improve their understanding of enslavement in the United States, Oliver-Gary said. Over the summer, the school system is partnering with Montgomery Heritage to create field trips to historically Black sites in the county.

“My goal is to have multiple opportunities for teachers to be able to develop their learning, because this is going to be a big lift,” Oliver-Gary said.

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Under the previous framework, students began learning about early American history in the fifth grade. When the new curriculum is implemented in the 2023-2024 school year, it will advance those lessons: Fourth-graders will begin learning about early American history, and fifth-graders will begin learning about the U.S. Constitution, ending the year learning about contemporary times.

Other elementary grade levels will also see revisions, based on the state board’s changes. Second- and third-graders will see the changes in 2024-2025 school year; kindergartners and first-graders, the year after.

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